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Swimming with Men

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This slightly odd comedy/drama is more about men than swimming. In fact, the plot device –some men forming a synchronised swimming group – is treated mostly for its inherent absurdity while the emotional focus stays on men and manhood in the modern age.

“Everybody knows” that many men face certain challenges in this post-feminist age. The old midlife crisis trope is given a modern twist with the evolution of relations between the sexes. About 40% of first marriages end in divorce (and it is usually women who instigate the split), so there are plenty of men who have a lot of adjusting to do. The other cliché is that they have trouble expressing their emotions in relationships, perhaps that is why some of them engage in ‘men’s sheds’ activities to stay connected. All this sociological background doesn’t need to be stated directly, but it frames the characters’ lives and our reading of them, nevertheless.

The story centres on Eric Scott (Rob Brydon, best known for The Trip series with Steve Coogan). He is a corporate accountant now totally stuck in his office routine. His wife Heather (Jane Horrocks) is spreading her wings and getting into local council politics. Their marriage has hit a flat spot. To the bafflement of both Heather and their son Billy, Eric decides he has to move out of the home for a bit. He also becomes mildly obsessed with the idea that Heather is having an affair. One day when swimming, Eric stumbles on a group who are practicing synchronised swimming. They have even formed a sort of swim club which has self-mocking rules a la Fight Club (rule one: you don’t talk about swim club etc). The film also takes as a rickety scaffold the sport movie tropes of getting a reluctant trainer, bonding as a team, showing us a training montage, nearly falling out with each other, and then climaxing with a final competition. It struggles to bring much ironic distance to this burden of the formulaic.

All of this should have been more fun somehow, and, indeed, some may find the film quirky enough and charming enough. Oliver Parker (An Ideal Husband, Dorian Gray) is very British and, true to type, the tone here is somewhere between heroic failure and succeeding despite yourself. The British, after all, are good at laughing at themselves, perhaps because they have to be.

The cast of semi-familiar faces are all troopers; they take to the material in good faith, but they can’t shake off the sense of doing the best of a bad job. Obviously, The Full Monty somewhat haunts this effort. That film too had a strong ensemble and something real to say about the challenges of modern-day masculinity, but it also had much more heart. Fun though it is in places, Swimming with Men won’t pass into the cinematic canon as Monty did.

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Captain Marvel

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Of all the Marvel “Phase Three” movies, Captain Marvel seemed the most worrisome. Hitting screens with an uncharacteristic lack of fanfare, on the back of a series of middling trailers, the concern has been “will this one be a dud?” Add to that screeching incel choir gibbering madly from various dark and sticky corners of the internet, and it seemed poor old Carol Danvers had the odds stacked against her. Happily, like Ms. Danvers, Captain Marvel excels when the going gets tough.

Captain Marvel tells the triumphant tale of Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), a member of an elite Kree military unit called Starforce. Carol appears human, and even has sporadic human memories, but isn’t sure how much to trust them. She and the rest of Starforce, led by Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), are busy protecting the Kree empire from the evil Skrulls, an insidious group of shapeshifting aliens. During a rescue mission they fall afoul of an ambush led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), the most nefarious and Aussie Skrull alive. Without wishing to spoil anything, let’s just say the narrative takes a few twists and turns and we end up on the “shithole” planet called Earth in the grungetastic year, 1995.

Captain Marvel, more than any other MCU flick in recent memory, is chockers with plot twists, feints and surprising reveals, so we’ll tread carefully. Needless to say, the action on earth features a younger, two eyed, Nick Fury (a digitally de-aged Samuel L. Jackson), a mystery to unravel Carol’s former life, including bestie Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch). This is where the film really begins to shine, with Larson able to show off some of her Academy Award winning acting chops. Carol’s snarky, glib banter with Fury juxtaposes beautifully with the genuine, rueful closeness she feels with Maria, offering surprisingly moving moments of pathos. However, it is homegrown Ben Mendelsohn who absolutely owns this film, speaking in his genuine Australian accent and bringing so much to a villain role that could have played as a shallow caricature.

The direction from the two-person team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Mississippi Grind) is initially a little more understated than previous entries, particularly in the film’s comparatively clumsy first act, but soon finds its footing once some of the plot reveals land. Plus the pair absolutely nail the more emotional beats, avoiding the schmaltz factor that can occasionally creep into these flicks.

Ultimately, Captain Marvel is an excellent addition to the Marvel canon, giving us a breath of hopeful fresh air before whatever occurs in Avengers: Endgame next month. The performances are stellar, the action – particularly in the third act – is spectacular, and charming banter meshes perfectly with more nuanced dramatic beats. Young Nick Fury is some of Jackson’s best work in years, Space Mendo is an actual revelation and Brie Larson proves herself a capable, admirable superhero who will hopefully curb stomp Thanos into a puddle of purple goo.

Captain Marvel is two hours of hopeful, colourful, space opera-ry comic book escapism, with a pumping ’90s soundtrack and, perhaps most importantly, an awesome ginger cat called Goose.

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Reflections in the Dust

Australian, Australian New Wave Filmmakers, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

This is an ugly movie. Some sub-genus of humanity may put that squarely on the main cast for this, but this goes beyond what some still consider to be visually grotesque. Instead, this is ugly in a very cerebral sense, meant to confront the audience with ideas that they’d likely prefer to keep unspoken or unthought. It’s the kind of experience where it is far from obvious what is going on, but it still manages to leave an indelible impression on the mind’s eye.

A story about a woman and her interactions with her clown father, played by Sarah Houbolt and Robin Royce Queree, writer/director Luke Sullivan shows a lot of French influence in his framing. The contrasting use of colour and monochrome that has followed him from his last feature You’re Not Thinking Straight, dialogue that feels designed to undermine the very concept of language, even down to the vaguely post-apocalyptic backdrop a la Jean-Luc Godard’s King Lear; it all serves as a European sheen over what amounts to a lot of bizarre, hateful and intense imagery. To add to the disorientation, there’s the fractured electronics bleeping away in the background score, very jittery editing from Shaun Smith, and Jamie Appleby’s approach to sound editing that utilises hard clanging of glass to punctuate the cuts; and you have a rather challenging film to get through.

Of course, as is the case with most cinematic challenges, the proof is in the success of braving said challenge; what does this all amount to? Well, going purely by the parameters of the work itself, we get bits and pieces that only just jut out of the dreamlike haze of the story.

Acts of aggression, misery, desolation, all set against prominently flooded scenery, that shows Houbolt at the recurring mercy of The Clown. It echoes Dean Francis’ Drown in its almost-psychedelic depiction of masculinity, with all the toxicity unfortunately intact. And yet, psychedelia and dreamscapes don’t seem to be at the forefront of the filmmaker’s mind, as the film starts and regularly intercuts with interview footage of Houbolt and Queree being asked a series of questions. Some of these questions step into the realm of navel-gazing (“Do you believe blood is thicker than water?”), while others add more uncomfortable layers to this wedding cake of grime (“Do you believe in love?”).

Reflections In The Dust lacks the immediate and quite visceral impact of Luke Sullivan’s previous work, but it still shows him taking a tremendous risk in how he bends the rules of storytelling to fit his vision. In a year where it seems like Aussie cinema as a whole is in a serious rut (The Flip Side, Chasing Comets, Breath), this wholly confounding work shows that there are still some who are willing to push what the medium and its audience are capable of. It may be a little too abstract to really get across the ideas it wishes to present, but that same presentation deserves respect.

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You can see, from an actor’s perspective, what would be appealing about a completely transformative role; an opportunity to play against type. Charlize Theron did it playing Aileen Wuornos in Patty Jenkins’ Monster (2003). More recently Christian Bale ballooned to Dick Cheney-size for Adam McKay’s Vice (2018), and now we have Nicole Kidman aka “Our Nicole” becoming the skeletal, damaged protagonist of director Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer, to fascinating although not always entirely successful results.

Destroyer tells the tragic tale of self-destructive LAPD detective, Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman). When we first meet her, she looks haggard and wan, barely able to stand up straight as she arrives on the scene of a “John Doe” murder. Erin soon realises this new case relates to her in a very personal way, and we begin a series of flashbacks that continue throughout the film, effectively showing us two timelines and explaining how Erin became the fatalistic scarecrow of her present, and how she’ll confront the many demons of her past.

First and foremost, it should be noted that Nicole Kidman is absolutely fantastic in this role. Although it’s hard to believe we’re uttering the words “neo noir thriller” and “hard-boiled drama” in the same sentence as “Nicole Kidman”, she really gives it her all, effectively portraying a doomed cop desperately seeking any kind of redemption she can find.

Director Karyn Kusama, who wowed genre fans with the effective, chilling The Invitation (2015) also brings much style and visual intrigue to the proceedings, effectively contrasting Erin’s past and present. The screenplay, however, written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi feels like it could have used a little more work. It’s far from bad, but it feels a tad too familiar, playing out as a kind of mashup of Lili Fini Zanuck’s Rush (1991) and sprinkled with a little of Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000). And though it manages to be effective, and sustains interest, you’re unlikely to be blown away by the conclusion.

Another aspect that may be distracting to some is Kidman’s makeup. Quite a lot of it has been used to make her realistically sickly and hollow-cheeked and it does occasionally render her (let’s be frank) already rather stiff features even more so. Those quibbles aside, however, Destroyer is an extremely effective work. Kidman is capably backed by a support cast that includes Sebastian Stan, Toby Kebbell, Tatiana Maslany and Bradley Whitford – all of whom do exemplary work – and while the story is perhaps not fresh enough to make it an instant classic, it’s a solid, emotionally resonant film that will have you seeing a frequently overlooked actress in a new, grim light.


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The Night Eats the World

Horror, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

The zombie genre has become such an overused cliche that it’s even a cliche to talk about what a cliche it is, so we’ll spare you to the usual spiel. Point is, if you’re going to release a zombie flick in the year of our Dark Lord 2019, you’d better be bringing something fresh, unique and interesting to the table. Happily, The Night Eats the World manages at least a couple of those accolades and is an effective slice of genre filmmaking in its own right.

The Night Eats the World tells the tale of Sam (Anders Danielsen Lie), a vaguely misanthropic musician who is reluctantly visiting his ex-girlfriend, Fanny (Sigrid Bouaziz) to retrieve some audio tapes he left with her. However, when he arrives there is a party in full swing and Sam, unable to get Fanny alone, retreats to a backroom and passes out. During the night chaos reigns and when Sam wakes up the next day, he faces a world that has completely changed, and the surprisingly spry dead are frenziedly feeding on the flesh of the living.

Anyone who has seen 28 Days Later, Dawn of the Dead (1978 or 2004) or even Shaun of the Dead (or about six hundred others) will be familiar with the basic setup here. Where Night sets itself apart is through tone and perspective, which in this case is very French. Sam is a compelling protagonist, who reacts to most situations with an appealing sense of practicality, but he’s also troubled and possibly mentally unstable. This volatile mix adds a unique sense of tension to the proceedings, where we’re never sure how much to trust Sam’s perspective. The zombies, too, feel quite fresh, standing stationary until they see or hear something and then moving nightmarishly fast, similar to the Aussie undead in Cargo, but also completely silent; with nary a groan of a hiss to be heard from them. Combined with very little dialogue throughout the film, this imbues the movie with a curious sonic minimalism which is oddly effective and extremely creepy.

Ultimately, The Night Eats the World plays out like a French indie I Am Legend, with lashings of 28 Days Later-style fast paced action and surprising moments of existential rumination. It’s confidently directed by Dominique Rocher, extremely effectively acted by Anders Danielsen Lie and reminds even the most zombie agnostic why there’s still twitchy, toothy life left in this versatile sub-genre.

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Island of the Hungry Ghosts

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

Director Gabrielle Brady has made a moving little documentary about refugee detention centres, in this case Christmas Island. Island of the Hungry Ghosts has a number of strands that reverberate with each other metaphorically. Firstly, Christmas Island is famous for its red crab migration, where literally thousands of the little crustaceans teem annually to the sea. We follow the park rangers as they smooth a path to the ocean. They even erect temporary road signs to warn cars that the crabs have priority (not that there is much traffic).

If only we spent as much care with the human inhabitants of the island. Brady also films the trauma therapist Poh-Lin Lee, who patiently listens to refugee accounts. Using ‘sand box therapy’ she gets the refugees to recount their perilous voyages in the hope of exorcising some of their trauma.

Lastly, there is issue of Malay-Chinese who visit the island to allay the suffering of the titular ‘hungry ghosts’ – ancestors of the early migrant labourers who worked on the island and did not receive a proper ritual/burial.

All three strands concern the need for justice and care. Like the crabs, the refugees cannot go forward, only sideways. Their future is blocked. They have little hope of being accepted. At times, their stories (even when Brady is tactful enough to let some details remain unfilmed) are almost too hard to bear. One wonders how Poh-Lin Lee feels listening to these accounts, day after day, and indeed she does seem to despair at not being able to change their outcomes. Her programme is itself under threat.

The true cruelty and human cost of the so-called ‘Pacific solution’ – the internment in camps of desperate people who have struggled to come and get a new life in Australia – is constantly in and out of the news. However, Brady could not have predicted that her film would be so suddenly and unfortunately contemporary. At great financial cost, the government says it is going to re-open Christmas Island as a detention centre following the debacle over getting sick refugees off Nauru.

As indicated, Brady’s low budget film is all the more powerful for being so quiet and unhistrionic. It has been doing the festival circuit but is now getting a small theatrical release. Hopefully it will continue to move people and raise awareness.

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Fighting with My Family

Review, Theatrical, This Week 3 Comments

If you want a good laugh, you’ll find it here. If you want some Rocky-style physical exertion, you’ll get your fill from this. Even if you’re not all that interested in pro wrestling, the serious talent at all corners of this production has a solid chance of winning you over anyway.

After nearly two decades worth of collaborations with polarising British comedian Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant is back in the director’s chair for his first solo feature-length outing. While a film about ‘soap opera in spandex’, made by one of the lankiest comedians on Earth, seems a bit off, Fighting With My Family finds Merchant in his usual wheelhouse of playing spectator to a parade of overblown ego. Only this time around, we’re also given people worth caring about.

Based on the documentary The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family, this film plays out knowing that there is an entirely factual recounting already out there about the WWE champion, Paige. As such, while it dips and turns with historical accuracy in places (like pretty much all biopics), it nails the two things that the format shares with wrestling itself: being able to sell the artificial drama and making the audience keep cheering. And on both counts, this film passes with flying colours.

Florence Pugh’s (Lady Macbeth, The Little Drummer Girl series) turn as the pale-faced outsider from Norwich finds her in prime form, acting as the nucleus for what turns out to be a pitch-perfect cast, from Nick Frost as the burly father to Jack Lowden as the vexed and jealous brother. Even Vince Vaughn, who isn’t exactly in his prime these days, does marvellously with his hilariously dry delivery.

From the bedrock of the script, and truly fantastic visuals courtesy of DOP Remi Adefarasin (Elizabeth, Me Before You), audiences are given an incredibly potent offering that hits them right where it hurts, whether it’s aiming for the funnybone or square at the gut. It’s almost unfair how good this film turns out, as it really gives the feeling that Merchant has been held back all this time, with this serving as a visceral release of creative energy.

And from that release, we get one of the best hit-to-miss ratios for comedy of any film in the last several months, a fixation on backstage drama that unearths surprisingly complex characters, and a devotion to the sport of wrestling that feels like it comes from a genuine place. It bypasses a lot of the entry-level gripes (“It’s fake”, etc.) and highlights the raw talent and personality needed to thrive within it.

For the first WWE Studios production, it serves a nice balance between endearing self-promotion and well-executed underdog sports drama.

If you want a good laugh, you’ll find it here. If you want some Rocky-style physical exertion, you’ll get your fill from this. Even if you’re not all that interested in pro wrestling, the serious talent at all corners of this production has a solid chance of winning you over anyway. And while it gives Pugh some much-needed attention, it also shows that Stephen Merchant is a talent worth keeping around, even without his partner-in-cringe.

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King of Thieves

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Bank robbery films are a great genre, with all their inbuilt tension and connection to our universal desire to strike it rich. The cinema is strewn with great examples and when you add a killer British cast like this one, you should be on to a winner. The director, James Marsh has also made some fine films (recently The Theory of Everything, The Mercy and the great docos Project Nim and Man on Wire), so he has earned the right to have a go at this genre. It is just a shame that he doesn’t quite bring off the big one here. Cinematically, this is the equivalent of breaking into the Tower of London and coming away with only a couple of quid. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

The film is based around the true story of these professional thieves/career criminals who broke into a safe deposit facility in Hatton Garden in 2015 where they lightened the load of a few safe deposit boxes to the tune of about 25 million pounds.

We join the story when a younger crim, Basil (Charlie Cox), who has the key to the security system, approaches old lag Brian (Michael Caine). Brian digs up some old associates – Terry (Jim Broadbent), Kenny (Tom Courtenay), Danny (Ray Winstone) and their fence, Billy the Fish (Michael Gambon). Much of the film recreates their ingenious but also laborious tunneling into the vault.

The problem is that we are used to robberies in the Hollywood mode (a la Ocean’s Eleven) being swift and nifty, with tense music and swirling camera moves. Here we get drills grinding and old men bickering. It may be realistic, but it isn’t cinematic. It is a robbery at Zimmer frame pace. Nor is there much tension in the overarching plot; the crims were all ‘known to the police’ and once the cops got onto to one of them it was easy to trace the others.

The other problem is the age of the estimable cast. This is the elephant in the room and the director decides to make it a thing in itself. However, there’s only so many jokes you can make about falling asleep on the job or needing to pee every few minutes, before it erodes our interest and our patience. The actors, too, rein in their performances too much. For example, Ray Winstone – who in his prime was scarier than a Pitbull with rabies – seems a bit mild here. Caine, even in his rheumy-eyed twilight is still a huge screen presence but he can’t carry the whole film. It is a shame because a cast like this ought to make it a must-see, at least on paper. Perhaps they could have passed on this ‘one last job’; after all, it’s not as if they haven’t got enough in the bank themselves.

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When twenty-something Frances (Chloe Grace Moretz) finds a handbag on the subway, she does the ‘right thing’ and returns it to its owner, French widow and piano teacher Greta (Isabelle Huppert). Frances’ roommate Erica (Maika Monroe) believes that her friend is naïve, but despite this cynicism Frances and Greta’s unlikely friendship rapidly develops.

With Frances having recently lost her mother, and Greta’s daughter apparently living overseas, the two women find a mutual solace, the older woman’s cottage-like Brooklyn house offering the reassuring warmth of the maternal home, despite the banging behind the wall (the neighbours doing construction work, Greta informs Frances). While the city’s inhabitants are busy and indifferent to much around them, the two outsiders – European immigrant Greta, and out-of-towner Frances – appear to share an innocence which manifests around the returned handbag, kitchen comforts, and a pet dog. But then Frances makes an accidental discovery and the relationship spins into a rapidly unfolding nightmare of need, obsession, stalking, and darkness.

To say more would, of course, give too much plot away, but needless to say, after seeing this movie most people won’t be returning lost property anytime soon.

Neil ‘The Company of Wolves, The Butcher Boy, The Crying Game’ Jordan’s latest film is a horror-thriller, rooted in female friendships, the nature of loneliness, and the endless grasp of loveless need. The director’s New York is almost like a fairy tale, complete with cobbled streets, dark back alleys, and a quasi-bucolic cottage that seems far from most cinematic images of the city.

With her cycling and love of animals, Frances is almost the cliched ingenue; in contrast Greta’s increasingly nightmarish presence lends a suitably gothic undertow to the proceedings.

There are, of course, clear B-movie roots at play alongside the nods to art house cinema, and Jordan combines both elements with a keen sensibility. There is a sense of the various pleasures to be had from genre cinema – the director and cast share an appreciation for the material – and the film maintains a palpable degree of nervous tension throughout.

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Sometimes Always Never

Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

You know you have really achieved some special place in the public’s consciousness when just your name calls forth an instant picture of you as a type. English actor Bill Nighy has this in spades. You could compare him to someone like Hugh Grant, who cornered the market as the dithering Englishman who can’t quite bring himself to say what we know he wants to. But Nighy is a slightly different animal, and actually more three dimensional. The veteran thesp always seems to surprise you whilst being essentially the same. There’s something so effortless about his performances that they must be based on lots of hard work.

In this very slight but very charming English comedy (well, comedy drama) he plays Alan, a man in later life who is still working through his issues and driving his family mad whilst doing so. Alan was a tailor, which is the perfect profession for someone who cares about doing things just right. The irony is that he doesn’t realise that his eccentricities and obsessiveness drive others up the wall. A long time ago, Alan’s son Michael disappeared, and he has been both searching for him and searching his own conscience as to why he left in the first place. When Alan hears that there may be a sighting of the lost son, he heads off to reconnect with his other son and to investigate.

The script is based on a short story by prolific TV and big screen writer Frank Cottrell Boyce (Millions, Goodbye Christopher Robin). Boyce has a very well-judged sense of how to make the characters and situations charming but not stray into affectation. He also clearly loves Scrabble and there are some wonderful little scenes concerning this addictive and iconic game including a great early sequence in which Alan hustles a fellow guest (Tim McInnerny) he meets at a hotel. Sometimes, British films get it just right in terms of being sweet without being cloying and quirky without being stupid. This is such a film, a charming little sleeper that will please audiences for a long time to come.