Sydney’s cinemas have emerged from more than 100 days of darkness during lockdown.
And whether it’s a mainstream release such Hollywood’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings or a more specialised release – maybe Nitram or Rosa’s Wedding – those of us who’ve had more than enough of home viewing will relish getting back to the big screen.
Cinemas have reopened under strict COVID-safe conditions. Under NSW Health orders, they will initially have a maximum of 75 per cent capacity (or one person per four square metres) and patrons will be required to show proof of double vaccination and wear a mask.
The first-week options include many movies that are already streaming, but major new releases are not far away. They include Sopranos prequel The Many Saints of Newark, Marvel’s Eternals, new James Bond film No Time To Die and sci-fi epic Dune. Below, our critics run through the many films on offer now.
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Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings ★★★½
(M) 132 minutes
Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the first Asian character to headline a Marvel superhero movie. Shang-Chi first appeared in a Marvel comic in 1973, but he’s had a makeover almost 50 years later.
The character (played well by Canadian actor Simu Liu) is a sort of Clark Kent guy who parks cars in San Francisco, until he’s forced to reveal that he can kick butt just as well as Jacky Chan, Bruce Lee and Jet Li combined.
This revelation takes place on a bus, where the brakes have been cut by a giant henchman with a machete where his right hand should be. I get hives at the thought of most superhero movies, but this sequence had me at hello. It’s so well constructed, so confident and funny that I had to park my prejudice and sit up straight.
Director Destin Daniel Cretton’s Asian-American background comes through in the skilful cultural mixing. There’s weight in the casting and intelligence in the writing, which is partly about the tensions of the new world order.
Derivative hardly describes this melange. The power totem is the titular ten rings, worn on the wrist: a source of great power, not to be misused. So, Lord of the Bangles? Your father was a bad man and your sister went missing a long time ago (take a seat Leia and Darth, next to Clark and Lois). There is much Bondification in the way the set-pieces build and intensify. None of this is unusual, but the touch is lighter, the characterisation deeper, the execution smarter. Somebody dumbed it up, not down.
The modern superhero movie is founded on computer-generated effects, but some audiences now judge these movies on how well they keep the CGI in check. There has to be something human, which seems like a paradox in a superhero flick. That’s hard in a movie of this size, so the final reel abandons all pretence of self-control. Dragons and demons fill the screen, and one could comfortably have a little shut-eye, except for all the din. PB
Jungle Cruise ★★★★
(M) 129 minutes
Jungle Cruise is actually a jungle cocktail. The African Queen, the Indiana Jones movies, Romancing the Stone and Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft have all been tossed into the mix but, the main ingredient is Disney’s theme park ride.
It’s the inspiration for this blithely uninhibited adventure story set largely on the Amazon River. Stirring it all up is Dwayne Johnson, formerly known as The Rock, and that’s a bonus. Of the screen’s few self-deprecating action heroes, he’s the most engaging – Harrison Ford without the grumpiness.
The action takes place in 1917 and like so many colonial narratives about far-flung explorations, it starts in the venerable headquarters of London’s Royal Geographical Society. Dr Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) has smuggled herself into the society’s offices in search of evidence of an Amazon tree said to possess extraordinary healing powers.
We’re swiftly transported to the Amazon with Lily and her brother, McGregor (Jack Whitehall). They hire Johnson’s Frank Wolff, a local steamboat captain with a fondness for lame puns, to take them up river. And the bantering begins.
I wasn’t completely won over by the film’s second half which goes over to fantasy with a new cast of CGI creations, but it’s done with a lot of verve and wit and Johnson and Blunt still manage to keep a straight face. They also keep you on their side, partly because they have no difficulty in persuading you that they’re having a lot of fun together.
It’s a film that looks as if it has the makings of a franchise but, these days, when blockbusters are often being denied the boost they get from a wide theatrical release, I’m not sure. Then again, it does have The Rock to lean on so anything could happen. SH
The Suicide Squad ★★★★
(MA) 132 minutes
As the writer-director of blockbusters like Guardians of the Galaxy, James Gunn has several qualities that separate him from his peers, including a genuine ability to go off the rails. This has got him in trouble, notably in 2018 when attention was called to his old habit of tweeting tasteless jokes.
That was enough to get Gunn fired, at least for a few months. During this period, he was recruited by the proprietors of the rival DC Extended Universe to mastermind a one-off project: the story of a group of scumbags rotting in jail who are railroaded into a do-or-die mission that offers an outside chance at redemption. Who says comic-book movies can’t be personal?
Gory, sentimental, brazenly adolescent, and never short on imagination, The Suicide Squad could be described as the essence of Gunn, if not exactly the film of a free man. This is a so-called “soft reboot” of David Ayer’s 2016 Suicide Squad. A few actors reappear, including Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn and Viola Davis as ruthless puppet-mistress Amanda Waller.
Idris Elba, who stars as the assassin Bloodsport, is the kind of actor who can bring emotional reality to any situation – a capacity put to the test here, given that Bloodsport’s allies include a woman who can summon rats, a mother-fixated weirdo known as the Polka-Dot Man and a talking, walking, man-gobbling shark with the mental capacity of a toddler, voiced by Sylvester Stallone.
These characters may have originated in DC comic books, but Gunn elaborates on them in a manner all his own, combining childish silliness with a love of the grotesque so frank it seems almost equally innocent. Politics, though, are another matter. The majority of the gruesome deaths are those of Corto Maltese locals, adding a queasy dimension to the breezy ultra-violence. JW
Free Guy ★★★
(M) 115 minutes
When did paranoid fantasy become a familiar form of popular entertainment? The watershed moment may be hard to pinpoint, but without it we wouldn’t have Free Guy, a bright, breezy and outwardly innocuous action-comedy that summons memories of just about every story Hollywood has told about a false or illusory world.
Ryan Reynolds stars as Guy, an office drone in a blue shirt who is horrified to learn that he’s nothing more than a “non-player character” in an online video game. The aristocrats of this world are the players of the game – or rather their digital avatars – known to Guy as the “sunglasses people”. His transformation begins when he falls for one of them, Molotov Girl (Killing Eve’s Jodie Comer). Her real-world alter ego Millie is one of the programmers whose code was stolen to create the game in question.
Free Guy is a knowing movie, but part of its knowingness is its pop lightness – even its blandness. Director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum) is basically a family entertainer and there’s nothing remotely pretentious about his work.
Guy is the kind of earnest innocent most Reynolds characters would mock, but this doesn’t alter his trademark snarky delivery. In one sense, that detachment is apt enough – but it takes a while to register that the irony belongs entirely to Reynolds, not the character.
On the bright side, he shows no interest in turning himself into a figure of pathos, or indeed giving any of Guy’s emotions much weight. This dries out some of the potential stickiness of the love story and makes it easier to forgive the ending, which is too clever by half and also an admission that Levy and the film’s writers have painted themselves into a corner. JW
Black Widow ★★½
(M) 134 minutes
At this point, it’s hardly a spoiler to say that the Black Widow, otherwise known as leather enthusiast and former Russian super-spy Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), sacrificed herself nobly in the grand climax of Avengers: Endgame.
Of course, death in superhero terms is never totally final. But Natasha, despite certain genetic advantages, is a mere mortal, and to my knowledge there are no plans to have her rise from the grave. Rather, Black Widow is a prequel, resolving the burning question of what Natasha was up to about 2016 while estranged from her fellow Avengers.
Turns out, she was reconnecting with her other surrogate family, aiding her spy “parents” Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz) in their pretence of being apple-pie Americans. As an adult Natasha has put this charade behind her, but her one-time foster sister Yelena (Florence Pugh), equally hard as nails on the surface, wants to believe there was something real underlying the pretence.
So there’s more than revenge at stake when Yelena persuades Natasha to join her on a mission to bring down General Dreykov (Ray Winstone), the mastermind behind the Red Room, the training and brainwashing centre that transformed both “sisters” into ruthless killers.
The result has the usual peculiar Marvel mix of tones, though Australia’s Cate Shortland (Somersault) doesn’t exult in the contradictions the way that James Gunn did in his cartoonish Guardians of the Galaxy films. The backstory is all about trauma and child abuse.
Johansson is pretty good, as you’d expect, and not confined to the one note of low-key toughness. But nothing can mask the rote quality of the character’s emotional journey, whereby the aftermath of the Cold War is reduced to a backdrop for a story about one woman learning to reconnect with her feelings. JW
Thrills and chills
(MA) 91 minutes
The theme of gentrification looms large in Nia DaCosta’s Candyman, making it tempting to see this revival of a dormant horror franchise as the latest cinematic example of a low-rent property taken upmarket.
Come to think of it, the original Candyman was centred on a Chicago semiotics student and scored by Philip Glass – so perhaps DaCosta and her co-writers, including Jordan Peele of Get Out fame, haven’t had to do a huge amount of remodelling after all.
Indeed, this is a direct sequel to the 1992 film rather than a so-called reboot, maintaining the Chicago setting and acknowledging the real-world demolition of Cabrini-Green, the once notorious public housing project central to the mythology of the series from the outset.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II stars as painter Anthony McCoy, viewed as the “great Black hope of the Chicago art scene” prior to a lengthy creative dry spell (which has apparently allowed him to spend much of his time at the gym).
Desperate for inspiration, Anthony seizes on the urban legend of the Candyman (Tony Todd) – another African-American artist, murdered long ago on the site of Cabrini-Green. Famously, his vengeful spirit can be summoned by saying his name five times into a mirror, although doing so proves to be extremely unwise.
To describe what DaCosta and her team have to say about race, class, cultural appropriation, lingering trauma and so forth feels all but redundant, given how explicitly they go over all this in the dialogue, even as they parody trendy modern art and its accompanying jargon.
It’s all a little too self-consciously clever to be scary – and cultural studies scholars aside, I’m not certain who it’s really for. But with rich colours and a strong cast, including Teyonah Parris as Anthony’s wife, this new Candyman remains a bolder than average piece of entertainment. JW
Don’t Breathe 2 ★★★
(MA) 98 minutes
The trick of Fede Alvarez’s 2016 horror-thriller Don’t Breathe was to turn the usual logic of the home invasion movie on its ear. His anti-heroes were dirtbag Detroit burglars who made the mistake of targeting a blind recluse (Stephen Lang), soon revealed to be a disturbed war veteran with acute hearing, something nasty in his basement and no scruples about defending his turf.
The script is flipped once more in Don’t Breathe 2, directed by regular Alvarez collaborator Rodo Sayagues, with Alvarez back as co-writer and producer. The sole returning cast member is Lang, whose character initially appears as sinister as ever – or still more so, given he’s become the caretaker of a little girl (Madelyn Grace) to whom he’s clearly no biological kin.
But he’s a candidate for father of the year compared to the nastier lowlifes who come calling this time around. In the argot of pro wrestling, this brand of redemption is known as a “heel face turn”, a move seldom made so boldly in cinema since Arnold Schwarzenegger was reprogrammed for niceness in Terminator 2.
While this is among the wackiest of recent horror sequels, it improves on its predecessor. The original’s conceptual simplicity may be lacking, but then minimalism was never really Alvarez’s strong suit.
These are movies for hardcore horror fans, which is to say connoisseurs of the grotesque. You can feel Alvarez and Sayagues trying to top each other with freaky ideas. While they may never quite match the jaw-dropping “turkey baster” scene from the first film, they compensate with greater fertility of invention, so to speak.
Early on, a news broadcast warns of an organ trafficking ring operating in the neighbourhood; if your response is a shudder of anticipation, what follows won’t let you down. JW
The Night House ★★★
(M) 107 minutes
The promise of David Bruckner’s The Night House is evident from the nearly wordless opening sequence, with the heroine Beth (Rebecca Hall) alone at night at her lakeside house. Right away we have various riddles to ponder, including the possible presence of an intruder. We also get an immediate sense of Beth’s personality: alert, unhappy, highly strung yet self-contained.
When she returns to her teaching job the next morning, the dialogue supplies a big piece of the puzzle. Just days earlier, her husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit) took his own life, a shock so total she has to wonder if she ever knew him at all.
Understandably, she can’t let the mystery go, scrolling through Owen’s phone and wandering the woods near their home in search of clues. This quest remains a largely solitary one, though side characters such as her best friend Claire (Barry’s Sarah Goldberg) show up periodically to warn she might be losing the plot.
These well-meaning interventions trigger some of the strongest moments of Hall’s spiky, original performance., which conveys a good deal about the overlap between grief and rage.
Bruckner and his team do not wholly succeed in fusing a subdued character study with the conventions of mainstream horror. The climax is the usual chaotic sound-and-light show – and while I have no problem with lingering mystery, some odd decisions have been made about what needs clarifying and what doesn’t.
Still, making Beth a very specific person rather than a stock type gives more force to the ghastly revelations that do emerge about her marriage. Even standard jump scares are more effective when we can’t be sure which way the victim will jump. JW
(M) 116 minutes
Cinema has given us many glamorous dystopias, but if I had to pick one to call home I’d be tempted by the near-future Miami of Lisa Joy’s Reminiscence, a city altered but not annihilated by drastic climate change.
Rising sea levels have put whole districts underwater, but Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman) has little trouble getting around by monorail or taxi boat. It’s from a former bank that Nick operates his unusual variation on the private eye game: his clients are submerged in a tank that enables them to relive their memories, which also appear as holograms on a nearby stage.
Nick and his assistant Watts (Thandiwe Newton) apparently have the sole rights to this technology, left over from Nick’s past as a wartime interrogator. This vaguely sketched backstory fits well enough within the noir paradigm, though you’d think Nick might smell a rat when approached by Mae (Rebecca Ferguson), a sultry torch singer in search of some lost keys.
Inevitably, he falls for Mae, who just as inevitably disappears, meaning he has to use the tank to relive his memories to find her. From here the film shuttles between two timeframes.
Joy is the co-creator of TV’s Westworld and viewers of that show will not be surprised to hear the plot of Reminiscence grows increasingly convoluted, even hard to follow. Still, as soon as Nick asks Mae if she’s heard of Orpheus and Eurydice, we know roughly where we are.
The title of Reminiscence is apt in more ways than one: the borrowings from earlier movies are incessant. Beyond the surface novelty of the setting and premise, there’s not much here that could exactly be called original. But the layering of reflections and shadows has a ghostly glamour of its own. JW
(MA) 112 minutes
Nitram is the story of Martin Bryant, the young man who killed 35 people and wounded 23 others at Port Arthur in April 1996 – except that it’s not quite that simple. The character is never named, except with the nickname Nitram (Martin spelled backwards) and the shootings at Port Arthur are not shown.
Caleb Landry Jones, who plays “Nitram”, looks very like the real man, with his lank blonde hair concealing a bland face. By omitting his name, Tasmanian-based director Justin Kurzel (Snowtown) tries to signal his intention not to add to the man’s desire to create a legend.
Not every crime raises questions about who we are as a country. Port Arthur did that. The shock and revulsion were such that John Howard was able to pass laws restricting gun ownership just 12 days after the shootings. The end titles mention that no state has fully complied with the terms of the National Firearms Agreement since the law was passed. In that sense, this is an anti-gun movie, aimed not just at ourselves, but beyond our shores.
Kurzel has a special talent for the dark corners of Australian culture. Nitram might be termed a lesson in knowing the unknowable. It doesn’t explain the shooter; it simply suggests how such a character might have evolved. On the other hand, there is a profound family drama, with Judy Davis at her most astringent as his long-suffering mother, and Anthony LaPaglia as a father stifling screams of despair. Both are superb.
Kurzel and writer Shaun Grant do not offer any easy answers, beyond the obvious: keep the guns under control. Landry Jones won the best actor prize at the most recent Cannes Film Festival for this work. His performance is riveting, suspended between pain and rage, with little self-awareness. PB
Summer of Soul ★★★★
(PG) 118 minutes
In the summer of ’69, while white kids went to Woodstock, Harlem had its own thing – a festival of black culture and music, in all its glory. How the tapes of these shows stayed hidden is mysterious and shameful, but that was the world then. Good thing we’ve got rid of racism, huh?
The line-up is as stellar as the outfits, and the outfits are like a museum of funky Harlem design. Flares and ruffles and suede jerkins with tassels – and that’s just the guy who put it all together, DJ Tony Lawrence. Stevie Wonder, aged 19, kicks it off mightily, with a guy holding an umbrella over his head. The stage had to be oriented west because they didn’t have money for lights and the camera guys needed the sun.
The line-up was political as hell, a reflection of the anger after the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. The young Reverend Jesse Jackson whips the crowd into a frenzy with an eye-witness account of King’s death. The Black Panthers provided security. Nina Simone is actually scary in her performance of both song and poetry: “Are you ready to kill?”
The drummer Questlove, aka Ahmir Thompson, rescued the tapes and put the film together. He includes revealing interviews with people who were there; one of them says he always thought the city funded the festival in an attempt to stop another Harlem riot. Highlights include Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson sharing the mic, Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach, Hugh Masekela, The 5th Dimension (in matching tones of orange), the Edwin Hawkins Singers (Oh Happy Day), Gladys Knight and the Pips and the funkiest man of all time, Sly Stone (and the Family). Get down with this, ya hear? It’s a happening thing. PB
The Alpinist ★★★
(M) 92 minutes
Rock climbing, like big wave surfing, was once the preserve of the few. As both sports became more mainstream, the cutting edge moved further out into danger. Big wave surfers now risk their lives on impossible breaks, with hundreds filming them. There are careers to be made, sponsorships to win, fame to be enjoyed. It has become a blood sport.
As this heart-stopping documentary shows, climbers are now taking bigger risks in search of something new to conquer. Canadian climber Marc-Andre Leclerc took more than most, but he was ambivalent about the fame. American alpine filmmakers Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen followed him for two years, filming his achievements – or not filming them.
He would take off with his girlfriend Brette Harrington, herself an accomplished climber, and not answer their calls for weeks. They would then discover he’d made some astounding ascent on his own, without ropes or cameras. His explanation was simple: if he did it with cameras he wouldn’t be doing it solo – and solo climbing without ropes was his thing.
Safe then to assume that most of the climbs here are recreations of things he had already done. Even so, they are butt-puckeringly tense. The technology of modern alpine filming puts us right there in the moment. Leclerc is an interesting subject: he was diagnosed with ADHD as a child and climbing gave him a way of achieving peace. The level of concentration produced a state of grace. We can see why he loved it.
Mortimer’s narration does not match the quality of his images and falls into the realm of cliche, but it hardly matters. It’s all about the ascents. A harder look at philosophical questions about risk might have taken this film higher. Leclerc’s story could have carried that weight. PB
(M) 108 minutes
The subject of this grandiloquent production – the largest of 2020 in France – is Gustave Eiffel’s erection, and I don’t mean the one he’s famous for.
The marvelous Romain Duris plays the great engineer. He looks nothing like him and he’s too young, but he can do romance and the scriptwriters hang the film on Eiffel’s misguided passion for a beautiful young woman from his youth. Engineers will have to put up with all the lovey-dovey stuff, although there are plenty of nuts, bolts and rivets too.
The young Eiffel fell in love with Adrienne Bourges (Emma Mackey) when he was building a bridge in Bordeaux. Their affair was torrid, but she stuck with her marriage to a dull but respectable gentleman. When Eiffel meets her in Paris years later, she becomes his muse – again. He builds the tower for her.
The symbolism may be way too obvious, but the film has its adornments. It’s very grand, lush, somewhat sexy. Mackey is superbly desirable and haughty and Duris can always be relied upon for flashing eyes and flaring nostrils.
One surprise is that Eiffel did not really design the tower. He bought the idea from two jobbing engineers. We see him refine it, but he’s initially diffident about the project. He’s not sure he wants to do something this grand for the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition. Again, romance kicks him in the pants and he realises that Paris needs a 300m steel monument to modernity.
Production was hampered by COVID-19, but the film’s problems go deeper. It’s like the tower itself, which was widely criticised at the time for being pompous and oversized. The movie suffers from an inflated sense of self-importance. Size isn’t everything, as we know. PB
(M) 145 minutes
Before being cast as Aretha Franklin in this biopic, Jennifer Hudson was endorsed for the role by the most discerning of critics, Franklin herself. And there’s no doubt that she possesses the range, volume and chutzpah for it. The film soars whenever the music takes over, as it does for large chunks of the action. But the backstage story is less exhilarating. Franklin had a life as big as her personality.
Her career as a performer was augmented by her support of the civil rights movement – she was a friend to Martin Luther King and a defender of Angela Davis – and her childhood as the daughter of a prominent Baptist preacher with well-cultivated connections in the intersecting circles of jazz, soul and gospel music meant that she grew up knowing all the big names.
All those details are here, but somehow they have been stripped down to form a standard showbiz obstacle course – a difficult childhood, a struggle to the top, an even tougher struggle to stay there and finally, success. And at each step of the way, her progress is impeded by another exploitative or abusive man.
Director Liesl Tommy and writer Tracey Scott Wilson produce a forthright account of her rape and her pregnancy at the age of 12. The film doesn’t underplay her reliance on alcohol later in life and the violence and psychological manipulation which plagued her first marriage and her longstanding relationship with her manager.
There is, too, the hubris which comes with her eventual independence, together with the discovery that she’s at last found her style as a singer. What’s missing is the sense of intimacy you get from a biopic which gets to the heart of the life it’s both examining and celebrating. SH
Diana’s Wedding ★★★★
(MA) 87 minutes
Fancy a story brimming with domestic discord rising to emotional catharsis crowned by a raucously chaotic climax?
A wedding movie will always answer your needs. They come in all nationalities. Diana’s Wedding is Norwegian – a family saga which begins when Liv (Marie Blokhus) and Terje (Pal Sverre Hagen) marry on the same day as Prince Charles and Princess Diana. For a while, their sex drive obscures their differences but after their baby, Diana, starts disturbing their sleep, passion is diluted by frequent bursts of vividly expressed irritation.
A highlight of this year’s Scandinavian Film Festival, the film is directed and co-written by Charlotte Blom, who’s made a cheerfully robust job of it. The curses, the hard-drinking and the damage done to the furniture are offset by belly laughs, dirty dancing and a soundtrack built around the disco hits of the era.
The story spans more than 20 years, ending with the young Diana’s wedding, which comes close to being ruined by her parents’ bad behaviour. And it runs in tandem with the unhappy lives of the family’s close neighbours, Unni (Jannike Kruse), Jan (Olav Waastad) and their daughter, Irene (Celine Kathe Foster Engen). Growing up together, Irene and Diana become close friends and perceptive critics of their parents’ mistakes.
It’s a film without pretensions. While Blom inserts bits of archival footage inviting you to compare and contrast the rocky progress of the royal marriage with that of Liv and Terje, she doesn’t labour the point. Nor is she out to craft a particularly penetrating portrait of the pitfalls of a long-running union between two disparate personalities. But she’s come up with a film humming with vitality and performances so gloriously uninhibited that its lack of subtlety never crosses your mind. SH
(M) 101 minutes
Anne Walberg (Emmanuelle Devos) earns her living with her nose. Her sense of smell is so acute that she once created perfumes for Dior. But at the height of her career, her gift deserted her and although it later returned, her reputation has been lost. She now takes jobs requiring her to design air fresheners to mask bad smells.
Not surprisingly, she’s a rather morose character with few friends and many eccentricities. She takes her own towels and bed linen to hotels because she can’t stand the odour of their detergent and a hint of cigarette smoke is guaranteed to precipitate a tantrum.
Guillaume (Gregory Montel) has just become her chauffeur, embarking on an ever-evolving relationship. Initially, he can’t stand her but after losing his temper and chiding her for her rudeness, an odd friendship is born.
Director Gregory Magne is a former journalist and documentary filmmaker who dreamed up the story because he was intrigued by the thought of someone with such an unlikely occupation. He did his research and the details help make Anne a very credible, if chronically grumpy, character.
She’s not easy to like, which means that the film makes a slow start, but Montel soon picks up the pace with his jittery brand of charm. As fans of the television comedy Call My Agent already know, he’s at his funniest when under pressure and Guillaume has much to worry about. At the top of the list is his need to gain part-custody of his 10-year-old daughter.
It’s a film which grows more engaging as it goes. Magne staunchly resists all the cliches that might have tempted a less original writer and his ending has an unexpected poignancy. SH
Rosa’s Wedding ★★★½
(M) 99 minutes
We’ve met Rosa before. She’s the sister or daughter whom the rest of the family relies upon whenever there’s a problem, large, small or just inconvenient. In this case, she’s Spanish – an engagingly outgoing character who’s realised, at the age of 45, that it’s time she reclaimed her life and fulfilled a few desires of her own.
So far, so understandable, but Iciar Bollain’s film starts to fray a bit when Rosa (Candela Pena) takes her resolution to whimsical extremes by deciding that she’s going to celebrate this new stage in life with a symbolic wedding ceremony. She will invite her friends and family to come and watch her marry herself.
This was enough to put me on the brink of losing interest in Rosa and her plans but Bollain, one of Spain’s most prolific directors, is so adept at evoking domestic life that I found it easy to shelve my criticisms almost as far as the end titles.
The script appoints no villains. The worst vice on show is self-absorption. But whatever their troubles, all the characters are blessed with the vitality that distinguishes Spanish cinema and its actors. They have no patience for sitting around brooding. If something is on their minds, everybody should know about it and the storms that result will surely clear the air. And they’re usually right.
The film is set in Valencia and the coastal resort town of Benicàssim, where Rosa takes refuge while she prepares to take her leap into the future. Despite the cheesiness of the climactic scene and the dialogue that goes with it, it’s a likeable film. The Spanish really do know how to turn histrionics into entertainment. SH
Ride the Eagle ★★★
(M) 88 minutes
Susan Sarandon seems to be making a specialty out of playing dying mothers who refuse to go quietly. It’s only a few months since we saw her in Roger Michell’s Blackbird, bidding a deliberately tumultuous farewell to a fractious family headed by Sam Neill as her game but battle-weary husband.
In Ride the Eagle, she goes further, making only a posthumous appearance via video. She’s left her son, Leif (Jake Johnson) – an indecisive fortysomething with a tenuous career as a musician – her cabin on the outskirts of Yosemite National Park. There are conditions: before he takes possession, he must carry out a set of tasks.
Feeling more bewildered than grief-stricken, he obeys. He’s seen very little of her since she joined a cult when he was 13 and he’s yet to forgive her.
The film was directed and co-written by Trent O’Donnell, an Australian who’s had a busy and successful career in television sitcoms here and in the US. He was co-creator of the entertainingly shambolic Australian hit A Moody Christmas and a similar blend of the awkward and laconic animates this script, which he wrote with Johnson.
But in the intimacy of this setting, O’Donnell’s style comes across as too downbeat. He makes a sluggish start and Leif is hardly charismatic. The affability with which he greets his many setbacks may add a protective layer to his personality, but it doesn’t encourage you to bond with him. Fortunately, Sarandon and J.K. Simmons, cast as her estranged lover, raise the energy levels whenever they’re on screen. Inevitably, they leave you wanting more. SH
The Rose Maker ★★★
(M) 95 minutes
If you’re partial to the Lowell Thomas rather than the Benjamin Britten, or you love the Peace but a Cajun Sunrise leaves you cold, I’ve got a movie for you.
The Rose Maker will have rose enthusiasts (yes, those were varieties of rose) watering themselves with glee: here finally, a movie that recognises the true art and creativity of those who create the noble flower in all its glory. Catherine Frot plays Eve Vernet, a once-leading light of the French rose industry who has fallen on hard times.
Eve’s father bequeathed her a famous estate in Provence. She is a prominent breeder herself, but she has run out of capital and resources. Her long-suffering assistant wangles three “free” workers from the state: they are all misfits who have been in trouble.
To Eve, they are scruffy as well as ignorant, but she must train them or go under. One man’s talent for larceny comes in handy when she needs to “borrow” a rare rose from a competitor. That’s as close as we get to capering.
While not quite laugh-out-loud funny, the film is cleverly structured as an allegory of French society, with characters who grow and develop (like roses). We get a good look at the process of cultivation and hybridisation, amid beautiful fields of flowers. All it needs is a peloton racing past to become the full French cliche.
The film lacks punch to start, but resolves into a broadly human comedy. Director Pierre Pinaud is creating a sort of rainbow coalition united in their opposition to industrialised anything.
It’s a familiar appeal to romantic French exceptionalism, based on a belief that the traditional way of life – especially in farming – is worth preserving at all costs. None of it is made literal, but that’s the terroir, so to speak. PB
(MA) 91 minutes
The concept of Pig sounds like a hoax, or a tweet that got out of hand: Nicolas Cage as a gourmet chef turned grizzled hermit who emerges from the wilds of Oregon in search of his kidnapped truffle-hunting pig.
Stupid or brilliant? You decide. Either way, writer-director Michael Sarnoski delivers a certain amount of the rousing absurdity you might be picturing, including the spectacle of Cage with matted grey hair and a beard encrusted with dried blood, growling “They … took … my … PIG!” like a record at half speed.
But on the whole, the film gets its kicks from defying whatever expectations we might have going in. Cage’s character, Robin Feld, is a foodie not a fighter, and the kind of reverential treatment that might be given to a samurai sword in a Tarantino movie is here more likely to go to a salted baguette. Nor is Pig precisely a comedy, though hints of parody linger throughout.
There are few actors who could pull off this tonal balancing act as successfully as Cage, who doubles here as a producer. Through his sparring with his younger sidekick Amir (Alex Wolff) and others, Robin is gradually established as a lonely holdout for artistic integrity in a world of commercial compromise.
It’s a cornball notion, but it gains resonance if we take the film as a personal statement from Cage, a one-time star of blockbusters who has spent most of the past decade appearing in low-budget genre movies off the beaten track. Between them, Cage and the title character will surely convince you that the love between a man and his pig need not be taken as a joke. JW
The Killing of Two Lovers ★★★
(M) 84 minutes
Aiming for the artful minimalism of a Raymond Carver short story, this low-budget drama is understated to a degree that feels overdone. Nor is its depiction of male anguish entirely free from special pleading. But for all my scepticism about what writer-director Robert Machoian is up to, I can’t deny his skill as a stylist above all.
The setting is a desolate small town in the midst of flat farming country (the film was shot in Utah). Machoian shoots this landscape using the nearly square Academy aspect ratio, so that much of the image often consists of wintry sky.
Emotionally, the focus remains on David (Clayne Crawford), a down-at-heel sometime musician who has recently separated from his wife Niki (Sepideh Moafi). He’s desperate to reconcile, but she appears to be in two minds, even as she assures him they’ll work things out.
Having moved in with his widower dad (Bruce Graham), David occupies himself with odd jobs, when not making erratic efforts to win over Niki and his kids. This routine is chronicled in lengthy takes that can last up to several minutes: often he seems trapped within the fixed frame, a visual analogue to his inability to move on.
From the title onward, there’s every reason to fear this situation is headed nowhere good. Without revealing too much, however, it can be said that there’s more than one way to interpret the ending and Machoian’s intentions generally.
Some effort is made to distance us from David, played charmlessly by Crawford and established straight away as filled with barely controlled rage. Still, he’s the guy we stick with throughout, and even as we worry about his potential for violence, we’re given every chance to feel his pain. JW
Nine Days ★★½
(MA) 124 minutes
This New Age fable from US-based Brazilian director Edson Oda is impressively polished – and beneath all the wilful quirk, there’s a certain amount of genuine weirdness.
There are many forerunners to the otherworldly premise, most recently the Pixar production Soul. The setting is a shack surrounded by desert, where Will (Winston Duke), a morose bureaucrat in a sweater vest, evaluates potential human beings who apply to be brought to life.
The background to all this remains vague: we’re told that Will was once alive himself, but the experience was so traumatic he prefers not to speak of it in detail. Since then, he’s become something like a recording angel, watching over earthly existence via a bank of analogue TV sets.
Will is a sensitive guy, but he and the film also have a darker side. From each batch of newly created souls, only one candidate is awarded the privilege of existence, while the rest are consigned to oblivion.
The structure of Nine Days is supplied by this process of elimination, which suggests a horror movie as much as it does reality TV. Along the way the candidates are asked to respond to various hypothetical scenarios, most of them oddly morbid.
As a metaphor, Nine Days is abstract enough to mean something different to each viewer. Regardless, there’s room to wonder how far Oda has pondered the tale’s more troubling implications. JW
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