The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Rest assured that no deer, sacred or otherwise, was harmed in the making of this film, the follow-up to The Lobster from director Yorgos Lanthimos. The title is apparently inspired by the mythic Greek tale of Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon, the king who led the Greeks into battle against the Trojans. When Agamemnon accidentally kills a sacred deer belonging to Artamis – the goddess of hunting, the wilderness and wild animals – Iphigenia’s life is sacrificed in retaliation for her father’s indiscretion. This is, essentially, the plot for The Killing of a Sacred Deer, with the series of events transplanted to a contemporary setting where Agamemnon is now Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), a skilled surgeon who finds himself faced with an impossible decision in the aftermath of an operation that resulted in the death of a patient.

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There is a sense of unease from the moment the movie opens due to the stilted, monotone dialogue delivery and the distinct, almost robotic, lack of emotion that pervades every conversation. Sensing an opportunity to atone for what we later learn may have been an act of negligence, Steven has befriended Martin (Barry Keoghan), the son of the man who died in surgery. Something seems off-kilter with the relationship between them though – and we don’t learn of the circumstances of their connection until later – with Steven introducing Martin to his colleagues as a friend of Kim’s. Steven buys gifts for Martin and, as their relationship develops, he invites him into his family circle, which includes his ophthalmologist wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), teenage daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and young son Bob (Sunny Suljic). There is something equally off-putting about the Murphy family dynamic and it’s not only the fact that Steven likes Anna to pretend to be under general anaesthesia when he has sex with her. It is when Bob suddenly collapses and can no longer walk that Martin’s true intentions are revealed and the tension amps up as the Murphy’s find themselves at the mercy of Martin’s merciless ultimatum.

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Fresh from their work together on Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, Farrell and Kidman are the marquee names, but it is Keoghan who steals the show when it comes to performance. He is astounding as a vengeful, manipulative, pathologically resentful young man whose penchant for revenge is understandable, even if the way in which it plays out requires a considerable suspension of disbelief. The fact that Martin ingratiates himself with Steven and his family is difficult to fathom given he is such an oddball character whose best attempts at charm come across as creepy, although nobody seems to notice until it is too late. It is not surprising the Keoghan, who first came to notice as the wide-eyed innocent George in Dunkirk, has been mentioned in despatches as an awards contender though because it really is a remarkable achievement that he makes you so uncomfortable long before you actually have any tangible reason to feel that way.

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Darkly comic at times and utterly bizarre at others, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is populated by characters devoid of any redeeming qualities that might engender our sympathy for their plight, yet it is somewhat mesmerising and quite poetic at times. Alicia Silverstone (Clueless, Blast from the Past) features in one scene as Martin’s mother and it certainly would have been good to see more of her character, particularly with regard to her relationship with Martin. A mixture of stylised realism and the supernatural, Lanthimos has delivered a film that is both horrifying and hilarious in its satirical skewering of the ‘perfect family’. Much like his previous work, this will no doubt leave some amazed and others appalled and that, it seems, is exactly how he likes it.

Lucky

There is no doubt that the death of Harry Dean Stanton earlier this year has provided Lucky with the momentum to secure a cinematic release wider than what might have otherwise been likely. Whilst Stanton has amassed more than 200 acting credits since his screen debut in 1954, it was his roles in ‘80’s classics Repo Man and Paris, Texas that earned him an almost cult-like reverence amongst film buffs the world over. It is perhaps somewhat strange therefore that, despite working constantly since, Stanton had, until now, been unable to secure another leading role, confined largely to character pieces and supporting roles that are often more memorable than anything else the film or television show has to offer. So, if nothing else, Lucky will be remembered for the fact that it afforded Stanton another opportunity to take centre stage, albeit at 90 years of age in what has ultimately proved to be his penultimate performance.  In Lucky, Stanton is very much at the forefront of the action as the titular character, although action is perhaps a poor choice of words given that very little happens during the course of 90 minutes.

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Lucky is a US Navy veteran who lives on the outskirts of a small town in America’s south, most likely Arizona given the desert landscape that Lucky traverses each day as part of his daily routine, the elements of which drive the narrative. After beginning each day with yoga and a glass of milk, Lucky sets off into town where he adheres to a regimented sequence of interactions. Although brusque and impatient, the straight-talking Lucky is liked well enough by the people he encounters in the coffee shop, bar and convenience store that he visits each day before returning home to spend his afternoons entrenched in television games shows and crossword puzzles. First-time director John Carroll Lynch, who has a slew of acting credits in film and television, has roped in a treasure trove of actors to spar with Stanton. Ed Begley Jnr, Tom Skerritt, Ron Livingston and David Lynch are amongst those who feature in a series of scenes that play out more as a collection of individual sketches more so than as part of a cohesive, connected series of events.

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Whilst there is plenty of quirk on offer here – Lucky watering his cactus wearing only his saggy underwear and cowboy boots for example – the lack of narrative tension will prove infuriating for some. We only get glimpses of the various relationships that Lucky enjoys with both the townsfolk and those merely passing through and just when it seems as though something more substantial be might be forthcoming, such as when Loretta (Yvonne Huff) visits Lucky and it seems a friendship is born, nothing comes of it and we move onto the next vignette. As such, some of the scenes don’t present as particularly authentic and the interactions in the bar are perhaps the least convincing. Conversely, the interactions between Lucky and shopkeeper Bibi (Bertila Damas) are wonderfully warm and result in one of the best moments of the film when Lucky attends a birthday fiesta for Bibi’s son.

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Ostensibly a film about the waning of life, it is certainly not morose and, in fact, the message seems to be that the inevitability of death shouldn’t be something that dictates how we think and behave. Devoid of the demonisation that typically pervades cinematic renderings of those who inhabit America’s more remote communities, Lucky captures a small slice of life in a part of America that is a far cry from the hustle, bustle and bluster of the big city. Whilst calls for Stanton to be recognised for this performance in awards season might be more to do with sentimentality and affection than the performance itself, it is not hard to admire his commitment to the role. Despite its failings, Lucky is an enjoyable exploration of mortality in which the central character is often alone, yet is never presented as somebody for whom we should feel sorry or as a threat to themselves or others, which is quite refreshing.

Detroit

Given the success, both critically and commercially, of her two previous films (The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty), the expectation surrounding Kathryn Bigelow’s latest offering was always going to run the risk overshadowing the film itself. Furthermore, comparisons between Detroit and Bigelow’s two war films (which won seven Academy Awards between them) were inevitable and not altogether fair given that every film should be assessed on its own merits. Having said that, it is easy to understand why Detroit has been such a hotly anticipated release given that, despite the fact it is a historical drama set some 50 years ago, it is perhaps as much a window into the current social and political climate in America than either of her contemporary military dramas, if not more so.

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Based on true events that occurred during the 1967 riots which left much of the city a mess, Detroit concerns itself more with one particular incident that took place amidst the conflict, rather than delivering any over-arching narrative on the broader course of events, perhaps because are they are too large in scope to try and explore within the confines of a feature length running time. Whatever the reason, the absence of context – other than a brief animated sequence which opens the film and attempts, in just a couple of minutes, to explain how millions of African-Americans migrated from the south to cities in the north (such as Detroit) where they hoped to find jobs and a prosperous future, only to be faced with the same racism they had fled – does a disservice to the significance of what transpired over the five days of unrest that left 43 people dead and more than 2000 buildings destroyed. As such, when the story kicks off with the raid on an unlicensed after-hours bar that is widely accepted as the event that triggered the civil unrest, you haven’t developed any real sense of the tensions that had obviously been simmering for quite some time prior to this point. Bigelow only allows for a few scene-setting episodes to show the spread of the riot before shifting focus to the events at the Algiers Motel.

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When a guest at the motel decides, playfully but ill-advisedly, to fire a starter pistol out the window, the police and military personnel patrolling the surrounding streets assume they are being targeted and converge on the Algiers. Those partying inside in defiance of the chaos unfolding on the streets include two white women, a Vietnam veteran and members of doo-wop group The Dramatics. Krauss (Will Poulter), a bully cop who has kept his job despite having shot an unarmed looter in the back, leads the charge in trying to locate the weapon and identify the shooter. Except, of course, there is no real gun to speak of, a fact that Krauss simply refuses to accept as he sets about beating and berating the various ‘suspects’ with impunity. Poulter (We’re the Millers, The Revenant) delivers a remarkably unnerving portrayal of this sneering, hate-filled racist whose bigotry is as unrelenting as it is illogical. Many will find the vitriol and violence that spews from Poulter somewhat unsettling and there is a point where this extended sequence, which takes up the bulk of the running time, starts to become tedious despite the inherent tension that permeates the scene. The audience is never expected to understand Krauss’s mindset and the subsequent legal proceedings against the police officers, which apparently lasted for several years, are condensed to just a few minutes and will no doubt leave many bristling with indignation at the lack of consequences for Krauss and his sidekicks.

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Although featured heavily in the marketing material, John Boyega (Attack the Block, The Force Awakens) actually has little to do as Dismukes, a security guard who attends the Algiers in an effort to prevent the exact course of events that ultimately transpired. Anthony Mackie (The Avengers, The Hurt Locker) features as one of those under assault from Krauss, as do Hannah Murray (TV’s Skins and Game of Thrones) and Kaitlyn Dever (Short Term 12, The Spectacular Now), the only two women with any significant screen time. Despite the superficial attention given to the political, social and historical contexts that are so critical in understanding how things had reached such a crisis point, Detroit still delivers as a powerful indictment of American race relations and a reminder of how little progress has been made in the treatment of African-Americans at the hands of law enforcement authorities.

 

Ingrid Goes West

A movie that could not have been made before now, Ingrid Goes West delivers a scathing indictment of contemporary culture, particularly those Instagram and online identities who serve up every aspect of their life to the millions of gullible and delusional followers who are seemingly incapable of making any kind of decision for themselves; such as whether or not their choice of scatter cushions (or anything else similarly asinine) are ‘on trend’. Whilst these faux celebrities seem easy targets for ridicule, director Matt Spicer avoids the temptation of simply serving up a piss-take, instead delivering a powerful, biting expose that explores the darker reality for many who live vicariously through the artifice of these curated lives. Aubrey Plaza is remarkable as the eponymous Ingrid, a delusional young woman who just can’t help herself when it comes to falling under the spell of the latest social media darling dishing up all manner of wisdom and good taste.

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When we first meet Ingrid, she is crashing a wedding and assaulting the bride in retaliation for not being invited. We subsequently learn that the two women weren’t even friends and it was just a case of Ingrid interpreting her obsession with the bride’s Instagram feed as some kind of personal connection between them. After a stint in a psych ward, Ingrid returns to the house she shared with her recently deceased mother. Seemingly with no friends or family, it isn’t long before Ingrid finds herself under the spell of another social media celebrity named Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen). Using money she inherited from her mother, Ingrid heads to Taylor’s California neighbourhood and rents an apartment from Batman–obsessed aspiring screenwriter Dan Pinto (O’Shea Jackson Jnr). Before too long, Ingrid has wheedled her way into Taylor’s life and everything looks rosy, for a little while at least, until cracks start to appear in the various relationships and it become apparent that not everything is at it seems between Taylor and her artist husband Ezra (Wyatt Russell). Throw in Taylor’s boorish brother Nicky (Billy Magnusson) determined to expose Ingrid, and much emotional upheaval ensues.

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Perhaps best known as April Ludgate on television comedy Parks and Recreation, a role that has seen her subsequently declared the queen of deadpan, Plaza featured in supporting roles for directors such as Whit Stillman (Damsels in Distress), Judd Apatow (Funny People) and Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs the World) before landing her first lead in Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed. Described by Parks and Recreation co-creator Michael Shur as the weirdest girl he has met in his life, Plaza was flagged by MTV as the perfect choice to play sarcastic, cynical high school student Daria in a live-action version of the ‘80s cult animation, should such a movie ever come to fruition. Whilst she has built a career playing such unconventional types, this is a much darker turn for Plaza and she is pitch perfect as a lonely, damaged young woman whose single-minded determination to befriend Taylor knows no bounds.

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Plaza is unnerving at times as Ingrid stumbles from one embarrassing decision to another, leaving you conflicted about whether you should pity her or despise her because, although the inherent sadness of her delusional disposition demands our sympathy, there are many moments when she is infuriatingly selfish and self-sabotaging. Plaza makes Ingrid both hilarious and tragic and just when it seems as though she has  secured our sympathy, the final frames might just leave you feeling a sense of betrayal. Even though you realise that the ending is, in fact, the most likely scenario given what we know about Ingrid, it is no less infuriating when it happens, although not in a way that detracts from the movie. In fact, it is terrific that first-time feature director Matt Spicer (who co-wrote the screenplay with David Branson Smith) has opted to stay the course, rather than deliver a redemption story in which our protagonist undergoes some kind of transformation in the interests of leaving audiences feeling good about what the future may hold for Ingrid. With great performances all round, Ingrid Goes West is a timely reminder that the rise of social media, like any fundamental shift in social practice, has implications for those on the margins trying to find a place for themselves in a world in which personality is performative and social ‘worth’ is measured in ways we couldn’t have imagined just 10 years ago.

 

Home Again

Reese Witherspoon is a talented actress, as her Academy Award for Walk the Line attests, and she has accrued a fine body of work in both drama (Freeway, Wild) and comedy (Legally Blonde). Furthermore, she is a strong advocate for advancing opportunities for women in the film industry and I can only assume it is her desire to support first-time director Hallie Meyers-Shyer that has seen her take on the role of Alice Kinney, a recently-separated interior designer who returns to her childhood home, only to find herself living with three aspiring filmmakers. However, even Witherspoon can’t elevate the material to something remotely insightful as Meyers-Shyer seems unsure of exactly what type of movie she is trying to make. It’s mildly amusing at times, but could hardly be regarded as a comedy and there is no real dramatic narrative arc either, which makes the whole thing a bland, and somewhat befuddling, viewing experience.

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Having returned to Los Angeles from New York after splitting from her music executive husband Austen (Michael Sheen), Alice hits the town to celebrate her 40th birthday and finds herself in the sights of the much younger Harry (Pico Alexander), a wannabe filmmaker trying to secure backing for a film idea he has developed with friends George (Jon Rudnitsky) and Teddy (Nat Wolff). Having been kicked out of their motel lodgings, the trio ingratiate themselves with Alice’s mother, Lillian (Candice Bergen), and within 24 hours find themselves ensconced in Alice’s pool house. As a relationship blossoms between Harry and Alice, jealousies flare and friendships are tested even before Austen arrives in town in a bid to reignite the relationship with his wife. Throw two cute-as-a-button poppets into the mix and you have all the ingredients for a clichéd, syrupy, sentimental concoction that fails to satisfy your cravings for something altogether more substantial.

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By far the biggest disappointment about Home Again is the missed opportunity to make something really interesting. An opening black and white sequence voiced-over by Alice tells of her childhood as the daughter of an acclaimed filmmaker and there is enormous potential here for a film that tracks the experiences of somebody growing up in such a world. Similarly, the setbacks endured by those trying to find their feet in Hollywood and the various people and personalities that come into play as they struggle to have their ideas heard could be great fodder for something interesting, but the three young men in Home Again are so devoid of any personality and so far removed from the reality that so many endure, it is almost insulting to those who have spent years toiling away in dead end jobs whilst waiting for an opportunity to showcase their talents. Then again, maybe for Meyers-Shyer – who is the daughter of directors Nancy Meyers (It’s Complicated, The Intern) and Charles Shyer (Father of the Bride, Alfie) – securing her break was as easy as this film suggests. Regardless, the fact that these guys seem determined to sabotage the opportunity afforded them is infuriating.

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Witherspoon does the best she can with the material and while Sheen is a fine actor, he is very hard to accept as a music industry player. He handles the arrogant, self-absorbed aspect of Austen’s personality just fine but he is simply not believable as somebody charged with identifying and fostering exciting new musical talent; more middle-aged try-hard than hip talent scout. Despite her limited screen time, Bergen steals all the best lines with a character whose life trajectory – an actress and wife of a revered independent film maker – is not dissimilar to her own. Perhaps not surprisingly, Wolff emerges as the least annoying of the three men, largely because he is the only one not pining for Alice’s affections. Presenting more like a hodge-podge of ideas than a cohesive whole, Home Again is as inoffensive as it is underwhelming.

48 Hour Films

Making a film in 48 days can be hard work, but doing it in 48 hours seems almost impossible, right? Well, not for the teams who took part in the Brisbane 48 Hour Film Project earlier this month.

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Presented with a list of compulsory elements (a character, a prop and a line of dialogue), each production team then had just 48 hours to write, shoot and edit a short film over the course of a single weekend.

Public screenings of the 28 completed films will take place next Monday (October 23) and Tuesday (October 24) from 6.00pm at Event Cinemas Myer Centre, with the awards ceremony to follow on Thursday evening (October 26) from 7.00pm at the Start Up Stadium in The Precinct, Fortitude Valley.

For more information about competition and the films in contention, or to purchase tickets to a screening session, visit the 48 Hour Film Project website or on Facebook.

Blade Runner 2049

Perhaps one of the most anticipated sequels of recent times (amongst film buffs and sci-fi nerds at least, as box office figures suggest the mainstream viewing public hasn’t shared such enthusiasm), Blade Runner 2049 satisfies most in the way that it is nothing more, or less, than we could have hoped from such an undertaking, which is great. In the hands of director Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Arrival),  this continuation of the story contains most of the elements that made the first film so exceptional, although it is cinematographer Roger Deakins who is perhaps the real hero in his stunning rendering of a not-too-distant future that is bleak and eerily beautiful all at once. As was the case in the first film (released in 1982), rain is ever present in the neon-saturated vision of Los Angeles in which a new breed of bio-engineered synthetic humans known as replicants work as blade runners, the title given to those responsible for tracking down earlier versions of their kind who have managed to thus far avoid detection and mandatory decommissioning.

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A perfectly cast Ryan Gosling is a blade runner known only as K and the film opens with him tracking down a replicant (Dave Bautista impressing in a small role) living a peaceful life and seemingly little threat to anybody; but rules are rules and he has to go. What K discovers in the course of this mission kick starts what becomes a detective story as he sets forth on an existential quest in search of answers to the mysteries of his own past (about which he knows nothing because all of his memories have supposedly been implanted). This ultimately leads him to Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the central figure from the first film; a former cop and blade runner who is now living in exile. Those who have been besotted with the ambiguities from the first film probably won’t find the clarity they seek because once again there is nothing definitive offered with regard to whether Deckard is, in fact, a replicant, although I think Villeneuve’s film makes it much easier to mount an argument challenging such a notion, but it is far from conclusive.

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There are times when the stunning visuals, production design and musical score (courtesy of Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch) threaten to overwhelm the action and there are certainly some characters and story elements – such as K’s virtual girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas) – that seem more about hypothesising on the nature of future technology than serving any narrative imperative. However, there are some strong female characters in Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) and Luv (Sylvia Hoecks), while Sean Young’s Rachael is resurrected from the first film and there has been conflicting reports about just how much of a role, if any, the notoriously outspoken, career-sabotaging Young actually played in the CGI-rendering of the character.  Gosling is pitch perfect as the emotionless, clinical replicant who starts to question the nature of his own existence, while Jared Leto features in a role seemingly made for his particular brand of weirdness and the likes of Edward James Olmos and Barkhad Abdi also appear briefly.

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Thankfully, Villeneuve has not set out to try and improve upon, replace or remake the original. He has made an entirely new piece that complements and enhances Ridley Scott’s first screen incarnation of Phillip Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Like Scott’s masterwork, Blade Runner 2049 muses on the nature of humanity and poses more questions than it answers. Philosophical and no doubt more accessible for those already familiar with this world, it doesn’t matter that this might fall marginally short of the impeccable standard of its predecessor, because Villeneuve has constructed a piece of art that that stands tall as a great film in its own right.