Playful arthouse epic ‘Beau is Afraid’ offers a challenge; ‘The Giants’ a fine bio-doc on Bob Brown; ‘Evil Dead Rise’ a resounding horror dud

Man on the edge: Joaquin Phoenix is all messed up in ‘Beau is Afraid’.

BEAU IS AFRAID *** (179 minutes) R
Those sturdy souls who consider themselves hardcore cineastes should take notice and strap themselves in for the endurance test challenge issued by writer/director Ari Aster.

Having served up fine fare with Hereditary (2018) and Midsommar (2019), Aster now delivers unto discerning arthouse ghouls Beau is Afraid, an epic black comedy that seeks to tease, titillate, confound, confuse and bewilder in equal measure. Think of it as an art movie adventure.

Proving again what a risk-loving actor he is, Joaquin Phoenix is a ball of nerves and insecurity as Beau, a lowly paranoid city dweller consumed by fear of a hostile world apparently designed to give him as hard a time as possible.

The film’s very funny, semi-surreal opening hour follows Beau’s efforts to leave his cruddy apartment so he can visit his mother, but this is not a person Dame Fortune looks upon with any kindness or compassion.

A bizarre circumstance transports him from the nightmarish urban streetscape surrounding his apartment to a comfortable home in the woods, where a kindly couple (Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan) help him recover having hit him with their van.

Yet more bizarre circumstances send Beau running deep into the surrounding forest where he encounters a theatre-loving hippie-like commune, not knowing he is being pursued by a crazed war veteran with a tracking device.

It’s wildly unbalanced, as all good art is, veering from comedy to drama and back again, sometimes within the one scene as the film dives into Beau’s relationship with his mother, which is singularly tortured.

To say Beau is Afraid will mainly appeal to those with a deep love of eccentric, unpredictable, counter-intuitive arthouse cinema is an understatement.

It’s easy to see how some might find it infuriating and pretentious, yet Aster’s wily use of humour and playful approach to pacing as he switches tones without warning will engage and entertain those willing to surrender to its intrigues and abrupt narrative detours.

In terms of length it could be argued that, yeah, it might be 30 minutes over the line. For instance there’s a prolonged animated sequence that, while beautiful to behold, could probably have been excised without diminishing the film all that much.

Phoenix is typically terrific, providing a piercing study of a man continually harangued by happenstance as Beau traverses a psychologically thorny landscape hoping to find some measure of peace in a world determined to deprive him of it.

Controversial politician Bob Brown is profiled in the bio-doc ‘The Giants’.

THE GIANTS *** (113 minutes) M
Regardless of what you think of his politics or personal style, it’s hard to watch the excellent bio-documentary The Giants without feeling, however begrudgingly, an enhanced sense of appreciation for the life and work of Bob Brown, the Tasmanian Greens politician who succeeded against huge odds in bringing the welfare of the Tasmanian wilderness into the world spotlight.

There’s no voiceover narration, the story being told via interviews and archival news footage tracking Brown’s public and personal life, his tentative step into the slippery world of politics launching him into an historic head-on battle against giant corporate interests and for the hearts and minds of Australians who barely knew of Tasmania’s fragile forests.

Brown’s experiences as a gay person growing up in an unenlightened world are also profiled, his eventual marriage bookending a personal journey that endured much prejudice and witnessed much change.

An absorbing portrait, the film is clearly designed as both a celebration of Brown’s life and achievements and as a call to arms for the environmental movement he created.

Still, for all its obvious bias, directors Laurence Billiet & Rachel Antony wisely include some critical notes, including Brown’s heckling of US President George W Bush, and his subsequent rebuke from a young, impressively hirsute Peter Dutton.

Climbing the walls in the horror dud ‘Evil Dead Rise’.

EVIL DEAD RISE * (96 minutes) R
A bloody mess, both literally and figuratively, Evil Dead Rise does a comprehensively lousy job trying to recapture the blood-soaked, low-rent hijinks of the horror franchise that began in 1981 with the Sam Raimi original, followed by two playful sequels (1987, 1992) and a 2013 remake, which wasn’t bad.

Unlike the tripe served up here.

Trying to raise three kids in a slum of an apartment in LA, Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland) gets a far-from-welcome visit from her sister Beth (Lily Sullivan).

The unkempt and mismanaged state of the apartment building extends to its bowels where, of course, there’s book full of evil powers that unleashes demonic entities that possess souls making people do wild and violent things, and so forth.

There’s blood and dismemberment and evisceration all over the shop, which would have been fine had it been deployed with any style or tension or wit. Sadly, that’s not the case here as the blood-smeared cast run about in the confines of the apartment building, screaming and slashing away with chainsaws and other assorted implements.

You’d need to be a very undemanding splatter tragic indeed to forgive the film’s sheer tedium and repetition. If anything, the film appears out-of-step with the ingenuity and novelty of the new-wave horror movies we’ve seen recently (X; Pearl; Smile; Barbarian; Black Phone; Fresh; Sissy; etc).

Produced by Sam Raimi and original Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell, Evil Dead Rise was written and directed by Irish filmmaker Lee Cronin who aims for gasps yet, despite an obvious love for old-school horror, manages to rouse only yawns.