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Honey Boy

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Though this is quite a good and unusual film, the story behind it is more memorable than the movie itself. Shia LaBoeuf wrote the script, based on his own experiences. And here, in the fictionalised screen version of his life, we have LaBoeuf playing James Lort (essentially a representation of his own father) – while Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges portray Otis (Shia, more or less) at the respective ages of 12 and 22.

So much for the back story. When we first see the older Otis, he’s in rehab after a drunken altercation with police. The action – or rather the memories and the dreams – flashes back and forth between that ‘present’ and Otis’s tough life as a child actor living with his decidedly unhinged father. The latter has a foul temper, and is an alcoholic combat veteran who thinks he’s very funny – which he would, being also a former rodeo clown – but really isn’t. What he is, emphatically, is an intensely dislikeable and brutal man. (As Otis remarks, “The only thing my father gave me of any value was pain”.) That said, we start to feel a measure of sympathy for Lort – if not to like him – after hearing him at an AA meeting reminiscing about his own childhood.

Honey Boy is well acted, and features a lot of very credible and naturalistic dialogue. It’s distressing in places, and predominantly bleak and sad. The main characters constantly struggle for some sort of catharsis and transcendence without seeming to get close. It’s worth seeing them try.

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High Resolution

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When Tao Lin released his novel Taipei, it was to much acclaim (in certain circles) and he was lauded as a bold, new creative voice in literature. Though many critics dismissed him as a product of a younger, more vacuous generation with nothing on its mind except nothingness, he was largely regarded as a self-promoter, ever-present on a litany of social media platforms, cultivating most of his writing by recording and re-examining his own life experiences and filtering them through a dissociative, ironic gaze which in turn would give birth to a style of writing not dissimilar from the endless and overly detailed monologues deployed in American Psycho by author Bret Easton Ellis. It’s worth noting that Tao Lin’s own physical voice tones are themselves droll and monotone. It’s at this point that Jason Lester (son of Commando director Mark L. Lester!!) adapts Taipei, significantly reworking the material but keeping the central characters and core plot and themes.

The film begins with Erin (Ellie Bamber), having just ended a relationship, wandering into a book signing by author Paul Chen (Justin Chon), of whom she is a huge fan. Erin meets Paul, in something of a ‘meet-cute’ and soon the pair are swept up in a self-introspective whirlwind of circular conversations about relationships, life and existence. The pair take drugs, A LOT of drugs, in fact Paul’s imbibing of everything from Ecstasy to Xanax, to Adderall and cocaine becomes so ubiquitous it ceases to hold any sense of reality.

Paul decides that they should document their relationship on his laptop using the webcam, recording their waking moments and their descent into drug-addled self-obsession. Erin plays along, literally, with the pair becoming locked in a strange performance art-piece of a sort, playing the roles of star-crossed lovers in a self-aware, hyper-conscious artwork that exists only on Paul’s laptop. Drugs fuel their adventures, which they record, which then inspire them to take more drugs to fuel continuing hijinks and deliberate, pointed bad decision-making. Though it’s when Paul decides to take Erin to Taipei to meet his parents that things start to unravel.

Jason Lester has given himself a difficult task in taking on Taipei as a film adaptation. The book’s stream-of-consciousness first person perspective is not something that is ripe for a drug-infused Before Sunrise style walk-and-talk with dreamy music and visuals. Lester’s cinematic ambitions are decidedly European, though not consistent, he manages to cultivate a dreamlike atmosphere at times, ably assisted by composer David Harrington and Cinematographer Daniel Katz.

Visuals aside, there’s an infuriating emotionless void at the centre of the story. As Erin, Ellie Bamber feels galactically miscast, her performance (though solid and well-performed) just doesn’t engage; there’s an emotional disconnect as if her performance is viewed through binoculars. As Paul (an avatar for Tao Lin himself, in the book as well as in this film), Justin Chon delivers an impersonation of Tao Lin, which, as mentioned earlier, means he has a strangely monotone, droll voice. For the unaware viewer, this translates as a stilted and oddly bizarre performance choice. This isn’t helped by the script which translates the stream-of-consciousness prose from the book into a two-hander featuring characters who behave counter-intuitively, feel deeply unrelatable and are prone to delivering ‘word salad’ non-sequiturs of ripe, over-written dialogue.

Ultimately, it’s the inscrutable characters that frustrate any attempt at viewer empathy or even interest. We don’t need to ‘like’ a character, we simply need to understand them in order to engage with the story. Such ironic distance may be intentional, even laudable for some, but it nevertheless makes for an empty, vacuous experience, even if vacuity is the point.

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Descent

Australian, Documentary, Festival, Review, This Week 2 Comments

Dutch Kiki Bosch sits in her car, shivering, her skin blue. Eyes closed; she calmly explains to the documentary crew that despite appearances, she is fine. The cold blood at her extremities is mixing with the warm blood in her core, bringing its temperature down and leading to her current situation. Again, she assures everyone that she is fine. There’s potentially good reason to feel concerned though. Before being in the vehicle, Kiki Bosch has just spent an extraordinarily long-time swimming in some of the coldest water in the world, wearing nothing but a regular bathing costume. For some, the contemplation of taking a cold bath is torture. However, for Bosch, freediving into icy depths is not just a career, it’s part of a continuous journey into expanding her mindset.

Directed by underwater cameraman, Nays Baghai, Descent allows Bosch to sit down and tell her story. Starting off as a psychology student, she discovered the joys of freediving, and she was soon taking tour groups around Thailand. Sadly, she was raped by a colleague who would go on to do the same to someone else. This, unsurprisingly, led to a downward spiral for the freediver. Feeling guilty for not reporting her rapist and blaming herself for the assault, Bosch goes on to associate her freediving hobby with what she went through.

Descent captures Bosch casting off the oppression of being a victim and being reborn as an ice free diver. For Bosch, plunging into cold water helps her focus. Those familiar with the practice of mindfulness will recognise a strain of this in her swimming. Jolted by the cold, she remains acutely aware of where she is at that given moment, not the future and certainly not the past.

Bosch’s lo-fi narration accentuates the gorgeous scenes of clear blue seas and lakes. As the audience, we’re introduced to a whole new way of seeing the world. And just in case we’re too swept away in its majesty, Descent reminds us how dangerous it can be by telling us about Bosch nearly dying of hyperthermia while shooting a short film.

The key theme for Descent is ‘uplifting’, so we’re never allowed to ponder too long on what propels someone to test their body to this extent. Even when Bosch admits that doctors have told her she could lose her sight, Descent never asks us to question her methods.

Is that a bad thing? No, not necessarily. However, it does have the potential to paint an unrealistic picture of trauma/depression treatment. Just going for a run doesn’t automatically cure your anxiety, for example. For Bosch, freediving has allowed her to expand her mindset and reset her thinking. And then in the last minutes, we’re introduced to her new career as a Wim Hof method instructor, and the documentary essentially turns into a paid advert for the practice; the camera lingers on PowerPoints and graphics in her lectures, souring the au natural feeling of the overall documentary.

Is that a cynical note to take away from the whole thing? Perhaps. However, it doesn’t distract too much from Baghai’s direction and camerawork. Seriously, it needs to be seen at the highest definition. Bosch’s story, too, is one of reclamation and rebuilding. She was dealt a miserable hand, and she managed to rise above it. Given the current state of affairs, you can’t begrudge anybody for trying to find their place in the world and successfully doing so. More power to her and others like her.

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The Extraordinary

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Autism is a complex condition and therefore providing for people who have it, is also a complex challenge. This semi-fictionalised drama deals with some people who have taken that challenge head on by providing specialist care for autistic teenagers in their centre in France. The first person we meet is Bruno (Vincent Cassel), who is constantly scurrying around, flying from place to place, missing meetings but always putting the needs of his teenage clients first.ccccccccc

The centre is called The Voice of the Righteous, a multi-faith hostel where the staffing ratio has to be just about one to one. The centre is seemingly getting results where no one else can, but is also subject to a slightly hostile oversight by the French authorities. Bruno has another struggle, which is to prevent the inspectors from de-funding him. His ally and co-leader is Malik (Reda Kateb), who worries that Bruno may be spreading himself too thin. Both of them need to be fully functioning if they are going to help the teenagers that they are so committed to.

It has to be said that the film is quite unstructured in a way (a bit like Bruno and Maliks’ working days perhaps), as it simply follows the kids having one little incident or upset after another. Their lives are prone to being quite repetitive and progress is often slow. One kid feels compelled to pull the emergency cord whenever he travels on the train, and to get through a whole journey without doing that is a major victory. Another boy is so prone to repeatedly bashing himself that he has been put in a boxer’s sparring headgear to protect himself. To remove that would be another major advance.

Directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano obviously feel passionate about promoting the humane treatment of people with special needs. After all, for years society simply locked kids like this away and more or less forgot about them. Incidentally, Nakache and Toledano made The Intouchables (2011), and they clearly have got a feel for this kind of subject matter and treatment. They don’t quite bring off a similar coup here, but then they don’t have the chemistry that Francois Cluzet and Omar Sy brought to that.

Cassel does his best to carry this film. He is a talented actor who can play anything really. Here he plays against type in the sense that he is not too abrasive or dangerous and also brings small but chamming touches of tenderness to his work with the kids.

The film might be regarded by some as a kind of essay on better ways to treat autism and one which can’t help itself editorialising in support of that idea. Still, for all its structural flaws, it has moments of grace and the little victories it chronicles are heart-warming enough to make a film that earns our affection as well as our patience.

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Proxima

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It’s a tough life being a woman in a man’s world. Well, that seems to be the main, if not entirely original, message of this drama about a woman becoming an astronaut. The film stars Eva Green who just about manages to anchor proceedings with an earnest performance, but one suspects that it won’t be a role that will be long remembered.

She plays Sarah Loreau, a thirty-something physicist who is selected to join the International Space Station in a mission named Proxima. Sarah has split from her husband Thomas (a sympathetic turn from prolific German actor Lars Eidinger), but they seem to be still on good terms. They have eight-year-old daughter Stella (Zelie Boulant), who has mild learning difficulties and who, despite being bright, is not thriving at school. She also seems to be developing separation anxiety about her mother’s imminent venture into space. Sarah is unintentionally fuelling this problem by being by turns clingy and then brusque.

The men in the space station team are led by Mike (Matt Dillon slightly dialling it in from outer space himself). There is a bit of tension around whether they will adapt to having a female in their crew, and we see Sarah pushing herself in training to prove herself to them and the authorities. Basically that, and the anxiety around the mother-daughter relationship, form the substance of the entire film.

At one point, Mike tells Sarah to chillax as there is no such thing as a perfect mother or a perfect astronaut. This sage advice, if followed, could more or less negate the whole film. There are some other elements that keep the film firmly on the launchpad rather than in lift-off.

Director Alice Winicour (Augustine) can’t quite decide how much to concentrate on the dynamics between Sarah and the crew (resulting underwritten roles), or how to get our sympathies for Sarah without making her a neurotic that needs a lot of (male) help to get her up to speed.

The film is vaguely feminist about celebrating the contribution of female astronauts (several real-life examples are featured under the credits). However, we still get three separate unnecessary scenes of Green showering. These glimpses of nudity don’t really seem to add to her character development. We certainly don’t get any parity with the male crew members in the ablution stakes, so we presume they do their astronaut showering off camera.

Proxima does make one think very briefly about the gender inequalities of science and space travel but there isn’t enough substance here for a long-haul mission. Houston we have a problem.

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About an Age

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Ah, adolescence! The growth spurts, the puberty, the perfect storm of hormones. Many of us who have escaped its clutches are unlikely to want to go back any time soon. And yet, who could possibly turn down a teen coming of age flick? Predominately seen as an American cinematic tradition (Thank you, John Hughes), Australia has undoubtedly given as good it’s got. Take a look at old school classics, such as Puberty Blues, Looking for Alibrandi, The Year My Voice Broke and Flirting. And the well doesn’t appear to be running dry yet, with the likes of Samson and Delilah, Girl Asleep, Bran Nue Dae, Bilched and Breath among others.

About an Age, from directors Harley Hefford and Evan Martin, is a more restrained approach to the genre than those raised on the adventures of Ferris Bueller and The Breakfast Club may be used to. Set on a warm Friday evening, as the end of Year 12 comes hurtling over the horizon, a group of friends gather to have a few beers while the parents are away. The ensemble is a collection of teen tropes: the jocktastic Dave (Eddie Orton), his sensitive sister Michelle (Rachel Lee), her hipster boyfriend Jackson (Daniel Cockburn), the nerdy Brett (Keith Purcell) and the flirtatious Sarah (Ashley Stocco).

There was a period in all our lives when adulthood was our number one pursuit, and the film accurately reflects that time. Aside from a slightly misjudged soliloquy in the film’s final hurdle, About an Age keeps the teens’ dialogue nice and natural. Cue discussions about unhooking bras, sex and the future. Sometimes funny, often cringey in its authenticity, it’s easy to relate to the onscreen young ones.

Often mentioned and rarely seen is Laura (Fredricka Arthurs), who stalks around the narrative like a spectre at the feast. Laura is everything the gang don’t want to be; she’s ‘weird’, stand-offish. Hell, she still uses cassettes! Her presence – or lack of it – acts as a tonic to the drunken jubilation. At one point, through no fault of her own, she becomes the catalyst for a bout of petty bullying that quite rightly makes you feel sorry for someone you know nothing about. In our adolescence, we were idealistic and free, but we could also be vicious and petulant at the drop of a hat. It works to the film’s strengths that Hefford and Martin ensure they don’t shy away from this pettiness, which leads to real consequences.

Overall, About an Age genuinely feels like a pleasant evening with your mates, one which is likely to stir up your hornet nest of a memory. It may even have you reaching out to some old friends and making plans to relive schoolies.

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Guns Akimbo

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We’ve all been there. A heavy night on the turps, some ill-advised internet commentary, maybe your hands were writing cheques your arse just couldn’t cash. Next morning you wake up with a hangover that feels like a family of Shetland ponies have been having a ketamine party inside your bonce. And when you look down, you realise you’ve had guns bolted to your hands! Such is the goofy, agreeable premise of Guns Akimbo, the latest flick from New Zealand director, Jason Lei Howden of Deathgasm (2015) fame, and it’s about what you’d expect.

Guns Akimbo is the kind of cult film that’s almost too aware of its desire to find a loyal niche audience. Adopting the noisy, frenetic pace and iconography of video games and social media, it tells the tale of Miles (Daniel Radcliffe), a gormless nerd who works for an unscrupulous software company and is a social justice keyboard warrior in his spare time. Before much screen time passes, Miles must deal with the handguns on his, erm, hands and work out how to put on trousers or take a piss. The whole caper is part of an illegal reality snuff show called Skizm, and Miles must also battle the cocaine-sniffing uber psycho, Nix (Samara Weaving), who has been selected as his opponent. Naturally, there’s a little more to the story, with subplots involving Miles’ rainbow-haired ex, Nova (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) and evil mastermind, Riktor (Ned Dennehy), but Guns Akimbo is here for a good time, not a long time (95 minutes to be precise).

And in terms of a good time, Guns Akimbo mostly delivers. The action is fast-paced and frequent and while it never matches the kinetic precision of something like Kick-Ass or Kingsmen: The Secret Service, it does crackle with energetic sadism. Radcliffe continues to embrace weird shit and seems to want to distance himself from Harry Potter as much as possible, delivering an effective performance as Miles. Weaving is, once again, one of the best things about the film she’s in, really showcasing her homicidal character’s madness, but it’s Ned Dennehy who steals many a scene with his malevolent, over-the-top shenanigans proving a highlight.

Guns Akimbo is not a smart film, but it’s a wryly amusing one that will likely please a late night audience of like-minded friends who perhaps have drunk or smoked a little something beforehand. If the concept of “Harry Potter with gun hands” sounds at all appealing, you’re likely going to dig this flick.

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Talking About Trees

Documentary, Festival, Home, Home Entertainment, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

A group of retired filmmakers unite to put on movie screenings in Omdurman, Sudan.

This is the deceptively simple basis of Talking About Trees, Suhaib Gasmelbari’s ruminative and yearning meditation on the power of filmmaking, and united voices.

Passionate cineastes and friends Ibrahim Shaddad, Eltayeb Mahdi, Suliman Mohamed Ibrahim and Manar Al-Hilo hold great nostalgia for the joys of the films they saw as kids (they re-enact a scene from Sunset Boulevard early on).

Now living much quieter lives, the friends re-watch their favourite flicks, peruse old photos, play with broken film cameras, and reminisce about their once grand, now abandoned movie theatres, the venues which exhibited many of their favourite inspirations.

Sudan has compulsorily shut down all movie theatres in an effort to stymie any attempts at political revolution. (Ironically, the central cinema in the film is called The Revolution.) There is very little entertainment, nightlife or cultural gatherings in Omdurman. The four men (who together formed the co-operative Sudanese Film Group, (SFG)) decide to create a program of regular and free screenings for the community, to try to bring back some life to their town.

Yet, what they find is that they have to get approval from the same regime which imposed the ban on cinemas in the first place. The rebellious septuagenarians are repeatedly vetoed in their attempts to bring cinema to their town. Making matters worse, the government which enacted this decree is subsequently re-elected for another half-decade. The men aren’t getting any younger.

The four comrades face opposition from the highest levels of government. Not only that, but law bodies separate to the government have the same attitude. What to do? How does one stay optimistic in an oppressive climate?

This is the predicament at the heart of this earnestly charming work, which is as much about movies as the strength of solidarity, of willpower and comradery.

Whilst their attempts to revitalise their beloved theatre seem doomed, the audience is shown excerpts of African cinema, some made by our protagonists in their youth, a time of heady political and social revolutions, an evocation of an optimism which once existed in Sudan.

Then, among these glimpses of the past, and the doom surrounding their proposed plans to open a cinema, we learn that one of them is working on another film. Despite the suppression and hopelessness, this elderly filmmaking co-operative is still making movies and excited by them. The government has essentially outlawed any form of artistic dissemination or creation, but undeterred, they still pursue their imperiled calling.

This is a story with a zest for life, a zeal and universality recalling Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show and Milos Forman’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

Whilst the friends are beset with uncertainty, facing a future with the same government, they still have something to say about it. And they do. The fragments of their future film that viewers get to watch, are the triumph over this censorship and repression. These are the seeds of the future.

This spirit is the core of Suhaib Gasmelbari’s own covertly made documentary, which he directed and acted as cinematographer on.

A story told with plain simplicity, this is a penetrating study of art and passion – of triumph over adversity in the drabbest circumstance.

Available to stream from Thursday, May 28, 2020 through Cinema at Home.

 

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Endings, Beginnings

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Prolific filmmaker Drake Doremus’ (of Sundance-winning Like Crazy fame, and more recently Zoe, Equals, and the similarly themed Newness) depicts through a boho-voyeuristic lens the existentialist slog of twenty-something-year-olds in the Shailene Woodley lead indie-drama Endings, Beginnings.

Navigating her way from one fairy-light illuminated party to another (the unashamedly hawty-tawty LA-ness of which demands an artisan cheese board at all gatherings), downtrodden and recently unemployed art-enthusiast Daphne (Woodley) yearns for a sense of fulfilment that – for at least the short term – exists outside of alcohol and dating.

Daphne’s reassessment of the relationships in her life – realised in both the familial and the romantic – leads her to a lifestyle overhaul; the detoxing of said vices aiming to alleviate her fear of complacency.

Daphne’s ‘sabbatical’ proves short-lived with the arrival of eligible suitors Frank (Sebastian Stan) and Jack (Jamie Dornan) – both of whom possess contrasting virtues appealing to Daphne’s emotional needs, throwing her plans of re-establishing herself into a dizzying tailspin.

Doremus and fellow screenwriter Jardine Libaire (an author writing her first produced screenplay) convincingly refute the central triviality of Daphne’s ensuing love triangle by offering a compelling introspection on millennial self-actualisation.

For Daphne, relationships surface deep-seated feelings of discomfort, a byproduct that she attributes to the turbulent relationship she has with her mother (Wendie Malick). The forever astute Woodley brings to life her character’s vulnerabilities with the same ardent conviction that has been long present throughout the talented actor’s career.

Self-destructive tendencies don’t so much as capture Daphne’s complexity as they reveal her desire for emotional fulfilment. It proves but a welcome departure from the litany of taxing films which convey curt and short-sighted behaviour as spirited redemptions and reward vanity.

That said, there remains an innate HBO quality to Endings, Beginnings’ portrayal of Gen Y liberalism that ultimately detracts from the film’s exploration of relationships. The lasting taste of which begs to question Endings, Beginnings’ positioning as a theatrical release, with the film’s under-developed characters – sidelined in lieu of slow-burning motif, alt-rock anthems from the coolest bands you’ve never heard of (aside from an unexpected cover), coy text-play to denote the fracturing of contemporary communication, and showcasing non-committal as an act of progressivism – perhaps better serviced in a limited series format.

In a time where mini-series rival the quality of theatrical filmmaking, Endings, Beginnings exists on the opposing end of the spectrum; an LA relationship drama with TV sensibilities redeemed by a sublime performance from Woodley that shirks off any trace of big-city moral superiority.

Available to rent via Foxtel Store now. Available to rent On Demand from July 15 via multiple platforms.

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Escape from Pretoria

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Set during the Apartheid years in South Africa, this is the incredible story of Jim Jenkins, Stephen Lee and Alex Moumbaris; three white political prisoners who made a daring bid for freedom from the confines of a maximum security prison. What makes it all the more incredible is that it’s completely true and, to crank it up to 11, based on a book by Jenkins, written whilst he was on the run as a fugitive of the law.

Filmed in South Australia, Daniel Radcliffe and Daniel Webber (The Dirt, Danger Close) play Jenkins and Lee respectively. In a swift but tense opening, the two men are arrested and sentenced for distributing anti-Apartheid propaganda via pamphlet bomb. It’s not so much the very small explosive device that they’ve used in public that raises the ire of the Law, but the fact that they are seen as traitors of their own race. At one point, Jenkins is described as ‘the white Mandela’ and there’s not a spot of praise in the comparison. Yes, it’s a clunky bit of dialogue, but it gets its point across.

Once inside Pretoria prison, which has a whole building dedicated to white political prisoners, Lee and Jenkins make alliances with Denis Goldberg (Ian Hart), who was put on trial alongside the aforementioned Mandela. Whilst Goldberg was said to have played a large part in the escape, he takes a backseat for most of the narrative. In fact, so does Jenkins and Lee’s fellow escapee, Moumbaris, who is replaced by the fictional Leonard (Mark Leonard Winter, Measure for Measure). It’s a shame that Goldberg is pushed to the margins as Leonard is, unfortunately, a facsimile of a character with neither a background nor motive.

With all the main characters having been introduced, the political potential of Escape from Pretoria buckles its safety belt with Hart’s Goldberg. This is to be a film about the escape and little else. Director Francis Annan, who co-wrote the screenplay and makes his feature length debut with Pretoria, has put together a tight little package wrapped up in nervous sweat. For example, as Jenkins fashions keys out of wood (you read that right) and tests them behind the guards’ back, we can practically taste his fear. However, we quickly catch on to the fact that the oppressive regime, identified as one overweight guard and one skinny angry man, isn’t that scary.

Elsewhere, there’s that niggling feeling that most of the characters, including Lee and Goldberg, are there simply to function as a Greek chorus to remind the audience of what a great man Jenkins is.

That aside, Radcliffe gives a strong performance as the man with a gift for wood, his accent only wobbling in times of heightened emotion. From farting corpses to men with guns drilled into their hands, it’s been enjoyable to watch that Radcliffe’s career doesn’t seem to have any discernible path and let’s hope he continues to keep us guessing.

More of a comforting afternoon watch than a taut political thriller, Escape from Pretoria is still worth digging into if only as a testament to what humankind can do when they’re forced into isolation. It feels kind of timely in a weird way.

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