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Backtrace

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Following a bank job, Macdonald (Matthew Modine) and his fellow bank robbers do a back-woods rendezvous with shady partners in order to split the cash. The only wrinkle is that Macdonald and his fellow thieves already divvied the cash up and buried what they adamantly believe is their share of the $20 million spoils. The shady partners are none too pleased and a shoot-out ensues, seeing Macdonald’s accomplices all violently dispatched and Macdonald himself legging it through dense woods. During this tense escape, Macdonald cops a bullet to the head and thus a permanent bout of amnesia.

Fast forward seven years and Macdonald is a shell of his former-self and something of a man adrift. He’s banged up in maximum security for a crime he doesn’t remember committing, receiving regular visits from Sykes (Sylvester Stallone), a cop who worked his case and lives in hope of him remembering his crimes. One day, a fellow prisoner poised-for-release named Lucas (Ryan Guzman) offers Macdonald a chance to escape, aided by seemingly compromised prison officer Farren (Tyler Jon Olson) and prison Nurse Erin (Meadow Williams). Macdonald is smuggled out of the facility, to a deserted location where he’s offered a chance to remember his fragmented past with the help of an experimental new drug that restores memories but also causes intense pain. Submitting to the drug, Macdonald is as hopeful at the prospect of restoring his memories, as his abetters are about locating the stolen money from the bank job he cannot remember. On the trail of the escapee is the world-weary Sykes, who’s partnered with the tetchy Franks (Christopher MacDonald), and the pair endlessly bicker while overseeing the manhunt.

Mike Maples’ screenplay is pedestrian, lacking plausibility or weight. There are some serious logic holes which are helped in no small part by the fairly capable cast, particularly Modine who’s rather excellent as a man without a past. The low-budget nature of the production means that most scenes (save the prison sequences) take place in abandoned forests, desolate roads, vacant houses and empty factories, which leaves the viewer with a weird sense of emptiness and makes the film seem stagey. There are twists (obviously Macdonald is something of an unreliable protagonist) which help keep the plot moving along at a decent speed and Thomas Calderón’s editing coupled with Australian Peter A. Holland’s camera work give the action sequences some much needed pep.

The nature of Stallone’s supporting role means that he probably spent only a few days on the set, but he does alright with the modicum of character that the script presents him with. Stallone wears the part like an old shoe, busting out his ‘crusty old cop’ arsenal of character traits and gravelly-voiced grump, carving out a pretty solid performance on the whole.

Overall, it’s a straight-up VOD B-movie and knows what it needs to do to get the job done.

 
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Castle Rock: The Complete First Season

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The premise for Castle Rock could only go one of two ways: bloody great or bloody awful. The conceit is a drama thriller that takes place in the town of Castle Rock, the location of some of Stephen King’s most horrific tales. In lesser hands this could have rendered the series an inert collection of King fanservice, where every car is called Christine and every dog is a Saint Bernard. Happily, and surprisingly, the actual end result is a far more subtle and stranger proposition.

We’re slowly introduced to the weird world of Castle Rock through criminal attorney Henry Deaver (Andre Holland) who is drawn back into his hometown after getting an anonymous call to represent a strange young man called “The Kid” (Bill Skarsgard). Said character is a creepy amnesiac who had been kept at Shawshank Prison off the books, and seems to have a strange effect on those who he touches… Of course this is just the tip of the weird iceberg that Castle Rocks represents, and we soon meet possibly psychic Molly Strand (Melanie Lynskey), chirpy but quirky Jackie Torrence (Jane Levy) and Henry’s adopted mum, Ruth Deaver (Sissy Spacek).

In terms of Stephen King’s mythology, it’s Scott Glenn as Alan Pangborn who is the most direct reference point. Pangborn was the sheriff of Castle Rock for a decade, and in that time faced the sentient pseudonym, George Stark (The Dark Half) and owner of a store with an extremely dodgy returns policy, Leland Gaunt (Needful Things). In this series, Alan has a personal relationship with Henry and a very intimate relationship with his mum, Ruth. This leads to quality family drama and genuinely surprising twists and turns, with the viewer never entirely sure about who to trust.

In terms of performances the entire cast are stellar, with Holland, Lynskey and Skarsgard doing superb work; however it is Sissy Spacey (previously cast in Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie) who owns the show with a stunning turn as a woman beset by Alzheimer’s trying to hold onto the past for as long as possible. The seventh episode titled “The Queen” isn’t just the best of Castle Rock, it’s possibly the best hour of television from 2018.

Ultimately, Castle Rock is a risky genre experiment that pays off beyond all expectations. Certainly, there are questionable elements, the deliberate pace of the series left the final episode with too much to do and the ending hotly contested, but the journey to get there remains deeply satisfying. Plus this is the first series of (hopefully) many, so the lingering unresolved plot strands will no doubt be revisited at some point down the line.

The extra features are a tad scant here, with two featurettes that are essentially puff pieces, however the Inside the Episode mini-docos for each part are a great deeper dive into the more obscure elements of the story.

Castle Rock is stellar genre television and a loving homage to a master storyteller that can stand on its own. You don’t need to be a fan of Stephen King to appreciate it, but those who are even vaguely familiar with the work of Maine’s most famous son are in for a deliciously twisted treat.

 
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All the Devil’s Men

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Jack Collins (Milo Gibson) is an unstable, world-weary ex-Navy Seal who tracks US’s most-wanted and terrorist targets under the auspices of CIA outsourcing. His handler for the CIA, Leigh (Blade Runner 2049’s Sylvia Hoeks) offers him a job, despite the apparent PTSD Jack’s been suffering and the other mental issues that assail him.

He’s dispatched to London (on what sounds like the premise to a Mission: Impossible film) in order to take down a rogue CIA operative named McKnight (Elliot Cowan) before he procures a nuke from Russian gangsters.

Jack’s assigned a team, in the form of operatives-for-hire Brennan (William Fichtner) and Samuelson (Gbenga Akinnagbe). Once in London, the group meet CIA compatriot Deighton (Joseph Millson) and it’s Deighton’s wobbly morality and possible connection to McKnight and his ‘is-he-or-isn’t-he-about-to-cross-everyone’ persona that leads to more violent shenanigans across London, in pursuit of McKnight and the warheads he’s trying to snarf.

There are double (and triple) crosses aplenty as Jack and Deighton continually lock horns and tread the well-worn path of bromance turned sour grapes.

It’s hardly an original format: the battle-weary warrior, the ‘Ronin’ looking for an end to the pain of existence. We get it. Writer/Director Matthew Hope is a dab hand at directing low-budget action sequences and on that front, if shoot-outs are your bag then there’s a fair bit of that to enjoy here. Other than applauding the filmmakers for wringing every drop from an all-too-obviously small budget, there’s little else to recommend this, except the sharply acidic William Fichtner, a hardened veteran of Hollywood supporting roles; he’s incapable of being anything less than enjoyable. As the lead, Gibson is unabashedly riding his surname’s coat tails (and his physical similarity to his dad) but physically, he’s got the goods, it’s just the underwritten script that leaves him – and the rest of the cast – twisting in the wind.

Overall, the fight choreography and action sequences are deftly executed but the brutally ‘by-the-numbers’ scripting, coupled with a considerable lack of character depth or humour, just annihilates any joy that could be derived from the film.

 
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Stay Human

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With the world regularly looking like it’s going down the toilet, how do we stay positive? That – though asked in far more eloquent words – is the question at the centre of this absorbing documentary.

Michael Franti, best known for his lyrical and musical work with The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy and Spearhead, fronts his own story, exploring what it means to be human, and how we can hold on to it in a complicated and unpredictable reality.

Franti takes the audience on a journey through his songs and creative processes and plays them alongside the inspiring tales of people he’s met throughout his career. These are people such as Robin Lim, a midwife who founded special birthing centres in the Philippines following the devastating effect of typhoons. She pinpoints the pain of living in the modern world as originating in how we are born, with the trauma of being surgically removed from the parent a hurt that takes many years to recover from.

The central fight for staying human is, in Franti’s view, the battle between cynicism and optimism. Steve and Hope Dezember are a couple with an integral role in the film, displaying this optimism and love of life, no matter what the circumstances. The pair’s enduring love is reflected in Hope’s commitment to her partner after he developed a diagnosis of the neurodegenrative disease ALS. The challenges faced by the couple, and their strength in enjoying every part of life, is captured beautifully, and served as a starting point for the film project itself.

A love for the whole world, and how humanity can help treat it better, is reflected in the story of Arief Rabik, a Balinese environmental scientist who has come up with an ingenious way of processing bamboo to reduce deforestation.

Franti also travels to Port Elizabeth, South Africa, where he meets two young people, Busisiwwe Vazi and Sive Mazinyo, who have inspired their local community through the power of music and education.

Franti’s own difficulties, including troubles with depression and a complicated relationship with his father and history as an adopted child, are movingly addressed. His passion and constant search for inspiring vision is at the beating heart of this powerful documentary, that shows how and why humans can remain engaged with life.

 
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Billionaire Boys Club

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There’s a stinky pall of cruel fate hovering over this retooling of 1989’s based-on-a-true-story TV movie, Billionaire Boys Club (which served as a starring vehicle for “Brat Packer” Judd Nelson). The story is a classic one: ‘80s excess and coke-fuelled youthful promise corrupted by greed and the sweaty-palmed clutch for cash.

Joe Hunt (Ansel Elgort) lives with his father, Ryan (Judd Nelson), and spends his days on the make, struggling to sell his stock market skills and coax over-cashed, feckless trust-fund brats into investing the money that their parents worked so very hard for. Enter Dean Karny (Taron Edgerton), an old school buddy whose ambition-fuelled trajectory intersects with Joe’s, and the two form an unholy alliance, as they spruik their “paradox philosophy”, a masturbatory exercise in business ethics and moral equivalency, conveniently negating morality and ethics that might serve to hinder money-making opportunities.

Such lunk-headed wisdom soon converts brothers, Scott Biltmore (Ryan Rottman) and Kyle Biltmore (Jeremy Irvine), who sign on board the fledgling BBC, an investment company which allegedly took its enigmatic acronym from “The Bombay Bicycle Club”, though once all the crooked and shady events had unspooled, it was dubbed by the media, “Billionaire Boys Club.”

BBC’s partners soon meet Ron Levin (Kevin Spacey in Swimming with Sharks mode), and it’s with Levin’s promise of mountains of investment cash that the young men’s dreams of mammon begin to take shape, and pretty soon it’s cavernous marble and glass apartments, coke lines on glass coffee tables, and pastel polo shirts with popped collars.

Though all is not what it seems, and the hustlers soon become the hustled, which eventually spirals into murderous deeds, orchestrating kidnappings, fraudulent Ponzi schemes and wrestling to the death with crazed, opium-addicted Iranians.

Look, this isn’t a bad film; in fact, it’s a fairly enjoyable cautionary yarn. Taron Egerton is slightly miscast as the conniving “Mean Dean” but he shoulders the part; Elgort offers much the same problem as he did in the catastrophically overrated Baby Driver: he’s a charisma vacuum and presents something of an issue in a story that requires audience connection with the plight of the lead character. Spacey is pretty good as the dodgy Ron Levin, hamming things up and sleazing his way through scenes.

Director James Cox (who previously directed Val Kilmer as porn icon John Holmes in Wonderland) really just copped an unlucky roll of the dice, in that this was the final performance of Kevin Spacey, before his career was immolated by the revelations of his predilection for aggressive sexual harassment. As a result, the film was shelved, and then after the dust settled on Spacey’s behaviour, and kicked into a measly theatrical release in order to honour contractual obligations. The resulting box office gross of $618 had to have been a kick in the teeth for the filmmakers; for Spacey, it’s something of a death knell for his cinematic career.

Overall, the treatment is too tepid to rub shoulders with The Wolf Of Wall Street and too derivative (despite being a true story) to set itself apart from other “impressionable guys getting in over their heads” movies (Oliver Stone’s return to the Wall Street well Money Never Sleeps and Todd Phillips’ War Dogs spring to mind). Okay movie, wrong actor, wrong time.

 
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The Bombing (aka Air Strike)

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This Chinese-produced, big-budget action drama was devised as a salute to the Allied victory of fascism in World War II, however, it became a casualty of the tax evasion scandal that embroiled star actress Fan Bingbing, who was convicted, jailed (and subsequently released) for financial fraud. From a PR perspective, the film was damaged-goods and for various reasons, it was ultimately shelved (it was shot in 2015) and its Chinese release cancelled. Now, it’s undergone a name change, coupled with a re-jigged release in the US.

As it stands, the story features a crumpled and thoroughly disengaged Bruce Willis as U.S. Military advisor Colonel Jack Johnson, ‘training’ a squadron of Chinese pilots who are battling an onslaught of Japanese air attacks. At the same time, ex-pilot Xue Gangtou (Ye Liu) drives a military truck with a top-secret cargo through dangerous territory, along the way rescuing a schoolteacher (Ma Su) and some of her students who’ve survived an air attack. All this is capped off by a mahjong tournament that takes place in the capital during the bombing raids, presumably meant to give some sort of human-focused climax to the proceedings.

What was clearly intended to be a lavish, Hollywood style epic with multiple plot threads, numerous characters (both Chinese and American) and an epic scope, has been mercilessly re-edited into a frenzy of action sequences interspersed with discombobulated dramatic scenes and squeezed into a running time of just over 90 minutes.

According to the credits, Mel Gibson was a ‘consultant’, though it’s hard to see how any such creative input has been applied to the characters or story, or for that matter any overall logic applied to the tonal flow of the film.

The plotting and pacing have been so bizarrely clipped, there’s been zero effort in editing the film to create an emotional through-line on which to hang the character moments. The resulting experience amounts to a montage of segments from scenes where the scripting and performances weren’t that great to start with, where Chinese actors deliver over-dubbed lines like “Sir! Please allow us to go kick some ass!” This punctuates the gossamer-thin story thread with a leaden thud.

To make things worse, what are clearly, half-finished effects shots and sloppily composited CG action sequences that wouldn’t feel believable on a PlayStation 2 only serve to undermine any semblance of drama.

Tonally weird character histrionics take Hollywood style combat jeopardy clichés to a laughable extreme (the pilot with a picture of his sweetheart and child next to his altimeter is fundamentally going to die, that was established quite clearly in Hot Shots and even then, the character was called ‘Dead Meat’).

A great deal of money was spent here, though it seems to have been utterly derailed by the problematic production woes. There have been a number of slickly executed, western-aimed Chinese productions that managed to effectively cross the cultural and lingual barrier, however, it seems that this one exploded on the launch pad.=

The rapid-fire hack and slash editing that skips through dramatic beats like a trailer montage, is testament to the fact that there was at least an intent to tell a sprawling story on an epic canvas, but that crucial balance of story, tone and character is reliant on the wax and wane of the financial and creative forces at play during production. If these elements were interfered with, then the whole damn thing can unravel – and how.

 
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Marvel’s Iron Fist Season 2

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Boy, did Marvel listen.

The first season of Marvel’s Iron Fist landed with a resounding thud not unlike a noob kung fu disciple hitting the mat. Critics were unkind, fans were unimpressed, and the general consensus was that it was the worst of Marvel’s Netflix offerings so far.

However, it seems that the powers that be had considerable faith in Danny Rand (Finn Jones), heir-to-billions-turned-mystic-martial-arts-master, and after co-starring in The Defenders and guesting on Luke Cage, the wielder of the titular metal mitt is back in the saddle of his own series. And while Iron Fist is still not in a position comparable to the best of the MarFlix series (if you’re wondering, Jessica Jones S1 is the reigning champ), this season it has definitely found its feet, becoming a solid action procedural.

That’s chiefly down to some serious tonal retooling. Season 2, under the stewardship of new showrunner Raven Metzner, handily picking up the baton fumbled by departing incumbent Scott Buck. Metzner doesn’t retcon anything that has gone before (although to be honest, memories of Season 1 are rather indistinct…) but rather deftly pushes the whole operation in a new direction. The show now feels like it knows what it wants to be and where it wants to go, and that confidence is refreshing.

The changes are myriad but generally subtle. One thing that jumps out is that our hero is less of an asshole. Original Recipe Danny Rand was nigh-unbearable in his #worldtraveller smug wokeness, but this season he’s a much more humble and driven character, having taken up Daredevil’s vigilante duties in the wake of the events of The Defenders. Eschewing luxury, he’s moving furniture by day, mopping up criminals in Chinatown by night, and making a cute couple with fellow martial artist/former member of The Hand (there is so much backstory and jargon now – just go with it if you’re a bit lost) Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick).

It’s a nice little superhero life, suddenly complicated by two things: the arrival of Danny’s old friend and rival Davos (Sacha Dawan), a fellow student in the mystical city of K’un L’un (so much backstory and jargon…); and the appearance of the mysterious Mary (Alice Eve), who is either a naive artist trying to make it in the Big Apple, a deadly assassin who can go toe to toe with Iron Fist, or both.

Davos functions as the now overly familiar “dark mirror” villain of the piece, a self-flagellating ascetic bad-ass who thinks he deserves to wield the power of the Iron Fist more than Danny, and is willing to do some pretty awful stuff to wrest our guy’s glowing hand from him. As for Alice, her agenda is murkier, but fans of the comics and denizens of the internet will already know that she’s the live action incarnation of noted Marvel villain Typhoid Mary, normally an opponent of Daredevil, and we’ll just leave this hyperlink here for those who don’t mind spoilers.

Whenever these plots intersect, violence erupts – and it’s good violence, too. For all its leaden pacing and poorly sketched characters, the first season’s biggest problem was that its fight sequences were embarrassingly lackluster – that’s a serious handicap when your show is literally and specifically about a guy whose main power is Super Punching. Wisely, the production team called in veteran fight choreographer Clayton Barber to bring this season’s action beats up to par, and the improvement is immediately and viscerally noticeable. Barber understands how to reveal story and character through action. While the show is still somewhat hampered by the practical limitations of time and money, each fight scene is its own beast with its own flavour. Of the first six episodes previewed, the two stand outs are a pretty nifty scrap in a restaurant kitchen that could fit nicely in a prime-era Hong Kong action flick, and a flashback sequence that sees Danny and Davos battling in a K’un L’un temple, all flowing scarves, graceful leaping kicks, and misty lighting.

While there are connecting threads to both The Defenders and Season 1, six episodes in, Season 2 seems content to be just a street level action drama, and that’s to its credit. The plot more or less just exists to get us to the next fight, and the fights exist because, well, properly choreographed and framed fights are cool – here, as in the best action cinema, action is its own reward. While shows like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage – and even, to a degree, Daredevil – have loftier thematic goals, Iron Fist is a straight-up chop-socky beat ’em up, and that’s fine.

 
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In Darkness

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No stranger to the small screen, Natalie Dormer (Game of Throne, The Tudors) co-writes this gritty crime thriller alongside Director Anthony Byrne (Ripper Street, Peaky Blinders). The first half of the film plays like a “Hitchcockian” thriller, accompanied by a nice suspenseful film score by Niall Byrne.

Set in London’s busy streets, the film follows strong female protagonist Sofia, a blind pianist who finds herself entangled in a world of murder and crime when she hears her upstairs neighbour Veronique (Emily Ratajkowski) fall to her death. Soon discovering that Veronique’s father Radic is a ruthless criminal accused of horrific Serbian war crimes, Sofia is embroiled in a cat-and-mouse game between a dishevelled detective and the criminal underground festering with Radic’s henchmen.

Throughout the first half of the film, Sofia’s motives are at times questionable and she is not initially who she seems, as her own path of revenge is revealed. Mysterious thug Marc (Ed Skrein) seems to play Sofia’s knight-in-shining-armour, which at times feels unnecessary simply because of the fact that Dormer kicks-ass as a one-woman wrecking machine. But the connection both characters have developed makes for a nice twisted romantic part to the story.

The storyline is at times generic, yet it does have redeeming qualities. Anthony Byrne constructs a very simple, yet effective scene where a fight breaks out, but all you can see are fighting shadows on a wall; plus, tight pacing, slick sound design, plus Dormer’s strong blind person, who outshines all the other characters in the film.

The film provides a few too many twists and turns, which makes for a convoluted narrative and an unconvincing ending, however, you can also easily look past this to appreciate it for the impressively directed, clever thriller that it is. All-in-all a nice addition to the small screen.

 
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7 Days in Entebbe

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Brazilian director Jose Padilha is no stranger to the action genre, best known for the Elite Squad series and the 2014 remake of RoboCop. This time, Padilha directs 7 Days in Entebbe, produced by Working Title Films, and penned by Gregory Burke (’71), based on the real-life events that took place on July 1976, when a group of revolutionaries hijacked an Air France flight carrying 250 passengers en route from Tel Aviv to Paris. The hijackers set the plane down in Entebbe, Uganda, where they held hostages captive for one week. The film depicts the real-life “Operation Entebbe”, a counter-terrorist hostage-rescue mission launched by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and carried out by the Israeli Defense Force.

The film starts with an upbeat performance from members of the Batsheva Dance Company. Padhila uses the performance throughout the film, cleverly going back and forth to the suspenseful dance between certain scenes. However, the dance sequences are arguably the most attention-grabbing thing about this film.

The Entebbe hijacking has been retold through two 1977 films, Raid on Entebbe and Operation Thunderbolt. The Last King of Scotland, a 2006 film also contains the raid as a subplot. Padilha takes a different approach; 7 Days in Entebbe offers us a ‘through-the-eyes-of’ narrative, focused specifically on two German revolutionaries. One a slightly timid Wilfried (Daniel Bruhl) and the other an edgy, yet fearless Brigitte (Rosamund Pike). Wilfried and Brigitte are just two members of the hijacker group made up of pro-Palestinians. The two Germans seem out of place in a group who have contrasting ideas of what a “revolutionary” is.

Nevertheless, Bruhl and Pike make the most of their characters. There are times where you feel sorry for them, even more-so than the actual hostages themselves. The regret and panic that overcomes them as the seven days are closing in, makes you want to believe that what they’re doing is good and they’ve just been misguided.

Adding to the mix of complex characters is Prime Minister Rabin (Lior Ashkenazi) and his defense minister Shimon (Eddie Marsan). Rabin wants to negotiate with the terrorists, something Israelis insist they never do, whilst Shimon wants to take charge with a daring rescue plan. Then there’s Ugandan President Idi Amin (Nonso Anozie), who happily welcomes the terrorists and supplies them with troops and weapons. Idi Amin was a brutal dictator of his time, yet this film portrayed a somewhat nervous and feeble side of him.

Entebbe is a well-made film, although it falls just short of captivating. It’s a tough reminder that peace between Israel and Palestine are still a thing of the distant future. With high production values and a great cast, it was originally slated for theatrical release in Australia but after a tepid reception in the US it comes straight to the home here, which is where it belongs.

 
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Sheilas

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Sheilas‘ premise is simple: tell four unjustly obscure stories of great women from Australian history.

Sheilas‘ execution is brilliant: coming off the success of Growing Up Gracefully, sibling creators Hannah and Eliza Reilly undertake four quick, comedic commando raids into the past, banging out the stories of WWII commando Nancy Wake (Cecelia Morrow), Olympic swimming legend Fanny Durack (Nikki Britton), pub-occupying feminist Merle Thornton (Brenna Harding), and bushranging Indigenous single mum May Ann Bugg (Megan Lilly Wilding, a comedy shotgun of prodigious talent) in ribald, risque, take-no-prisoners style.

It’s simply great stuff, easily surpassing its three-way remit of a) celebrating some amazing women, b) dropping a little history on the audience, and c) being brutally, laugh-out-loud funny the whole time. The jokes come at a machine-gun clip, and whether the scripted gags are funnier than the on-the-record historical events and quotes (Nancy Wake was wild, guys!) is in the eye of the beholder. The show makes a merit of its budgetary constraints in true self-deprecating Australian style, with dodgy props (see: Captain Thunderbolt’s horse) and deadpan line deliveries, along with a finely tuned sense of the absurd, carrying the day.

It is, in the shell of a nut, a nigh-perfect dose of Aussie comedy. We need a second season yesterday.

Head to the official Sheilas site for more