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Miss Juneteenth

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‘Juneteenth’ is celebrated in many black communities in the US, but it had its beginnings in the state of Texas, as a day of remembrance marking the end of slavery in that state back in 1865. Texas didn’t actually enact emancipation of its slaves until two and a half years after the rest of the US states. Regardless, it doesn’t lessen the day’s significance.

In Miss Juneteenth, Turquoise (Nicole Beharie) works long hours of hard graft as she struggles to watch out for her born again Christian (yet still secretly alcoholic) mother (Lori Hayes) and negotiate a tricky relationship with the father of her daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze), who is the amiable, if slightly flaky mechanic, Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson).

Ronnie still harbours romantic feelings for Turquoise, but she’s no longer interested. She’s dogged by the ever-present feeling that she’s settling for less than she could have had, something that prevents her from committing to a life with Ronnie and spending her days treading water on the outskirts of Fort Worth, Texas.

Making ends meet means working two jobs, one at a local funeral home, as well as working at Wayman’s BBQ with the affable and ever garrulous Betty Ray (Liz Mikel).

In 2004, Turquoise was the winner of the Miss Juneteenth beauty pageant. Other pageant winners moved on, left town and met with successful careers and marriages to powerful men, but her familial entanglements and bad decisions kept their hooks in her, so she never made it out. Seeing a chance to give her daughter the opportunity she failed to make good on, Turquoise pressures Kai to enter the pageant.

Writer/Director Channing Godfrey Peoples’ gets nuanced and authentic performances from her cast, particularly Nicole Beharie (who played Rachel Robinson to Chadwick Boseman’s Jackie in 42) whose stoic Turquoise keeps pushing ahead, no matter the obstacles, reconciling the life she has with the one she’d hoped for. It’s a quietly powerful performance and one that beautifully depicts a way of life that’s the reality for many Black Americans (and one that gets short shrift on the silver screen), poetically illustrating the bittersweet reality for those for whom the American Dream is a mirage and where catching a break seems an impossibility.

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Spree

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Social media is a hideous, nightmarish blight upon humanity. Whether it be the endless, censorious performative purity tests of Twitter, the unchecked political bullshit volcano of Facebook or the vacuous, othering narcissism of Instagram: it’s all ghastly. That said, it can make for intriguing, provocative films. The Social Network (2010) is, of course, one of the big boys, but even smaller efforts like Unfriended (2014), Nerve (2016) and Searching (2018) have succeeded to varying degrees. And now we have Spree, a movie about a social media obsessed rideshare driver who will do literally anything to go viral and the result is a decent, albeit patchy, little flick.

Spree tells the sad tale of Kurt Kunkle (Joe Keery), a stunningly unsuccessful streamer who desperately wants to be internet famous. One day something snaps in the young man and he decides to Livestream a very unique rideshare experience he calls “The Lesson”. This particular lesson, however, is one that’s going to leave a significant bodycount as Kurt learns one surefire way to “grow his audience” is by thinning out the population.

Spree’s story isn’t wildly original, it’s essentially a social media riff on movies like Taxi Driver (1976) or The King of Comedy (1982), but where it shines is in the presentation. Shot via the numerous cameras in Kurt’s car, various phones, security footage etc., it really underlines how constantly under surveillance we all are without ever stating it bluntly. Joe Keery is another tremendous asset, giving a sweaty, desperate, sinister performance that is a far cry from the confident, cocky Steve Harrington you know from Stranger Things. This is genuinely effective stuff, and Keery has proven he has impressive range.

The problem is, by the third act, Spree has shown you all of its tricks and doesn’t quite know how to end, limping to a conclusion that feels at odds with the take-no-prisoners, blackly comedic tone of the rest of the flick. It’s by no means a deal breaker, but to put it in social media terms: you’ll probably like Spree, but maybe won’t feel the need to hit that subscribe button.

Releasing in limited cinemas October 8, and also October 8 – November 11 releasing on PVOD with Foxtel

November 25 – releasing on digital: iTunes, Youtube Movies, Fetch, Microsoft Store, Google Play

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Miss Juneteenth

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The Juneteenth holiday commemorates June 19th, 1865, the day when slaves in Texas were finally freed – more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation that put an end to slavery in America. It was, and still is, a cause for celebration.

Since winning the Miss Juneteenth scholarship pageant when she was just a teenager, the life of Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie) has been filled with struggle. An unplanned pregnancy led to a series of low-income jobs around Fort Worth, Texas, with little support from her estranged partner, auto-mechanic Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson), or her evangelical alcoholic mother, Charlotte (Lori Hayes).

Turquoise feels like she squandered a golden opportunity and is determined that her daughter, Kai (Alexis Chikaeze), won’t follow her path. In an effort to secure her future, she enrols the 14-year-old girl in the same pageant and tries to discourage Kai’s interests in boys and the school’s dance crew.

The dynamic between the two becomes fraught with tension as the pageant date looms closer. Kai has to separate her identity from her mother’s good intentions and Turquoise has to come to terms with her past and find a new direction for her ambitions.


First-time writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples’ film is a slice-of-life which moves at a pace that some audience members might find too lackadaisical, as we peek in on Turquoise’s routine and amble towards the climactic pageant.

Shot by cinematographer Daniel Patterson, the city of Fort Worth is a character unto itself – locations like the dingy BBQ joint and the family-run mortuary where Turquoise works part-time are both packed with messy little background details. Populated by equally textured supporting characters, Miss Juneteeth drips with authenticity and quickly embeds you within a community of people struggling to pay the bills and achieve some measure of personal freedom.

Thematically, Peoples’ story covers a lot of ground, exploring Southern Black culture and class divisions. However, at the heart of it all is the powerful bond between a mother and her daughter. The film benefits from a strong cast, particularly Nicole Beharie (Little Fires Everywhere) playing the hard-working, resilient single mum. As she negotiates various obstacles in her path, like financial troubles and unwanted suitors, Beharie communicates volumes of emotional depth through her expressive face and body language.

Released in a year filled with protests about systemic racism and the difficulties faced by African-Americans, Miss Juneteeth isn’t just a timely story, it’s a touchingly hopeful one, too.

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Corpus Christi

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This tale would seem rather implausible, were it not based on truth. Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia), a young convict with a rather wild past, is released from ‘juvie’. He wants to enrol in a seminary, but his criminal record precludes that, and he’s supposed to head straight to the living death of a job in a sawmill. Instead, he sticks with the religious idea by passing himself off as a village priest, and proceeds to fill in while a real one is away.

For a short time, this saga has a curiously static quality which renders it intriguing, but also limits our level of involvement. However, it grows inexorably in intensity, becoming more naturalistic and then utterly gripping. Occasionally, it’s drily funny, but the predominant feeling is very heavy indeed. The plot thickens as we eventually find out what Daniel was in juvie for and why he was particularly bent on getting out as soon as possible. Then, there is the story of a multiple-fatality accident which ripped his adopted village apart the year before his arrival, and the residual fury on the part of the locals …

Corpus Christi is essentially about guilt and – a chronically over-used word about cinema, but integral here – redemption. It’s also about desperation, and there’s hardly a character who isn’t deeply damaged. The excellent harmonium-driven instrumental score – reminiscent of Nico at her ‘doomiest’ – enhances the sense of angst, and so does the subdued lighting. Bartosz Bielenia’s performance is stellar, and this is recommended viewing.


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Lucky Grandma

Asian Cinema, Comedy, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

A fortune teller with gnarled hands reads Grandma Wong’s fortune. Spotting an auspicious sign that she excitedly interprets as “carps jumping over a dragon gate,” the soothsayer (Wai Ching Ho) tells her client to keep an eye out for the dragon gate as that is a clear indication that her fortune is coming. Grandma Wong (an extraordinary performance from Tsai Chin) puffs on her cigarette with a sceptical scowl.

Set in present-day New York City’s Chinatown, we are immersed in the life of our main protagonist, gaining glimpses of Grandma Wong’s daily activities—morning prayer at the home-shrine of her late husband, exercising at the local Y, shopping for fruit and veg at her neighbourhood market, celebrating her birthday with her son and his family, and so on.

Recently widowed, Grandma Wong is pushing 80 and determined to live life as an independent woman, despite the concern of her family. After her local fortune teller’s exciting forecast, Grandma Wong makes a beeline for the casino to cash in on her predicted fortune. She lands on the wrong side of luck – or does she? Suddenly, she attracts the focus of local Red Dragon gangsters. She seeks protection from members of a rival gang named Zhongliang, and purchases the services of a discount bodyguard; Big Pong (an endearing performance from the hulking Taiwanese actor Hsiao-Yuan Ha). Invariably, Grandma Wong finds herself in the middle of a Chinatown gang war.


Big Pong proves more than just her bodyguard. In fact, we get more of a new best friend / grandson vibe than anything menacing. Throughout this charming comedy, the characters are colourful without being reduced to broad caricatures. Grandma Wong’s rivals, in particular, are goofy and not too menacing – and certainly no match for our wily and quick thinking grandma who, at one point, defeats an attack with hair spray. She’s no-nonsense and practical.

This delightful story is co-scripted by Angela Cheng, and filmmaker Sasie Sealy presents a central character whose recalcitrance is immediately relatable and somehow endearing, at least for anyone who can recall a time when they felt grumpy all day long no matter what happened. As the picaresque story unfolds, this dark comedy fluidly switches from English to Mandarin (also Cantonese, at times) as effortlessly as the family’s three generations bilingually converse. The cinematography by Eduardo Enrique Mayén is gorgeous without being too glossy and the movie is sensitively filmed, almost like a silent film with minimal dialogue, mostly relying on non-verbal cues and music. The cartoony comedy violence does turn quite dark in the third act, ultimately providing a satisfying outcome.

Well-worth seeing, Lucky Grandma is the feature debut of TV director Sasie Sealy (whose student film was rewarded with the Student Visionary award at Tribeca Film Fest in 2008).

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The Leadership

Australian, Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

It is easy to establish that science has long been skewed towards celebrating ‘Great Men’ and male ways of working. For a host of reasons, attempts to up the participation rate of women in science have been marked more by enthusiasm and aspiration than actual runs on the board. In business too, women are still drastically underrepresented (and a recent report shows that the low number of women in CEO positions has stubbornly refused to shift).

Given that so much of this is known, and that most people of a progressive orientation would regret this state of affairs, this Australian documentary is probably going to appeal primarily to a pre-committed audience.

Ili Baré’s film tells the story of a trip to the Antarctic by a group of women in STEMM. She has some wonderful scenery to shoot from the boat of course, and footage of adorable penguins and, less felicitously, walls of sea ice prematurely melting into the ocean, give plenty of scope for visual pleasure. This least explored continent is still a place of wonder.

Baré needs grit though, to get purchase on the icy surfaces, and she therefore focusses on the emerging tense relations between the expedition’s organisers and the various scientists. The trip is a corporate training exercise (in female leadership) run by Fabian Dattner. She is very much at the heart of the whole enterprise (though she does have a male sidekick, who has the sense to take a back seat), and she clearly believes in her mission. The problem is that team building exercises and corporate management-training jargon don’t go down too well with these highly educated and rationally-orientated women. It is either too touchy feely or doesn’t have much sociological purchase on patriarchal inequalities. So, we get little side interviews to camera from the dissenters which can then be held against Fabian explaining herself to camera.

At one point, when Fabian is going through one of her endless debriefing sessions, all the scientists run to the windows because there is a whale breaching alongside the boat. Fabian seems mildly irritated by this rush to distraction but then the whales are more interesting, and nearer to why the women went there in the first place. To be fair, Fabian does grow and change during the arc of the narrative but by that stage many viewers may be past caring or simply be longing for a lot more of that wonderful animal footage.


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Dirt Music

Australian, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Leading Australian novelist Tim Winton has two big ideas (well, three if you count recognition of Aboriginal wisdom); masculinity and God. In this sensitive adaptation by Jack Thorne, of Winton’s 2001 novel Dirt Music, both themes are present.

The central concern is troubled relationships and the film takes its time to explore these as they ebb and flow like the ocean. The sea, or rather our coastal relationship to it, is a constant backdrop and a vital aspect of both the film and the book. From the very beginning, we see the main female character Georgie (an interestingly cast, suntanned Kelly Macdonald successfully losing her Scottish burr) strip down and plunge fearlessly into it. She is a strong swimmer and, like the men in the film, she acts first and thinks second. Georgie’s sometime partner Jim (David Wenham looking suitably weathered) is a cray fisherman. He is a rough diamond but not without a steak of vulnerability. Georgie and Jim are making the best of their on and off again relationship, but we sense that they are they are drifting apart despite themselves.

When Georgie happens to meet Lu (Garrett Hedlund), he is out in a tinnie poaching Jim’s crayfish, so the characters’ lives are entwined, and we learn this is so in more ways than one. Lu is so handsome that she is immediately attracted to him. He is another strong silent type (all the men in Winton’s worlds feel strongly but can’t verbalise easily). With a ute and tousled hair and a dog, he looks like the quintessential Aussie male that could have strayed out of a beer advert. When they meet, we kind of know what is coming. Deliberately not calculating the correct course of action, they go straight to bed and decide to worry about the consequences later. Hedlund, like MacDonald, is not actually Australian, but he certainly looks the part here. It is not accidental that he’s like a character in a Western (the film is another kind of Western), seemingly driven by an existential quest to get away. Possibly for him, only complete geographic remoteness can assuage his pain.


A lot of the film is taken up with Lu trying to get there, and then with Georgie’s pursuit. In the way that director Gregor Jordan (Two Hands, Buffalo Soldiers) helms, it sometimes feels too drawn out. Perhaps this is because it is an adaptation and it proceeds at a novelist’s rather than a filmmaker’s pace. There is also, of course, the not-incidental pleasures of the immense coastal landscapes ravishingly filmed by cinematographer Sam Chiplin.

Then there is the religious angle. Winton has made no secret of his faith and the religious impulse is near the centre of his art. This too is as ancient as the sea. Art always used to be about man’s relationship to the numinous or the ineffable; it’s just that, in a largely secular age, we no longer expect or honour that. The book and the film never ram it down our throats either, but there are some things that happen near the end that are inexplicable in the rational universe. Sometimes, love too, is a miracle.

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Sputnik

Horror, Review, sci-fi, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

There’s a sweet spot between the sci-fi and horror genres, a glorious intersection of the two, and within that halcyon zone exists great bloody movies. Don’t believe us? Try Alien (1979), John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), The Fly (1986), Event Horizon (1997) and Annihilation (2018), all examples of cross-genre excellence. Of course, it’s a hard balancing act and not everyone can get it right. However, Russian film Sputnik gives it a red hot go and the result is pretty damn impressive.


Sputnik tells the tale of psychiatrist Dr. Tatyana Yuryevna Klimova (Oksana Akinshina), who has been given the top secret task of interviewing cosmonaut Konstantin (Pyotr Fyodorov), to find out more about his apparent amnesia regarding the death of his copilot. The year is 1983, with the Cold War on its last gasp, so tensions are high and become even more so when Tatyana realises Konstantin has brought something with him from space. Something that’s… not human. As more and more secrets are revealed, our pragmatic heroine must decide whether to side with governmental bureaucracy or the troubled man she feels increasing empathy for, all the while trying to understand the motivations of our extraterrestrial visitor.



Sputnik is a slick and stylish film, gorgeously shot with superb creature design that belies its relatively low budget. It didn’t cost a lot, but that money was spent wisely, and it shows in every gorgeous frame. It’s essentially a three hander, with Tatyana and Konstantin as our main characters, and the rather severe and taciturn Colonel Semiradov (Fyodor Bondarchuk) rounding out the cast. Of course, there’s a wee beastie from beyond too, but this is a film best gone into with as little information as possible, so we won’t elaborate too much on that. Point is, the escalating tension, the skillfully realised horror set pieces and the solid cast all make this tale gripping and engaging. And while the ending isn’t quite as mind-blowing as it ought to have been, this is still a very well-told yarn that sits firmly ‘twixt sci-fi and horror, and brings modest but enjoyable helpings of both.

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Bloody Hell

Australian, Horror, Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

Horror comedy is one of those things that looks like a piece of piss, but is actually extremely difficult to pull off. For every Evil Dead 2, An American Werewolf in London or Shaun of the Dead there are heaving landfills’ worth of z-grade shlock that confuse “noisy” with “funny” and “rip off” with “homage”. Due to the high degree of difficulty associated with this cross genre balancing act, it’s always good to celebrate those rare occasions when it’s done right. With that in mind, we would like to introduce you to Bloody Hell: an Aussie horror comedy that’s an absolute little ripper.

Bloody Hell tells the tale of Rex Coen (Ben O’Toole), a charming but impulsive young man who is infamous for violently foiling an armed robbery, but served an eight year jail sentence on account of some collateral damage. After he’s done his time, Rex decides to bugger off to Finland for a change of scene. When he gets there… well, the scene certainly changes but it’s not one he ever would have hoped for. Without giving too much away, the rest of the film plays out as a wild ride that includes cannibalism, limb-lopping and a truly fucked up Finnish family with a dark secret.



As fun as the story is, what sets Bloody Hell apart from the horror comedy pack is its command of tone and style. Director Alister Grierson (Sanctum) brings a light touch, even in the more gruesome scenes, and deftly nails the comedic beats set up in the script by Robert Benjamin. However, it’s Ben O’Toole’s performance(s) as both Rex and Rex’s Id (or conscience or ego?), with the snarky back and forth banter – even if in the face of involuntary amputation or certain death – that gives the flick a pleasingly surreal vibe; like riding a ghost train on a low dose of psilocybin.

Bloody Hell is that rare horror comedy that manages to be both scary and funny, but more than that, it’s surprising. The plot is twisty and brisk, the characters well realised and engaging and the acting is unusually nuanced and well observed. In terms of indie Aussie horror flicks (bunging on American accents, naturally) it’s punching far, far above its weight. Ignore the torture porny poster art, and get your eyeballs on this delightful flick, because bloody hell, Bloody Hell is an absolute hoot!


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Antebellum

Horror, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Racial themes have been a part of genre films for as long as there have been genre films, but it certainly feels like they’ve been on the increase lately. That’s not surprising considering the tumultuous times in which we live, and quite often the result is a more cerebral, evocative movie.

Jordan Peele’s one-two punch of Get Out (2017) and Us (2019) managed it well at the cinema, and the recent Watchmen continuation by Damon Lindelof and the superb Lovecraft Country deftly paired racial themes and solid storytelling on the small screen. We’re mentioning these examples of allegory-heavy media done right, just so we can juxtapose it with new horror flick Antebellum, which offers an unpleasant crash course in how to do it very poorly indeed.

Antebellum is a film that serves as a vehicle for a big twist. It’s not a bad twist, mind you (although it’s straight out of an M. Night Shyamalan movie we won’t name because it would give the game away), but it’s revealed before the halfway mark and it sucks the air out of the whole thing. Up until that point, the story of a slave, renamed “Eden” (Janelle Monáe) is grimly gripping, albeit one note and disturbing to the point where your humble reviewer (who has cheerfully watched Cannibal Holocaust) was beginning to wonder what was the bloody point of it all.

The thing is, if you’re making a revenge film, you need to set up the fact said vengeance is justified. Antebellum does this and then some, but when the much-deserved retribution finally arrives, it feels limp and muted. This gives the entire film a profoundly unbalanced feel, and makes the journey initially distasteful and ultimately unsatisfying. Django Unchained, for all its flaws, did a much better job at executing the promise of its premise, whereas Antebellum feels like it has loads of shocking racism to show you… and that’s about it.

Directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz know how to showcase a beautiful-looking flick. The roaming camera, the sequences captured in a single take, the effective framing of action all show a considerable grasp of the craft. Story-wise, however, Antebellum is a bit of a mess. Is it a well-intentioned mess? Possibly. Does it contain a great performance from Janelle Monáe? Absolutely. Is it a film you should go and see? Unless you’re in the mood for overwrought, unpleasant melodrama with a half decent twist but fuck all to say? Nah, mate.



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