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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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The meaning of that curious title is in one sense almost immediately apparent, though the explanation initially raises more questions than it answers. Three dilapidated and unused billboards beside a remote rural road are rented, and filled with the words “RAPED WHILE DYING”, “AND STILL NO ARRESTS”, and “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?” respectively. Footing the bill is local woman Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand).

We are subsequently informed that Mildred’s daughter was raped and murdered nine months earlier, and the investigation – headed by the local police chief, who is the Willoughby in question (Woody Harrelson) – has gone and got precisely nowhere. Needless to say, Mildred is distraught and furious about this. She’s also an exceedingly tough customer, and a force to be reckoned with. One of the main pleasures here is hearing her deliver some of writer-director Martin McDonagh’s withering lines and observations. At their best, they make you feel inclined to applaud; an analogy she draws between LA gangs and the Catholic Church springs particularly readily to mind.

Frances McDormand’s performance in this film has been touted as potential Oscar material, and she is indeed (as always) terrific. But this is really an ensemble piece with a great many characters, and Harrelson and Rockwell – among others – are virtually as impressive.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a rattling good yarn with a complex plot and (rarity of rarities in mainstream cinema) a great ending. It’s also an intriguing mixture of powerful intense Southern Gothic drama and pitch-black comedy. Sometimes the level of intensity and the frequency of violent incidents get too over-the-top to be plausible, but the movie’s great strengths – especially the aforementioned sharp dialogue – stop that from mattering unduly.

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Pitch Perfect 3

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The Bellas are back for what feels like the final time in this third installment of the a capella-centric Pitch Perfect franchise.

When we reunite with our all-singing female friends they’re a year or two out of college and grappling with the often grim realities of the real world: Beca (Anna Kendrick) is reeling after being fired from her entry-level music producing gig, Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) is struggling to find an audience for her Fat Amy Winehouse one woman show, and the rest of the gang are dealing with the usual gamut of dramas and disappointments.

However, the opportunity for one last adventure presents itself in the form of a whirlwind USO tour of Europe, entertaining American troops alongside other acts who play *gasp* actual instruments. Can the Bellas overcome the snobbery of their muso stagemates, find a little romance and fun, and maybe even impress  DJ Khaled (a shoehorned-in cameo) enough to win an opening slot for his show?

Well, of course they can. There are few surprises in the broad narrative and tonal strokes of PP3 – although some late stage developments might raise a few eyebrows. The film is not so much a story as a victory lap, bringing the gang back together on the flimsiest of excuses – commentators John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks are back in the fold on the pretext of making a documentary about the Bellas, for example – and letting them do what they do.

And that’s no bad thing – if you’ve enjoyed the last two outings, you’re more than likely going to get the same itch scratched by this third film – there’s plenty of catchy tunes, plenty of laughs (Wilson gets the lion’s share, but Hana Mae Lee’s mousy weirdo is the MVP by far), and the usual well-worn but nonetheless valuable lessons about sisterhood and loyalty.

Dig a little deeper and you might be disappointed though – a lot of themes and plotlines are dallied with but left largely unexplored. Once again Beca has to balance her own talents and ambitions against her loyalty to the Bellas, and we already know how that’s going to play out because we saw it happen in the last movie. The rivalry with the other bands on the tour, focused on Ruby Rose’s antagonistic rocker, never really peaks, and this is about the third film this year with Rose in a prominent role where she’s given not much to do except stand around looking like Ruby Rose – which she is, admittedly, very good at.

Indeed, the story’s so thin that a rather jarring action and suspense element is injected in the form of Amy’s long-lost father (John Lithgow with a hammy faux-Aussie accent), who makes the jump from “dead-beat dad” to “international supervillain” remarkably casually, leading to an explosive climax that isn’t too many degrees off your average Jason Bourne setpiece. Yes, this is in the movie where the girls sing hip hop medleys.

But it’s fun, and that’s what counts. Still, this might be time to call it a day. There’s a possible future out there where the law of diminishing returns and the value of a recognisable brand name combine to send the Pitch Perfect franchise to direct-to-video purgatory, and nobody deserves that. Much better to end on a high note – which Pitch Perfect 3 is

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Just to be Sure

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Uncertain paternity is the thorn in the side of patriarchy and has thus been the stuff of both tragedy and comedy in countless books, plays and films. After all, how is the male line to be secured and policed if we can never be sure? Usually, this concerns the problems of inheritance or some such weighty matter. In this fluently-directed and charmingly-realised French film it is more a spur to romantic comedy.

Erwan Gourmelon (François Damiens) is an unpretentious middle-aged man with the responsible if quirky job of clearing old wartime munitions from his town’s beaches. He is on good terms with his father (Guy Marchand) but has a slightly spikey relationship with his grown-up daughter Juliette (the wonderful Alice de Lencquesaing). One day, Erwan finds out, by accident, that the man he grew up with is not his biological father. This sets up a dilemma because he is fond of his old man but, at the same time, he now has this itch to know who his real father is/was.

At exactly this point he suffers a meet-cute with a doctor named Anna (Cecile de France) and is soon smitten. When he first runs into her, he immediately sees how forceful and self-reliant she is. We also know that the courtship between her and the shy but honest Erwan is going to be a bit tortuous for both of them. Poured on top of this is the fact that his pregnant daughter refuses to say who the father of her child is so the paternity issues double up generationally.

The film is deliberately more like a Shakespearian comedy than a French farce, but director Carine Tardieu (The Dandelions) manages to keep the many side stories and the main romance likable and interesting. There is no straining for overdone profundity here. Rather it relies on its Gallic charm, and the excellent cast are all fully at home with the style and the material. It is very well played and, in a film like this, that is easily enough.

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The Post

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The titular post here is The Washington Post, one of America’s better newspapers. The main setting is of course Washington D.C., and the time is 1971. Following in the very fresh footsteps of the beleaguered New York Times, the Post’s editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and publisher Katharine Grahame (Meryl Streep) are thinking of risking imprisonment by publishing extracts from the so-called Pentagon Papers. And that, essentially, is all this movie is about. The revelatory documents themselves show a pattern of lying by the government, particularly on the part of presidents and Secretaries of Defence and about the Vietnam War, which stretches back for decades. That level of mendacity is a big topic, but how people sought to reveal it is an appreciably smaller one, and the level of tedium is magnified by Steven Spielberg’s use of every cliche in the “publish and be damned” storybook.

The performances are OK here, and Meryl Streep is very good, but fine acting doesn’t take us very far when it’s in the service of a lamentably feeble script.

The Post is excruciatingly banal, trite, pompous and dull. Its dialogue is wooden and its style sentimental. Given that the (true) story is rather slight and its ending is – to anyone who knows their American history – predictable, it’s also too long. Imagine The West Wing minus all the wit and you’ve got something of the tone. Perhaps the whole thing is intended as a nostalgic sop to progressive and liberal-minded audiences in a time when, to use a line from Leonard Cohen, “Everybody knows that the good guys lost”. But judged solely as a film it’s abysmal.

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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Alarm bells may ring when you realise that the second film in the shiny new Star Wars trilogy is taking its cues, at least in part, from the second film in the original Holy Trinity. The Force Awakens may have been The Star Wars Film We had to Have in order to wash the foul taste of the Prequels out of our collective mouths, but repeating that cheap trick again would be a crashing disappointment – do we really need The Empire Strikes Back 2.0?

Luckily, we needn’t have worried. Writer and director Rian Johnson (Looper, Brick) takes familiar figures, archetypes and tropes and pushes them into uncharted territory, examining them, recontextualising them, finding new facets and, occasionally, hidden flaws. The result is a film that simultaneously feels familiar and new – the first “new” Star Wars film since Disney took the reins and clearly, judging by the fact that Johnson will be heading up his own discrete trilogy in the universe soon, the template going forward. And that’s a good thing.

But, in the broadest of strokes, The Empire Strikes Back: while nascent Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley) trains on the distant planet Ahch-To with hermit Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the Reb – sorry, Resistance is on the back foot (a bit of a leap considering the massive military victory that capped off TFA), on the run from Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), wannabe Vader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and the First Order fleet.

From there, things get more complicated: with the First Order able to track the Resistance convoy’s every move, ex-stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and new hero Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) must undertake a desperate mission to the luxury world of Canto Bight to find an agent who can help them give the bad guys the slip. Meanwhile, hot-headed X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) has to contend with Resistance Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern), who has no time for his recklessness, while he thinks her pragmatism is putting the entire Resistance at risk.

The Last Jedi delights in setting up and then subverting expectations. This is a Star Wars movie for a more complex age, and while the good guys and bad guys are still clearly demarcated, at a more granular level everything is a bit more blurred. Not every last-ditch desperate gambit works, not every scoundrel has a hidden heart of gold, not every stuffy officer is incompetent and, most importantly, not every aged Jedi is full of wisdom.

Indeed, what Johnson does with the Jedi is fascinating – old Luke has sequestered himself in some forgotten corner of the galaxy not to meditate, but to hide from the crushing guilt that he may be responsible for turning promising Jedi Padawan Ben Solo into the evil Kylo Ren. We’re used to reluctant heroes – here we have a reluctant mentor, fearful of training the naturally Force-talented Rey in case he makes the same error twice. Skywalker no longer sees any point in the existence of a Jedi Order at all – it seems Johnson is au fait with those fan theories about the arrogance of the Jedi – and in the context of this film, he may be right. Which is of no use to Rey, who simply wants someone to tell her what her place in the world is, and needs a wise mentor, not an old man filled with doubts.

That’s some dark territory, and arguably darker than the simple threat of the fascist First Order: it’s one thing to have the villains put a few runs on the board, it’s quite another to learn that the structures and assumptions on which we base our identities are shaky at best, and perhaps completely unstable. The Last Jedi questions the Light Side/Dark Side binary on which the Star Wars mythos is founded, and while we might wind up more or less where we might expect by the time the credits roll, narratively speaking, it leaves deep cracks in the firmament for later exploration.

We get plenty of adventure and action along the way, though. Exotic locales abound, from the aforementioned casino world of Caito Bight, which brings a little 007 flavour to the galaxy (and a missed opportunity for a pitch-perfect cameo, it must be said), to the salt flats of Crait, site of the climactic battle, fulfilling the Star Wars remit of taking us to places we’ve never seen and blowing up spaceships while we’re there.

The action sequences are top notch. Everyone likes to call Star Wars a space Western, but Johnson instead digs into the other two key stylistic influences on the trilogy – WWII films and Japanese chambara samurai movies, bookending Episode VIII with a bombing run straight out of Dambusters and a lightsaber duel that wears its Kurosawa debt on its flapping kimono sleeve.

All that mayhem is scaled up, too, in a concession to modern blockbuster sensibilities. Why have a Star Destroyer when you can have a Dreadnought? Why odds of a thousand to one when you can have a million? At times it stretches credulity, even for old Star Wars hands, but then this has never been a franchise with much debt to things like physics and probability.

But while there’s a lot of fun to be had, a somber pall overlays it all, to the point where some of the comedy beats fall flat in the overall context. This is a movie where the heroes are beaten within an inch of extinction, where the forces arrayed against them are monolithic, where the odds of victory are infinitesimal, and where terrible sacrifices are necessary to leverage those tiny odds. It is, ultimately, a film about hope in the face of overwhelming darkness – and rebellions, as someone once said, are built on hope.

Still, it’s only a glimmer of hope in this one – victory by the thinnest of margins, with the highest costs. The Last Jedi is an emotional wringer, and the film never lets us forget the human price that is paid in wartime – we’re perhaps all a bit too savvy than we were 30 years ago to think that casualties are bloodless. When we leave The Last Jedi, we’re in a much different and more difficult place than we were when we started, and while there’s definitely a path forward – of course there’s going to be an Episode IX – what that path might be is up for conjecture.

The Last Jedi is, to be clear, a great Star Wars film, one that honours the traditions of the franchise but boldly pushes the envelope in terms of thematic complexity and emotional tone. If this is indicative of the direction the core saga is taking going forward, we’re completely on board.

Click here for nationwide movie times for Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi

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Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

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With nostalgia basically being its own industry nowadays, and the quest to find good video game movies proving less and less fruitful with each passing year, this film already feels like it’s climbing an uphill battle purely by existing. However, it seems that everyone involved was more than prepared for that challenge, and the results are genuinely surprising in a number of areas.

The acting is genuinely impressive. Our main four not only channel that sense of out-of-body wish fulfillment inherent to the premise, they actually come across like they are avatars controlled by teenagers. Whether it’s Dwayne Johnson marveling at how chiseled his own body is or a self-obsessed Valley Girl in the body of Jack Black, they all wield their status as fictional characters in-universe to great comedic effect. Same goes for Nick Jonas with a surprisingly solid performance, and Bobby Cannavale being genuinely intimidating as the main villain.

As an update to a kitschy ‘90s flick, the cavalcade of writers attached to this take an expected but highly effective route. Not only do they manage to explain the update from board game to video game in a quick but legible fashion, they also bring some real gamer knowledge to the proceedings. It maintains the basic framework of a video game, with levels, character abilities and objectives, and injects them into cinematic form in a remarkably smooth fashion. From the inclusion of cut scenes to puzzle-solving, even down to gags relating to the cast’s specific strengths and weaknesses, it feels like we’re watching a video game being played out… and yet, the urge to just leave the cinema and play the game for yourself never comes up.

This is because, along with effectively translating video game storytelling into a spectator-only medium, it also highlights what escapism is capable of. Escapist media (films, video games, novels, music, etc.) allows people to have experiences that would be near-impossible to have otherwise. It’s quite thrilling to watch action stars doing stunts while hanging off a helicopter, but most would be hesitant to try it for themselves. Things like character arcs and closure and growth aren’t things that likely to happen to someone over the course of only two hours. And yet, when you’re absorbed in a good piece of fiction, you get to have those experiences without risk of personal injury or embarrassment.

As our leads traverse through the jungle, we see how fantastical environments can be very effective teaching tools, allowing the characters the opportunity to bond and grow while acting out that fantasy. They are the audience, and we end up experiencing all the fun and drama and kitsch right alongside them.

This film manages to be insane amounts of fun and yet never feels like you need to switch off to enjoy it, boasting an incredible cast, a consistently funny script and very immersive visuals. Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle takes two difficult tasks (being a follow-up to a nostalgic ‘classic’ and a film set mainly within a video game) and pull them off so breezily that you start to wonder why so many others struggle with even one of them.

Click here for nationwide movie times for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

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Swinging Safari

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Set squarely in the middle of the decade that taste forgot (summer ’75 – ’76 based on repeated Jaws references), writer and director Stephan Elliott’s (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) quasi-memoir is a riot of garish clothes, fantastic plastic, rayon and Ray-Bans, all seen through the eyes of 14 year old budding filmmaker, Jeff (Atticus Robb). It’s frequently funny and anyone who spent any of their formative years in beachside ’70s suburbia is sure to have their sense memory triggered (the production design, by Fury Road Oscar winner Colin Gibson, is extraordinarily on point), but under the surface there’s not a lot going on.

Which is a shame, because out of the gate it comes across like a kind of amiable ocker Goodfellas, narrated by Richard Roxburgh as the now-adult Jeff, recalling how he spent his 14th summer running around with an 8mm camera, making weird little stunt/action movies with the neighbourhood kids, and also accidentally documenting the shenanigans of his parents (Guy Pearce, on form, and Kylie Minogue, wasted) and their neighbours, Jo and Rick Jones (Radha Mitchell and Julian McMahon), and Gale and Bob Marsh (Asher Keddie and Jeremy Sims), as they try to spice up their suburban existence with a spot of wife-swapping.

Naturally it all goes awkwardly wrong and leads to some bad blood in the cul de sac (it wouldn’t be much of a movie if they all discovered happiness in polyamory, would it?), but young Jeff has more immediate concerns: the 200 ton blue whale that’s beached itself on the local shore for one thing; his growing attraction to fellow teen Melly (Darcey Wilson), who is alienated by the middle class bacchanalia around her, for another.

Sadly, Jeff’s actual journey gets lost in the mix, with director Elliott becoming too enamoured of the film’s period aesthetic to maintain narrative or thematic focus. The social and sexual mores of the period get roundly mocked, but never examined in great detail – watching Swinging Safari, you get the sense that there was a somewhat darker and more complex story here, but it’s been elided away in service to the extant film’s brisk and brazen 96 minute running time. Interestingly, the film once went under the more oblique title Flammable Children, a reference to burn scars that both Jeff and Mellie bear, but this story element is largely reduced to a joke about synthetic fabrics.

It’s a problem that extends to every area of the film – intimacy and complexity are repeatedly sacrificed in favour of sight gags, knowing winks, and broadside parody. It’s all surface sheen, and we’re never allowed into the inner lives of any of the characters to any meaningful degree. Events happen, but are not reflected upon or contextualised. Characters are interchangeable, be they a rabble of kids running around the neighbourhood, or even the adults upon whose peccadilloes so much of the plot depends. Indeed, the three blowhard patriarchs of the story are so similar that Pearce, McMahon, and Sims could have swapped chunks of dialogue wholesale and nobody in the audience would be the wiser.

Swinging Safari is a fun enough time, to be sure, but jokes about knitwear, bad haircuts and fondue parties only get you so far. Ultimately, the film fails in its implicit aim to satirise, instead falling back on mere parody. What could have been a real deep dive into a period of uncertainty and change turns out to be just a sight-seeing tour, and that’s a wasted opportunity.

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Black Mirror Season 4

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2017 has, by any objective metric, been an unholy garbage fire trundling down a mountain of excrement. It’s been a time in which we’ve seen the true faces of our heroes, watched a cadre of mad despots busy themselves ruining the planet and been witness to many attempts by nature to rid itself of our malevolent taint.

Plus season eight of The Walking Dead has been a bit shit so, you know, bad times all around.

Just in case your being isn’t yet fully suffused by existential dread, Black Mirror season four is here to stab your optimism right in the kidneys. Although this latest outing of Charlie Brooker’s notably bleak peek into the future of technology has been experimenting with a new flavour: hope.

Yes, although season four has its share of nightmarish tomorrows, it also delivers some moments of light in the darkness, and is all the more effective for doing so. Obviously picking “the best” episodes is subjective, but in terms of overall quality standouts include: “Hang the DJ” – about a society where companionship is dictated by an app, “Crocodile” – a tense tale of retribution superbly directed by John Hillcoat (The Proposition, The Road), and “Metalhead” – a black and white vision of a terrifying utopia directed by David Slade (Hannibal, American Gods) and unlike anything Black Mirror has ever produced before.

On the slightly-less-successful-but-still-decent side we have “Arkangel” – directed by Jodie Foster (yes, that Jodie Foster) in an effective, but rather predictable look at parental intervention and “USS Callister” – a movie-length look at geek culture that is fun, but not quite as clever as it thinks it is.

The only real dud in the bunch is “Black Museum”, an anthology episode that drags and is way too similar to 2014’s “White Christmas” which was itself a bit naff.

Ultimately Black Mirror season four is another solid outing, and while nothing quite hits the giddy highs of last season’s “San Junipero”, the overall quality is more consistent this time around. It’s not always an easy watch, but Black Mirror remains one of the smartest slices of speculative fiction around. All six episodes will be on Netflix from December 29, so why not see out the year curled in a fetal ball, dreading the future, and occasionally experiencing fleeting moments of (very) cautious optimism.

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Wolf Creek Season 2

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Few horror franchises have capitalised on the inherent creepiness of the Australian outback like Wolf Creek. With the possible exception of Razorback (1984) and Wake in Fright (1971), the Aussie outback tends to be the sight of cinematic spiritual awakenings or the backdrop for epic movie road trips. Greg McLean’s robust horror franchise has managed to straddle multiple mediums, including two movies, various books and now a second televisual outing with Wolf Creek season 2. The question you may be asking is ‘how?’ How does such a seemingly simple premise lead to so many stories? The answer is Mick Taylor (John Jarratt). Mick is such a quintessentially Aussie antagonist, an uncomfortable reflection of the sunburnt country’s darker impulses – ready to strike at a moment’s notice for reasons known only to him. He’s also extremely easy to adapt to different genres.

Case in point: Wolf Creek season one featured a one-on-one grudge match between Mick and Eve (Lucy Fry), the latter of whom was on a one woman hunt to avenge her slaughtered family. Season two of Wolf Creek flips the script yet again and this time we’re travelling into the outback with a group of international tourists, keen on exploring the Aussie outback with Davo (Ben Oxenbould). A chance meeting of Mick and Davo sparks the killing urge in our favourite tourist hunter and Mick decides he’s going to take these soft city folk on an outback adventure they’ll never forget, and most of them won’t survive.

It’s a classic horror premise, and interestingly one Greg McLean has been toying with since before the first Wolf Creek movie (check out our interview). Over six episodes Mick puts the tourists through various hideous trials, whittling them down one by one until the inevitable, and grisly, climax.

Wolf Creek season two feels like a more pure horror experience than the slightly more experimental previous season. The scares are solid, the tension palpable and the kills effective, if occasionally slightly ropey. The cast acquit themselves well, and while no one is quite as standout as Lucy Fry from season one; Tess Haubrich, Laura Wheelwright and Matt Day all provide compelling personalities under duress.

Best of all director Greg McLean is on hand to deliver some of his best work to date, providing a cinematic-quality genre experience you can enjoy while sitting on the couch in your undies.

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The Wound

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The titular wound here is a particularly painful one, because the story revolves around a traditional initiation process which begins with circumcision. It takes place in a remote mountain location in South Africa, where a group of teenage boys is subjected to an ordeal which lasts for a couple of weeks and evidently involves a considerable amount of discomfort and distress. Most of what transpires is murkily or discreetly filmed, but the content is still occasionally confronting – including the mercifully brief scenes involving animal slaughter.

So much for the context. Despite its intermittently extreme content, The Wound is first and foremost a relationship story. Xolani (Nakhane Toure) is a warehouse worker from Johannesburg who himself once underwent the initiation process, but who now regularly returns to be a “caregiver” and instruct the latest participants about what supposedly constitutes being a man. In so doing, he gets to reunite with fellow caregiver Xija (Bongile Mantsai). Homosexuality is not accepted at the camp, so Xolani and Xija have to sneak away for their encounters.  Meanwhile, Xolani’s latest charge Kwanda (Niza Jay)  has his suspicions…

The Wound has its moments, but they’re pretty few and far between. There are quite a few echoes of Brokeback Mountain here. Both films involve closeted gay characters who leave the city for clandestine rural meetings with their male paramours. Both have at least one protagonist who is macho, in denial and emotionally withdrawn. The main difference is that Brokeback Mountain was a substantial movie, and this isn’t. It’s moderately interesting as a window on another world, and passable as drama, but no more than that.