Film Review of the Week


The American Society Of Magical Negroes (12A)

Review: The term “magical negro” was coined to refer to a black character in fiction, who performs acts of service to prop up the storyline and promote the success of a white character. Some obvious examples would be Whoopi Goldberg’s hilarious medium Oda Mae Brown in Ghost and Mykelti Williamson’s kind-hearted Bubba in Forrest Gump. Writer-director Kobi Libii’s toothless satire attempts to poke fun at the trope but fails to draw blood with obvious jabs at centuries of prejudice, intolerance and segregation.

The American Society Of Magical Negroes builds to a stirring monologue about belonging that should land with the same sledgehammer force as America Ferrara’s cri de coeur in Barbie. Libii’s script leans in tentatively to its provocative premise then retreats into the conventional storytelling and stereotypes it promises to subvert. There are sparks of impishness with nods to The Green Mile and Driving Miss Daisy alongside toe-curling team talks from Rupert Friend’s tech billionaire, who is painfully out of touch with the society he purports to reflect. However, social commentary is repeatedly sidetracked for a belaboured romance that doesn’t know how to satisfactorily resolve itself and ultimately stops trying. The closing five minutes of Libii’s picture are wild and disorienting for the wrong reasons.

Struggling Los Angeles artist Aren (Justice Smith) has a forthcoming solo show cancelled after his latest piece – an untitled sculpture fashion from Peruvian wool – fails to attract a single bid from collectors. “If you can’t stick up for your own work, I can’t do it for you,” warns the gallery owner. On the way home, he is falsely accused of theft by a drunk white woman and the barman from the gallery event, Roger (David Alan Grier), rescues Aren from the tense situation.

This kind stranger introduces Aren to The American Society Of Magical Negroes run by DeDe (Nicole Byer), which has worked tirelessly behind the scenes throughout history to protect African Americans by shaping white lives. “We are the vanguard of white relaxation,” explains Roger, who successfully mentors Aren to boost the self-confidence of a shy white police officer (Tim Baltz). A first official posting to lift the gloom of social media high-flyer Jason (Drew Tarver) is compromised when Aren develops feelings for Jason’s co-worker Lizzie (An-Li Bogan).

The American Society Of Magical Negroes dismisses any discomfort around the title early on when Smith’s nice guy stutteringly suggests an update to modern, politically correct parlance. Arriving so soon after Oscar-winning comedy American Fiction and TV series I’m A Virgo, the bluntness of the humour is evident despite the best efforts of a stellar cast to provoke vital debate and understanding through irreverence. Smith’s innate likeability is the yarn that holds the film together.

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Boy Kills World (18)

Review: In April 2023, actor turned director Dev Patel boldly staked his claim to the most gratuitously violent revenge thriller of the year with Monkey Man, which fully deserved an 18 certificate in the UK. German filmmaker Moritz Mohr ups the ante with this hallucinogenic feature directorial debut, laden with hyperstylised violence and ghoulish humour that suggests – wrongly – Boy Kills World may have begun its blood-spattered life as a graphic novel. Screenwriters Tyler Burton Smith and Arend Remmers have a blast subverting expectations with a dramatic set-up reminiscent of The Hunger Games’ annual slaughter, which spirals into delusion and dismemberment.

A satisfying twist lands perfectly when it seems we know exactly where Boy Kills World is heading. The title character is unable to speak so H Jon Benjamin voices a hilarious, potty-mouthed inner monologue, appropriated from the narration of the hero’s favourite arcade game, Super Dragon Punch Force 3. Thus, during one bravura fight sequence, a persistent henchman refuses to die from horrific, stomach-churning injuries and the narrator whoops, “Player two is scary!” An impressively gym-toned Bill Skarsgard conveys his killing machine’s churning emotions without saying a word and meets the intense physical demands of the role with gusto. Carnage is unrelenting and a running time shy of two hours pushes our endurance to the on-screen barbarity to the limit.

Nameless and homeless in a post-apocalyptic dictatorship run by the Van Der Koy clan, deaf-mute orphan Boy (Skarsgard) is raised in the jungle by a shaman protector (Yayan Ruhian). “I am an instrument shaped for a single purpose: to kill Hilda Van Der Koy!” bellows Boy’s inner voice (Benjamin). The object of Boy’s obsession is despot Hilda (Famke Janssen), who murdered his loved ones in cold blood. The ghost of baby sister Mina (Quinn Copeland) haunts Boy, compelling him to seek revenge.

During a sortie into a village, Boy witnesses Gideon Van Der Koy (Brett Gelman) and brother-in-law Glen (Sharlto Copley) preparing to slaughter more innocent families as part of an annual bloodthirsty ritual known as The Culling. The shaman orders Boy to hold his nerve but the enraged orphan intervenes and becomes a prime target for the Van Der Koy’s private army. Boy prepares to storm Hilda’s stronghold and dole out overdue justice aided by renegades Basho (Andrew Koji) and Benny (Isaiah Mustafa). However, Hilda is protected by her sister Melanie (Michelle Dockery) and masked bodyguard June 27 (Jessica Rothe).

Boy Kills World delights in wanton gore, reducing more than one cranium to crushed bone and brain splatter. Hand-to-hand combat with a certain kitchen implement left me glimpsing bloodshed through trembling fingers. The supporting cast make the most of limited screen time and their underwritten roles to justify the butchery with boo-hiss villainy.

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Challengers (15)

Review: The scoring system of a game of singles tennis dictates both players start a match in love and victory on the court requires forceful breaks of the romantic deadlock. Love in myriad forms is the driving force in Challengers, a sexually charged study of the twisted relationship between two tennis players and the ferociously ambitious young woman who comes between them. Screenwriter and playwright Justin Kuritzkes, husband of Oscar-nominated Past Lives filmmaker Celine Song, serves a tantalising battle of wits between Zendaya, Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor. Their on-screen chemistry sizzles, crescendoing with a steamy encounter in a hotel room that attests to the actors’ unwavering trust in director Luca Guadagnino.

Pulses continually race as the leads lob each other loaded dialogue, like when Faist and O’Connor’s buddies-turned-rivals attempt to intimidate each other in a sauna. One intentionally drops his towel, the other responds with a taunt about who ended up with the girl (“This is a game about winning the points that matter…”) Guadagnino and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom energise on-court action with hyperkinetic camerawork, including dizzying sequences from the ball’s perspective as it ricochets back and forth over the net to repeated thwacks and composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s electronic score.

At the 2006 US Open, teenage best friends and players Art Donaldson (Faist) and Patrick Zweig (O’Connor) mutually obsess over Tashi Donaldson (Zendaya) as she destroys a Russian rival on the court. While Patrick attempts to turn professional, Art follows Tashi to Stanford University, where she suffers a career-ending injury. “Unfortunately, my only skill in life is hitting a ball with a racquet,” she tearfully reflects and Art convinces her to become his coach and wife.

A dip in form ahead of the 2021 US Open, the only title that has eluded Art, convinces Tashi to enter her husband in the Phil’s Tire Town Challenger in New Rochelle. It is one of the lowest ranking events on the men’s tour ahead of Flushing Meadows and Art should breeze through the competition, except Patrick, ranked 201st in the world, is also in the draw.

Challengers contrasts the sweat-drenched exertions of Faist and O’Connor, who look ready to implode with exhaustion by the end of the two hours, with Zendaya’s masterful verbal rallies. As a sports prodigy cruelly halted in her prime, resenting anyone who squanders their talent or mithers about the physical toll, she devours the screen. “You’d have a better shot with a handgun in your mouth,” Tashi coldly informs Patrick about his chances of beating Art in New Rochelle. Fractured chronology shifts the balance of power, keeping us guessing who will fire off the next zinging ace and seize the advantage. As awestruck observers to mounting devastation and smashed racquets, we are the only sure-fire winners. Game, set, love match.

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I.S.S. (15)

Review: Launched in 1998, the International Space Station (ISS) is an enduring symbol of cooperation between major space agencies and signalled an end to the Space Race between Cold War-era America and Russia which dominated the second half of the 20th century. The orbiting structure provides a claustrophobic setting for director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s survival thriller, which rekindles old rivalries above the third rock from the sun following the outbreak of nuclear war. “It does not end well,” remark Pilou Asbaek’s Russian biological engineer, referring to the likely outcome of scientific trials with mice in microgravity.

His conclusion applies equally to I.S.S., a predictable study of paranoia and wilful deception that crudely engineers conflict between characters to ensure a few dead bodies safely contained in the station’s hold. Oscar winner Ariana DeBose plays a soothing voice of reason, who foreshadows her response to conflict when her first-timer in space discusses a recent break-up from an unfaithful girlfriend. “Trust isn’t my strong suit,” she warns. Characters most likely to crack under pressure are telegraphed, making it easy to guess which cast are destined to be lost in the space of Nick Shafir’s script.

Nasa astronauts Kira Foster (DeBose) and Christian Campbell (John Gallagher Jr) travel to the ISS on a Soyuz rocket to join American compatriot Commander Gordon Barrett (Chris Messina) and three Russian cosmonauts, Weronika Vetrov (Masha Mashkova), Nicholai Pulov (Costa Ronin) and his brother Alexey (Asbaek). Kira quickly acclimatises to her new surroundings and stumbles through a few words of Russian. “The important thing is we stick together,” smiles Weronika.

Staring up at Earth from the ISS’s cupola, Kira observes a series of explosions across America and Gordon receives information from Houston of military conflict with the Russians. The ISS has been deemed a priority foothold and Nasa orders the Americans to seize control of the facility “by any means necessary”. Russian cosmonauts receive similar orders before communications are severed and the two sides visibly separate. Tension builds when the astronauts remember the ISS is in a dangerously low orbit to receive supplies from Earth and without support from ground control, the station will crash back down to terra firma.

I.S.S. is a formulaic and mildly suspenseful thriller, which spacewalks alongside the likes of Gravity and Alien with a strong female protagonist problem-solving to stay alive. DeBose isn’t emotionally stretched in that pivotal role, predominantly reacting to signposts in Shafir’s script which are planted during a welcome tour of the station in the opening 15 minutes. Special effects are solid and a brisk flight time just over 90 minutes prevents idle minds from fixating too long on fatal plot holes in spacesuits.

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Scarygirl (PG)

Review: A heavy-handed ecological message about protecting the planet’s dwindling resources underpins a visually ravishing Australian computer-animated fantasy directed by Ricard Cusso and co-directed by Tania Vincent. Adapted from Nathan Jurevicius’s acclaimed graphic novel, Scarygirl is stylised to resemble stop-motion, anchored to a misunderstood teenage heroine who sports an eye patch and has Frankenstein-like stitches to her mouth, recalling one of the madcap creations of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.

There is nothing scary about Arkie (voiced by Jillian Nguyen), a cutesy, anthropomorphic octopus-human hybrid who staves off self-doubt by chanting her mantra: “Nothing to do but to do it!” As inspirational affirmations go, it’s somewhat hesitant and clunky, which sums up Cusso and Vincent’s emotionally underpowered picture. The script lacks the wildly imaginative flourishes of the animators’ palettes, quickly laying the foundations of a dramatically simple quest (the rescue of an abducted parent) to support the title character’s journey of self-discovery and empowerment.

In the tug of war between style and substance, eye-popping visuals consistently win, dulling the impact of a big reveal about the villain’s motivations that should deal a hammer blow to the heart. Nguyen’s warm vocal performance endears us to her plucky protagonist, who is the only fully realised character by the time end credits roll.

Teenage octopus Arkie (Nguyen) lives in seclusion on a peninsula with her father Blister (Rob Collins), who channels magical powers of healing through his tentacles. Arkie is an aspiring inventor but Blister discourages his daughter’s fascination with technology, urging her to become one with nature by manipulating an elaborate system of pulleys and mirrors to harness the sun’s rays and sustain their self-contained coastal ecosystem of insects and plants. Alas, Arkie ignores her father’s advice and one of her mechanised experiments malfunctions, attracting the attention of bounty hunter Chihoohoo (Tim Minchin).

He has been hired by The Keeper (Anna Torv) to capture a giant octopus and spirits Blister away to the City Of Light to be used as the power source for an experiment conducted by grief-stricken scientist Dr Maybee (Sam Neill). Self-proclaimed renaissance rabbit Bunniguru (Remy Hii) and ovoid sidekick Egg (Kate Murphy) offer to accompany Arkie on the long trek to save her father. En route, the intrepid trio stumble upon The Tree Of Knowledge and its cantankerous guardian (Deborah Mailman), revealing a dark secret from Arkie’s past.

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