Something delightful is happening in cinemas across the country. After months spent empty, with projectors silent, theatres bare and the smell of popcorn fading, Australian picture palaces are starting to reopen — spanning both big chains and smaller independent sites in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.
During COVID-19 lockdowns, no one was short on things to watch, of course. In fact, you probably feel like you’ve streamed every movie ever made over the past three months, including new releases, comedies, music documentaries, Studio Ghibli’s animated fare and Nicolas Cage-starring flicks. But, even if you’ve spent all your time of late glued to your small screen, we’re betting you just can’t wait to sit in a darkened room and soak up the splendour of the bigger version. Thankfully, plenty of new films are hitting cinemas so that you can do just that — and we’ve rounded up, watched and reviewed everything on offer this week.
The relentlessness of modern life, the ongoing unrest in Colombia, and the ceaseless trials and tribulations that plague all teens facing adulthood — they all sit at the centre of stunning South America-set thriller Monos. Set in a camp of teen guerrillas, Alejandro Landes’ third film follows gun-toting rebels that have barely said goodbye to childhood, but are still tasked with guarding an American hostage (The Outsider‘s Julianne Nicholson). Unsurprisingly, even with nothing around but fields, jungle, a cow to milk and occasional enemy fire, little goes according to plan. Engagingly lingering between a dark fairytale and a psychological treatise on war, combat and humanity’s dog-eat-dog nature, the result is the definite standouts of the past year. From the eye-popping landscape cinematography and the needling tension of Mica Levi’s score, to the commanding performance from the young cast, there’s a reason that Monos proved a huge festival hit around the globe in 2019 — including winning Sundance’s Special Jury Award — before finally releasing in Aussie cinemas.
After exploring the JonBenet Ramsey case not only with precision, but via a perceptive re-enactment technique that interrogated its impact — with excellent documentary Casting JonBenet the end result — trust Australian filmmaker Kitty Green to turn one of the biggest topics of the past few years into a compelling, unsettling, fiercely searing thriller. The subject: the culture of sexual harassment and sexually predatory behaviour in the entertainment industry. The context: #MeToo, obviously. Following a day in the professional life of an entry-level personal assistant, Jane (Ozark‘s Julia Garner), as she works for an unseen film production company head honcho, The Assistant unnerves by showing the routine, everyday nature of inappropriate workplace conduct, as well as the powerlessness of those both subjected and witness to it to stop it. As always in Green’s films, every element is fine-tuned to evoke a strong and earned response — which, here, includes a grey colour palette, claustrophobic camerawork, a taut script, a commitment to authenticity and a devastatingly stellar performance by Garner.
THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD
He’s skewered British, American and Russian politics in The Thick of It, In the Loop, Veep and The Death of Stalin. This year, in the eerily prescient Avenue 5, he pondered what would happen if a group of people were confined on a cruise of sorts — a luxury space voyage — for an extended stretch of time. But, in period comedy mode, The Personal History of David Copperfield might just be Armando Iannucci’s most delightful work yet. Indeed, playfully trifling with a Charles Dickens classic suits the writer/director. Boasting a charming performance by Dev Patel as the eponymous character, and also starring Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Peter Capaldi, Ben Whishaw and Game of Thrones‘ Gwendoline Christie, this is a fresh, very funny and sharp-witted rendering of the obvious literary source material. Recreating this tale of a Victorian-era young man cycling from wealth to poverty and back again, Iannucci and his frequent co-scribe Simon Blackwell take shrewd liberties with the story, while never letting issues of class, abuse, loss, corruption and the dog-eat-dog nature of capitalism slip from view. And, Iannucci’s visual inventiveness — including the use of split screen and rear projection — also leaves an imprint.
Read our full review.
When a film is described as ‘textured’, the term typically refers to its narrative, themes and emotional impact, with nothing smooth, shallow or straightforward evident. That applies to Mark Jenkin’s Bait as it hones in on feuding Cornish fisherman siblings Martin (Edward Rowe) and Steven Ward (Giles King). Indeed, examining not only family in-fighting, but culture clashes, the growing chasm between tradition and modernity, and the effect of tourism on local residents of scenic spots, this is a rich, tense, complex and mesmerising affair that muses as deeply on blood ties as it does on gentrification. Jenkin’s film also boasts ample visual texture, too. It’s noticeable from the feature’s first moments, is intrinsically linked to its tone, and proves utterly inescapable as the sea, craggy shorelines, twisted nets and gnarled ropes all fill the screen. And, as shot on location with a 16mm Bolex camera — and on black-and-white stock that the director hand-processed — Bait‘s look and feel is as important to the movie as anything else within its frames. In fact, paired with a noticeable penchant for close-ups that forces the audience to stare firmly at both people and objects, this stunning British feature couldn’t make a bigger or more powerful aesthetic splash.
Bruce (Cohen Holloway) has long since reached adulthood. And, for all of the garbage dump worker’s life, his mother Beth (Annie Whittle) has provided a buffer between him and his stoic father Ross (Marshall Napier). When tragedy strikes, however, they’re forced to not only face a future without her — including the minutiae of running their scenic Northland dairy farm — but to truly face and talk to each other in a meaningful way for the first real time. Marking the feature directorial debut of teacher-turned-filmmaker Hamish Bennett, made in the area he grew up in and following the same characters from his 2014 short film Ross & Beth, Bellbird explores a straightforward and well-traversed concept, with mourning no stranger to screens. That said, this patient, understated and gently humorous New Zealand drama is a soulful and thoughtful gem. As well as finding a wealth of depth in two men ill-equipped to confront their complicated emotions but given no choice but to try, this gorgeously shot and weightily performed feature matches Bruce and Ross’ taciturn ways with an astute script that conveys more through silence than words.
Also focusing on connection and reflection sparked by grief, Love Sarah steps into another family attempting to cope with loss. In this case, the dearly departed is the titular chef — the estranged daughter of ex-circus performer Mimi (Celia Imrie), beloved mother of dancer Clarissa (Shannon Tarbet), and best friend and business partner of Isabella (Shelley Conn). When the latter decides to forge ahead with Sarah’s plans to open a bakery, she realises that she can’t do it without both Mimi and Clarissa’s help. Also lending a hand: Sarah and Isabella’s culinary school pal Matthew (Rupert Penry-Jones), who might be Clarissa’s father. Directing her first feature, filmmaker Eliza Schroeder lets everything about Love Sarah play out as expected, including its soft hues, appetising cake and pastry shots, and exploration of renewed bonds and new opportunities in the face of life-altering change. The film is suitably sweet, of course, and always palatable; however it’s far too happy to stick to the easiest recipe possible — with some plot strands overstressed to add extra drama, and one of the movie’s more enticing and interesting narrative elements quickly introduced and then abandoned.
For part of this year, when US cinemas were closed but some drive-ins were still open, The Wretched topped the American box office. In no other scenario would that have occurred, so consider the attention afforded Brett and Drew T Pierce’s instantly familiar but always effective horror film one of the few silver linings of pandemic-inspired lockdowns. Set in a small coastal town, the siblings’ slickly crafted feature follows teenager Ben (John-Paul Howard), who’s visiting his divorced father Liam (Jamison Jones). As tends to happen in this type of creepfest, his arrival coincides with strange goings-on at the house next door — namely a sinister force that’s wreaking havoc on his neighbours and threatening to spread its malevolence even further. Immediately recalling 80s-era spookiness (and clearly the product of writer/directors who’ve spent much of their lives watching scary flicks from the period), The Wretched perfects the genre’s jumps and bumps with ease, as well as the filmmaking nuts and bolts. In terms of its supernatural storyline, though — and its witchy villain — it does lean heavily on cliches.
A tragic accident causes a long-kept secret to come to light — and sparks a series of difficult choices for a Tunisian struggling couple — in the tense and moving A Son. Despite that description, however, this isn’t just an intimate drama about messy personal lives tested by heightened circumstances, although it definitely fits that bill. As well as chronicling the fallout when Aziz (Youssef Khemiri), the 11-year-old son of Fares (Sami Bouajila) and Meriem (Najla Ben Abdallah), is hit by a stray bullet during an on-the-road ambush by an armed group, debut filmmaker Mehdi Barsaoui examines the societal underpinnings deepening the family’s troubles. Aziz is in dire need of a liver transplant in the aftermath of the attack, but the quest to find a donor is complicated due to cultural, religious and political reasons, as well as a revelation that rocks Meriem and Fares’ marriage. Playing parents and partners pushed to their limits, Bouajila and Abdallah are superb. And, while some of the movie hits predicable narrative beats, Barsaoui isn’t afraid to veer in confronting directions, or to peer intently at the state of Tunisia today.
Calling all bibliophiles — whether your bookshelves are bulging, you’ve spent far too much of your life in bookstores or you’ve always dreamed about turning your passion for reading into your profession. Focusing on New York’s rare booksellers, as well as the ups and downs of their industry, US documentary The Booksellers touches on all of the above. It’s also catnip for anyone who’s never more content than when they’re thumbing through a printed tome, and convincingly evokes the feeling of trawling through shelf after shelf of old, beloved volumes. Cycling through the main players in NYC’s antiquarian and secondhand book scene, stepping through the history of dealing in rare texts and contemplating what the future might hold as technology threatens to change everything, this is a meticulously structured, deftly edited, and immensely fascinating ode to the printed word and the happiness it brings. Filmmaker DW Young doesn’t make any surprising moves, but he doesn’t need to, with his overall topic, his individual subjects and the world they inhabit proving as captivating as any must-read page-turner.
IT MUST BE HEAVEN
In It Must Be Heaven, Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman both directs and plays himself. He also doesn’t say a single word on-screen. Serving up a slice of observational comedy, he instead bears witness to and satirises the world around him — starting in his hometown of Nazareth, then roaming to Paris, New York and Montreal. In each place, absurdity reigns. Suleiman isn’t interested in overt farce, though, but in a comically heightened, expertly choreographed exploration of the type of strangeness and silliness that lingers in ordinary lives, everyday situations and widespread attitudes. Think: run-ins with authority, examples on the increasingly engrained nature of violence, pondering global tourism and ruminating on the way that one’s homeland shapes identity. The ebbs and flows of Suleiman’s filmmaking career provide the scantest narrative framework, complete with a brief appearance by Gael Garcia Bernal as himself; however It Must Be Heaven favours vignettes, sight gags, soulful reflection, expressive comedy and strikingly staged moments over neat storytelling.
The ability of food to overcome national, cultural and racial bounds — to erase barriers, bring people together and help forge new bonds — is an overused cinematic trope. So too is the healing, happiness-inducing power of a great dish, including in fish-out-of-water and down-on-one’s-luck scenarios. That doesn’t stop Finnish comedy Master Cheng from giving all of the above a workout, though. Here, the titular Chinese chef (Pak Hon Chu) heads to the European country with his son Nunjo (Lucas Hsuan) in tow, plans to connect with an old colleague, but finds himself forging ties in a remote village instead. Naturally, there’s a slow-simmering romantic connection with a local in the form of diner owner Sirkka (Anna-Maija Tuokko). Just as expectedly, the community warms to the newcomer’s presence. What helps lift Master Cheng, however, isn’t filmmaker Mika Kaurismäki’s love of a clearcut (and clearly sentimental) template, but the time and attention he invests in building characters, as evidenced best in the film’s fleshed-out central duo.
Many a screenwriter has probably tried to pen a similar tale, but the story of Rupert and Jan Grey, their retirement plans and the adventure that followed could’ve only stemmed from truth. Invited to attend a festival in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the couple decide to drive Rupert’s father’s 1936 Rolls Royce across India to get there. The journey proves revelatory and life-changing in a variety of ways; however it’s the detail captured by filmmaker Oliver McGarvey and his documentary Romantic Road that couldn’t be more authentic. The Greys’ road trip hits obstacles, both expected and not-so. That’s part of the genre, whether based on fiction or fact. Here, though, McGarvey doesn’t just focus on the trek and the ensuing escapades along the way, but spends much of the film unpacking his subjects’ 35-year relationship — and their motivation to add this hefty drive to their lifetime’s worth of affection and memories.
Setting a film inside a bustling restaurant — here, the White Village Greek Tavern in Melbourne’s Elsternwick — almost feels like science fiction at this very moment. With The Taverna, though, it’s inspiration for modest laughs, dramas and insights, with this ensemble piece charting the action in its obvious setting across one particularly chaotic night. Owner Kostas (Vangelis Mourikis) has plenty to deal with, including a car accident involving his shady son Angelo (Christian Charisiou), trying to get his his waitress Sally (Emily O’Brien-Brown) to replace his belly dancer Jamila (Rachel Kamath), and troubles with the latter, her ex-husband Arman (Peter Paltos) and his new girlfriend Rebecca (Tottie Goldsmith). Embracing multicultural Australia to an extent that isn’t always seen on local screens, the result is a warm, sometimes wavering but generally engaging film from writer/director Alkinos Tsilimidos (Silent Partner, Tom White, Em 4 Jay).
From 11.59pm on Wednesday, July 1, until at least Wednesday, July 29, stay-at-home orders have been reintroduced in ten Melbourne postcodes, which means their residents can only leave for one of four reasons: work or school, care or care giving, daily exercise or food and other essentials. For more information, head to the DHHS website.
Published on July 02, 2020 by Sarah Ward