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The Secrets We Keep

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In The Secrets We Keep, we’re in small town America in the late fifties. Noomi Rapace is Maja, the Romanian wife of kindly local physician Lewis (Chris Messina). The pair met in a Greek hospital after the war, before moving stateside to start a family and a better life.

One day, Maja recognises a workman (Joel Kinnaman) walking in the street with his dog. She’s immediately freaked out, disturbed and upset. Maja is adamant in her recollections that the man is ‘Karl’, a malevolent figure from her wartime past. Maja begs Lewis for his help extracting the truth from this man (in the first of several jarringly implausible character turns) after she’s belted him with a hammer, abducted him and locked him in the boot of her car.

Maja explains that her Romani heritage saw her held prisoner and that ‘Karl’ was a soldier in the camp she was held, brutally assaulting her and her sister.

Ostensibly a re-telling (either intentionally or unintentionally) of the 1990 play Death and The Maiden (shot as a film by Roman Polanski with Sigourney Weaver as the traumatised survivor and Sir Ben Kingsley as the figure from her past), this is less a retelling and more a re-tread.

Messina and Kinnaman are talented actors, they deliver solid turns here, despite a very wobbly treatment of the story. Rapace is emotionally overwrought for the duration, though her performance is cranked to eleven, somewhere in the area of ‘Lisbeth Salander: Nazi Hunter’.



Character motivations (lacking the requisite nuance and doubt needed for this type of tale) are confused and all-too convenient, at times they’re even straight up implausible.

If you’re after an old fashioned exploitative revenge bath, even that isn’t on offer because the story aims for a high-brow treatment that it doesn’t follow through on, delivering an unearned denouement that is counter to the themes of the story itself, because it seems to want its strudel and to eat it too.

It’s not a lesson in dispensing justice or a treatise in tempering the desire for vengeance, and neither is it preaching forgiveness, but it wants us to empathise with the plight of this couple, where one is hell bent on violence and the other slides way too easily into complicity. It never really convinces us that ‘right’ (or even logic) is on their side, but maybe that’s the point?

Screening exclusively at Palace Cinemas for a limited season from 17 September

Palace Norton Street, Palace Verona, Palace Central, Palace Byron Bay, Palace James St, Palace Barracks, Palace Electric Cinema & Palace Raine Square

Available to rent via Foxtel Store from 21 October

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Four Kids and It

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“Can your wildest wishes really come true?” That’s the question posed on the cover of Jacqueline Wilson’s children’s book, which she based on the 1902 children’s classic Five Children and It by British author E. Nesbit.

Whimsical and entertaining, Four Kids and It is a heartwarming story of four children who discover a way to cast wishes as they grapple with the separation of their respective parents. Beautifully directed by Andy De Emmony, and co-scripted by Simon R. Lewis, Jacqueline Wilson and Mark Oswin, this is a delightful screen adaptation of the popular fantasy book that’s perfect family viewing.

We first meet 13-year-old Ros (sweetly played by Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen) and learn that she is a shy bookworm who’s uncertain about her novel writing aspirations. “You just haven’t found your story yet,” offers the kindly second-hand bookseller, as she passes her a worn, cloth-bound storybook (Five Children and It by E. Nesbit) that soon turns out to be pretty handy. “It’s about kids, magic and wishes that cause trouble,” remarks the shopkeeper.

We quickly learn Ros’ backstory – her parents have separated, mum is elsewhere, and desperately uncool dad (Matthew Goode as David) is holding down the fort. Her pesky younger brother Robbie (Billy Jenkins) is obsessed with his portable gaming device.

We also meet an insolent American girl nicknamed Smash (real name Samantha), her baby sister Maudie (Ellie-Mae Siame) and her exasperated mum (Paula Patton as Alice). Smash can’t stand England. Dad’s away working and the cranky 13-year-old frequently expresses how much she wants to go and live with him, which of course sets Smash up for crushing disappointment. Ashley Aufderheide gives an energetic performance as the feisty Smash, even if her characterisation is a bit two-dimensional (shouty and hostile).

The tween girls and their younger siblings are tricked into a family holiday at a Cornwall cottage. Once there, the children all learn that their parents are in a new but serious relationship and the getaway has been planned to introduce the kids to one another, presumably with a view to blending the families down the track.



Needless to say, the children are less than enthusiastic. Exploring the coastline, the holiday takes an unexpected turn when the kids stumble upon a tunnel that leads to a secret beach. They find it is inhabited by a mysterious subterranean form that moves below the sand and steals their belongings. They are soon introduced to a cranky but magical creature who accounts for his thievery by claiming “Anything that touches this beach is an offering for the Psammead.”  Meaning, him. He’s a goofy-looking, oversized jack rabbit with a cockney accent (aptly voiced by Michael Caine) who reveals he has the ability to grant wishes. “One a day, and nothing longer than a sentence,” he declares, cautioning, “but you don’t want to wish. There are consequences. Wishes are bad news.”

They also meet local weirdo Tristan, who wants to capture the Psammead for his own gain, and this slightly sinister sub-plot adds a welcome element of drama and intrigue. The ensuing adventure brings the new step-siblings together and teaches them to accept their parents’ new-found happiness.

While the characters are a bit one-note – Smash’s mum Alice is slightly daffy and an atrocious cook, dad’s a bit daggy and the kid brother is obsessed with gaming and electronics (that element actually pans out) – Ros is more fleshed out as a plucky heroine who solves problems with ingenuity.

Russell Brand is well-cast as the local weirdo Tristan Trent, sporting a heavy beard and giving a surprisingly toned-down version of his usual oddball antics. He’s an eccentric millionaire who has his own dark agenda, while his fabulous old Natural history museum-style mansion is chock-full of fascinating antiquities and authentic-looking artifacts.

The wish-for-a-day plot device provides the opportunity for some extravagant sequences, such as Smash’s mega stardom pop star fantasy, complete with a glam helicopter ride to her dynamic performance in London. There’s even an illuminating time-travel sequence. But it also permits poetic cinematic moments, such as when Ros glides her fingertips over the water as she is soaring through the air after little Maudie wished they all could fly. Throughout the film there are really nice lo-tech special effects (wires and practical pyrotechnics) and subtle use of excellent CGI, such as for the creature and also for the way he moves about under the sand, amongst other things.

Four Kids and It has the right blend of whimsical tone and everyday realism. The combination of the fantasy elements set in the context of tweens dealing with the trauma of divorce proves a satisfying and substantial entertainment for all ages.

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An American Pickle

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Joining a small sub-genre of ersatz time travel flicks about people-from-the-past-who-are-frozen-and-then-wake-up-in-the-present (Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery, Idiocracy, Captain America: The First Avenger), An American Pickle is a slight delight in what is the perennial bummer of the COVID era. Interestingly, the film – which was made for the US streaming service HBO Max – may not even have made it into cinemas if it wasn’t for coronavirus, so the pandemic might be responsible for a few miniscule positives after all. That said, this is certainly no unheralded masterpiece, but it does offer plenty of laughs and some good vibes, and for that we should be thankful.

Seth Rogen is Herschel Greenbaum, a destitute Eastern European immigrant who comes to America in search of a better life in the early twentieth century, but ends up in a brining factory beating rats to death with a baseball bat. Just before the factory is set to be condemned, Herschel falls into a vat of brine, and remains there undiscovered until 2020. Awoken from his salty slumber in perfect health, Herschel is, of course, a man out of time, and his views and ideals don’t exactly fit in with what’s now happening in his Brooklyn neighbourhood. His only contact with this not-so-brave-new-world is Ben Greenbaum (Seth Rogen again), a goofy young app designer with few family ties and no real bonds to his past. To say that their relationship becomes somewhat fraught would be an understatement.

Directed with casual assurance by veteran cinematographer turned debut feature filmmaker Brandon Trost (who has shot many Rogen-connected projects, like The Disaster Artist, The Interview, Bad Neighbours and This Is The End, along with many others), An American Pickle is based on a short story by Simon Rich (who also adapts), and its slim origins show through. The narrative lacks complexity, and the absence of any supporting characters with real depth is occasionally off-putting. Seth Rogen, however, is exceptional as both Herschel and Ben, differentiating them with aplomb, and finding their comic beats with his usual blustery charm. Herschel’s man-out-of-time confusion is mined for all it’s worth, while the scientific explanation for his preservation is glossed over hilariously. The fish-out-of-water jokes are certainly very funny, but the most laughs are actually to be had in the film’s bleak Eastern European opening sequence, where Herschel and the love of his life (Aussie legend Sarah Snook, who has not nearly enough screen time but makes it count with a very, very amusing performance) evade marauding Cossacks and live a squalid life of abject misery. It resounds with Mel Brooks-meets-early-Woody-Allen black humour, and while the rest of the film doesn’t quite match the opening, An American Pickle does bring the laughs in a pretty big way.



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The Translators (les Traducteurs)

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Supposedly you can make a thriller out of almost any situation, but that does not, in itself, make a film thrilling. Director Regis Roinsard’s story of literary shenanigans suffers from this conundrum. The premise is admittedly an unusual one, but it doesn’t exactly thrill.

There is an author whose crime novels are so successful that he is virtually bankrolling his whole publishing house. At the beginning of the film, Eric (Lambert Wilson) – a spokesperson for the company – announces to the press that the new book in the best-selling trilogy is about to be released. The secretive author has done his best to ensure that no more than ten pages from the precious novel are leaked online in advance. Thus, the first ten pages of the book becomes the McGuffin that all involved prize so highly.

The book is going to be simultaneously released in various languages, and Eric gets nine eponymous translators to submit to his rather odd conditions of work. He locks them all in a concrete bunker, which is guarded (for no clearly explained reason) by Russian gangster heavies who impose brutal beatings if required. The translators then have to set to their task under the strict instructions that nothing must leave the room. Once in the situation, the translators set about subverting the Author and Publisher’s plan.

The film has a reasonable cast. Lambert Wilson is a well-known character actor in France. Here, he does his best to convey the icy ruthlessness that is demanded of him, but it isn’t a very meaty part. Then there are various characters and their subplots inserted in the hope of sustaining our interest. Prominent among them, is a glamourous woman called Katerina, played by ‘bond girl’ Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace), who uses her charms to try and seduce her captor. Then there is Alex (rising British actor Alex Lawther). He looks too young to be part of the team, but he turns out to have some aces up his sleeve.

The film relies upon some heist movie elements, complete with elaborate and implausible trickery, which is then explained in retrospect. This is a trope familiar from such films as Now You See Me and that element will have its fans. The main problem for the film though is to really draw us into its world. Book translation does not lend itself that readily to cloak and dagger machinations. No doubt the concept seemed like a good idea in the script conferences but when put on the screen, something, er, got lost in translation.

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Swimming For Gold

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Busy Aussie production house The Steve Jaggi Company has seemingly hit on a winning formula if their list of past, current and future projects – of which there are many – is anything to go by. Films like Rip Tide and Back Of The Net, and the upcoming Romance On The Menu, Kidnapped and This Little Love Of Mine, have all taken a deeply, unabashedly commercial route, while remaining totally Australian in their outlook but with an international flavour, usually courtesy of imported leading stars. Sensibly, these stars (Debby Ryan, Cindy Busby, Sofia Wylie) all have a sales-friendly profile in the US, but don’t come with bank-breaking price tags. To top it off, the films are all sunny, sweet, well made and easily digestible, and very often helmed by female directors. It’s a strong business model, and at a time when film production has pretty much ground to a halt in this country, it’s proving to be a successful one too.

The impressive strike rate continues with Swimming For Gold. The charming Peyton List (TV’s Jessie, Bunk’d and Cobra Kai) stars as champion American swimmer Claire Carpenter, who is in a funk after an unfortunate poolside incident. Scared of getting back in the water, Claire is encouraged (read: forced) by her father (former Home And Away star Martin Dingle-Wall doing an impressive American accent) to head down under to take a coaching position at an elite swimming camp. Once there, the largely indifferent Claire bangs heads with past rival Mikayla Michaels (Lauren Esposito), finds allies in nice guy swimmer Liam (Daniel Needs), goofy fan-girl Annabelle (Olivia Nardini) and fellow coach Bodhi (Ray Chong Nee), and must dig deep to find her inner coach and lead the boys’ swim team to victory.



Though hardly original, Swimming For Gold is a blissful charmer from first time feature director Hayley MacFarlane, who keeps things colourful and effervescent, and easily exploits the ample winning qualities of her engaging and fresh-faced young cast. A safe bet for the school holidays and beyond, Swimming For Gold is good, clean, highly accomplished Aussie entertainment.

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Slim & I

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There has been a clutch of both pre-and-post-woke films and other material (Colette, Big Eyes, the fascinating podcast Polly Platt: The Invisible Woman) that have appropriately sought to right gender-based artistic wrongs, finally applying credit to creative women whose gifts have for too long been passed off as belonging to the men in their lives. While the new doco Slim & I doesn’t quite sit in that fiery camp, it does beautifully assert that the legendary status justifiably enjoyed by Australian country music singer Slim Dusty was due in large part to his long marriage and equally lengthy creative partnership with Joy McKean. Vibrant, gifted, charming and reserved, McKean wrote many of Slim Dusty’s songs, organised his touring schedule, raised their kids, and sang gorgeously in his band. Slim & I, however, doesn’t tear Slim down in order to raise Joy up – this utterly charming doco celebrates a true partnership, where the prodigious gifts of two people mesh together to create one perfect whole.

Proving himself to be perhaps this country’s most prolific and diverse director, Kriv Stenders (Red Dog, Danger Close, Boxing Day, Australia Day, and TV’s Wake In Fright and The Principal) excels once again in the documentary field, adding to the exemplary works, The Go-Betweens: Right Here and Brock: Over The Top. Built around interviews with the enjoyably down-to-earth Joy McKean, members of Slim Dusty’s band, and Slim and Joy’s children, the film paints an incisive and honest picture of what a decades-long life on the road was like, while a host of big names (Keith Urban, Don Walker, Paul Kelly, Missy Higgins, Troy Cassar-Daley, Kasey & Bill Chambers, Darren Hanlon) point to the brilliance of McKean’s songwriting and its profound influence on Slim Dusty’s success.



There is joyous archival footage (including generous mining of 1984’s The Slim Dusty Movie, which is well worth a revisit) and great music (some of the interviewees also dip wonderfully into the Dusty/McKean songbook for note-perfect acoustic reinterpretations), and the cinematography and editing are absolutely top-notch, making for a stylish and well-crafted piece of cinema. An essential look at a vital corner of local pop culture, Slim & I is a warm and wonderfully engaging portrait of two Aussie country music legends.

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Becky

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Diminutive thirteen-year-old Becky Hooper’s (Lulu Wilson, The Haunting of Hill House, Sharp Objects) doing it tough, recently nursing her cancer-stricken mother to an early grave. She’s also pushed around at school by bullies, and the relationship with her father Jeff (Joel McHale) is challenging at best.

Dad takes her away to the family’s country cottage in a bid to appease her before announcing that he’s getting remarried to Kayla (Amanda Brugel, TV’s Snowpiercer, The Handmaid’s Tale) – who he’s also invited on the retreat along with her young son! It’s enough to send Becky scurrying off into the woods to her ‘fort’, lamenting her misfortune. Ensconced in her cubby, she finds the film’s Macguffin, a peculiar looking key. Desperate to get their hands on the key are a pack of neo-Nazi prison escapees, led by Dominick (Kevin James), whose harrowing escape from incarceration we follow alongside the Hoopers’ journey to the country estate.

When the Nazis turn up, a weekend away becomes a living nightmare as the goons stop at nothing in an attempt to get the key, but Becky’s steely determination for vengeance stands in their way.



Directed by Jonathan Milot and Cary Murnion, whose previous work includes the action thriller Bushwick and zombie comedy Cooties (in which the violent protagonists are also kids), there is a sense of mirth accompanying the gore in Becky. A comparison might be Home Alone, on steroids. Exhibit A: when Dominick has to cut out his own eyeball after Becky gouges it out with the mysterious key, or, Exhibit B: when huge thug with a conscience, Apex (great work by Robert Maillet) pleads to Becky, an eighth of his size, for his life.

Lulu Wilson is excellent as Becky, and it’s great to see the usually goofy Kevin James in a more serious role, one that he negotiates with aplomb. The supporting thugs, Cole (Ryan McDonald) and Hammond (James McDougall) are also convincing, particularly as they meet their maker in the grimmest of circumstances.

While Nick Morris, Lane Skye and Ruckus Skye’s screenplay leaves questions unanswered, Becky will appeal to grindhouse genre fans; in years to come it may even find its way into classic cinema territory a la Kick Ass.

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Adam

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The setting here is the old medina in Casablanca, Morocco, and its central focus is on a heavily pregnant young woman called Samia (Nisrin Erradi). When we first see Samia she is going from door to door in a desperate search for work of any kind and, even more urgently, somewhere to sleep for the night. We learn very early in the piece that she hasn’t told her family that she intends to give her baby up for adoption once it’s born. She is, of course, heartbroken by this prospect, but sees it as the ‘illegitimate’ child’s only chance for a tolerable future.

The other main character is Abla (Lubna Azabal), a widow who has a sweet-natured young daughter – Warda, played by Douae Belkhaouda – and makes and sells rziza (a unique Moroocan crepe). Though outwardly stern, Abla is kindhearted, and feeling sorry for Samia she decides to put her up (strictly for a few days) and give her some work while she’s under her roof.

It’s a simple premise for a touching drama in which the body language is as important as the verbal variety, and in which more revelations about the current predicaments and past lives of both women come slowly and by degrees. There are occasional moments of fun and humour, but the predominant mood is decidedly melancholy.

Adam is a gentle story, well told and acted, and its muted colours are as subtle, understated and effective as the treatment of its plot. It’s really good in its own admittedly modest terms.

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Bill & Ted Face the Music

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Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is an ‘80s classic and a masterclass in how to write smart comedy about dumb characters. Bogus Journey, in between its Seventh Seal ribbings, is about as metal as cinema gets (making the Grim Reaper your slave is thrash as all hell). Under any other circumstances, the idea of trying to follow up these films would have been a setup for a truly bogus time. But between Keanu Reeves popular ascendancy, and films like Halloween (2018) and Toy Story 3 proving that delayed sequels can still be righteous, now is probably the best time for this movie to exist.

Reeves and Alex Winter go beyond picking up exactly where they left off 29 years ago, as they’re arguably even better than in either predecessor. Their buddy dynamic is tight as ever, and with the series’ tradition of “other usses”, their age plays into the overall narrative, allowing them to show surprising acting range, all of which is downright hilarious. It really is a testament to just how far Reeves has come since the ‘80s, as his portrayal of Ted in all his time-displaced forms patches up one of the few sticking points of the previous films.

Likewise, returning writers Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson slip right back into place, serving up a story that is as much a revival of both Adventure and Journey as it is Blues Brothers meets Spierig Brothers. Half of the plot has Bill and Ted trying to bootstrap their way to saving the world, while the other has their respective daughters Thea and Billie (Samara Weaving and Brigette Lundy-Paine in a double-act so good, it almost eclipses the title roles) recruit the supergroup to end all supergroups.

Both halves are given just enough time each to be effective, and the way Solomon and Matheson expand into multiversal storytelling marks fresh territory while keeping in step with what came before.

Then there’s the music, which… works in a way that you won’t expect. This isn’t the glam metal worship of Adventure or the thrash existentialism of Journey. Instead, it takes into account what the modern music scene looks like (namely, how it reflects musicians being able to access basically any music to build from) and incorporates that with Bill and Ted’s ultimate goal to create a rousing showcase of the series’ central idea: music being so powerful that it can change the entire universe for the better. Musical influences shoulder-to-shoulder with their own musical influences, all to keep the music of the spheres in harmony; it’s like prog metal meets post-J Dilla beat-making, the kind of communal euphoria that really resonates in these socially-distant times.

Bill & Ted Face The Music rounds off one of the best time travel trilogies of all time with a heartfelt and gut-busting outing that refines and expands on what made its forerunners so damn fun. Oh, and definitely stick around for the end-credits scene; Rufus wasn’t kidding around when he said “they get better”.

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Fatima

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The 1917 first-hand accounts of three Portuguese peasant children that the Virgin Mary had appeared to them, was adapted for the screen by Hollywood in 1952 as The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima. It claimed to be based ‘in truth’, gleaned from eyewitness testimonies. Mary purportedly shared visions with the kids, of wars to come and impending doom. These events could apparently only be tackled with fervent prayer, self-sacrifice and devotion to her and God. Following a number of successive appearances to the children, a solar event involving the sun ‘zig-zagging’ across the sky was witnessed by a large number of slack jawed yokels, rubberneckers and pilgrims assembled in the town. Apparently, these stratospheric religious fireworks were rock-solid evidence enough for the gathered throngs.

Director/Cinematographer Marco Pontecorvo (who is the son of Gillo Pontecorvo, helmer of the seminal The Battle of Algiers) adapts the same story here, albeit in a less obvious and overly reverential tone. Pontecorvo pits two timelines against each other, both showing disbelieving antagonists: in 1989, Lucia Dos Santos (played in her older years by Sonia Braga) fields an interview with a sceptic academic (Harvey Keitel) that then kickstarts the other timeline, being her 1917 visions of the Virgin Mary when Lucia was a young girl (played by Stephanie Gil).

The young Lucia is adamant about what she’s experienced, though her parents and the local priests are sniffy about the believability of her story. She ultimately faces a distinctly antagonistic disbelief, personified in the local mayor (Goran Visnjic).

Beautifully photographed and well-crafted from a technical standpoint, the predominant issue here is audience investment. The story isn’t told from the more interesting perspective of the parents and priests struggling to believe the story. It’s not interested in deconstructing the constituent parts of an ironclad spiritual belief and then asking us as the audience to question our own beliefs. Instead, it presents us with a story that is baffling superstitious twaddle, expecting the viewer to go on the ride.

If you don’t believe the true life accounts of these children, you’re locked out of deep engagement with the film and the whole affair feels rote and pedestrian, whereas if you do believe these events occurred then you’ll probably be annoyed at the reported changes the filmmakers have made to the real life accounts, in order to accommodate a wider audience.

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