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I, Tonya

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Hark to the tale of Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), an ice skating prodigy from an impoverished background who endures years of abuse from her mother, Lavona Golden (Allison Janney) and husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) in her pursuit of glory on the ice. Her dreams of Olympic gold are just about realised, too – unfortunately, being implicated in the brutal 1994 attack on rival skater Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) scuppers her career.

Craig Gillespie’s brisk but uneven account of Harding’s life pulls out every tool in the post-modern biopic box, including breaking the fourth wall, unreliable conflicting narrators, a seemingly endless supply of period needle drops and the by-now-ubiquitous footage of the real participants playing over the credits.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to know which tool to use where, meaning he’s frequently using a screwdriver handle to bang in a nail, stretching a metaphor past breaking point. We get the requisite details of Harding’s life, from her early days as a button-cute four year old skating ingenue through her tumultuous personal life, her clashes with the ice skating orthodoxy, her rise and, with the assault on Kerrigan almost accidentally organised by Gillooly and his delusional right hand man, Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), her fall into ignominy. What the film fails to do is imbue these events with any meaning.

The problems stem from the script by Steven Rogers. Tonya, Jeff and Lavona share the bulk of the narration duties (Bobby Cannavale steps in to fill in the gaps as a muckraking journalist), but the film puts us so deep in Tonya’s corner that any pretense that the views we’re presented with are balanced or of equal value is ludicrous. Really, it’s right there in the title – this is I, Tonya, not Rashomon On Ice, and we are heavily encouraged to take her account at face value – the presence of other accounts, especially from characters portrayed as the villains of the piece, is baffling. We’re given no insight into the inner lives of any of the other players; everyone bar Tonya is opaque.

At times this leads to some questionable omissions. The film understandably focuses on the Kerrigan attack, and rightly so – it was a massive scandal that captivated the media of the time. Here, Kerrigan is almost a bystander to her own story, relegated to a few brief appearances and Harding’s assertion that they were actually friends – a claim left unexplored.

That relationship is not the only road not taken here. While arguably an account of talent hammered flat on the anvil of circumstance, I, Tonya takes a shallow and arguably glib view of the milieu in which Harding was raised. Much is made of how this girl from the wrong side of the tracks is ostracised by the ice skating community, to the point of judges docking her points during competitions, but no attempt is made to really take into account the real cost, psychological and situational, of the life lived. Gillespie’s chosen tone is black comedy, frequently straying into farce, and the film treats so many of the tangible details of lower working class life – the clothes, the decor, the food, the attitudes – as fodder for jokes and objects of ridicule. At times, this even extends to the shocking amount of domestic violence and emotional abuse Tonya endures on screen at the hands of both her husband and mother. Narratively, remarkably little is done to measure the impact of the beatings, yelling, and general day-to-horrors heaped upon our heroine.

Performance-wise it’s another story altogether, and if anything what lifts I, Tonya out of mid-range biopic territory are the fantastic turns by Janney and Robbie. The reliably excellent Janney crafts a fascinatingly loathsome character in Levona, a bitter, unavailable, endlessly cold and cruel woman whose relationship with her daughter remains maddeningly impossible to quantify. There’s an expectation in this sort of thing for the other shoe to drop, for a late stage revelation of the heart of gold generally hidden under the rough hide of a tough mentor figure – we get none of that here. Attempts to dig into Lavona’s depths just reveal colder, harder terrain – it’s difficult to recall a more singularly loathsome figure in recent cinema history.

And then there’s Robbie’s Harding. Robbie leaves it all out on the field here, unafraid to make her Tonya abrasive, naive, at times bitchy and cruel – but also driven, vulnerable, and frequently lonely. Her prickly demeanour is armour and, given the people she’s surrounded by, it’s not hard to understand the reason for its existence. It’s a stellar turn; in being willing to risk being unlikable, Robbie makes Harding relatable, and the fact that she is endlessly fascinating in the film is all down to her work, not the script’s. Robbie’s Harding is so watchable that we remain engaged with her story even after she is denied almost all agency for the last third of the film, being propelled along by the mechanisms of plot rather than her own choices. It’s a great, great performance – imagine what she could do with a great script.

Ultimately, I, Tonya is a three star film buoyed by a couple of five star turns. That Janney and especially Robbie bring the thunder here is a tribute to them, not the material ,which does nothing of much interest with either Harding’s life or the biopic form. It’s a shame these shining performances don’t have a better setting, but perhaps they shine just that bit brighter by contrast.

 
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The Death of Stalin

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Despite his exotic name (from his Italian father), writer/director Armando Iannucci is Scottish. He is a huge cult to those who share his deliciously vicious and richly-dialogued comedies. He is the brains behind Veep, In the Loop and The Thick of It. That list alone will be enough to have a lot of people lining up to see his recent foray into cinema. The other thing this film has is a fantastic ensemble cast of comedic and theatrical talents (Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin, Rupert Friend, Jeffrey Tambor and half a dozen other recognisable faces). Clearly, casting agents would have no problem persuading actors to work with this material.

It is set in Moscow. The year is 1953 and the feared peasant-tyrant Stalin is still terrorising all and sundry. His ‘court’ consists of those remaining Bolsheviks who have managed to toady their way into not being shot or sent to Siberia. They loathe and fear Beria (Russell Beale), Stalin’s chief spy and torturer who has the dirt on all of them. When Stalin has a stroke, Khrushchev (Buscemi) leads the crazed politburo in a madcap attempt to orchestrate the state funeral whilst out-manoeuvring each other’s schemes.

The film has some genuinely hilarious set ups and a nice mixture of farce and other styles of comedy. The banter between the players is expertly delivered and the author’s placing of the killer one-liner is much in evidence. The tradition of satirising the absurdities of Stalinism is a well-worn path of course. It has been done for decades, not least by many Russian and Eastern European playwrights and directors who lived through that era. That said, there are some aspects of Stalin and Beria’s cruelties that are so vile that it is hard to keep up the mask of comedy. Russell Beale has the range to cover all of this, of course, and he gives us a Beria worth hating. Still, the overall tone of the film is of an insane ride through an insane time. As one of the characters remarks, “I have had nightmares that made more sense than this.” That says it all.

 
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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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Anyone familiar with the work of writer/director Martin McDonagh – in particular, his movies In Bruges (2008) and Seven Psychopaths (2012) – will be aware of his signature style of dark humour, bleak storylines and use of profane language paired with ultra-violence.

The British/Irish screenwriter and film director is also renowned as a playwright, especially for The Beauty Queen of Leenane (1996), The Cripple of Inishmaan (1997), and The Lieutenant of Inishmore (2001). His plays have been produced all over the world, including Australia.

His newest Hollywood film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, offers everything you might expect and more. It delves deeper into the darkest recesses of the human psyche than most storytellers dare to go, and the result is uproariously funny as well as disturbing and utterly harrowing.

Frances McDormand is superb as the central protagonist within an equally all-star ensemble that includes Woody Harrelson, John Hawkes, and Peter Dinklage. Also, McDonagh has cast three of the fine actors he used for Seven Psychopaths – Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, and Abbie Cornish. Caleb Landry Jones is remarkable as a key supporting character Red, the savvy salesman who arranges the rental of the titular billboards.

McDormand plays Mildred Hayes. We learn that several months earlier her daughter was raped and murdered in an especially gruesome way. McDonagh does not spare us any of the details. Frustrated by the lack of police action, she sets out to provoke a response from the town officials and from the townspeople themselves. She wants justice at any cost. But her incensed activism does have a cost – on everyone, including herself and her high schooler son Robbie played by Lucas Hedges (known for Moonrise Kingdom and Manchester by the Sea). Despite her escalating extreme behaviour, McDonagh ensures we are in step with Mildred’s fury throughout.

Exquisitely crafted, McDonagh’s story is set in a US Midwest town small enough that everyone knows each other’s business, yet large enough that not everyone knows each other by sight – a device that allows for McDonagh to maximise his drama at every opportunity.

The film is populated by authentic and well-rounded characters, from the sympathetic police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) – the main subject of her ire – to his dunderheaded colleague, the clearly incompetent and openly racist police officer Jason Dixon, played perfectly with on-point character detail by Sam Rockwell.

Around the one-hour mark – the midpoint – the movie plummets off a cliff into far darker territory than anticipated. Everything that follows is far from predictable, and therefore has you squirming uncomfortably in your seat with each new outrage.

This is a movie that illuminates the multifarious despicable ways that humans treat each other, and yet there are occasional flashes of decency offered by way of contrast or respite. The accusatory speech Mildred fires at the local priest forms a gratifying and triumphant moment – her “Crips and the Bloods” speech. The “orange juice” scene in the hospital may render you gutted thanks to its unexpected grace within a series of horrendous episodes. There’s a lot to admire about this film; not just its unflinching stance, but also its crumbs of redemption.

Click here for nationwide movie times for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

 
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Murder on the Orient Express

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It’s 1934 and a disparate cast of characters are traveling by train from Istanbul to Paris, among them famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh). After the train is stopped by a rockslide on the tracks during a snowstorm, a fellow passenger, the shady Mr Ratchett (Johnny Depp), is found stabbed to death in his locked compartment, and Poirot is presented with the challenge of divining who the killer is. The truth is, of course, much stranger than he could anticipate.

Agatha Christie’s classic novel was famously filmed by Sidney Lumet back in ’74, and it’s kind of incredible that it has taken this long for another big screen version to be mounted. It’s a nigh-perfect basis for a film, offering a clear narrative goal, an interesting location, and – most importantly – a panoply of intriguing and eccentric roles just begging to be brought to life by a talented company of character actors.

Which is exactly what we get here, although the line between “character actor”, “rising star” and “dear God, it’s Johnny Depp” is blurry. What we do get is (deep breath) Michell Pfeiffer as a husband-hunting American widow, Judi Dench as an imperious Russian princess, Olivia Colman as her long-suffering maid, Josh Gad as the alcoholic secretary to the murdered man, Derek Jacobi as the victim’s valet, Penelope Cruz as a devout missionary, Daisy Ridley as a governess, Willem Dafoe as an Austrian professor, Leslie Odom Jr. as a doctor, and  more. They’re all uniformly great (yes, even Depp), and are clearly having a ball, embracing director Branagh’s heightened, theatrical take on the material.

Branagh is, of course, Poirot, and why not? He is, after all, the director’s favourite actor. If everyone present is having fun, Branagh is having the most fun as Christie’s famous and fastidious flatfoot, sporting one of the greatest mustaches in cinematic history giving full play to Poirot’s suite of tics and quirks. It’s such a great role, and Branagh manages the rather neat balancing act of making Poirot brilliant and heroic but at the same time fussy and funny, a strange little man driven to try and correct a world made imperfect by crime and carelessness.

As a director, Branagh revels in the sumptuous details and textures of his setting – the polished brass and rich, dark wood of the train carriages, gleaming in the lamplight; the clean, blinding white drifts of snow outside; the luxurious fabrics of the costumes; the hair, the make up and accessories of his characters. It’s the James Bond model in microcosm, cinema as luxury tourism, showing us an aspirational world we can’t really afford to visit except for a couple of hours at a time. Branagh also doesn’t let the location limit him too much in terms of his camerawork – our point of view is always on the move, tracking down carriages, swooping overhead, pushing in to highlight tangible details. Orient Express is absolutely worth catching on theatrical release; while it may not fit the current tentpole model, it is a timely reminder that it’s not just explosions and spectacle that benefit from the cinema.

Plus, it’s a really good time. For all that it deals with murder and (slight spoiler from an 80 year old book) conspiracy, there’s something quite cosy and comforting in Christie’s story, and that translates perfectly here. The solution to the mystery is pretty well known by this stage of the game, but we don’t necessarily go to these things to be surprised, any more than we go to see Hamlet expecting to be scared by the ghost of the King. Rather, the joy is in seeing how these familiar narrative forms are being re-interpreted by a new set of creatives. Branagh never colours outside of the lines on this one, and that’s fine – this is a respectful romp through one of literature’s most famous mysteries, and well worth your time.

Click here for nationwide movie times for Murder on the Orient Express

 

 
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Jungle

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After years of terrifying international audiences via the Wolf Creek films and TV series (along with similarly horrific detours like Rogue, The Darkness, and The Belko Experiment), Australian director, Greg McLean, takes a hard-left out of genre filmmaking with Jungle, but crafts something just as unsettling as his previous cinematic bloodbaths. While there are no serial killers or supernatural entities, this internationally-flavoured local production boasts a truly dangerous “villain” in the form of the eponymous wilds of Bolivia, a place of unrivaled savagery that McLean can’t help but apply his horror filmmaker’s instincts to. The results are chilling, harrowing, and occasionally near puke-inducing.

Based on the true life book by Yossi Ghinsberg, this gut-churning tale of survival is worthy of placement next to the highly impressive likes of Into The Wild, Deliverance, Wild, 127 Hours, and Alive. In a richly physical and immensely sympathetic performance, Daniel Radcliffe (whose continuing quest for challenging roles doesn’t receive nearly as much praise as it should) is superb as Ghinsberg, a young man travelling the world in the early 1980s, against the better wishes of his strict parents.

In the insular backpacking community of Bolivia, he meets two new friends in robust American, Kevin Gale (an excellent Alex Russell) and sensitive Swiss teacher, Marcus Stamm (a fine turn from rising Aussie star, Joel Jackson). Thirsty for adventure and new experiences, they take up the unlikely offer of enigmatic adventurer, Karl Ruprechter (played with an imaginative streak of the unpredictable by Thomas Kretschmann), to head into the jungle in search of a lost tribe of Indians, and perhaps a little gold along the way. But once in the wild, the three travelers soon start to question the credentials of their guide, and then realise how enormous and truly horrifying the jungle that surrounds them truly is.

Just as nervous urban-bound horror filmmakers have found treachery and evil in the backwater towns of America and the dark unknown of Europe (and, of course, the Australian outback), Greg McLean locates terror in the jungles of the Amazon. Yes, we’ve seen this winding, tangled river used as the backdrop for the gruesome likes of Cannibal Holocaust and The Green Inferno, but the nightmare of Jungle is much more real and far less sensationalist. Never have bug infestations, starvation, dehydration, pounding rain, wild river rapids, fire ants, and blistered feet registered with such force and fury – McLean grinds the gore here with admirable aplomb, giving Jungle the kind of kick that a non-genre filmmaker wouldn’t even have considered. But he’s in touch with his characters too, and as we endure the horrors of the jungle with them, the film soars in strange and unexpected ways. A survival film that marches to the delirious beat of its own hallucinogenic drum, Jungle bows inventively before the bad guy to end all bad guys: Mother Nature.

Click here for nationwide movie times for Jungle.

 
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Detroit

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There’s no getting around it: Detroit, the latest offering from director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty)  is a tough watch. The entire middle third of the film, some 40 minutes, is an extended sequence of interrogation and torture, book-ended by murder. Under the leadership of a cold-eyed uniformed cop, Philip Krauss (Will Poulter), a group of Detroit Police, Michigan State Police, and National Guardsmen try to get a group of civilians – black men and two young, white women – to hand over a gun and the man that was using it.

There is no gun. The authorities don’t believe them. Or they don’t care. Or they need there to be a gun, to shield themselves from recriminations. It doesn’t matter. Caught in the frame of cinematographer Barry Ackroyd’s jittery, roving cameras, there’s nowhere to hide. It’s an incredibly tense scene, more horrible than horror, and it really happened.

Detroit is based on the Algiers Motel Incident that took place in 1967 during Detroit’s 12th Street Riot, when angry African Americans took to the streets in response to a police raid on an illegal after hours club. The street violence and paramilitary response will be familiar to anyone who saw footage of the LA riots after the Rodney King verdict – indeed, seeing handwritten signs in the windows of businesses proclaiming them to be black-owned is a jarring sight – and the causes and tensions are remarkably similar: economic disenfranchisement, ghettoisation, a smouldering sense of injustice, white cops, black civilians.

Bigelow and Boal force us to look at these parallels, refusing to consign Detroit to the rather safe and separate category of historical fiction, even though it is set almost precisely 50 years ago. The militarised police presence, the fires in the streets, the barred windows and fearful faces we’re confronted with again and again – swap out the fashions and the music and very little has changed. Intriguingly and perhaps depressingly, a look at Bigelow’s 1995 sci-fi film Strange Days, which boasts similar imagery, gives you the sense that she doesn’t think it’s going to change any time soon, either.

Perhaps that’s why Detroit sketches its scenario and characters so quickly and economically – we don’t need a lot of breadcrumbs to get us where we need to be, in the annex of the Algiers Motel, because what we’re going to see there has already happened, will happen again, is happening now. A brightly animated prologue, done in the style of late 20th century African American street art, sketches the economic and social situation for us, then we’re briskly and efficiently introduced to our key players: security guard Melvin Desmukes (John Boyega), tasked with guarding a nearby store from looters and a man used to defusing both black and white aggression; Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and The Dramatics, a black singing group who take shelter at the Algiers after their gig is shut down in the face of the riots; Julie Ann (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), white party girls staying at the motel; and Greene (Anthony Mackie), recently returned from Vietnam and staying at the Algiers while looking for work.

Things kick off when Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell) another man staying at the Algiers, decides, playfully, provocatively, stupidly, to fire a starter pistol out the window to scare some nearby cops and guardsmen. What follows has the tragic inevitability of an incoming tsunami. Not that the film lets anyone off the hook – individual choices and morals still matter, but the events are positioned in such a way that we understand that each person here is on the leading edge of titanic social forces, being either ground to a mean point or irreparably broken.

But all that is abstract – what matters in the moment is the cruelty, the callousness, the violence and the fear, which is wrought in an absolutely scarring way. It’s worth reflecting on one of the key early scenes in Bigelow and Boal’s Zero Dark Thirty, where Jason Clarke’s interrogator puts the hard word on a terrorist suspect while Jessica Chastain’s CIA analyst looks on. That film was accused of endorsing torture; Detroit puts you in the shoes of the tortured, and it doesn’t let you out.

Worse, it offers little in the way of catharsis, which will frustrate some viewers. Justice is not done, and the film offers no pat moments of false triumph to salve us as we exit the theatre. We’re left in a state of anger, confusion, and moral outrage – and that’s as it should be, because this stuff is still happening, and we know it. Detroit is a simply extraordinary and uncompromising film, and if it’s almost unbearably punishing as a result, that’s because it needs to be to drive its point home. Absolutely unmissable.

Click here for nationwide movie times for Detroit  

 
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It

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It

It is an enormous 1,138 page novel from Maine’s maestro of the macabre, Stephen King. It was released in 1986 and remains one of the most iconic horror novels of all time. It spans eras, time, dimensions and, frankly, is close to unadaptable. That hasn’t stopped people from trying, mind you.

In 1990 the US ABC network had a crack with a 3+ hour miniseries that was released in other territories as a really long “movie”. It featured a bloodless, bare bones retelling of the book’s biggest beats – but was too truncated and toothless to capture the menace and suspense of the novel. Although Tim Curry was fun as the villain.

In 2009 director of the “good season” of True Detective, Cary Fukunaga, attempted an ambitious take on the book that ultimately fell through due to that most nefarious Hollywood monster, “creative differences”.

That brings us to 2017. It, directed by Andrés Muschietti (Mama) is finally here, and the result is likely to have Stephen King fans and general audiences alike riveted. After 31 long, grumpy years they finally made an It adaptation worthy of the source material.

For those who haven’t made the literary journey into King’s masterpiece, It tells the tale of a group of kids – a self described “Loser’s Club” – who live in the strange and eerie town of Derry, Maine. Children have been disappearing in Derry and when Bill Denbrough’s (Jaeden Lieberher) little brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) is taken by something lurking in the sewers, it begins an adventure that is part coming of age story/part unrelenting horror rollercoaster.

From the arm-ripping opening sequence It lets you know it’s not fucking around. This is a horror movie with a capital “H” and isn’t trying to pretend otherwise. Bill Skarsgård delivers an eerie performance as the main form of the titular menace, Pennywise the Dancing Clown. His drooling, wall-eyed Pennywise manages to straddle the line between absurdity and fear; making him a fascinating monster to watch.

The Losers are also fantastic for the most part, with superb takes on the characters of Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard) and Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer). Of course with a cast this large some characters get short shrift, and sadly Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) feels relegated to a near cameo, with most of his character work given to Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), which will have ardent fans of the book baffled.

While we’re talking negatives it has to be said that not all of the horror beats land. There’s a sense that director Andrés Muschietti really wants to make sure everyone in the damn audience is scared, so he’ll often machine gun the horror right into your face, noisily and prolifically. That said, when it does land it does so beautifully, often cleverly juxtaposed with a moment of laugh out loud humour or genuine pathos.

It is not a perfect adaptation. At 135 minutes It is long for a movie and yet doesn’t even cover 50% of the book. While the book becomes a strange, surreal tale of interdimensional chaos, the movie veers more towards a pulpy popcorn horror experience. The good news is: it’s a really bloody good pulpy, popcorn experience.

Ultimately It is a big, ballsy, crowd-pleasing monster movie with wonderful characters, creative scares and a sense of style and place that anchors the tall tale. It’s dense with wonderful little touches, stylish flourishes and pathos that actually works. Put simply, It is very likely to be the best wide release horror movie of 2017 and the best executed Stephen King adaptation in a long damn time.

 
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The Go-Betweens: Right Here

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“There were no hits,” singer/songwriter, Robert Forster, says emphatically of his group, The Go-Betweens. “We didn’t have any hit songs.” No case of false modesty, The Go-Betweens indeed failed to crack the Top 40, despite making appearances on Countdown and inspiring collective swoons from the local music press. But proving (again) that commercial success and true artistry rarely go hand in hand, many of their songs – most notably “Cattle And Cane” and “Streets Of Your Town” – are now justifiably part of the Australian lexicon.

While the band’s (formed by Forster and fellow songwriter, Grant McLennan, in Brisbane in the late ’70s) music is deceptively simple, their tortured, angst-ridden history is deeply, heatedly complex. Refusing to play to its more sensationalist qualities, busy director, Kriv Stenders (Boxing Day, Red Dog, Lucky Country, Australia Day), crafts this melancholy story into wonderfully cohesive and richly intimate documentary form with The Go-Betweens: Right Here.

Mixing starkly shot talking head interviews (irreverent music journo and friend of the band, Clinton Walker, steals the show) with artful recreations and stylish bridging visuals, along with vintage interviews and music clips, the story of The Go-Betweens: Right Here – in which two friends innocently form a band while at university, and eventually fall prey to ego, booze, drugs, and complicated relationships – is a familiar one, it’s also entertainingly perverse. Like a far less successful ABBA or Fleetwood Mac, the internal romantic machinations of The Go-Betweens are the stuff of legend, with the relationship of Forster and the band’s drummer, Lindy Morrison (a truly unusual and endearing figure), crumbling, only to be replaced by the equally intense coupling of McLennan and the group’s gifted violinist, Amanda Brown.

Stenders is obviously fascinated by these wonderfully eccentric characters and their fractious entanglements, but he’s also compelled by the complex nature of creativity and collaboration, and he incisively works these two central strands together seamlessly. Refreshingly, Stenders is far less interested in McLennan’s dalliances with drugs and alcohol, and his sad, curious death at the age of just 48 from a heart attack. Though less astute directors would opportunistically hone in on these more sordid story points, Stenders knows that there’s even more interesting stuff going on elsewhere, and cannily avoids merely making another doco about a muso who falls to the sway of narcotics and drops way before his time. With wit, warmth, and a lovingly bent sense of pathos, The Go-Betweens: Right Here digs through the surface details, and gets right to the battered heart of one of Australia’s most important and under-valued bands.

 
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Terminator 2: Judgement Day 3D

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In 1991 director James Cameron unleashed Terminator 2: Judgement Day on an unsuspecting world. If you weren’t alive – or just too young to be aware of films at the time – you should know the effect on cinema was seismic and indelible. T2 redefined what action movies were capable of, set a new standard for storytelling in genre cinema and showcased a director (Cameron) and actors (Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton) at the height of their powers.

Cut to 2017 and cue the limited release of Terminator 2 in 3D. While you may question the need for the re-release there’s no doubt time has been extraordinarily kind to the movie. Time and James Cameron remastering the film for a crisp 4K print, that is.

The plot may not have the dark poetry of the original The Terminator (1984), but the story of young John Connor (Edward Furlong), his damaged but fearless mother, Sarah (Linda Hamilton) and reprogrammed, protector T-800 aka “Uncle Bob” (Arnold Schwarzenegger) remains engaging and surprisingly layered. The screenplay contains not one single wasted beat – which is impressive for a movie that clocks in at a hefty 137 minutes – and the action is of a quality that’s damn near timeless. In fact the only jarring moments that occur are with the use of then-groundbreaking CGI, which looks like a low res screensaver now, and “cool” 90s slang, which was always a bit rubbish to be honest.

The one dud note in the whole enterprise is the 3D, which isn’t bad per se, but doesn’t add much to the proceedings – except in the future war opening and Sarah Connor’s still-harrowing nuclear strike dream. Still, if 3D is the price that needs to be paid to get a stone cold classic like T2 back in the cinema, it seems a small one.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day was a great film when it was released 26 years ago and remains a great film today. If you’ve never seen it on the big screen, or want to experience it properly again, head to the cinema in the week starting August 24. Before Skynet becomes sentient.

 
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Atomic Blonde

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By this stage of the game describing Charlize Theron’s turn in Atomic Blonde as a female James Bond is a bit of a cliche, but it’s just going to have to do. It’s not all the killing and seducing, mind you – well not only that – but the sheer ruthlessness that she approaches the task of tracking down a stolen list of undercover agents* and avenging a deceased former lover along the way. There’s more than a touch of Connery- or even Dalton-era 007 on display here, and while the hyper-kinetic, high impact action sequences assembled by director David Leitch might bring to mind Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne, Theron’s Lorraine Broughton is never so sympathetic. She’s a stone killer, an unapologetic cold-hearted bitch with only the faintest sliver of humanity shining through to differentiate her from the other spies, assassins and bagmen swarming the sharply-delineated shadows of Berlin circa 1989.

It’s a bold and brilliant decision – a quick run through the mental Rolodex only brings up Linda Fiorentino’s turn in The Last Seduction as a comparable female protagonist, and even then Fiorentino’s sociopathic seductress wasn’t capable of kicking seven shades out of whatever goons might be unfortunate enough to cross her eyeline. Theron’s ice-eyed secret agent is more than up to the job, and does so at pretty much any given opportunity. Director Leitch, who co-directed John Wick with Chad Stahelski, pulls out all the stops here, staging a number of utterly brutal, utterly beautiful action setpieces, including one eight minute sequence captured in a single handheld shot that is going to be the key after-viewing talking point for most audiences.

Another hand to hand scrap takes place inside a cinema screening of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which is a nice tip of the hat and an indicator of Atomic Blonde‘s other key trait – for all its brutality and amorality, it’s a rather playful bit of business. It’s a riff, a pose, an echo, filled with alt-pop ’80s hits (New Order, David Bowie, Nene, even Ministry and Siouxsie and the Banshees). The film’s universe of spies and tough guys isn’t meant to reflect our own in any way beyond what’s necessary to anchor suspension of disbelief. Indeed, perhaps it’s not Bond we should looking to as a touchstone, but Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita, which exists in a similar hyper-violent, fantastical modern urban milieu.

Yes, there’s a bit of lip service paid to the cost of life in the secret services and the blurred lines and loyalties thereof – mostly personified by James McAvoy’s perverse and duplicitous rogue agent – but that’s all just part of the affectation. At the end of the day, Atomic Blonde is all about doing cool things and looking cool while doing them, whether it’s decimating a squad of unfortunate German cops, bedding Sofia Boutella’s sexy French agent, or running a gauntlet of hired killers in a desperate final dash for the border. Yes, it’s all surface and no substance, but when the surface is this darn pretty, what does it matter?

*yes, that old chestnut.