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Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)
reasonably effective horror movie that will appeal to those who liked The Conjuring and Insidious
The original Ouija, released in 2014, cost some $5 million to produce and ended up grossing some $100 million at the box office, so it's no wonder that production company BlumHouse went back to the well for a second helping. But as the title suggests, Ouija: Origin Of Evil is more of a prequel than a sequel, but in terms of scares and delivering the goods it is far superior to the original. The film is set in Los Angeles in 1967, half a century before the events of the original. Financially strapped widow Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser, from The Twilight Saga, etc) and her two daughters run a seance scam in which they offer comfort and solace to the bereaved and lonely. Alice buys an Ouija board, the newest trendy toy for teens looking for a bit of excitement, hoping to use it to boost her business. But when she and her daughters use it they unwittingly invite a malevolent demon into their home. Before long, her youngest daughter Doris (newcomer Lulu Wilson) is possessed by a demon. In desperation, Alice turns to Father Tom (Henry Thomas, best known for his role in the classic ET), the principal at the parochial school attended by her older daughter Pauline (Annalise Basso, from Oculus, Bedtime Stories, etc) for help. Director Mike Flanagan has spent ten years in television honing his craft, and has since built up quite a repertoire of horror films, including the creepy Oculus. He seems to prefer an old school approach to his horror and doesn't overwhelm the material with flashy CGI effects and green screen work. Ouija: Origin Of Evil does have a few effective moments of shocks, and Flanagan does manage to build up the tension. But Ouija: Origin Of Evil is fairly clichéd, and Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard (Oculus, etc) tick off all the right boxes here - haunted house, a family terrified by supernatural forces, a young child possessed by a malevolent spirit, spider walking up the walls, a friendly exorcist - but he also tends to telegraph some of his punches. The film is derivative and clichéd, and borrows from numerous other horror films. Fans of the genre will recognise many of the references - for example when the kindly priest steps out of his car and walks towards the house, audiences will spot subtle allusions to The Exorcist, one of the modern classics of the genre. Flanagan also suffuses the material with an old fashioned aesthetic that perfectly captures the era. Even the opening credit title card is reminiscent of the 60s. Cinematographer Michael Fimognari gives the film the look and feel of something shot in the 60s with its colour palette. Patricia Farrell's production design also reeks of authenticity and perfectly captures the era. Reaser brings plenty of spunk and attitude to her role, and makes for a strong and likable heroine. Basso makes the most of her role as the feisty and rebellious Pauline. Newcomer Wilson is a standout as the possessed Doris, and creates a truly frightening character and one of the more creepy child characters the genre has produced. Thomas has a warm presence and brings intelligence and depth to what could have been a fairly colourless and clichéd role. Ouija: Origin Of Evil is a reasonably effective horror movie that will appeal to those who liked The Conjuring and Insidious and their ilk. It doesn't matter if you haven't seen the original either, as Ouija: Origin Of Evil stands out on its own. However, a brief post final credits sequence features horror veteran Lin Shaye (from the original Ouija, Insidious, etc) and provides a contextual and thematic link to the original.
Boys in the Trees (2016)
quirky surreal Australian coming of age tale
Boys In The Trees is another local coming of age story that joins a growing number of recent Australian films exploring familiar themes of the pain of growing up, friendship, angst, romance, the loss of innocence, memory. However, this one is suffused with a surreal quality, quirky touches and an unsettling supernatural element. It has been described as The Lost Boys meets Donnie Darko, a rather apt description. It is set in suburban Adelaide on Halloween night in 1997. The film follows Corey (played by Toby Wallace, from Galore, etc) as he hangs around with his skater friends, led by the bullying bogan Jango (Justin Holborow). Corey is a more sensitive teen and a keen photographer and is reassessing his direction in life. He has set his sights on going to New York to further his ambition, a decision that doesn't sit well with Jango, who has no idea of what his future holds. During the night, while Jango and his gang, known as gromits, egg houses and have fun at the local skate park, they cross paths with Jonah (Gulliver McGrath, who has worked with the likes of Spielberg, Burton and Scorsese), a loner and outsider who has been mercilessly bullied throughout school by Jango and his destructive cronies. But when they were younger Corey and Jonah used to be best friends, almost inseparable, as they went on adventures together. But something happened that drove them apart. On this night, Corey reluctantly agrees to walk Jonah home out of a strong sense of guilt, and is forced to confront the demons of his past and comes to terms with his betrayal of that friendship. The journey through the night is filled with metaphorical monsters and painful revelations. There is also a vaguely homoerotic nature to the relationship between Corey and Jonah. Boys In The Trees is the feature film debut for former DJ turned filmmaker Nicholas Verso, who has worked on numerous television shows like Conspiracy 365, Nowhere Boys, and has directed a number of well received short films, including 2014's The Last Time I Saw Richard. His films often deal with troubled teens and issues of sexuality and identity, themes that surface again in Boys In The Trees. He has a unique and deeply personal take on the coming of age genre. Verso gives the film an air of melancholy and nostalgia and touches of introspection. It also has a darker tone and gritty aesthetic that is influenced by the likes of Richard Kelly rather than John Hughes. But it does tend to meander a little in the middle and loses focus for a while, and Verso goes in for some heavy handed symbolism. And some of the dialogue is a little cyptic and obtuse. The film was set in 1997 because Verso believes that that was one of the last times that teenagers had that sense of innocence and freedom, when they were able to be alone in the night. This was time before mobile phones, the internet and social media began to dominate their lives. Verso gives the film an air of melancholy and nostalgia and touches of introspection. It also has a darker tone that is influenced by the likes of Donnie Darko. The film is steeped in nostalgia for the 90s with lots of cultural references and iconic touchstones, and the action is even complemented by a great soundtrack of 90s rock that will resonate with a certain demographic who grew up during that period. Verso draws nice performances from his young cast. Rising young star Wallace gives a nuanced and quite mature and insightful performance as Corey, who hides his own insecurities and doubts beneath a cynical outlook. Mitzi Ruhlmann (from The Code, etc) is also good as Romany, the goth girl who is also keen to leave this small town for something bigger and more exciting, and she has big dreams and shares a similar outlook to Corey. McGrath brings a vulnerability to his performance as Jonah, while Holobrow brings some nuance to his performance as the insecure Jango and makes him more than just a one dimensional bully. Boys In The Trees is a film of great ambition, and, although not entirely successful, Verso must get kudos for trying. The film is certainly stylish with lots of visual flourishes and quirky surreal touches that set it apart from a lot of other local coming of age tales. Much of the film takes place at night, and there is some eerie and atmospheric cinematography from Marden Dean, who shot the evocative and haunting Fell.
Killing Ground (2016)
A weekend camping trip to the beach turns into a battle for survival in this from Australian writer/director Damien Power. Ian (Ian Meadow) and Samantha (Harriet Dyer) head off for a camping trip in the hopes that the time together away from the city will allow them time to heal their relationship. When they arrive at the remote camping ground they find another tent erected, but it looks abandoned. Then Ian and Sam stumble across an abandoned child and discover a murder scene. They become hunted by a pair of psychopathic hunters (Aaron Pedersen) and Aaron Glenane. This is the debut feature film for Power, a short film maker whose Peekaboo screened at the St Kilda Film Festival a couple of years ago. The initial inspiration for the film came from a vision Power had of an orange tent in the middle of nowhere, but it has taken him a decade to flesh out the concept and bring it to the screen. Power cites films like Straw Dogs and Michael Haneke's Funny Games as influences on the film, although this is not quite as compelling nor as unsettling with its depiction of violence. The film has been nicely shot on location at Macquarie Fields, outside of Sydney, by Simon Chapman (The Devil's Candy, etc). Power brings some tension to the frantic chase through the bush land. Power uses a nonlinear narrative style that moves back and forth, slowly revealing the fate of the first family, which adds a frisson of tension to the material. Cast against type Pedersen is quite menacing here, while Glenane (Deadline Gallipoli, etc) is quite scary as Chook, the small town psychopath.
Diamond Island (2016)
stylish looking film, handsomely shot
This is the debut feature film for director Davy Chou, whose previous film was the documentary Golden Slumbers looking at the systematic destruction of the once thriving Cambodian film industry under the repressive Khmer Rouge regime. Diamond Island looks at the growing divide between the rich and the poor and life in the city and the country in contemporary Cambodia. Youths leave their home in the country and migrate to the city where they find menial work on construction sites, building the luxury apartment blocks for the city's elite. Our central character here is Bora(Sobon Nuon), who has left his family farm behind and moved to Phnom Penh. He reconnects with his estranged older brother who moved to the city five years earlier. He tells Bora about his mysterious American sponsor who looks after him and provides him with a good life. We never meet the sponsor and there is something vaguely unsettling about the nature of his relationship. We mainly see events through Bora's eyes. Chou's style here is low key and he maintains a deliberate and measured pace. The film lacks narrative momentum and not a lot happens on screen. But this stylish looking film is a social portrait and offers plenty of revealing and intimate insights into life in Cambodia today and gives us a glimpse into a society in transition. It has been handsomely shot by cinematographer Thomas Favel (who worked with Chou on his documentary).
amusing and deeply affecting and bittersweet comedy/drama
Winner of five Goya Awards (the Spanish equivalent of the Oscars), this bittersweet comedy/drama about two men and a dog screened during the recent Spanish Film Festival earlier in the year. It was one of the more popular films in the festival and now it gets a cinema release. This amusing and deeply affecting film deals with universal themes of friendship, mortality, coming to terms with death, and it is sure to appeal to audiences. Julian (played by Argentinian actor Ricardo Darin, from Wild Tales, etc) is an Argentinian actor who has relocated to Madrid where he performs regularly on stage and television. He has been diagnosed with cancer, and after undergoing chemotherapy for a year he has decided to stop the treatment. He is resigned to his fate and sets about setting his affairs in order. Most importantly though he is trying to find someone to care for his beloved pet bull mastiff Truman, and has approached neighbours and strangers. His childhood friend Tomas (played by Spanish actor Javier Camera, from Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed, etc) relocated to Montreal but arrives in Madrid for a surprise visit. he hopes to change Julian's mind and convince him to go back to treatment. Tomas is sensible and restrained whereas Julian is more volatile and emotional in nature. Over the course of the next four days the two men reconnect as they wander the streets of Madrid, talking about their lives, loves, regrets and the future. There is also a side trip to Amsterdam where Julian briefly visits his son, whom he hasn't told about his decision. Truman is largely a two hander as it follows the two friends, although there are a few secondary characters with whom they briefly interact, including Julian's concerned and embittered sister Paula (Dolores Fonzi). The film has been directed by Cesc Gay (A Gun In Each Hand, etc), who handles the material in understated and sympathetic fashion. A droll vein of humour permeates the material. Gay, who co-scripted the film with Tomas Aragay, avoids becoming too sentimental, although the ending is effectively moving. The pacing is leisurely and gives audiences plenty of time to identify with Julian and Tomas. Camera and Darin are two of the most popular stars in their respective countries and they develop an easy going rapport here that seems natural. Gay's warm, honest and humorous script gives the two actors plenty to sink their teeth into and they reveal different layers to their characters. Darin is reunited with Gay, who directed him in A Gun In Each Hand, and he delivers a soulful and subtle performance here. Camera's low key and sympathetic performance here as the stoic Tomas offers a nice contrast. And the dog who plays the titular Truman is also superb; with its sad eyes and hangdog expression it has a warm and humorous presence. Gay and his cinematographer Andreu Rebes (A Gun In Each Hand, etc) make the most of the scenic Madrid locations, which add to the film's winning flavour. Truman is a winning, low key and moving variation on the familiar buddy comedy sub genre.
Or how I learned to stop worrying and love my body
Or how I learned to stop worrying and love my body (with apologies to Stanley Kubrick). When photographer Taryn Brumfitt had her babies she worried about the changes in her body. Brumfitt posted a before and after shot of her body on line, and was surprised at how quickly the images went viral. She also received hundreds of emails and on-line comments from women talking about the whole issue of body image. This is an issue that affects practically every woman and as Brumfitt points out, nearly 91% of all women hate their bodies. To maintain the perfect body is hard work and requires a lot of sacrifice and obsession with a healthy diet and lifestyle. Brumfitt's documentary aims to inspire women of all ages to embrace their body with all its imperfections rather than buy into the whole obsession with beauty. Ours is a society obsessed with celebrities, and consequently a host of women's magazine perpetuate stereotypes and promote the unrealistic ideal of a perfect figure through photo-shopped images. This is, in turn, promoting an unhealthy lifestyle amongst younger woman. Inspired by the many responses to her online posting and the many questions raised, Brumfitt set off on a long journey to find some answers. It was a long journey that took her around the world to Hollywood, where she met talk show host Ricki Lake, to Berlin where she met actress Nora Tschirner, and to New York where she took part in a photo shoot with noted photographer B Jeffrey Madoff and a bunch of women on different shapes and sizes. One of the strangest characters she encounters though is Harnaam Kaur, a bearded lady who talks of her struggle to find acceptance and to fit in with societal expectations. Embrace is as much an activist film trying to make a change in our perceptions as it is a documentary, much like Damon Gameau's That Sugar Film from last year, although not as generally entertaining. This is a film that speaks passionately to female audiences. Brumfitt's ultimate message is that the fashion industry itself needs to undergo a radical shift in how it addresses issues of beauty. Embrace is the most successful crowd funded Australian documentary, and, despite its limited cinema release, will undoubtedly reach and inspire its target audience.
powerful, uplifting and moving drama... another winner from New Zealand
Twenty years ago Lee Tamahori gave us one of the best films to come out of New Zealand with Once Were Warriors, an exploration of masculinity, violence, family and Maori pride. After flirting with big budget Hollywood action films like Along Came A Spider and the Bond adventure Die Another Day, etc, Tamahori returns home for this powerful, uplifting and moving drama set in rural New Zealand in the early 60s that shares a number of similar themes, although it is nowhere near as gritty or disturbing. Based on a novel written by Witi Ihimaera (Whale Rider), this drama centres around the Mahanas, a sheep farming family ruled over by their overbearing and brutal grandfather (Temuera Morrison). But Mahana is also a wonderful coming of age story as fourteen year old Simeon (newcomer Akuhata Keefe) begins to stand up to the grandfather and question some of his beliefs. The consequences of his defiance though lead to rift in the family but ultimately to a reconciliation and the revelation of some long hidden secrets about the truth behind the family's long running bitter feud with their neighbours, the Poata family. John Collee's script does contain the occasional cliché, but this is a superb and entertaining drama. The film looks gorgeous thanks to the widescreen cinematography of Ginny Loane (Shopping, etc) who captures stunning vistas of the windswept countryside and hilly terrain. Reunited with Tamahori, Morrison, best known for playing Jake the Muss in Once Were Warriors, has a fierce, commanding and intimidating screen presence that is put to good use here as the strict patriarch. In his first film role, newcomer Keefe is also a revelation with a strong and intelligent performance in the pivotal role of Simeon, who shows strength and the qualities of manhood demanded by his grandfather. Mahana (aka The Patriarch in some territories) is another winner from New Zealand, whose film industry continues to punch above its weight.
gut wrenching moments,... but great sensitivity and understanding
Charlton Heston, the Oscar winning actor and one time President of the powerful lobby group the National Rife Association, once declared: "From my cold dead hands." And while America awaits sensible legislation and gun control laws, more innocent victims are lost in senseless massacres from people who probably should not have had access to a lethal weapon in the fits place. In his gun control documentary Bowling For Columbine Michael Moore used humour as a weapon and as a powerful tool in his cry for tighter laws on gun ownership. There is precious little humour to be found in this raw and emotional documentary from director Kim A Snyder that looks at the aftermath of the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in a perfect and safe little town in rural Connecticut. On the morning of December 14, gunman Adam Lanza shot his own mother and then drove to the nearby school where he opened fire, killing 20 young children and six adults before turning the gun on himself. Snyder comes into a community still raw with emotion, grief and a palpable sense of anger at yet another senseless slaughter of the innocent. Snyder (who worked as an assistant producer with Jodie Foster on the comedy Home For The Holidays) incorporates lots of newsreel footage here along with some intimate interviews with first responders, the local priest, and William Begg, the ER doctor who talks about the traumatic impact of the bullets on the young bodies. Snyder also connects with three families affected by the tragedy - the Bardens, the Hockleys and the Wheelers - who all lost a child in the massacre, and they talk openly and honestly about how they are trying to move on from the loss. Snyder obviously has an agenda here as she tries to put the focus firmly on the emotional and controversial issue of gun control and the inadequacy of legislators to address the problem. There are some gut wrenching moments throughout, but she handles this material with great sensitivity and understanding. This is a study of a community torn apart by tragedy and attempting to rebuild their lives and find some positives. If this incident doesn't change America's attitude towards tighter gun laws then possible nothing ever will. And despite President Obama's attempts to change the laws yet again the US Senate backed away from tighter gun laws.
unexpectedly compelling and entertaining
New Zealand journalist David Farrier (tv series Short Poppies, etc) has made a career out of looking at the weird side of life. But even he was unprepared for the fallout after stumbling upon a website about "competitive endurance tickling" in which young men were paid to be tied up and tickled, complete with some videos. Although the on-line videos were pretty harmless, they piqued his curiosity and Farrier decided to find out more. But when he contacted Jane O'Brien Media to try an arrange an interview he was harassed and threatened with lawsuits from a high powered US firm. Their secretive and aggressive manner intrigued Farrier even further and he tried to probe beneath the surface. He and his collaborator, writer/filmmaker and computer expert Dylan Reeve, discovered a vaguely sinister to this tickling fetish as they travelled to Los Angeles and New York. Farrier talks to a couple of former tickle participants who talk about being blackmailed and threatened. What began as a light hearted investigation into something that initially seemed vaguely homoerotic but innocuous turned into a thriller as Farrier and Reeve tried to probe a web of corporate paperwork to find out the identity of the mysterious figures behind Jane O'Brien Media. By turns amusing and gripping, Tickled gives us a look at the darker side of the internet and a vaguely unsettling subculture, and explores themes of power, control, harassment, fetishism, corruption, and criminal activity. This is the first feature length documentary from Farrier, and he has an amiable screen presence, but he also demonstrates a dogged sense of purpose as he refuses to back down from threats and intimidation as he gets closer to learning the identity of the person behind this unusual enterprise. A strange and decidedly weird little documentary that is unexpectedly compelling and entertaining.
The Devil's Candy (2015)
The Amityville Horror meets Metallica
A variation on the home invasion thriller, The Devil's Candy is the sophomore feature from Australian director Sean Byrne (2010's The Loved Ones). A film about parenthood, murder, madness, possession and heavy metal music, it is best described as The Amityville Horror meets Metallica. Jesse Hellman (Ethan Embry) is an artist who moves his family into a large farmhouse in rural Texas where he has more freedom to continue his work. And the house comes with a dark history, as the psychotic Ray Smilie (Pruitt Taylor Vince, from Heavy, etc) killed his parents. Both deaths were ruled accidental and the house was put on the market. But soon after, Ray knocks at the door, and wants back in his house. Ray becomes obsessed with Jesse's goth metalhead daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco, from David Cronenberg's Maps To The Stars, etc). Meanwhile Jesse is haunted by the same bizarre voices that drove Ray to kill his parents and he becomes obsessed with a somewhat dark themed painting. Ray is a nasty piece of work, and a killer of children. Vince is perfectly cast as Ray, with his lumbering gait, his untidy red jumpsuit, his empty gaze and intimidating manner he brings this hulking man child to life. Embry is largely cast against type here, and with his beard and long hair vaguely resembles a Jesus-like figure, which complements the more religious undertones of the film. Glasco is also very good as the Zooey and brings a feisty quality to her performance. As he demonstrated with his first film, Byrne is adept at gradually building up the suspense and uneasy atmosphere before unleashing a rather violent climax. He suffuses the home invasion tropes with a touch of the supernatural. However, the horror here is a bit more restrained and less graphic than the torture porn of The Loved Ones. The discordant aural soundtrack provided by Sunn O)))) adds to the gradual air of uneasiness. Hopefully it's not another six years before Byrne makes another film.