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Night Sky

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Laced with intrigue, the new science-fiction drama series, Night Sky, follows an array of characters, centring on an elderly couple, Irene and Franklin York, played by Oscar winners Sissy Spacek and J.K. Simmons.

The Yorks lead a simple life in their quiet hometown in Illinois. Except, their mundane exterior is not quite as it seems. Many years ago, Irene and Franklin discovered an ancient chamber concealed in their garden shed, with the ability to transport them to an observer station, overlooking a desolate alien planet with an exquisite night sky. However, this mysterious chamber turns out to be much more than either of them had initially imagined.

The pair have been coming here for years to sit in awe of the planet’s beauty and ponder the possibilities of its existence. But this shared secret that has long bonded their union is now becoming a dividing factor in the Yorks’ marriage. As Irene’s health is steadily declining, Franklin suspects that these frequent trips are beginning to take a toll.

On one occasion when visiting ‘The Stars’, as the Yorks have dubbed it, Irene finds a bloody and unconscious stranger in the hidden chamber. Shocked at his appearance, the Yorks bring him home. Once awake, the perplexing young man introduces himself as Jude. He claims to suffer from amnesia and have no recollection of his former life. While Franklin is suspicious of the newcomer’s inexplicable existence, Irene is reminded of her late son Michael and embraces him with open arms, and proceeds to help Jude with his pursuit of answers about his hazy past.

In the second episode, the series takes an unusual shift that will have you wondering if you’re still watching the same show. In rural Argentina, we are introduced to Stella (Julieta Zylberberg) and Toni (Roco Hernández), a mother and daughter who live an extremely secluded lifestyle. As Toni comes of age and enters high school, she begins to desire more from her sheltered upbringing. This creates a tumultuous relationship between her and mum as Stella battles to keep Toni unaware of their family’s secret legacy and why they must guard an ancient chapel on their land. However, upon the arrival of a shady figure from Stella’s past, she is forced to introduce her daughter into a world of turbulence and danger.

The stories run parallel as the show continues, before inevitability converging in later episodes.

Spacek and Simmons give Night Sky its gravity, their onscreen partnership demonstrating a warm affection for one another. Spacek in particular shines as Irene, conveying a tender presence in every scene, while Simmons brings a vulnerability to his portrayal of Franklin. Kiah McKirnan plays the Yorks’ concerned granddaughter and Adam Bartley plays the sceptical neighbour, but these characters feel like unnecessary filler against the Yorks and mother-daughter duo Stella and Toni.

While Night Sky has an alluring sense of mystery, the sluggish pace and scattered tone, switching between the Yorks in Illinois and Stella and Toni in Argentina, make it difficult to view the series as one cohesive story and not two totally different shows. Also, Night Sky’s focus on relationships and themes of love and loss overshadow the hollow sci-fi plot – a McGuffin if you will. Although it takes its time to build to any real tension, Simmons and Spacek continue to keep audiences engaged.

Performance driven and not particularly ground-breaking, the slow burn sci-fi drama Night Sky relies on its drawcards of Simmons and Spacek to foster its appeal, and thankfully, the two seasoned actors make the trip worthwhile.

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Chip ‘N Dale: Rescue Rangers

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In the delightfully hyperactive Chip n’ Dale: Rescue Rangers, animated anthropomorphic critters respond to the soul-crushing slap of Hollywood.

Life has been tough for Chip (John Mulaney) and Dale (Andy Samberg) in the thirty years since they last appeared on the television series of the same name. Having fallen out over a desire to go solo (in true showbiz style), the once inseparable besties have gone on to live separate lives; the sensible Chip opting for a white-collar career in insurance – the major joy of his quotidian existence coming in the form of his Clifford-like pooch, and the buzzing Dale – cosmetically enhancing himself to 3D to attract more jobs in Hollywood – making his living, how all former stars do, navigating the convention circuit.

Reunited following the disappearance of their former colleague Monterey Jack (a fair dinkum Eric Bana), the at-odds Chip and Dale set out on a noir-esque adventure to save their friend, encountering a slew of familiar faces and pop-culture references.

While parallels to Robert Zemeckis’ 1988 classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit are apparent, the developments in CG technology offer new territory for screenwriters Dan Gregor and Doug Mand to explore. The ‘meta’ Hollywood practice of pandering to audience nostalgia doesn’t make an appearance in DnD: RR, with director Akiva Schaffer (of The Lonely Island fame) using call-backs to contemporary characters – both recent and new and of differing animation styles – to create a hearty richness in the film’s absurdist humour. (That said, some of the references will time stamp the film into the now, potentially placing a shelf-life on the jokes.)

The film plays to both Mulaney and Samberg’s strengths, allowing their comedic styles – the restless sounding Mulaney contrasting with Samberg’s zaniness – to coalesce into a buddy-cop pairing loaded with charm.

This is further highlighted in the film’s star-studded voice cast, with the likes of comedy heavy-hitters J.K. Simmons, Seth Rogen, Will Arnett and Keegan-Michael Key filling out the principal roles. (Exactly who they play is a mystery best served cold.) The film moves at an up-tempo pace, making for an engrossing spectacle charged with playful action sequences and a humour that never feels inappropriate, particularly for the littlies in the room.

When animated characters come into contact with humans, the film becomes less animated on two fronts. While the talented KiKi Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk) does her darndest fitting into Chip and Dale’s world, her role as a police officer working to rebuild her reputation is unfortunately written too straight-faced in a film that otherwise revels in silliness.

Doing to IP cross-pollination what Scream did for horror, Chip n’ Dale: Rescue Rangers rides high on its buoyant sense of play and intelligence. It is a blast from the past and a time capsule worth opening.

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Conversations with Friends

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In this nuanced coming-of-age drama, Dublin college students Frances (Alison Oliver) and Bobbi (Sasha Lane) collide with successful established writer Melissa (Jemima Kirke) during an amateur poetry night. Seduced by her enigmatic charm, Frances and Bobbi are quickly drawn into Melissa’s world, and the ensuing entanglement between the students, their alluring new acquaintance, and her soft-spoken, far more reserved husband Nick (Joe Alwyn) blurs lines between friendship, sex, and infatuation.

Based on the debut novel of Irish author Sally Rooney (Normal People), the story encapsulates the intricacies of intimacy, navigating those first adult relationships that can feel so fleeting yet leave a mark on you for the rest of your life. Screenwriter Alice Birch reworks Rooney’s words (as she did with Normal People) into something a little less internalised and more suited to the screen, offering an honest portrayal of a relationship between two characters whose leading trait is an inability to verbalise outside of their art — a dynamic that plays well on the page, but no doubt a significant challenge to translate for series.

In her first onscreen role, Oliver carries much of the emotional weight. Frances is an introverted character who struggles to communicate outside of her poetry, often dragged along by the tide of her confident, charismatic best friend/ex-lover Bobbi. Both Oliver and Lane give strong performances, the former toeing the line between awkward and endearing in a way that makes the chemistry between Frances and Alwyn’s Nick not just believable but palpable.

As Frances and Nick connect over their inability to forge connections, their most open and honest conversations are their tastefully shot if frequently occurring sex scenes. Meanwhile, Bobbi and Melissa dance around each other off-screen. The lack of screentime afforded to Kirke and Lane in the first six episodes of the series is truly a shame, what little interaction we do see between them entertains in a way Alwyn and Oliver’s slow-building and stilted romance never quite manages to capture.

The glacial pacing of the series may prove to be a struggle for some viewers, but ultimately Conversations with Friends is an intriguing exploration of ever-changing levels of intimacy — understated, introspective, yet engaging enough to make it worth the wait.

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The Wilds Season 2

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After ending on a cliffhanger in December 2020 and leaving a slew of unanswered questions, The Wilds fans will finally have the answers they’ve been craving in this long-awaited second instalment of the series.

Season One left us with the revelation that our core group of girls weren’t the only survivors who’d gone through hell for the “Dawn of Eve” experiment — somewhere out there was a control group made up entirely of boys.

Having invested the entire first season in getting to know and love Toni, Shelby, Fatin, Dot, and the girls, the introduction of a second group taking up precious screentime is a risky venture for the showrunners. Doubling the character count seems like a clever way to avoid having to divulge too many secrets at once, instead splitting the story between uncovering the mysteries the girls have stumbled upon while also starting from scratch and introducing each of the boys using the same flashback/flashforward scenarios we saw in Season One.

Ultimately, this new expanding world just creates an unwieldy dynamic, which when paired with the shorter run time of the season leaves us desperate for resolution, with even more questions in the end than answers.

Thanks to solid performances from the cast, we do manage to connect with the newcomers. The chemistry between the girls and guys varies drastically, creating a captivating clash between watching the growing bond between the family of girls as relationships develop and friendships are tested, while the boys are still trying to figure out how to fit together in this strange new world they’ve been thrown into.

In turns thrilling, tense, and vulnerable, the show isn’t afraid to tackle darker themes, dealing with race, homophobia, sexual assault, and abuse alongside lighter, more uplifting moments of friendship, faith and found family.

It’s a rapid-paced race for answers, in many ways still as gripping and emotionally fraught as its predecessor, but hopefully a third season will find more even ground, learning to share the narrative between established characters and the newcomers without feeling like the girls had move aside in order to make room for the boys.

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Ten Percent

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Taking workplace comedy to a whole new level, Ten Percent explores the day-to-day workings of the showbusiness industry, where the lives of the agents behind the scenes are all equally, if not more bizarre, than those of the celebrities they’re trying to corral.

Based on the 2015 series Call My Agent!, the show takes an original French premise and repackages it with a British accent, putting enough of a unique spin on the concept and characters along the way that devoted fans of the original series won’t feel as if they’re watching a pale imitation.

The turbulent world of this London talent agency juggles a slew of big-name celebrities alongside their own interpersonal drama, scrambling to keep the talent happy while never losing focus on what is the ultimate drive of the story—the tightknit family of misfits that make up the Nightingale Hart Agency.

The celebrities aren’t shy about playing exaggerated versions of themselves, but the biggest laughs come from the harried team of agents dealing with impossible situations, more often than not made increasingly worse by their own absurd hijinks.

Receptionist Zoe (Fola Evans-Akingbola) spends her days fielding phone calls and making tea for anxious celebrities, all the while longing to be an actress herself. Fresh faced new assistant Misha (Hiftu Quasem) is desperate to prove herself, while at the same time doing everything she can to hide a secret that could shake the Nightingale Hart team to its core; and Jonathan (Jack Davenport), son of co-founder Richard Nightingale (Jim Broadbent), is just trying to keep his head above water.

Above all, it’s a love letter to films, to theatre, and to the eccentrics who make up the industry, with cameos from a truly impressive line-up of UK stars including Helena Bonham Carter, Dominic West, and Bridgerton’s Phoebe Dynevor to name just a few.

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All the Old Knives

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CIA operatives and ex-lovers Henry Pelham (Chris Pine) and Celia Harrison (Thandiwe Newton) sit down to dinner together at a seaside restaurant, hoping to reconnect after years apart. Over a lavish meal, Henry’s inquiries veer from the personal to the professional, and the quiet catch-up swerves into interrogation territory as Henry searches for explanations to his unanswered questions regarding a disastrous plane hijacking that they worked together eight years ago.

Trying to connect the pieces of a case that never sat quite right, Henry and Celia embark on a twisting tale of spy-vs-spy, where each new answer leads to more questions, and years of trading in secrets and lies makes it impossible to know who to trust.

Writer Olen Steinhauer (The Tourist) adapts his own novel of the same name for the screen, taking a non-linear route to divulge the many secrets that his characters have been keeping. The main story is told in flashbacks, which leads to a slow and messy beginning. As each new layer is revealed across the dinner table, however, what began as a disorienting and somewhat dull blow-by-blow of events quickly becomes a tense, smart and increasingly absorbing tale of intrigue and betrayal.

A far cry from the James Bond-esque brand of spy films, All the Old Knives’ tension comes from an atmosphere of mounting unease rather than explosions or gunfights. Director Janus Metz Pedersen (True Detective) together with cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen (A Quiet Place) create a suspenseful and emotionally intense environment out of what is ultimately a static setting; the use of extreme close-ups managing to highlight both the intimacy between the leads and the increasing claustrophobia of the situation.

All the elements of a thriller are present and accounted for — mystery, romance, betrayal — but by restricting the espionage entirely to flashbacks while the real-time story unfolds between the main course and dessert, the film hinges on the connection between the two leads sitting across from one another at the dinner table. Thankfully Pine and Newton share a captivating chemistry, and their interactions are enjoyable enough to keep the slow unfolding of the plot from dragging too heavily.

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Our Flag Means Death

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Set in 1717 during the golden age of piracy, Our Flag Means Death takes real historical figures—Stede Bonnet, the gentleman pirate; Edward Teach, the notorious Blackbeard — playing fast and loose with their legacy, and creating something witty, heartfelt, and utterly compelling in the process.

As the story goes, wealthy landowner Bonnet “left his wife and children, upended his entire comfortable life, to become a pirate”. Naturally, he was about as successful in that endeavour as one might expect, finding himself seriously wounded after a run-in with a Spanish warship, incapacitated and forced to cede command of his own ship over to Blackbeard. A thrilling tale to be sure, but the true charm of this retelling is found in the deadpan, understated humour that’s become something of a trademark for the show’s leads, Rhys Darby and Taika Waititi (playing Bonnet and Blackbeard respectively).

Like their previous team-up, What We Do in the Shadows, Our Flag Means Death finds comedy in the mundane. There are light chuckles as the first three episodes of this 10-part series plod steadily along in the vein of an Office-esque workplace comedy.

Bonnet is blatantly unfit for his position in upper management aka captaining a crew — a delightful ensemble of seasoned actors (Joel Fry, Ewen Bremner) and fresh faces (Nathan Foad) — aboard a pirate vessel despite having no criminal background or sailing experience of any kind, and the jokes from that set-up, while predictable, are entertaining enough.

It’s by the fourth episode, along with Blackbeard’s arrival into Bonnet’s life, that we begin to discover the hidden depths leading to Bonnet’s apparent mid-life crisis, and what started out as light-hearted fare and buffoonish humour becomes genuinely moving.

Each of the characters slowly transforms beyond a one-dimensional punchline and we’re reintroduced to this ragtag crew of misfits as people; in Bonnet’s case, a desperately lonely person trying to escape the monotony of a stiflingly unhappy life.

Strangely enough, despite their many differences, he finds an unexpected kinship with the infamous Edward Teach. The long-time friendship between Waititi and Darby, dating back to their Flight of the Conchords days in the early 2000s, leads to instant chemistry between the two, as they fall into a natural rhythm of banter and improvisation, and Bonnet and Blackbeard’s unlikely bond fast becomes the beating heart of the story, or as creator and showrunner David Jenkins puts it, “historical pirate rom-com”.

While there doesn’t seem to be too much focus on historical accuracy, the production design is worthy of praise. Bonnet’s captain’s quarters on The Revenge, complete with library and open fireplace, are truly wondrous to behold. So too is the costuming: Blackbeard’s leather outfit is undoubtedly heavily inspired by Mel Gibson’s Mad Max get-up, while bloodthirsty bar-owner Spanish Jackie (Leslie Jones in a stand-out performance) wears an outfit that can only be described as a mix between Prince in Purple Rain and Eddie Murphy in Vampire in Brooklyn.

Compulsively bingeable, with each episode coming in at the 30 minute mark, Our Flag Means Death is notably ahead by leaps and bounds when it comes to diversity and representation. The handling of race, gender, and sexuality is respectful and inclusive, and never once do the writers make the depiction of minorities feel like a “special episode” or veer towards tired stereotype, whether it’s the crew’s interactions with the Native people of the island on which they find themselves stranded, or the season long arc of Vico Ortiz’s non-binary assassin character, Jim.

Far from the one-note joke the series initially made itself out to be, we’re instead treated to nuanced, character-driven romantic subplots, and an all-round wholesome tale of friendship, found family, and the journey towards self-discovery.

The final two episodes of the first season of Our Flag Means Death will stream on Thursday March 24.

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Turning Red

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In Turning Red, Disney Pixar’s latest family-comedy, love protects, restricts and even threatens the destruction of Toronto.

Following the coming-of-age happenings of Mei (Rosalie Chiang), a thirteen-year-old Chinese-Canadian schoolgirl with an obsession for boybands (this element alone sets the film firmly in the early aughts), Turning Red, largely, transcends familiar Mouse-House storytelling (you know the ones where the human transforms into an animal?) to offer one of the year’s most heartfelt stories.

Puberty isn’t an enjoyable experience for anyone. In Mei’s case, it is a ticking time-bomb. Transforming into a giant red panda with every intense outburst of emotion, a hereditary condition affecting all of the women in her family, Mei must navigate the trials and tribulations of adolescence with the cool of a heart surgeon. It is through her relationship with her mother, the intensely watchful Ming (Sandra Oh), where Mei’s temperament is put to the test, resulting in a display of fibs that challenges their once close-knit relationship.

The most trying of these difficulties arrives in Mei’s desire to attend the concert of her dreams; the hypnotically gyrating boyband 4*Town (just don’t count how many members are in the band). (Their songs are also penned by music’s coolest brother and sister pairing, Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell.) Seeing an opportunity to monetise her transformative ability, Mei and her posse of fellow boyband obsessives – the wonderfully supportive Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and Abby (Hyein Park) enterprise their way to a quick dollar, exploiting big joy and passion with the merchandising moxie of a hot-shot music executive. Cue a convenient resolve to Mei’s beastly problem and you’ve found yourself within a time-sensitive romp powered by a fevered energy.

Turning Red is as much about embrace as it is about letting go. (Britney Spears’ famous lyrics “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” ring true in a character like Mei.)

In first time feature director Domee Shi, Turning Red moves at an invigorating pace that matches the frantic, anxiety-riddled mindset of its adolescent lead. The Bao filmmaker imbues the film with an incredibly stylish vision of early ‘00s Canada; decorated in pastel hues and sweeping camerawork that captures the emotional highs-and-lows of its subjects.

Despite the film’s exaggerated use of metaphor, Shi and fellow screenwriter Julia Cho (Big Love, Fringe) create one of cinema’s most authentic depictions of girlhood; offering an unflinching look at the experiences of women seldom seen on screen (let alone in animation). It truly is groundbreaking. Shi and Cho’s dialogue brims with a buzzing humour, delivered with aplomb by the astute voice cast, that will read as relatable to anyone who has ever thought that their parents’ embarrassing behaviour would bring on a premature death. The wildly catchy music of the era brings a poignant bubbliness to the score that effectively captures Mei and her friends’ unbridled affection for music. Its effect plays a key part in not only strengthening their friendship (a shared duet bringing with it the tear) but being an important component of their formative years.

How parents express love and children receive it underscores most of Turning Red’s dramas and triumphs. It is through the context of Mei’s Chinese-Canadian background where Disney Pixar have again made a progressive, albeit overdue, step forward in their desire to move filmmaking past Westernised storytelling conventions. While unable to fully escape a filmmaking business model where predictability reigns supreme, particularly in the film’s rather foreseen last act, through Shi they have discovered a powerful voice that will resonate with most.

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Her Love Boils Bathwater

Asian Cinema, Festival, Film Festival, Review, Streaming, This Week Leave a Comment

There is a lot to unpack with the latest film from rising Japanese filmmaker Ryōta Nakano (The Long Goodbye). Selected as Japan’s official entry for best international film at the 90th Academy Awards, the drama is essentially the story of Futaba Sachino, diagnosed with an aggressive cancer, leaving her with only a few months to live.

As a result, Futaba decides to face her complicated past in order to reunite those who have shaped her life with the hope that they will support each other once she has passed. It’s a goal which initially includes her estranged deadbeat husband who simply vanished overnight forcing the closure of their bathhouse business; but which quickly expands to Futaba having to reconcile her emotions toward her own parents; exposing uncomfortable truths about her own daughter’s past, dealing with the repercussions of her husband’s infidelity and embracing a number of unexpected players in the final act of her life. All the while fighting the physical ravages of the cancer.

While the film delves into heavy subject matter, Nakano’s ability to weave the various threads into a cohesive tapestry delivers a hopeful, moving, and humorous tale, advocating forgiveness and celebrating connection over loss.

Its success relies on the talents of the film’s lead Rie Miyazawa (Pale Moon, The Naked Director), who once again manages to command the screen with a multifaceted performance, at once heartbreaking and utterly compelling. Her abandoned wife, struggling mother and mentor is essential to the film’s gravity and heart, elevating the performance of each actor she shares the screen with.

There are very Japanese elements to Her Love Boils Bathwater, which might be considered melodramatic, and occasionally odd, but as the story edges toward its affecting apex, Nakano and Miyazawa never waiver from the anchor of the film’s central premise; that life is messy, complicated and beautiful, and much better served with an open heart, forgiveness and love without agenda.

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Shane

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This predictable portrait of cricketer Shane Warne could equally be called Warne or Warney. However, it is somewhat symptomatic of its main character that he feels that he can be identified just by his fairly common first name. Presumably, you have to have an abundance of belief to self-promote like this and no one could accuse the ‘King of Spin’ of lacking that. And he has been mostly pretty successful at it too. How many cricketers can you name that have had a musical written about their life? Or maybe we should pass over that one, as this film does.

It is not that it completely airbrushes the occasional biographical blemish, though one gets the sense that Mr Warne, even if he didn’t have final cut, had pretty strong editorial control here. The general effect seems to be geared to continuing to enhance his status as a larrikin ‘legend’ rather than, say, as the face of a hair-restoring product.

What we have here is a parade of very pro-Shane accounts from famous types he has known or played cricket with. The tone is set pretty early on, with TV host Ray Martin informing us, somewhat hyperbolically, that Warne is a world famous icon comparable to Ali or Pele. A host of other buddies and acolytes chime in along similar lines. Beyond the playing field antics, there is interview footage with his ex-wife and his three kids. The offspring are keen to remind us that they see him as just their daggy dad rather than a leader of humanity.

There are plenty of interview clips of Warney himself occasionally looking thoughtful or wistful but mostly just opining on why his innate competitiveness enabled him to bamboozle the world’s greatest batsmen and the pleasure such dominating afforded him.

There is of course sporting footage and, given that test cricket receives blanket coverage, and he amassed an admittedly very impressive 700 test wickets, there is plenty to choose from. There is little context to these clips really, so they can become repetitive. One comes away feeling that the bowling technique is much more interesting than the man himself.

Don’t get us wrong, many cricket fans could watch the ‘ball of the century’ (when he flummoxed the gormless Mike Gatting) and its like, over and over again. If so, then this doco does have its pleasures.

Given that test matches can go on for five days and produce no result, it is the cricket tragic who brings all the engagement, and this product too might benefit from such pre-commitment.

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