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Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears

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Crypt of Tears opens with Phryne Fisher (Essie Davis) in colonial British Palestine freeing a young Bedouin woman (Izabella Yena) unjustly captive in a Jerusalem prison. A journey of exotic intrigue follows, slipping out sexy little pocket pistols in opportune moments (and there’s many) as she zigzags her way across Jerusalem, London, Melbourne and the deserts of Negev, uncovering a ten-year war mystery complete with a missing emerald, ancient curses, double murder and the suspicious disappearance of a Bedouin family tribe.

Essie Davis not so much reprises the role of Phryne Fisher but embodies it, and half the thrill of watching our stylish jazz age sleuth is her character’s natural inclinations to take death-defying risks. On the silver screen, it’s magnified ten-fold to the delight of audience members.

Nathan Page, from the original series, is Detective Inspector Robinson and now Phryne’s estranged love interest who reluctantly bands with her to solve the case and suspend the romantic tension throughout. Recurring cast members, Miriam Margolyes and Ashley Cummings return with Daniel Lapaine, Jacqueline McKenzie and Rupert Penry-Jones joining the cast as toffy-nosed British aristocrats entangling themselves in the thrill-a-minute crime caper. John Waters also makes an appearance as a cheeky professor.

As a classic whodunit with exotic locations, exquisite sets, comical camels and actors in lavish costumes working to an occasional slapstick script, Crypt of Tears is the perfect follow-up to a fun and much-loved series.

 
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Dolittle

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With the world having just recovered from the disturbing hyper-sexualised feline imagery seen in Cats, there is a collective sigh of relief at the impressive visuals exhibited in CGI adventure-film Dolittle.

Unfortunately, that might be where the excitement stops for parents who endure this superficial retelling.

In an unexpected turn from director Stephen Gaghan, the filmmaker responsible for heavy dramas such as Traffic and Syriana, Dolittle offers a closer to the source material adaptation of Hugh Lofting’s beloved series of children’s novels.

Robert Downey Jr. takes the mantle of the titular physician who can walk, talk, grunt and squeak and squawk with the animals.

When first on-screen, the audience is greeted by a dishevelled Dolittle rocking a mop of hair and beard so intense that he looks somewhere between a prehistoric caveman and an inner city barista.

Turning his back on humankind following a great tragedy, Dolittle finds solace in isolation. He retreats from the world by locking the doors of Dolittle manor; a picturesque animal sanctuary filled with gadgets, gizmos and giraffes.

Through Dolittle’s eyes, people pose the greatest threat to animals, with the gifted doctor taking umbrage with hunting, sharing his indignation with reformed-hunter and newly appointed apprentice Stubbins (Harry Collett), and forming a close-knit bond with a slew of animals which he can communicate with.

Forced into solving the case of the poisoned Queen of England (Jessie Buckley in a lifeless role), Downey Jr. and the menagerie of animals must trail the high seas and rescue an antidote from the mysterious Eden Tree; an artefact located somewhere in the ocean.

The gang faces many threats during their swashbuckling ship-trip, the likes of which include facing a gold tooth tiger with familial issues (Ralph Fiennes), the return of a jealous rival (Michael Sheen), and a rugged pirate with a score to settle (Antonio Banderas). Dolittle’s adventure may take place on the ocean, but (wait for it) the real journey starts from within, as Dolittle begins to connect back to humanity.

The camera momentarily shivers when transitioning from animal to English, making for a modestly smooth, albeit absurd, language changeover. Downey Jr. goes all-in on the horseplay. He wobbles through the film displaying a range of emotions that verges on space-headed to bittersweet. The retired Iron Man does all this while attempting to impersonate a Scottish accent; aiming for Mrs Doubtfire but winds up being a shakier British accent than the one he displayed in Sherlock Holmes.

The film’s high concept approach to storytelling remains considerate to the families that will be spending their holidays in the cinema. Gaghan risks not over-stirring the pot and uses the antics of these peculiar creatures – the likes including an anxious gorilla (Rami Malek), a sock wearing ostrich (Kumail Nanjiani), a dude-bro polar bear (John Cena), a no-nonsense parrot (Emma Thompson), and a spectacles-wearing pooch (Tom Holland) – to create a stream of mild chuckles throughout the film’s 100-minute length.

Alas, the spectacle required to keep Dolittle afloat is never fully realised. Gaghan proves unwilling to go over-the-top in the stakes department; a sign of a studio lacking confidence in a product whose ongoing release pushbacks now finds it setting sail into the doldrums of January cinema-going. The message of compassion at the centre of the film never fully forms. Instead, RDJ channels sad eyes through his emotive baby-blues before being interrupted by an animal making an unimaginative joke about doing animal things.

The VFX team do an impeccable job bringing the animals to life; however, the film’s lowbrow sense of humour reduces the elegance of the visuals. Outside of the occasional crack of laughter, probably delivered through a cringe-inducing pun that will have every father in the cinema reciting it back to his kids at home, Dolittle will do little for the adults in the room. That said, littlies should take to the variety of bumbling creatures and their monkey-business.

 
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Burning Kiss

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Most Aussie thrillers (think Chopper, The Hard Word, Mystery Road, The Square, Animal Kingdom, Cut Snake and so forth) wear their earthy grittiness like a battered coat of arms, going into battle in the name of straightforward, truthful-leaning storytelling and triumphing valiantly. The low budget effort Burning Kiss, however, is interested in armour of a far shinier, way more colourful bent. This film finds its antecedents in the world of pop art, French crime cinema, and the garish American B-movie rather than in the headlines of local newspapers or the reminiscences of real life criminals. Debut feature writer/director Robbie Studsor announces himself as a filmmaker with a true fascination for overt stylisation with Burning Kiss, offering up an audacious concoction built on expressionistic visuals and unlikely effects cooked up in post.

The film kicks off with ex-cop Edmond Bloom (Richard Mellick), an embittered aesthete left crippled by the car crash that killed his wife six years prior. Searching for the person responsible for the crash under the watchful eye of his messed up daughter, Charlotte (Alyson Walker), Edmond has become consumed by the events of his past. But when mysterious drifter Max Woods (Liam Graham) lands on his doorstep, Edmond is suddenly jarred into the present, and Charlotte soon finds herself caught between the two men.

While the plotting lists a little, Burning Kiss scores major points through its sheer audacity. Studsor ramps up his visuals to often surreal heights, with shots that wouldn’t look out of place on an inner city gallery wall. It’s heady stuff, and when coupled with Studsor’s purple prose and primal storytelling, it makes Burning Kiss a highly unusual and memorable criminal rendezvous.

 
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Emma

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There is no shortage of public scowling directed towards female-centric entertainment – just ask any fans of the Kardashians or the Twilight saga.

Regardless of your stance on these properties, the harsh maligning they endure online for their perceived lack of depth, passionate fandom and sense of vapidness, exists outside the quality of the content.

Undeniably, the online world loves to belittle properties embraced by women.

Not without their scrutiny, adaptations of literary properties – a la Greta Gerwig’s Oscar-winning Little Women – have fared much better in the public domain. Their serious and political demeanours grant them a sense of prestige that popular entertainment is seemingly not entitled to.

Where the double standards lie, so too exists an opportunity to silence the judges, with another adaptation of Jane Austen’s beloved comedic novel Emma, succeeding as both a pointed statement on sexism and a seriously enjoyable rom-com.

Told in vivid colour and packed to the brim with charismatic performances, director Autumn de Wilde succeeds in elevating the well-told misadventures of self-entitled matchmaker Emma Woodhouse (a career-best Anya Taylor-Joy).

Born into an immensely wealthy family, a rare privilege that rendered women of early nineteenth-century England immune to the pressures of co-dependency aka marriage, ‘handsome, clever and rich’ twenty-one-year-old Emma dreams of a life lived independently… or so she tells herself.

Emma’s defiant rejection of love is called into question when lifelong friend, and perhaps the only gentlemen in Highbury, George Knightley (Johnny Flynn) comes into the picture. Their dialogue, exchanged as a series of electric ‘will-they-or-won’t-they’ barbs which question one another’s morality, adds to the film a charming mood that captures the tantalising excitement of budding romance.

The love Emma denies herself, she relishes in forcing upon others, with the wannabe cupid taking on the mantle as a matchmaker for high-society’s most eligible. Despite initial success, Emma’s failure to partner the highly impressionable Harriet Smith (portrayed impeccably by a scene-stealing and gummy smiling Mia Goth) jettisons Emma’s inflated ego back down to earth. The result calls into question her pragmatic stances on love and culture.

To ramp up the dramatics further, the arrival of the uber-talented Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson) and potential suitor/dream-boat Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) toss Emma’s mindset further into the midst of a dizzying tailspin.

Beyond being a series of baffling romantic triangles and awkward escapades, Emma is testament to Austen’s engrossing knack for storytelling – a rebellious piece of literature that has been challenging notions of gender-inequality and classism for over two-hundred years. Emma’s maturity throughout the film is owed to her healthy dissatisfaction with societal conventions, with the titular heroine realising throughout the film that despite it being good to have money, money does not make you good.

De Wilde is deft in her ability to convey the inequitable disorder of the time, and does so to great effect through applying humour to communicate the preposterousness of high-society (Bill Nighy’s hypochondriac father figure is comedic dynamite) and to humanise characters via their awkward romantic encounters. de Wilde, along with composers Isobel Waller-Bridge and David Schweitzer, manages to synchronise this vibe into an accompanying score that proves as sweeping as the romance itself.

As grand as the romance in Emma, de Wilde dazzles just as impressively in the production department, delivering a spectacular barrage of set-pieces – a vision in peach and turquoise – that feel lifted out of the early nineteenth century. de Wilde dreams in landscape, with her background in photography being on full, gorgeous display in Emma. This effect elevates what could have been insignificant movement – an effortless glance, stroll, or turn of the head – into divine artistry.

Austen’s genius is not lost upon de Wilde’s film, with Emma proving a wondrous retelling of a timeless literary masterpiece that should hopefully generate interest in Austen’s work to the post-Clueless generation.

 
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Birds of Prey

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The DC Extended Universe is still a bit of an uneven mess compared to the more consistent, albeit safer films of Marvel Studios. That’s not to say DC doesn’t have a few runs on the board. Hell, with the spectacular successes of Wonder Woman (2017), Aquaman (2018), Shazam! (2019) and the non-canon-but-insanely-lucrative Joker (2019), DC has made a serious impact and cemented their position as a comic book flick contender. Still, the memory of stinkers like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and Suicide Squad (2016) linger, despite the latter featuring a standout performance by Margot Robbie as one Harley Quinn. So, what’s a studio to do when you’ve got a fabulous star in an otherwise dodgy property? It’s soft reboot time, baby!

Birds of Prey basically chucks away (almost) everything from Suicide Squad (including, thankfully, Jared Leto’s execrable turn as Joker) and gives Harleen Quinzeel a mostly clean slate. She’s finally ditched the clown prince of crime and finds herself embroiled in a convoluted caper that swiftly becomes a fight for her life. Complicating matters is camp-as-several-rows-of-tents crime boss, Roman Sionis aka Black Mask (Ewan McGregor) and the timely introductions of several arse-kicking ladies like Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and alcoholic cop, Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez).

The first thing you need to know about Birds of Prey is that it’s very silly. The second item is: it’s also a lot of fun. Margot Robbie continues to embody the role in an iconic fashion, as at-home in Harley’s skin as Ryan Reynolds is in Deadpool’s scarlet strides. Further to that, you’ve got a supporting cast that includes Mary Elizabeth Winstead not being wasted for once and a welcome return to the screen for Rosie Perez in a decent-sized role (and playing underrated GCPD character Montoya to boot). Ewan McGregor’s also having a lot of fun, although his role feels like it has been altered in the third act, perhaps due to studio tampering or just plain old wonky writing.

Cathy’s Yan’s direction is crisp and propulsive, with some excellent action scenes. And perhaps most gratifyingly, the third act doesn’t involve our unlikely heroes battling a bunch of CGI blobs descending from a portal in the sky. That’s not to say this is a perfect film. The fact that it’s even called Birds of Prey is borderline baffling, because the ultimate story it tells is only tangentially related to that property. This is basically Harley Quinn’s adventure with some entertaining guest stars, and a bunch of colourful, affable nitwittery designed to appeal to an audience in the mood for a good time or just lightly drunk. If you find yourself in such a state, and you’ve got 109 minutes spare, then Birds of Prey offers a slight but enjoyable flight of fancy.

 
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Richard Jewell

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This is a true story, and one virtually guaranteed to make the viewer’s metaphorical blood boil on behalf of its unfortunate protagonist. Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) is an office worker turned campus guard who ends up working in security at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. He spots the bag containing the bomb which will shortly explode in Centennial Park, and his eagle-eyed efficiency saves a great many lives when it does. Jewell becomes a household name, and – very briefly – a national hero.

But everything goes pear-shaped for him when the FBI decides that he is actually a “false hero” – and the prime suspect as the terrorist behind the bombing! Despite his highly unethical treatment at their hands, Jewell remains steadfast in his high regard for law enforcement. What follows is essentially a study of the massive and intolerable pressure sustained by him – and by his mother Bobi (Kathy Bates) – at the hands of both the Feds and the media, as his lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) struggles to clear his name. Bryant is not exaggerating when he describes their lives as “a living hell”.

Richard Jewell is ultra-watchable, engrossing, naturalistic, tautly directed and superbly acted – especially by Hauser and Rockwell – and scripted. Despite its gripping seriousness it’s also, sporadically, pretty funny. All of which is more than enough to make it highly recommended. And, in addition to all those strengths, it’s terrific because of what it ISN’T. There are no cheap homilies here, no ‘redemptive’ messages and no cop-out endorsement of the American justice system. It’s a real gem.

 
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The Invisible Man

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How do you make the Invisible Man scary in 2020? It’s a tough proposition, as is the case with most of the classic Universal monsters. Sure, the idea of a bloke sneaking around unseen probably scared the pantaloons off audiences in 1933, but it’s a bit more of an ask in an era of identity theft, rising fascism and the planet being on fire. If you’re talented Aussie writer/director, Leigh Whannell, you take the story in a different direction and change its point of view, making it more personal and much, much scarier.

The Invisible Man (2020) is really all about Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss), who in the film’s tense opening finally escapes from her abusive, domineering boyfriend, and brilliant scientist, Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Cecilia tries to piece together the shattered fragments of her life with sister, Alice (Harriet Dyer) and friend James (Aldis Hodge) helping as best they can. Then the news comes that Adrian is dead, he’s killed himself, and though she can barely believe it, Cece starts to hope for some peace at last. And then shit starts getting weird.

The Invisible Man is essentially the story of an abusive relationship with a science-gone-amok twist and it works beautifully, making the film feel thematically relevant. However, even if you ignore the subtext, it’s an absolute pearler of a thriller in its own right. Whannell has eschewed the fun, trashy vibe of his previous flick – the woefully underrated Upgrade (2018) – and adopted a style more in line with the likes of DePalma or Hitchcock. Expect long, lingering takes that play with negative space, genuinely edge-of-your-seat sequences that skillfully ratchet up the tension and a score that channels the orchestral ghost of Bernard Herrmann.

Moss is superb as the PTSD-suffering Cecilia, showcasing an impressive range of emotion, and is backed up by a capable support cast, including Michael Dorman as Adrian’s slimy lawyer brother, Tom. Ironically the only cast member who fails to make an impact is Adrian himself, who never quite convinces when he’s on the visual spectrum. When he’s invisible, however? Whole other story.

Ultimately, The Invisible Man is a triumph. Rising from the ashes of Universal’s failed Dark Universe experiment, it offers a clever, engrossing and frequently genuinely scary genre flick made on a limited budget with a stellar cast and thematic resonance. Whether taken as an allegory for spousal abuse, or viewed simply as a deft cat and mouse thriller, The Invisible Man is a superb genre effort that absolutely deserves to be seen.

 
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Midway

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A big-name Hollywood director, best known for special effects-driven action spectacle, decides to try something a bit more prestige and make a war drama set around the attack on Pearl Harbour. No, you have not suddenly teleported back to 2001, and we’re not talking about Michael Bay (not yet, at any rate). Instead, we’re looking at the latest from the leading name in turn-off-brain disaster cinema Roland Emmerich, and in so many ways, it shows him doing what he does best.

All your favourite tried-and-true clichés from the man’s extensive filmography are here. You’ve got the insider perspective, who saw the disaster coming but no one listened to, with Patrick Wilson’s Lt. Com. Layton; you’ve got the hot-shot fighter pilot a la Will Smith in Independence Day with Ed Skrein as Lt. Best; you’ve got numerous military officials to inject America Fuck Yeah into the proceedings; and you’ve got plenty of eye candy action to give that artificial sense of popcorn entertainment.

Of course, the very setting seems to work against Emmerich’s strengths. He tends to focus a lot more on gargantuan, world-shaking events, showing entire cities getting taken down one after another. Doing so allows the frame to be deliriously overloaded with movement, so that the effects work does its job without being entirely noticeable on its own. With this, that same level of rendering fidelity doesn’t hold up nearly as well, from the glaringly-obvious green-screening to the last-gen-quality computer graphics to create the battle sequences.

There’s also the writing to consider, coming from Wes Tooke in his first feature-length outing. His television experience is a little too clear with how episodic and almost-incidental the pacing is, following Emmerich’s habit of having conversation as merely the sinew that connects the louder moments together.

Said conversation itself also ends up sabotaging anything resembling mood within the story, as the dialogue keeps pushing for quick laughs so incessantly that you start questioning what the tone is even supposed to be. Aaron Eckhart’s declaration of “I’m American; I bombed Japan yesterday” embodies the film’s sheer lack of irony.

And yet, Emmerich and co. seem to be at least trying for something a bit more serious here. His treatment of the American and Japanese forces involved in the warfare is remarkably balanced and aims for populist fervour, and it’s certainly less jingoistic than it could’ve been.

However, even ignoring his usual mishandling of anything to do with history (Anonymous, Stonewall, etc.), his bombastic and wannabe-crowd-pleasing treatment of one of the most crucial moments in American war history ultimately ends up trivialising it, shooting his own best intentions squarely in the foot. Some credit for stepping out of his conspiracy-laden comfort zone, but old habits clearly die hard, and in the crossfire of intent and presentation, the entertainment value crashes and burns before too long.

 
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The Gentlemen

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Guy Ritchie’s cinematic output has, to put it politely, varied in quality over the years. After the grimy, crimey one-two punch of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000), Guy seemed to go off the boil. And look, Revolver (2005) and RocknRolla (2008) both have their charms, but it’s hard to imagine anyone vociferously defending the likes of Swept Away (2002) or King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017). So, it looked like Guy would probably go on crafting decent-but-unchallenging flicks like Sherlock Holmes (2009), Aladdin (2019) and the bizarrely overlooked, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015). And then the flash geezer only goes and releases The Gentlemen, which is far and away his best film in years!

The Gentlemen, like Ritchie’s best films Lock, Stock and Snatch, is a wild and woolly crime caper, showcasing multiple distinct characters and points of view. This time around our main players are American expat weed dealer extraordinaire, Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey), his debonair but tough second in command, Raymond (Charlie Hunnam), slimy muckraker, Fletcher (Hugh Grant) and bad arse Irish mentor to troubled boys, Coach (Colin Farrell). The story is revealed through multiple sweary, unreliable narrators and twists and turns with Ritchie’s much-missed cheerful alacrity. And though the story perhaps doesn’t quite know when to quit, the sheer charm of the performances will almost certainly carry all but the most cheerless audience members through.

Matthew McConaughey brings a slick, polished energy to the proceedings, Charlie Hunnam proves that, given the right material he’s actually a really solid actor with great comic timing and Hugh Grant beautifully plays against type, offering a level of malevolent sleaziness that is at times jaw droppingly foul and profoundly entertaining. The supporting actors are uniformly superb as well, with Michelle Dockery bringing a cocky dominatrix vibe to Rosalind, Mickey’s wife, and Henry Golding does tooth-gnashing menace with panache as ‘orrible nemesis Dry Eye.

Ritchie is clearly in his element here, and has a hoot unleashing his best crime caper since Snatch. The characters are grand, the setting is vivid, the action is meaty and the dialogue will probably cause a lot of people to unleash earnest think pieces that contain four or five hundred uses of the word “problematic”. It certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but for those who missed the old Guy Ritchie and his verbose, iconic gangsters, The Gentlemen will go down better than a pint and a pickled egg.