Chasing Comets


Friday night lights Aussie-style.

(2018) Sports Comedy (Gravitas) Dan Ewing, Isabel Lucas, George Houvardas, Kat Hoyos, Peter Phelps, Bjorn Stewart, Deborah Galanos, Laurence Brewer, John Batchelor, Stan Walker, Gary Eck, Justin Melvey, Rhys Muldoon, Alistair Bates, Tony Chu, Lance Bonza, Kate McNamara, Sarah Furnari, Kirsty Lee Allan, David Thacker, Katrina Rieteska, Daniel Needs, Courtney Powell. Directed by Jason Perini

 

Some movies are made by slick professionals and every frame reflects it. Others are made by less experienced crews and show THAT. Once in awhile, the latter category of movies have just enough heart in them to overcome acting, directing, technical or script deficiencies.

Chase Daylight (Ewing) has the kind of name that probably requires him to be a sports star. In the small Australian town of Wagga Wagga (“so nice they named it twice”), that means rugby. A parade of stars has come from there. The town is indeed a nice one; most of the divisiveness in the town comes from which league you support. Chase was largely brought up by his mum (Galanos) after his womanizing dad walked out on them. She supported his dream to become a “footie” star, buying him jerseys when she really couldn’t afford it. Childhood friend Harry (Phelps) has been his manager, trying to get him that elusive big league contract.

But Chase has inherited his father’s penchant for drink and skirt-chasing, encouraged by his mate Rhys (Walker) who plays for the rival Tigers, a much more successful side than Chase’s Comets who have finished at the bottom of the league the past two seasons running. Still, Chase is considered a blue chip prospect, although perhaps not by his girlfriend Brooke (Lucas) who has endured his drinking and philandering and is at her breaking point.

With another dismal season in the offing and Brooke having given up on him, Chase hits bottom when his Coach (Batchelor) benches him. His career seems to be circling the drain, and at last Chase, looking for answers, finds them in church where his spiritual advisor Rev (Houvardas) preaches, aided by his perky daughter Dee (Hoyos). Chase decides to make some changes; give up drinking and fooling around, and take up celibacy and attending church. At first, it doesn’t seem to be making much of a difference, but better days must be ahead, right?

Right. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that this follows underdog sports team tropes to the letter. The script, by star Aussie rugby player Jason Stevens, also has elements of a romantic comedy and faith-based drama. To the film’s credit, it doesn’t exactly hit you over the head with Christian principles (not as much as other films in the genre do, at any rate) although there is there is some sermonizing in the middle third of the film.

The comedic elements are more problematic. There really aren’t a lot of laughs here, although Stevens does try hard and the opening credits have a few chuckles in them. The movie also engages in some overt sentimentality that it doesn’t always earn. The saving grace here is that the characters have some endearing qualities to them and while the movie is very flawed, it nonetheless has a whole lot of heart. The movie is just good-natured enough to give viewers something to latch onto, although familiarity with Australian culture is extremely helpful here.

REASONS TO SEE: Just enough heart to be engaging.
REASONS TO AVOID: Flat and maudlin.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sports action and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Star “footie” player Jason Stevens wrote the screenplay based loosely on his own life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/12/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Slap Shot
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
An Unknown Compelling Force

Bullied (Rock Sugar)


Standing up for yourself, even when you’re terrified.

(2021) Drama (Gravitas) Jacinta Klassen, Olivia Sprague, Lulu Fitz, Saya Minami, Akira Matsumoto, Candice Leask, Kirar Mercy, Samuel Barton, Giustino Della Vedova, Edward Valent, Destiny Oung, Tobie Webster, Francine McAsey, Joshua Charles Dawe, Holly Dodd, Giovanni Piccolo, Isabel Mulrooney, Bianca Andreadis, Molly Fisher, Joanna Melo Howard, Justine Jones. Directed by Angela How

 

It is hard enough to grow up without someone deciding to make a victim of you for something that you have no control over, like the color of your skin, or your ethnic background. We are taught from an early age not to respond, but there comes a point where you feel you must sstand up for yourself or be a victim in reality.

Charlotte (Klassen) has a nice life; she lives in a beautiful home in a Melbourne suburb that looks onto what amounts to a private park for the neighborhood. While she has run-ins with her strict mother (Minami) and her father (Matsumoto) who is kind and more laid-back, but has a drinking problem. She’s pretty smart, although her mother feels her younger sister Isabelle (Mercy) has more potential.

As the film opens, Charlotte has been confronted by Brenda (Fitz) who has been bullying her unmercifully, largely because of her Asian heritage, but also because Brenda knows she can get away from it. She has curried favor with her teachers, is an outstanding gymnast and a “model student,” although I’m sure Charlotte would disagree. Charlotte’s most recent test has been an utter failure and Brenda wants to make sure everyone knows it, but when Charlotte reaches for the paper she ends up hitting Brenda. But the vice-principal, who calls Charlotte’s mortified parents into the office to discuss the incident, doesn’t believe Charlotte’s story about being bullied. She ends up suspended and grounded by her furious mom, although Dad suspects that his daughter isn’t lying.

However, it is the Christmas holidays and mom’s best friend Janice (Leask) who is pregnant, and her husband Mark (Della Vedova) are staying for the holidays. It ends up with excessive drinking (particularly on the part of the guys) and charlotte’s misery only deepens. Eventually, she goes out into the park while everyone is sleeping with a bottle, and you know that isn’t going to end well.

The next day the neighborhood is rocked with the news of Brenda’s disappearance. Charlotte knows more than she’s telling, even as Mark, Janice and her mom and dad aid in the search for the missing girl. At last, Charlotte uncovers some disturbing truths and must come to face her own role in all of this.

This is the first feature for Asian-Australian director How, and she has some nifty ideas, but I think she doesn’t have a clear idea on how to properly express them. The film takes a severe twist about 2/3 of the way through, a jarring turn that while you don’t expect to see it coming, turns the remainder of the film into a completely different movie than the one you were watching. The movie, already dark to begin with, turns pitch black. I think the film would have been better served dealing with Charlotte’s relationship with her mom, with Brenda and with her own ethnicity. Unfortunately, we are steered away from that as the movie goes off the rails. It’s a case of trying to do too much; the whole Mark storyline could have been a separate movie and should have been.

The acting here is, as is generally the case with micro-budget indies, fairly uneven. Klassen is solid as Charlotte, but not all of her juvenile acting peers are as comfortable in front of the camera as she is. The movie is technically proficient, and cinematographer Ben Milward-Bason comes up with some inventive camera angles from time to time. Most of the time though, it is an easy film on the eyes.

How has some really good ideas, and she needs to make sure that those go fully developed before charging off in another direction. She was on the way to making a powerful motion picture on a timely subject – Asian-Americans have been the target of an unprecedented spike in hate crimes as are Asians around the world, largely due to the rhetoric of a former American president and his supporters in regards to the recent pandemic. I’m not sure if all that was going on when How wrote the screenplay, but it is certainly a topic that requires further exploration. I just wish she had stuck to her guns and given it the focus it deserved.

REASONS TO SEE: How has some very good ideas.
REASONS TO AVOID: There were better ways to tell this story.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and profanity and a scene of pre-teen drinking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the debut feature for How, who graduated from UCLA; it was titled Rock Sugar upon its Australian release but had its name changed for American distribution.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Dirties
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Birthday Cake

Hearts and Bones (2019)


Getting the shot.

(2019) Drama (Gravitas) Hugo Weaving, Andrew Luri, Hayley McElhinney, Bolude Watson, Alan Dukes, Melanie De Ferranti, Toni Scanlan, Brandon Burke, Victoria Haralabidou, Fran Kelly, Karim Zreika, Michael Kotsohilis, Jamie Oxenbould, Danielle King, Antonia Puglisi, Aker Shagouk, Jack Scott, Lucy Doherty Nico Lathouris, Simon Melki, Teresa Zaidan, Ava Carofylis. Directed by Ben Lawrence

 

We live in times in which great horrors are visited upon the innocent. In places like South Sudan, Syria, Rwanda, Bosnia, Palestine, Venezuela, and elsewhere, civilians are caught in the crossfire of warring factions. It has gotten to the point where we no longer call photojournalists covering these atrocities “combat photographers” but “conflict photographers” because it is no longer a war, but something worse.

Dan Fisher (Weaving) is a much-admired “conflict photographer” who has been to every trouble spot around the globe in his distinguished career. After returning home to Sydney following a harrowing experience when he came upon the aftermath of an ambush, he is hanging on by a fingernail. He suffers from terrible nightmares; he has been away from home so much that he has resorted to putting a post-it note on his bedside lamp so that he knows where he is when he wakes up. On top of this, he found out that his partner Josie Avril (McElhinney) is pregnant. This does not go over well, as is explained later in the film. Dan is preparing to publish a book of his photographs, and an exhibition of his work is being presented by a local museum.

Through this he meets Sebastian (Luri), a cab driver from the South Sudan who has moved to Sydney with his wife Anishka (Watson) and infant daughter, with another baby on the way. Sebastian has come to view some photographs of a South Sudanese village where he once lived and where his family was butchered when the whole village was massacred.

Sebastian is asking for a lot; he wants to view the pictures, and then have them neither published nor exhibited. One can imagine the reasons for it; those photographs would bring up memories that would be painful. Sebastian also wants Dan to photograph the choir that he is a member of, the type of work that Dan doesn’t do.  But Sebastian has come at a bad time; Dan is in the midst of a panic attack and faints dead away. Sebastian picks him up and takes him to the hospital in his cab.

An unlikely friendship develops between the two men, who both harbor destructive secrets. Those secrets are threatening to tear both men apart, and destroy their lives and relationships. Maybe, though, they can help each other through the minefields of their past and find a future worth living in.

 

This Australian film has been the recipient of all sorts of honors back home, and is only just now making its way here. The movie tackles a lot of themes; how PTSD can occur in not just those who fight in a conflict, but the observers and recorders of it as well, and the difficulties faced by refugees trying to put together shattered lives, often in an environment is hostile to their even being there.

Weaving, the veteran actor best known in the U.S. for his work in high-profile franchises like the Matrix trilogy, the Lord of the Rings saga and the MCU, turns in one of the finest performances of his career, and that’s saying something. Dan is basically a good man haunted by all kinds of demons, some of which we get to see and others that remain hidden in the depths of his soul. Weaving gives Dan a kind of tortured dignity, never overplaying even when Dan is losing control of his emotional calm. It’s a brilliant and ultimately humane performance.

=Luri is a real find. A non-professional, he handles an emotionally wrenching role with the aplomb and confidence of a veteran, and gives a performance that rivals that of Weaving. Both men have excellent chemistry together, and for their characters, it is their wounds that bind them, which plays out in a fascinating way.

The movie is brutal at times on an emotional level; we are dealing with the kinds of pain in all four of the leads that are almost too much to bear, and yet people everywhere somehow manage to survive it, although not always. This is the kind of movie that has nothing subtle about it which is a double-sided shillelagh, The in-your-face nature of the emotional conflict means the viewer must confront that emotion head-on, which isn’t always easy for everyone. Those who have trauma of their own that they are dealing with may find this especially difficult.

Nonetheless, this is one of the finer movies of this peculiar cinematic year. Great acting, a mesmerizing story and earnest motives by the filmmaker make this a movie you won’t soon forget.

REASONS TO SEE: Weaving and Luri turn in career-defining performances. Brutal on an emotional level. Effective throughout.
REASONS TO AVOID: More of a blunt instrument than a surgical scalpel.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, brief violence, adult themes and sex.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Luri hadn’t acted before this film; when he was cast, he was working as a garbage collector.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews, Metacritic: 71/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harrison’s Flowers
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
The August Virgin

I Am Woman


Hear her roar.

(2019) Music Biography (Quiver)Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Evan Peters, Danielle Macdonald, Matty Gardarople, Jordan Roskopoulos, Molly Broadstock, Gus Murray, Dusty Sorg, Rita Rani Ahuja, Michael-Anthony Taylor, Scout Bowman, Liam Douglas, Coco Greenstone, Gregg Arthur, Nicola Frew, Shakila Zab, Katerina Tsompanis, Frank Violi, Maddison-Cleo Musumeci. Directed by Unjoo Moon

It is hard to overstate the importance of Helen Reddy to pop culture. Most people know her through her iconic “I Am Woman,” essentially the unofficial anthem of the women’s movement, but in the mid to late 70s she had a string of hits that made her one of the most popular performers in the world.

It wasn’t always that way. When Reddy (Cobham-Hervey) won a singing contest in her native Australia, the prize was a recording contract for Mercury Records. She arrived in New York City with her three-year-old daughter in tow, only to discover that the misogynist executives at Mercury had no intention of honoring the contract. One must wonder how many heads rolled after Reddy achieved her international superstardom.,

She decided to give it a go in the US and moved in a roach-infested apartment, paying the rent (barely) with cocktail lounge singing gigs. She was befriended by fellow Aussie and influential rock critic Lillian Roxon (Macdonald) who championed her career. At a rent party, she met Jeff Wald (Peters), an aspiring talent manager. She eventually married him, and the expectation was that he would manage her career and get her that elusive record contract, but he needed to establish himself first.

Frustrated by his lack of support, she finally forced him to work harder to get her signed which finally happened. After a couple of minor hits, “I Am Woman” came out in 1974 and swept the charts, winning her a Grammy (where she famously thanked God, because “she makes all things possible”) and began a string of hits including “Leave Me Alone,” and “Angie Baby.”

In the meantime, her close friend Roxon had passed away after a severe asthma attack and hubby Jeff had blown most of her fortune on cocaine. She eventually would divorce him, and her career came essentially to an end, although that really isn’t covered in the film.

In fact, a lot of things aren’t covered in the film. Moon is apparently a friend of Reddy (whom she met at an awards show) but delivered a very basic version of her biography. We see none of her ex-husband’s attempts to sabotage her career after their divorce, nor do we see much of her creative process. Mostly what we see is her early struggles and then her marital problems later on. You’re given a sense of her status of a feminist icon, but we never get a sense of what Helen herself thought of this.

Cobham-Hervey has a good deal of presence in the role of Reddy but it oddly doesn’t manifest in the concert footage. For the most part, Cobham-Hervey performs with a bemused smirk on her face; I never saw Reddy live myself but I understand she was a dynamic performer in her heyday. There’s no sense of that here, nor of her flinty sense of humor which characterized her entire career.

I also think it was a major mistake for the production to use Aussie performer Chelsea Cullen to dub Reddy’s voice – people are coming not just to see a biopic on her life but to hear her music as well. While Cullen does a decent job mimicking her phrasing and style, I think most people watching the movie are going to miss her actual vocals. If you’re going to make a biography of a singer, you should get the rights to use their actual voice. See Bohemian Rhapsody for an example.

This is the kind of movie that will end up being damned by faint praise. The heart is in the right place, but the execution is lacking. This feels like a Behind the Music version of a pop icon’s life story, and it leaves the viewer feeling distinctly unsatisfied. However, Reddy’s importance both to pop music and to pop culture make this a worthwhile venture, albeit one that could have been a much better film.

REASONS TO SEE: Cobham-Hervey has great presence as Reddy in the non-performance sequences.
REASONS TO AVOID: Cobham-Hervey is strangely distance in the performance sequences.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Unjoo Moon and cinematographer Dion Beebe are married in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Microsoft, Redbox
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews: Metacritic: 56/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Runaways
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Hollywood Fringe

Black Water: Abyss


This big reptile is a croc.

(2020) Horror (Screen MediaJessica McNamee, Luke Mitchell, Amali Golden, Benjamin Hoetjes, Anthony J. Sharpe, Louis Toshio Okada, Rumi Kikuchi, Stu Kirk, Damien Blewett, J’ Ma, Jarod Woods, Rhys Ward, Isabella Sheehan, Glenn Adams, Julie Selis-Muscat, Vicky Wanless, Lincoln Callaghan, Troy Black, Mary Jane, Adam Lacey, Phillip Davy, Isabelle Rickards, Lynne Rose. Directed by Andrew Traucki

 

Sometimes, you’re not after a movie that’s going to involve you in the lives of its characters. Every now and then, you want a movie that just smacks you in the face with a stupid stick, fills the screen with improbable action and just lets you revel in your baser instincts. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

A pair of Type-A Aussie couples – well, at least that’s half-true – are headed to do some spelunking in the cave systems of Northern Australia. Alpha male Eric (Mitchell) and his wife Jennifer (McNamee) – who would much rather be getting room service in a five star hotel – has taken cancer survivor Vitor (Hoetjes) and his newly pregnant wife Yolanda (Golden) along with cave explorer and Eric’s buddy Cash (Sharpe) to a cave that only recently was discovered when a sinkhole opened up. Do they tell anyone where they are going? NO, THEY DO NOT! Have these assclowns not seen a horror movie ever?

Well, if you think that’s irresponsible, they also choose to ignore an approaching storm. The result? They are trapped in the cave with rapidly rising waters, but that’s really the least of their problems. You see, there’s a very hungry and singularly-minded crocodile swimming around and these five numbskulls have effectively just rung the dinner bell.

There are stabs at plot development, but they just don’t work. When you’re in a survival situation, generally speaking that’s not the time to work out marital issues, but of course, when you’re being stalked by a giant killer croc, what else is there to do? One of the dim-witted croc snacks even expresses shock that they can’t get a cell signal two hundred feet below the ground in the middle of a swamp. No, really? REALLY?!?

Predictably, as the crock picks them off one by one, they race for a way out before the water rises above their safe little ledge. With one of their number badly injured and another pregnant, what chance to these guys have to outwit the croc in its own element?

This is a sequel to the minor 2007 hit Black Water only in the loosest terms in that it’s set in Australia, there’s a crocodile and one of the young people being stalked is pregnant. If you didn’t see it, it won’t affect your enjoyment of this one (or lack thereof). And while I’ve been harsh up to now, there are some elements here that aren’t too bad – the cinematography is lush, whether in the caves or out in the swamps.

We don’t get to see much of the crock, as it mostly swims around in murky waters, but what we do see is pretty impressive. However, the actual deaths are not easy to see, given that the cave environment is so dark, the water is murky and roiling with a thrashing crocodile and an equally thrashing victim. The sounds of the kills might be what get to you, though, if you tend to be faint of heart. In some ways, that makes the death scenes more gruesome than they actually are.

Essentially, this is pretty typical survival horror with a big, mad predator. There are no surprises here, hardly any character development other than one of the girls remarking that her relationship with her fella has been rocky, until near the end when we find out….well, you’ll see. And if you’re not planning on seeing this, I’m still not going to tell you. In any case, if you’re looking for something new to rent, this fits the bill. It isn’t horrible but it isn’t great. It’s just kind of there, like an Appleby’s.

REASONS TO SEE: Some lovely jungle and cave cinematography.
REASONS TO AVOID: Stock characters being picked off one by one.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is a sequel to the 2007 film Black Water which Traucki co-wrote and co-directed.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 46% positive reviews, Metacritic: 46/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crawl
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Perfect Candidate

Relic


All is not well in this house.

(2020) Horror (IFC Midnight Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote, Jeremy Stanford, Chris Bunton, Christina O’Neill, Catherine Glavicic, Steve Rodgers, John Browning, Robin Northover. Directed by Natalie Erika James

 

The most frequent description I’ve seen of this impressive first feature by Japanese-Australian director Natalie Erika James is “slow burn” and that’s extremely apt. This is a movie that takes it’s time and builds organically to a terrifying conclusion that will leave you breathless.

When octogenarian Edna (Nevin) is reported missing, her concerned daughter Kay (Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Heathcote) hurry to her decaying old home on the outskirts of Melbourne. There is clearly tension between mother and daughter, but there is also a great sigh of relief when Edna turns up with no memory of where she’s been, nor how she got those ominous black bruises on her chest.

But Edna isn’t at all well; she doesn’t recognize her house or even her family at times, and her mood swings are growing progressively more violent. Kay is trying to organize the house and look into a care home for Edna, while Sam is wondering why Edna doesn’t move in with Kay, or Sam with Edna. The deterioration of Edna’s mind is mirrored by the deterioration in Edna’s house; mold and mildew throughout the once-great home, things behind the wall that unexpectedly go thump and a stained glass window that was once part of a cottage that stood on the property but has long since been demolished but is a connection to a family secret that is rearing its ugly head.

Creaky old houses are naturally perfect locations for horror films and in particular for this one. There are plenty of noises in this house, from loud bangs to whispered conversations Edna has with people only she can see. James, who co-wrote the screenplay and based the movie on her experiences with her own grandmother who was afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, has a sure, patient hand, allowing the mood to grow until by the end of the movie the tension is nearly unbearable. She has a deft touch for horror, which sometimes gets treated with in a heavy-handed manner; good horror movies don’t necessarily have to be screams when whispers can be far more terrifying.

James was fortunate enough to get three strong actresses for the lead. Mortimer is one of the world’s most capable actresses – I can’t recall a single subpar performance on her part – and Heathcote has become one of the best young actresses in the business today. Nevin will be less known to American audiences. A veteran of Australian stage and television, she is absolutely mesmerizing here, giving a performance that is strangely sympathetic even as her mind slpis away. It’s heartbreaking to watch, yes, but also terrifying as there are hints of a supernatural presence involved.

The scares are mostly accomplished with practical effects, with sound being predominant – this is a movie that takes “things that go bump in the night” quite literally. In fact, be aware while watching it that the pounding that you hear throughout the movie may be headache-inducing for you – it was for me, although considering how effective the thumps were, I didn’t mind quite so much as I might have. While the one misstep in the film is an overabundance of jump scares which are a cheap way of getting a gasp from your audience. For the most part, though, James relies on atmosphere and superb performances from her leads to get this film on the radar for one of the top horror films (so far) of 2020. I’ll be watching with interest to see what Ms. James does next.

REASONS TO SEE: The use of sound effects is second to none. Creepy and disturbing. Nevin gives an astonishing performance as the demonic grandma.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit repetitive in its use of jump scares.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence, brief nudity, and scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its debut at Sundance earlier this year.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews, Metacritic: 77/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Others
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Olympia

Disclosure (2020)


The emotional heart of an unwelcome disclosure.

(2020) Drama (Breaking GlassGeraldine Hakewill, Mark Leonard Winter, Matilda Ridgway, Tom Wren, Greg Stone, Kieran Cochrane, Lucy McMurray. Directed by Michael Bentham

 

When it comes to our children, we are enormously protective. We believe in them, sometimes even against all evidence or logic; we give them the benefit of the doubt. When one child accuses another of a heinous act, the battle lines are drawn immediately and ferociously.

In this Australian drama (not to be confused with the 1994 Demi Moore/Michael Douglas erotic thriller nor the two other films – one a Netflix documentary on transgenders in cinema – with the same title coming out in 2020) we meet Danny (Winter) and Emily (Ridgway) Bowman. He’s a journalist, she’s a documentary filmmaker. When we first meet them, they are having sex and filming it. Flash forward a few years and we are in the home of Joel (Wren) and Bek (Hakewill) Chalmers. Joel is a local politician on the rise; she’s on the phone, obviously busy and harassed when we hear a piercing child’s scream coming from the bedroom. Distracted, she walks over to the room, warns her son Ethan to “leave the little ones alone” and sends him outside to play. She leaves, still on the phone. Ethan doesn’t emerge, but there’s an ominous silence coming from the room.

A few weeks later, Danny and Emily are skinny dipping in their backyard pool when Joel and Bek show up unexpectedly at their door, with Joel’s bodyguard (Stone) in tow. There is tension between the two couples, who have been close friends up to now and we soon find out why. The four-year-old daughter of Danny and Emily has told them that Ethan, the nine-year-old son of Joel and Bek, has done something terrible (and presumably, sexual) to her. Tom and Bek are there to plead with the Bowmans to take Ethan’s name out of the paperwork; Danny and Emily want Ethan to be seen by a therapist. Bek is particularly adamant against it – Ethan has denied the girl’s account. Bek, who suffered serial sexual abuse as a child, is particularly sensitive about the accusation. Emily is horrified that Bek doesn’t believe her daughter.

The discussions go from civilized to strained to frantic to violent as both couples stand their ground in defense of their kids. As things devolve, we get the sense that there is an awful lot of adult baggage being dragged into the argument which is, ostensibly, supposed to be about the welfare of their children.

This is an emotional film which only grows more so. At first, it is the women who react emotionally and, to a certain extent, non-logically. The men seem to be calmer and more conciliatory, wanting to work things out without damaging the friendship the two couples have built. The women are willing to burn the mofo right to the ground.

First time filmmaker Bentham has a good eye, contrasting the rural/suburban idyllic neighborhood, studded with pools and lush greenery with the ugliness of the innuendo cast in both directions by the parents whose civility slowly goes out the window over the course of the film. Hakewill in particular, playing the brittle and shrill Bek, does a marvelous job although all of the other main performers do a crackerjack job as well.

The ending was a little bit of a letdown; Bentham had played things straight pretty much throughout but there’s an almost comedic element to the denouement that doesn’t jive with the rest of the film; I was left wondering if it was meant to be symbolic of something (which I don’t want to get into so as not to spoil it) and in the end, decided that it was, but you may disagree and that’s perfectly legitimate.

This reminded me strongly of Roman Polanski’s 2011 filmed version of the Yasmina Reza stage play, with a sexual element added. That film had a more stage-y quality to it, although there are moments where this feels like it might have been based on a play as well. It is nevertheless an impressive work that has floated under the radar, but deserves far more attention than it has gotten to date (there isn’t even a page on Rotten Tomatoes for the film). For those film buffs still in quarantine looking for something different, this is one to keep in mind. It’s out on VOD now; it can be purchased on Blu-Ray next Tuesday (go to the film’s page to find out where it will be available in the U.S.).

REASONS TO SEE: Covers a wrenching topic from both points of view. Uses thriller tropes to tell a dramatic story.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a bit awkward and unsatisfying.
FAMILY VALUES: There is graphic sex, brief nudity, plenty of profanity and uncomfortable sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Bentham’s debut feature.
BEYOND THE THEATER: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Vimeo, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Carnage
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Denise Ho: Becoming the Song

Outlaws (2017)


Ba da bing.

(2017) Crime Drama (A24) Ryan Corr, Abbey Lee, Simone Kessell, Josh McConville, Matt Noble, Aaron Pedersen, Sam Parsonson, Eddie Baroo, Aaron Fa’aoso, Jacqui Williams, Adam T. Perkins, Soa Pelelei, Daniel Pantovic, Moodi Dennaoui, Alex Arco, Gary Owens, George Houvardas, Gemma Sharpe. Directed by Stephen McCallum

 

Outlaws is the debut feature from Aussie Stephen McCallum, and it is equal parts Sons of Anarchy and grindhouse biker flick from the 60s and 70s. It features the Copperhead Motorcycle Club, whose president Knuck (Noble) has just been released from prison. His right-hand man Paddo (Corr) has been running things in his absence, and doing a good job of it as well; in fact, Paddo’s girl Katrina (Lee) would like to see the temporary in charge situation made permanent.

But Knuck’s wife Hayley (Kessell) doesn’t trust Paddo to step down quietly, and with the two women pushing their men towards it, conflict is inevitable. And with Paddo’s mentally and emotionally challenged brother Skink (McConville) providing the catalyst, things are just about to blow.

There’s plenty of violence and loud rock and roll, which is to be expected in a movie like this. While the acting is merely adequate, I suspect that the fundamental problem here is the script, which is a bit vapid and at times, riddled by logical holes. It also feels like we’ve seen all this before (we have, but on TV in the aforementioned Sons of Anarchy which is a much better viewing choice). While there are elements of Lady Macbeth in the two biker chicks and the plot is vaguely Shakespearean, the characters are mostly various degrees of deplorable and don’t inspire a whole lot of audience identification, unless beating up other people is your thing.

REASONS TO SEE: Nice pacing and fine tension level maintained.
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is not very original.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence, sexuality and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Matt Noble, who plays Knuck, wrote the script.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews, Metacritic: 24/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Animal Kingdom
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Here Awhile

2040


The act of planting a tree can lead to a better future.

(2019) Documentary (Together) Damon Gameau, Eva Lazzaro, Zoë Gameau, Tony Seba, Eric Toensmeier, Paul Hawken, Kate Raworth, Malala Yousafzai, Brian von Heizon, Fraser Pogue, Leanne Pogue, John E. Petersen, Genevieve Bell, Sharon Pearson, Neel Tamhane, Helena Norberg-Hodge, Colin Seis, Amanda Cahill. Directed by Damon Gameau

 

In the midst of a global pandemic, with rioting going on in our cities, I think that some of us can be forgiven for looking towards the future with a bleak eye. It doesn’t have to turn out that way, though.

The future weighs heavily on the mind of Australian filmmaker Damon Garneau (That Sugar Film). That’s because he has a four-year-old daughter, and with the dire warnings about climate change, he wonders what kind of dystopian society his little girl Velvet will have to live in and what could be done to stave off the worst effects of climate change now – with technology that is already available to use.

He started off with talking to young kids about what they wanted the world to be like, asking them about what kind of technology they wanted to see. Some said basic things, like clean water, and the end of deforestation. Of course, there were some silly things, like chocolate rain and plant-powered rocket boots. Nobody ever said kids were practical; just imaginative.

Garneau called this project “an exercise in fact-based dreaming” and that’s how it is presented here, with plenty of graphics and whimsical effects to illustrate what the world might be like in the year 2040 (when Velvet, played as an adult by actress Eva Lazzaro, will be 25 years old). Some of the technology described in the film is already in use.

In Bangladesh, for example, engineer Neel Tamhane is setting up villages with solar panels and hooking them up into mini-networks, within which they can sell any energy created that they don’t use, or buy more if they end up needing more than they produce. The money that would go to energy providers then stays within the community, and in the case of natural disaster (flooding is frequent there), it is much easier to get the network back up and running. It also keeps money spent on energy within the community rather than going out to a provider, increasing prosperity within the villages. It also opens up life for those villages, allowing children to study after dark, and gives the villagers the opportunities to watch sporting events, news and other programs in the evening, as well as lighting the village so that further commerce can take place. These kinds of micro-networks would reduce our dependence on petroleum, reduce energy costs and also could act as additional income for those who don’t use as much energy as others.

The oceans are also in dire straits, and aquaculturist Brian von Heizon suggests that we grow new forests of kelp off of various coastal regions, then moving out into deeper waters. Kelp stores carbon and helps scrub it out of our atmosphere and our oceans; can be used as food and as biofuel, and also helps regulate the temperature of the ocean by allowing cooler water from the deeper parts of the ocean to bring the temperatures down near the surface, which would be conducive to various types of shellfish and fish, as well as providing a habitat for fish. These tethered kelp colonies are already on the drawing board for use in areas where the ocean needs to be renewed.

Farmers Paul Hawken, Fraser and Leanna Pogue recommend soil renewal by growing crops that help replenish the nutrients of the soil, and growing less corn and soy, both which tire out the soil by stripping it of its nutrients. Crops like sorghum and sunflowers (along with others) can help replenish the soil; having animals like cows and pigs graze on land that has been “rested” from growing anything more than grass also helps restore the soil. All of them say we need to put an end to Big Agra, through which factory farming has delivered nothing but obesity and disease, and has proven catastrophic to the soil. In case you wonder if we can afford to lose the food coming from Big Agra, they supply an amazing small percentage of what humans eat (about 20% – the rest of what they grow is to feed food animals) – and small family farms tend to be much more efficient and grow healthier produce, which we should be eating rather than chowing down on fast food burgers.

We need to rethink private ownership of cars, using driverless smart cars on demand as well as energy-efficient mass transit to get us where we need to go. Building high-speed electric trains are more fuel-efficient than flying jumbo jets and not having to park as many cars – nearly a third of the total land mass of Los Angeles is used for parking cars and roadways – can improve air quality, particularly if we turn disused parking lots into green spaces.

One thing that should be a priority worldwide; educating women. In many parts of the globe, women do not get the same education chances that men do; women are often put in arranged marriages at a very young age, or are forced to work to help support the family rather than go to school. Adding millions of minds to the ranks of the educated can only do our world good.

The movie goes on and on with examples of what we can do right now to mitigate climate change and maybe even remove the threat entirely. We have reached a tipping point and things are going to get worse, true, but if we have the will, which for the most part our leaders do not since business and government are all about chasing short-term profits to begin with – we can make a  more livable world than the one we have now.

Gameau makes an engaging narrator, although his Aussie accent can be a little thick at times. The movie uses a lot of interviews with children, but especially towards the end it felt like they were reading from scripts, while the film is giving the impression that these are what children are thinking right now. Originally I had been impressed at how articulate the children are, until it becomes obvious that they are reading and not speaking. That’s a no-no in my book.

If the movie is guilty of anything, it might be naivete. Big Oil, Big Agra and Big Finance aren’t going to give up the status quo very easily, and moving to cleaner and cheaper energy is going to be no easy taslk, not to mention that getting masses of people to give up much of their meat nas well as private ownership of their cars is going to take some fancy taking. However, these are the kinds of decisions we need to make if we are truly committed to making a better world for our kids. If you are in need of hope for the future, this is the documentary to see.

REASONS TO SEE: Practical, real-world solutions to problems that seem insurmountable. Hope-inducing. Gameau is an engaging narrator.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the kid interviews seem scripted.
FAMILY VALUES: Recommended for the entire family.<Although Gameau flew from place to place on commercial jets, the film ended up being carbon-neutral due to tree plantings and utilizing low-carbon technology in filming.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Although Gameau flew all over the world to make this documentary, the production ended up being carbon-neutral due to all the trees that were planted by the production team as well as their use of carbon-friendly technology in making the film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinema Screenings
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/6//20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic:  77100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ice on Fire
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Tommaso

True History of the Kelly Gang


Ned Kelly, Australian icon.

2019) Historical Drama (IFCGeorge MacKay, Russell Crowe, Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult, Charlie Hunnam, Earl Cave, Josephine Blazier, Thomasin McKenzie, Marlon Williams, Orlando Schwerdt, Ben Corbett, John Murray, Tilly Lawless, Ross Knight, Louis Hewson, Jillian Nguyen, Paul Rochfort, Andrew Wright, Will McNeill, Danzal Baker, Markella Kavenagh. Directed by Justin Kurzel

 

Ned Kelly is couldn’t be more Australian if he were a kangaroo singing “Waltzing Matilda.” He is the ultimate anti-hero; a horse thief, cattle rustler and murderer who became a symbol of the independent spirit of Australia by standing up against the colonial police who oppressed him. While there are some Aussies who see him as a hardened criminal who got what he deserved, others see him as a heroic martyr.

Young Ned (Schwerdt) lives in the wilds of Victoria in the mid-19th century with his feckless alcoholic Pa (Corbett) and his angry, bitter Ma Ellen Kelly (Davis) who is having sex with Inspector O’Neil (Hunnam) of the Victoria police who is at the same time, harassing Ned’s Dad. When Ned is given an opportunity to go to boarding school, the offer gets his mother’s Irish up and she turns down the offer flat, instead sending young Ned out with bushranger (outlaw) Harry Power (Crowe), who teaches Ned the ways of the bush.

Now grown up, Ned (MacKay) has become a bushranger in his own right. Yet another policeman, Constable Fitzpatrick (Hoult) has taken a liking to Ned’s comely sister Kate (Blazier). However, when Fitzpatrick takes liberties and sneers at Ellen, Ned shoots the Constable in the wrist and is forced to flee into the bush.

There, the legend of Ned Kelly is born and backed by his own gang that slowly grows into an army, he robs banks and shoots coppers whenever the chance arises. However, as corrupt as the police are, they still are better armed and even Ned’s homemade armor won’t save him from falling in a bloody shootout at Glenrowan and a final date with the gallows – cementing his place as a legend.

Giving lie to the title, the opening credits proclaim that “nothing you see here is true.” The connecting tissue of the movie is Ned, awaiting execution in the Old Melbourne Gaol, writing a letter to his daughter, telling her the truth of his life. As he pens the words “May I burn in Hell if I speak false,” screams of torment can be heard in the background. The film is full of clever little touches like that.

The movie is based on the 2000 Man Booker-award winning novel by Peter Carey, and is indeed a fictionalized account of the notorious outlaw, apropos of the title. While the events are essentially true to history, there are a lot of inventions here; I will admit that I’m not fully versed in Australian history, but I didn’t find any references to the Kelly gang wearing women’s dresses during the course of their crimes, as depicted here (Ned’s father is also depicted as a cross-dresser). There is also an encounter between Ned and Fitzpatrick that has homoerotic connotations and there’s no evidence that Kelly swung in that direction, so to speak. Kelly is also depicted as clean-shaven whereas photos of him clearly show a bushy beard, but Mackay was also filming 1917 around that time and may not have had the luxury of growing a beard for this film.

There is also some artistic license; rather than using period music, Kurzel blasts punk rock tracks to shock the audience out of complacency and uses strobe lights in a couple of different places including the climactic gun battle which is well-staged, incidentally. However, there are times that I get the sense that Kurzel is showing off as a director and it does take away focus from his film.

However, Kurzel and his cinematographer Ari Wegner do a magnificent job of capturing the immensity of the Australian bush; the bleakness of the impoverished Kelly home and the terrifying Glenrowan gun battle, in which bullets and beams of light pepper the shed. Kurzel has been watching a few Baz Luhrmann films of late, I suspect.

Kurzel has a good cast, with powerful performances by MacKay who is poised for stardom with this and 1917 under his belt, Davis who was captivating in The Nightingale and Crowe in a supporting role, showing the presence and chops that made him a star in the first place.

The script does a lot to humanize Kelly, making him a victim of poverty and of police prejudices against Irish convicts who were sent to the penal colony. He is no saint, but he really had no other options at his disposal other than to turn to a life of crime; essentially, he was just fulfilling expectations. If you’re looking for, as the title suggests, the true story of Ned Kelly and his gang, you have the wrong movie but there is insight to be had here. The true history is a tragedy, as it turns out.

REASONS TO SEE: Has a mythological feel to it, even as the filmmakers seek to humanize Kelly. Needs to be seen on the big screen.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets a little too artsy for its own good.
FAMILY VALUES: There Is a lot of violence, much of it bloody and graphic; there is also plenty of profanity, some brief nudity and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Earl Cave, who played Ned’s brother Dan, is the son of Australian rock legend Nick Cave who grew up less than 10 km from where Kelly’s last shootout with the police took place in Glenrowan.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews, Metacritic: 74/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Mary Queen of Scots