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Alita: Battle Angel 3D – film review

ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL 3D

File under ‘kick-ass female genre characters done right.’

Reviewed on Thursday 14th February 2019


Directed by Robert Rodriguez. Screenplay by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis and Robert Rodriguez, based on the graphic novel series ‘Gunm’ by Yukito Kishiro. Starring: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earl Haley and Keean Johnson. Running time: 122 mins.

Feeling responsible for the loss of his cruelly slain daughter, a kindly cyborg repairer rebuilds a sentient droid he finds on a scrap heap, naming her Alita. Once she is revived, Alita sets out to uncover her past, soon discovering she has the superhuman fighting abilities of an agile warrior. When her abilities threaten those who rule from a floating city in the clouds, Alita is targeted by cyborg bounty hunters hell-bent on claiming their reward.

PLEASE NOTE – THIS REVIEW IS SPOILER FREE

Being unfamiliar with the original Japanese source material (a series of graphic novels published in the 1990s, rebranded in the West as Battle Angel: Alita) – I cannot say whether or not this big screen adaptation is a fanboy pleaser. However, as a theatrical Manga-inspired cyberpunk actioner, Alita: Battle Angel is remarkably engaging.

Originally mooted as Cameron’s follow-up theatrical release to his Dark Angel (and decidedly Alita inspired) cyberpunk television series in 1995, the project was shelved indefinitely while he became enamoured with and pursued his gargantuan efforts Titanic and Avatar, eventually to be dusted off and finally green-lit when writer-director Robert Rodriguez (Sin City, From Dusk Till Dawn) expressed an interest in reworking Cameron’s original 186 page draft – successfully bringing it down to around 120 minutes; resulting in an offer from Cameron for him to also direct the movie (with Cameron overseeing as producer).

Utilizing pretty much the same mo-cap and rendering technology Cameron had previously used to bring the Na’vi to spectacular life in Avatar, (again employing the services of WETA Digital) – the film definitely has a Cameron vibe about it. Alita herself is rendered in such fine detail – with the subtle nuances of Roza Salazar’s performance captured so perfectly, it is easy to accept she is an actual ‘person’ interacting with the other actors and her environment. Indeed, this could easily be considered an Oscar worthy motion capture performance (if Oscars were awarded to these things – and let’s be honest – they should be).

While the story plays as a well-worn ‘Amnesiac killing machine regains total recall of who they really are in order to take down the antagonists out to kill them’ trope (see also The Bourne Identity and Timebomb) – what sets this film apart is the character of Alita. As played by Rosa Salazar, Alita is a principalled warrior with a giving heart; someone who is always there for those who help her – fearless in the face of the greatest adversity; worthy attributes I might suggest to pursue in our own lives.

While the film for the most part is well-structured and paced, the first thirty minutes or so do appear somewhat choppy – as characters are introduced and the world created. However, by the halfway mark we are completely onboard with Alita’s journey of self discovery as the story hurtles towards a wholly satisfying conclusion (a conclusion, I might add, which leaves us wanting more). There are several well-staged and exciting fight scenes and action set pieces peppered throughout – the stand-outs being a humorous bar room brawl between cyborgs and the show-stopping motorball sequence (a successful melding of the original James Caan-starring Rollerball movie from the 70s with a Wachowski-inspired Speed Racer aesthetic). To its credit, while the film is undeniably violent at times – it is never explicitly so.

Being a James Cameron production and shot using the same 3D camera systems he developed for Avatar – the 3D cinema experience is top notch as one would expect. And having had himself his own experiences in shooting for 3D (most notably with the Spy Kids movies) – director Rodriguez knows the limitations of the format and is able to sidestep the potential visual incoherence lesser filmmakers fall into the trap of subjecting the audience to. Indeed, it would be interesting to view this film flat and see if it still makes visual sense without becoming just an overly-busy barrage of CG being thrust into our faces (something which Guillermo del Toro’s non-3D version of Pacific Rim was unfortunately guilty of perpetrating – the 3D version in that instance being the default version to see).

And just a word on the unwarranted derision this film has received from certain quarters. When one considers Cameron’s credentials in giving us some of the most celebrated and beloved (and let’s face it – iconic female role models in genre film history – most notably Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley) – I truly am at a loss to comprehend the baseless claims of sexism being hurled at this movie in the SJW twitterverse. It appears there are some out there confusing the authentic portrayal and celebration of femininity as being somehow sexist and degrading – a patently bizarre and ridiculous notion to say the least. If anything, the distinct lack of shoe-horned and contrived identity politics in this movie is arguably most welcome and refreshing.

4 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Viewed at the Event Cinemas Marion, February 14th 2019

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

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Happy Birthday David Lynch

Happy birthday to David Lynch. Just keep carvin’ ’em like regular chickens.

Mortal Engines – film review

MORTAL ENGINES

Steampunk epic worthy of more attention.

Reviewed on Sunday 23rd December 2018

Directed by Christian Rivers. Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson, based on the novel by Philip Reeve. Starring: Hera Hilmer, Hugo Weaving, Robert Sheehan, Jihae, Ronan Raftery, Leila George, Patrick Malahide and Stephen Lang. Running time: 128 mins.

One thousand years in the future, after directed energy weapons have devastated     the earth; gigantic wheeled cities trundle across the wasteland – plundering smaller wheeled settlements for their ancient tech and natural resources. One such roaming behemoth – the City of London – has crossed over into Eastern Europe with the view of breaching a heavily-fortified shield wall into Asia – where a veritable paradise exists; where boundless resources await ripe for the picking. Only a trio of disillusioned young rebels (one with an ax to grind) can thwart this nefarious plan.

Based upon the first of a series of young adult novels published in 2001, producer/co-writer Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings, King Kong) originally purchased the film rights to Philip Reeve’s steampunk opus not long after – but was only recently able to get the film made.

Longtime Jackson collaborator Christian Rivers (primarily known as a storyboard artist and pre-vis director on Jackson’s Middle Earth films) – here takes the director’s chair in his feature debut and his previous experience has clearly held him in good stead. He not only presents a confidence in his staging of large scale action sequences (where we know exactly where we are spatially at any given moment), but he also knows how to capture the quieter and more emotional beats. My only quibble with     his direction is that he does tend to shoot the hand-to-hand combat scenes far too close – so it is difficult at times to tell what is going on. This minor issue aside, however, I would be very interested to see what this promising new director does next.

While the two leads aren’t nearly as deep or well-defined as the main protagonists in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, there is a certain chemistry between them (which is more than can be said for Luc Besson’s Valarian; another film which this one at times resembles – particularly with regards to its highly-detailed world-building and sumptuous visuals).

The film’s post-apocalyptic steampunk aesthetic is impressively (and flawlessly) realised; with a terrific sense of verisimilitude – allowing us to completely buy into this outlandish world of predatory wheeled cities. And unlike Jackson’s needlessly lengthy and bloated King Kong remake; sporting a comparatively short two hour running time, Mortal Engines barrels along at a pacey clip and never outstays its welcome.

Hugo Weaving, as primary villain Thaddeus Valentine, makes for a formidable and dastardly adversary – without ever tipping over into pantomime moustache twirling. While Stephen Lang (best remembered as the lead baddie in Avatar) here provides a finely-nuanced mo-cap performance as re-animated cyborg Shrike. Initially presented as an unstoppable and tenacious killing machine; something akin to The Terminator, Lang is able to imbue this admittedly terrifying and creepy character with a considerable amount of understanding and even sympathy.

It’s a real shame this film has failed to do well at the box office – as it really does deserve more attention than it has received. Perhaps over time it will be rediscovered and re-evaluated as something of a cult classic; thus enabling its longevity in the years to come.

3.5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Viewed at the Wallis Cinemas Mitcham, Adelaide, December 23rd 2018 

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

Annihilation – film review

ANNIHILATION

Dread-filled journey into the unknown is genuinely creepy.

Reviewed on Saturday 24th November 2018


Directed by Alex Garland. Screenplay by Alex Garland, based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer. Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson and Oscar Isaac. Running time: 115 mins.

A team of psychologically damaged female scientists chosen for their self destructive tendencies are sent on a potentially suicidal mission to investigate the source of a DNA-altering cosmic infestation running rampant within a quarantined area of Florida swampland.

PLEASE NOTE: THE FOLLOWING REVIEW IS SPOILER FREE

Alex Garland’s highly-anticipated follow-up to his directorial debut Ex Machina definitely has a cosmic horror vibe to it with the underlying concept being somewhat similar to H.P. Lovecraft’s classic (oft imitated) tale The Color Out Of Space. Featuring a tense and creepy atmosphere punctuated by moments of intense horror, the various genetic mutations encountered in the local flora and fauna by the scientific team range from bizarrely beautiful – to downright disturbing.

With mystery surrounding the fate of previous expeditions into the (gradually expanding) infected zone, there is a palpable sense of dread which pervades the narrative. And the replay of a camera video left by a previous expedition provides the film with its first truly horrific moment – presenting images which sear themselves into the psyche much like the ship’s log scene from Event Horizon – packing a visceral punch which will be virtually impossible to forget. By the mid-point of the movie the question is raised – were previous teams taken out by creatures inhabiting the zone or were they in fact (and more disturbingly) driven insane by their encounter with the source of the infestation and turned on one another.

Ultimately, and much like the xenomorph originally envisaged in Alien, or the organism in John Carpenter’s The Thing, (two previous films also arguably influenced by H.P. Lovecraft) – the cosmic antagonist in this film has no political agenda for world domination. It is merely a force of nature. It does what it does because it is encoded within its DNA. And this makes it completely terrifying – it is something which cannot be reasoned with.

Loosely based on an award-winning novel by Jeff VanderMeer, Garland’s compelling screenplay was reportedly written in response to a single read-through of the book and based almost entirely on Garland’s initial impressions of the source material. Considering the film version is largely the result of Garland’s own imagination, it seems unlikely that either of the two sequel novels will be adapted for the screen anytime soon (which – in this unending age of unnecessary sequels and pre-planned trilogies – might actually be a good thing).

Whilst I was fortunate enough to view Annihilation on a relatively large home theatre set-up, I would have much preferred the experience of seeing it first in an actual cinema. Sadly, and inexplicably, Paramount decided against releasing it in theatres outside the US. A decision to its detriment I will never understand.

Viewed on Blu-ray.

4 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

Halloween 2018 – film review

HALLOWEEN 2018

Too little. Too late.

Reviewed on Thursday 25th October 2018

Directed by David Gordon Green. Written by David Gordon Green & Danny McBride & Jeff Fradley, based on characters created by John Carpenter & Debra Hill. Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak and Will Patton. Running time: 107 mins.

Forty years have passed since Laurie Strode’s initial encounter with the masked killer Michael Myers. The trauma she suffered as a teenager has made her stronger and more determined to protect herself and her loved ones should Michael escape from custody. Then one fateful Halloween night, Michael breaks out to continue his rampage; facing off against Laurie in a violent final showdown.

It is said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while hoping to achieve a different result. The same could be said for the mounting stack of Spider-Man reboots we are subjected to every few years. But it is undoubtedly Halloween which currently holds the top spot of five franchise restarts over its now eleven film history; the most recent being Rob Zombie’s Halloween in 2007.

I must admit, the last Halloween film I saw was the unfairly misunderstood and under-appreciated Halloween III: Season of the Witch back in 1983 – itself an attempt at steering the franchise into an anthology series – wherein each October a stand-alone film unrelated to the story of Michael Myers (and connected only by the pagan holiday itself) would be released under the Halloween banner. Admittedly a brilliant and intriguing concept (and one which would have opened up the series to unlimited story possibilities), the idea was sadly abandoned following vocal outrage from fans over the absence of Michael Myers.

By the time Halloween 4 was released five years later – and being the return of Michael Myers – I had pretty much lost interest in following the series any further.

This latest entry is the third Halloween sequel since 1998 to feature Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode and much like Halloween H20, this film also ignores previous instalments. The only difference here being that even the events of the first Halloween II are ignored, meaning this is, for the first time, a direct follow-on from the original 1978 Halloween – the most significant result of this retcon being that Laurie and Michael are no longer brother and sister (the big reveal in Halloween II).

The screenplay by David Gordon Green & Danny McBride & Jeff Fradley is the biggest issue I have with this film; being all over the shop tonally – with needless and embarrassingly awkward humour seemingly shoe-horned into what are otherwise really tense sequences. There is one scene in particular towards the end – involving two random cops comparing lunches which should really have been left on the cutting room floor – as it totally dissipates the building of tension. Thankfully the film recovers quickly enough to lead us into a remarkably suspenseful and claustrophobic cat-and-mouse final sequence. The other overall problem with the script is that we spend far less time with Laurie Strode than we should. Whenever we cut away – to concentrate on other (less interesting) supporting characters, the film appears to lose focus and thus momentum at certain times – particularly around the mid-point. And whilst I appreciate the nicely-played dynamic between Laurie and her estranged daughter Karen and grand-daughter, Allyson (played by newcomer Andi Matichak) – it is Laurie’s journey from victim to survivor to ultimate victor we should be primarily invested in. One need only to look to films like The Terminator and Aliens as prime examples of stories effectively told almost entirely from the heroine’s point of view. And just as a side note, it has to be said – Laurie being a haunted survivor (prepping for the inevitable return of the unstoppable force which tormented her) does clearly appear to be inspired by the portrayal of Sarah Connor in Terminator 2.

Bizarrely, there is also a completely unearned and pointless left-of-field reveal in the second half – with one particular character (for no discernible reason) shown to be something other than what we thought he was – something more akin to Decker in Clive Barker’s Nightbreed. While, only minutes later, still reeling from the reveal, the reveal becomes null and void and pointless – giving us a real “Well why the hell did that all just happen?’ moment. It’s quite bizarre.

On the plus side, the anamorphic lenses employed by DP Michael Simmonds do recall the widescreen look of the original Halloween. The wider frame providing ample opportunities to hide Michael in the background or off to one side – hidden in plain site. And for the first time in thirty-five years, John Carpenter returns to scoring duties on a Halloween movie (this time bringing along his current co-collaborators Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies – fresh from their involvement in the celebrated Lost Themes and Anthology albums). The main title – here given a brand new spit and polish using today’s technology – still remains one of the most menacing and dread-laden pieces of film music ever.

Whilst I can appreciate the filmmakers’ intent here to make a follow-up worthy of the original Halloween, the somewhat inconclusive ending does appear to leave things open for yet another instalment. An idea which, when I think about it, doesn’t fill me with much enthusiasm.

2.5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Viewed at the Wallis Cinemas Mitcham, Adelaide, October 25th 2018

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

1% One Percent – film review

1% ONE PERCENT

Brutal Aussie biker flick delivers break-out role for potential new star.

Reviewed on Sunday 21st October 2018


Directed by Stephen McCallum. Written by Matt Nable. Starring: Ryan Corr, Abbey Lee, Josh McConville, Simone Kessell and Matt Nable. Running time: 92 mins.

The vice president of an outlaw motorcycle club is coerced into doing business laundering money with a rival club as restitution for his brother’s involvement in a foolish attempt to rip them off. When the president of his own club is released from jail and immediately reneges on the deal, the VP must challenge his psychopathic boss for the top spot otherwise his brother will be targeted and killed by the rival club.

Delving into the occasionally explored world of outlaw motorcycle clubs, this impressive feature debut from film school graduate and commercials director Stephen McCallum is a gritty and intensely engaging character-driven crime drama whose greatest asset is its unpredictability.

Featuring a powerhouse central performance from former NRL rugby league player-turned actor Matt Nable (best remembered for his stand-out appearance in the sci-fi action fave Riddick – opposite Vin Diesel) the film recalls that other no-holds-barred gritty take on an Aussie flavoured fringe culture, the Russell Crowe-starring Romper Stomper from 1992.

The movie’s only recognizable shortcoming is its esoteric title – seemingly nondescript to the casual observer. It does however have relevance – referring as it does to an alleged misquote attributed to the American Motorcyclist Association – that 99% of motorbike riders are law-abiding citizens – while 1% are not.

The cast is uniformly excellent – while Matt Nable (imposing as fuck as club president Knuck) overshadows everything. Whenever he appears it is virtually impossible to     tear one’s gaze away – his nuanced performance being pitch-perfect and totally convincing; fully inhabiting this monstrous, hateful character while simultaneously charming us to the verge where we can perhaps even see ourselves sympathising with him. The other stand-out performance belongs to Josh McConville as Paddo’s dimwitted but well-meaning brother Skink (perhaps the film’s most sympathetic character). So good is McConville’s performance that we forget we are watching an actor play a role and truly buy him as a real person – reacting to the escalating bloodshed with horror as events spiral out of control.

While Stephen McCallum’s direction artfully escalates a serious sense of dread,       the finely-wrought screenplay – penned by Nable himself – also does a great job in subverting expectations; the final third of the film going in directions we simply cannot anticipate.

Heralding the arrival of a potential new star (drawing comparisons with Russell Crowe in Romper Stomper and Eric Bana in Chopper) – One Percent may well be the vehicle to propel another talented Aussie actor from down under obscurity to the loftiest of heights.

4 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Viewed at the Event Cinemas Marion, October 21st 2018

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

Mandy – film review

MANDY

Panos Cosmatos delivers a Heavy Metal fever dream.

Reviewed on Tuesday 2nd October 2018

Directed by Panos Cosmatos. Written by Panos Cosmatos & Aaron Stewart-Ahn. Starring: Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache and Ned Dennehy. Running time: 121 mins.

A chainsaw-wielding woodsman embarks on a revenge-fuelled killing spree after his beloved is brutally murdered by a band of demon-worshipping cultists.

PLEASE NOTE – THIS REVIEW IS SPOILER FREE

Panos Cosmatos had never intended to make another film following his 2010 feature debut – the trippy sci-fi thriller Beyond the Black Rainbow. So it came something of a surprise when Mandy appeared on the radar (seemingly unannounced).

Nicolas Cage plays Red Miller, a simple lumberjack living in a secluded cabin in the woods with his beloved artist wife Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). The couple’s idyllic existence is thrown into brutal disarray when cult leader Jeremiah (Linus Roache) takes a fancy to Mandy and has his creepy drug-addled band of followers raid the property – taking the couple hostage in a bid to convert Mandy to their cause. When Mandy refuses his advances – humiliating him in the process – Jeremiah has her brutally killed while Red is bound with barbed wire and left for dead. Freeing himself, and armed with an assortment of weapons, Red embarks on a bloody quest of vengeance – encountering demonic bikers from hell along the way.

Screenplay-wise, the narrative is fairly straight forward with minimal dialogue – allowing for the film’s evocative imagery and immersive (dare I say Lynchian) soundscapes to be fully appreciated. Unlike most films these days, this film has     room to breathe, create a mood and draw you in.

Despite what one might think of Nicolas Cage – whether or not he can still be taken seriously as an actor, his performance here is one of his more subdued and less cartoonish ones – suggesting Cosmatos was free to rein him in to a certain degree. The remainder of the cast (particularly the cult members) are well chosen in their     roles – the standout being Linus Roache as Jeremiah. Andrea Riseborough (virtually unrecognizable from her role in Oblivion) is also very good.

Clearly a child of the 80s, Cosmatos says he drew inspiration from the lurid box art and back cover plot descriptions of R-rated videos in his local store – movies he was too young to see – but fired his imagination. Taking place (as does Black Rainbow) in the year 1983, the film is filled with obvious and not so obvious references to classic cult movies from the 80s (with nods to such films as Evil Dead, Hellraiser, Heavy Metal and Altered States being most in evidence). Cosmatos however seamlessly blends these elements into the very fabric of the film, so the overall effect is a singularly cohesive vision which is very much its own thing. Indeed, so unique is Cosmatos’ vision that it is virtually impossible to compare Mandy to anything that     has come before. It truly is one of a kind. Mesmerizing.

As with Black Rainbow, Cosmatos again utilizes anamorphic lenses to great effect; the super-wide properties of the lenses lending a super-immersive aspect to the images. Featuring highly-saturated colors rarely seen in modern films these days, the cinematography by Benjamin Loeb also creates many moments of startling beauty. Interestingly, while shot using modern-day 4K, the image appears to have been deliberately degraded to give it that classic grungy 80s B-movie look. The score by     the late Jóhann Jóhannsson (whose final score this is) also leaves an indelible impression, perfectly augmenting the sense of dread and intensity in certain scenes.

Whilst Beyond the Black Rainbow clearly has its fair share of admirers and detractors, it wouldn’t at all surprise me if Mandy is, in time, hailed as something of a sleeper hit cult classic. In the meantime though, and much like Darren Aronofsky’s aggressively divisive Mother! – I also suspect the audaciousness of Mandy will either be enthusiastically embraced or derisively dismissed – no in-between. But then again – isn’t this the very thing which characterizes a cult movie?

An LSD laced fairy tale for adults – a luridly beautiful, heavy metal-inspired fever dream, Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy definitely demands more than one viewing – perhaps even several. And this is something I very much look forward to doing very soon.

4.5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Viewed at the Event Cinemas Marion, October 2nd 2018

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.