Lawrence Johnston’s Latest Buzzes Bright with Neon

It takes a special filmmaker to do what Lawrence Johnston does. There are certainly no Australian documentarians working today that I can think of doing what he does. He takes subjects of such a niche and specialised variety and treats them with the utmost of dedication and care by compiling sprawling cinematic examinations that strike at the historical heart of his subjects while also allowing for delight, fun, and even whimsy. Like prior films Eternity, Night, and Fallout, his films take life’s anecdotes and create a visually resplendent film, cinematic poems if you will, that fly in the face of what documentary cinema typically is in Australia. Neon is more traditional in structure and certainly less abstract than Night or Eternity, but no less a fluttering of style and panache that somehow makes the subject sing.

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Putting on the Ritz with Magic Mike XXL

This review is reworked from the original featured at SameSame.

Channing Tatum is back with his buddies – and minus his shirt – and they’re going on the road in Magic Mike XXL. Let’s start for a moment with that title, which is so keen at setting the goofy tone of the whole enterprise as well as following in the grand tradition of sequel titles actively referring to a character’s genitals like Goldmember and, ahem, City Slickers 2: The Legend of Curly’s Gold*. A franchise spin-off featuring Joe Manganiello’s ‘Big Dick Ritchie’ would see roman numerals back in a big way.

Now, as crazy as it is to imagine anybody being on the fence about whether they will venture out into the cold winter night to get all hot and bothered at the multiplex, we still have to try and say something to earn our money. “Earning money” is certainly something that Tatum and co. do here as they parade around in as little clothing as possible to work up your thirst. In the first five minutes alone we get a healthy dose of Tatum’s sweaty arms and thrusting hips as well as Joe Manganiello’s bare butt. Throughout you’ll see Matt Bomer down to his g-string, Adam Rodriguez shooting whipped cream from his crotch, and some of the finest fit stripping extras up there on the big screen. Channing’s charm is the film’s best asset beyond his bare flesh because it would be easy to be turned off by a film full of the sort of douchebag muscle queens you find at the gym on a daily basis, but while he may look like Kryten from Red Dwarf’s human cousin, but he still has the appeal of the high school jock that is nice to everyone and who everyone likes. Consider Zac Efron in Neighbours, but if he was actually a person you’d like to hang out with beyond locker-room ogling.

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The Troubled Musical Tribute to ‘Amy’

This review was originally published by The Film Experience.

Given what director Asif Kapadia was able to accomplish with the otherwise (to me) uninteresting world of vroom vroom speed racing in Senna, logic would dictate that when handling a subject of great interest to me that the results would be even more outstanding. That doesn’t quite prove to be the case with Amy, another scrapbook collection of archival footage presenting the life of somebody who lived fast and died young, Amy Winehouse, but one which lacks quite the same verve of the director’s predecessor.

Kapadia is in the unique position of making a documentary about somebody whose life isn’t just rife for the Hollywood biopic treatment, but which actually feels like it already has been. Is her story not almost note-for-note for Mark Rydell’s The Rose with Bette Midler? It’s curious as a viewer of a documentary to feel as if I’d seen it all before in a fiction film (albeit one highly inspired by a real life person) and being disappointed because it comes off second best.

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Jurassic World Reboots in Plastic

This review was originally published by Weekly Gravy.

Somebody let the dinosaurs into the liquor cabinet. Steven Spielberg’s original Jurassic Park turned 21 last year and, just like anybody allowed to drink for the first time, it’s gone a little bit awry. With Jurassic World, director Colin Trevorrow makes a defiant display of wannabe maturity, but his film is ultimately a bit of a mess as it so desperately attempts to replicate the popular original, but does so without any of the class that Spielberg brought to his ground-breaking special effects extravaganza of 1993. Perhaps in returning to the franchise, the powers that be shouldn’t have handed over the reins to somebody with such little experience – this is only Trevorrow’s second feature after the low-budget indie Safety Not Guaranteed, which is a bizarre leap. Maybe someone who had the honed skills equivalent to Spielberg when he was at the top of his blockbuster game should have been the one in charge.

Certainly somebody with more experience would have spotted the myriad of problems inherent in Jurassic World, most of which can be laid at the feet of the screenplay. A screenplay that took four people to write, which is an alarming statistic. When the script isn’t simply recreating famous scenes from the original with less engaging characters who speak a lot and yet say so very little, it’s blindly ignoring plot holes and conjuring up half-baked ideas like breeding raptors to take on terrorists, which is just as silly as the gymnastics routine from the first sequel The Lost World.

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Terminator Genisys trumps Jurassic World‘s Referential Reboot

This review originally appeared on Weekly Gravy.

There’s something about the Terminator franchise that I truly dig. I like that it doesn’t pretend its science is anything other than ridiculous coming out of the mouths of muscle-bound beefcakes, yet still takes its concepts of ethics and cause-and-effect seriously. I like that, apart from the dour-faced Salvation, these films are aesthetically exciting, filling the screen with eye-popping action set-pieces and visual effects that allow us to actually see and follow what’s happening, rather than throwing graphics at the screen and expecting audiences to nod in glazed-eye approval. Perhaps most of all, I just like films with some actual imagination behind them. I can forgive the lapses into bad acting and nonsensical dialogue if it feels like somebody behind the scenes spent longer than a nanosecond on devising ways to entertain an audience rather than simply doing the same as before (like The Avengers: Age of Ultron) and expecting it not to notice.

It’s true that not a whole lot of Terminator Genisys makes sense when held up to close inspection, but part of the beauty of time travel is that doesn’t really need to. It makes sense in their world so, really, I’m not going to waste my energy attempting to decipher it. Where I thought it succeeded was in crafting a story that actually builds upon the themes of earlier franchise entries while being allowed to become its own thing (at least The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment DayRise of the Machines, Salvation and the TV-series The Sarah Conner Chronicles have been more or less scrapped from the timeline).

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Strangerland Tackles the Australian Myth

This review originally appeared on The Film Experience.

Kim Farrant’s Strangerland is deeply, uncomfortably Australian. In many ways, it goes right to the heart of the country as a family infiltrate a place that is unfamiliar and even hostile to their arrival. A family, all of whom hold secrets and potentially criminal pasts. They could have been dressed up in Colonial costumes and set 150 years ago without much of a narrative alteration, which is probably much the point of Farrant’s debut feature. How our convict pasts have manifested as a society that turns on its own as much as the other.

Strangerland has a fairly simple premise, but one that allows for some fairly wide-ranging readings. After having left their last post due to an ambiguously alluded to crime, Matthew (Joseph Fiennes) and Catherine Parker (Nicole Kidman) find themselves in the remote outback town of Nathgari. He’s a pharmacist and she’s a housewife, neither of whom are able to handle their 15-year-old daughter, Lily (Maddison Brown). When Lily and young son Tommy vanish in the middle of the night, the town deals them with suspicion while Catherine becomes more and more emotionally unhinged at the thought their children may have deliberately abandoned her.

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54: The Director’s Cut Rises Like a Phoenix

This review was originally published on The Film Experience.

The history behind Mark Christopher’s wannabe decadent, sexually-charged disco epic 54 is almost as interesting as the real life nightclub it uses as its setting. Originally conceived as a disco-themed coming-of-age drama like Saturday Night Fever blended with the hedonistic dungeon-like underworld of Cruising, all signs pointed to the film being a crazed and sexy paean to a world that no longer exists. And then Miramax got involved. There’s a long history of director’s cuts of famous films or those from famous directors (Blade Runner, Apocalypse Now) or cult titles (Dark City). 54 was neither, so how did it get into this position?

After a few fated audience test screenings, Miramax decided to change tact with 54. Cutting out 40 minutes of footage that showed an openly queer antihero and replacing it with 25 minutes of newly filmed material aimed to exploit the exploding popularity of stars Ryan Phillippe and Neve Campbell. Released to scathing reviews, the film ultimately limped at the box office, Mike Myers had a supporting actor nomination rescinded by the New York Film Critics Circle (at least according to the director) and was likely never thought much of since. Mark Christopher’s career was essentially ruined in the process.

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