Jojo Rabbit

This is a film about indoctrination. Jojo Rabbit, based on the novel Caging Skies by Christian Leunens, is directed and written by Taika Waititi, and is most likely the first Nazi comedy that’s as subversive as it is boundary-pushing.

Telling the story about Johannes (Roman Griffin Davis), or as he’s called Jojo, a young boy who is part of the Nazi Youth in Germany, Jojo Rabbit starts with a German version of a Beatles song played over real life footage of Nazi salutes and goes from there, middling together comedy against a story that many people are familiar with, but this time, with the charm of a Wes Anderson movie.

But the real drawcard and difference in Jojo Rabbit is the inclusion of Waititi himself dressed up as an “imaginary friend” of Jojo’s, who happens to be a fantastical version of Adolf Hitler himself. But things take a turn for Jojo when he discovers that his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) has been hiding a Jewish girl in their home. Torn between his indoctrinated Nazi mindset and his familial values, Jojo comes to his own moral decision making.

It’s a fabulous cast with talent abound. Griffin Davis puts on one of the best child actor performances, with his touching moments and palatable anger at times. He makes you laugh and cry. You believe that this boy really does love the Fuhrer, but also see how this sort of fanaticism is a slippery slope to the events that the history books cover in detail. Johansson is also strong, in a role that I wish got her more exposure for her delicateness and subtle emotion. Waititi is also brilliant as the fantasy Hitler. Guest performances from Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson and Alfie Allen also add to the comedy of the story, though their broad performances err more on the over the top caricature at times. Jojo’s best friend Yorki played by Archie Yates is also superb in the role and a real highlight in a film full of them, as is Thomasin McKenzie as the Jewish refugee herself Elsa.

From the outset, the idea of the film is to laugh at this young boy being so indoctrinated and imagining Hitler by his side, before the real drama of the ethical dilemma of helping someone he’s been trained to hate comes along. But is this enough to sustain the purpose of the film? I don’t always know. Is indoctrination funny? And while we look back in retrospect at the Nazi situation and laugh at how youth like this are indoctrinated into performing horrendous acts, does that stand as a comedy piece in itself?

It’s a complicated thing to balance, but ultimately Waititi keeps the humanism throughout the story as we see Jojo’s ascent to empathy and tolerance. Towards the end of the film, the funny parts evaporate and the heart of the story really comes through. While the end is a bit fraught and overall the story isn’t greatly original (with the exception of comical Hitler), it’s the moments between that really solidify it as a great film. Scenes are deeply affecting. But Waititi’s idea that a child can show us the way out of ignorance and prejudice may be of little value in the real world. At least we have the movies.

The Best

Waititi’s Hitler really is the drawcard here, but stay for Griffin Davis, McKenzie and Johansson’s superb performances. Don’t forget to bring tissues.

The Rest

It makes you sit up and think about what makes something funny. A Nazi boy filled with intolerance and hatred, indoctrinated by his society is not always the best way to come at a comedy. What if it was a KKK child in the US deep south? We can laugh at indoctrination, but if the underlying issues haven’t yet disappeared and there are still actions happening (though not to the same extreme extent), is indoctrination funny?

Little Women

It takes a lot to bring a very old piece of literature to life. Yet many directors continue to try and bring the stories of Bronte sisters, Jane Austen and the like to new audiences every generation or so, some with middling success and others rejuvenate the text on the page. Fortunately for Louisa May Alcott’s famed story Little Women, in the hands of an actress-cum-director Greta Gerwig, retains the spirit of the story but also makes it feel fresh for new audiences.

In the years after the Civil War, Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) lives in New York and makes her living as a writer, while her sister Amy (Florence Pugh) studies painting in Paris. Amy has a chance encounter with Theodore (Timothee Chalamet), a childhood friend. Their oldest sibling, Meg (Emma Watson), is married to a schoolteacher, while shy sister Beth (Eliza Scanlen) develops an illness that brings the family together. With the help of the other women in their lives, their mother Marmee (Laura Dern) and their Aunt March (Meryl Streep), they navigate their environments and try to come into their own at a time where it wasn’t so easy.

Fortunately Gerwig isn’t overly protective of the source material and following it to a tee. Her own personal touches can be felt throughout. The way the story plays out, with it’s moving between timelines to draw connections between childhood memories and their results in adulthood, as well as how old feuds have affected new friendships, really highlights to the audience how these relationships have grown and changed over time. Gerwig underlines the female empowerment of its centre character Jo, and juxtaposes the creative boundaries that exist for her in the story (perhaps an allegory of Gerwig’s own battles in the industry herself). It is both one with the original source material, but goes one step further to bring to life the spirit of what Alcott wanted to explore – strong women and the familial relationship between them.

On the acting side, every performance is superb. Ronan brings passion to her portrayal of Jo and the audience is immediately drawn to her. Though at times her actions could have sidelined her from likeability, with Gerwig’s direction and Ronan’s acting, it is a mere quirk of her personality. She is wild and ambitious, rejecting the social norms of her time, making her so relatable to contemporary audiences. Pugh brings grace to Amy, avoiding the spoiled characterisations of previous outings. She is headstrong and the story also belong to her. Watson is a solid fixture in the story as Meg and Scanlen’s reserved Beth are equally as pertinent to the story. Chalamet again comes out at the romantic and charming Teddy, solidifying him as a contemporary heartthrob with sensitivity but brazen personality. I see this as his Colin Firth in Pride and Prejudice (1995) moment. In the supports, Dern is the mother you’ve always wanted, understanding and calm, despite battling her own problems and Streep is the comical grandmother whose sharpness and old-fashioned values are reminiscent of the Dowager Countess of Graham Violet Crawley.

The script is excited and full of energy. The dialogue sounds true to form, but its delivery is excellent, evoking Gilmore Girls via Jane Austen. Costuming and art direction are both magnificent, drawing us into the period and adding an extension to the women’s personalities as well. The March house is a kaleidoscopic mess of bits and bobs, most of which the girls play with and entertainment each other with, but mainly it evokes warmth and glows as much as the characters. It’s the heart of the family unit and grounds the characters presence in the story.

It’s a beautiful film, it feels like a hug from a grandparent who has told stories to you throughout the years. There’s joy and pleasure to be had, coupled with strong emotions of losing one so close to you, but ultimately it’s the beautiful story of women, all types and personalities, their relationships, the bonds of love with mothers and fathers, creative ambition and battling the odds for something you believe in. The ending is true to the story, but subverted so that Jo’s creation is one of her many pride and joys, and remind us of the love of family and of how we grow to be who we are. To bastardize a quote from the HBO TV show Girls, “A friendship between sisters is grander and more dramatic than any romance.” And that’s never been truer than here.

The Best

Beautifully acted and expertly direction adaptation is the perfect modernisation of a classic story that we don’t deserve, but need. It’s heartfelt and uplifting. Perfect in so many ways.

The Rest

Let Gerwig direct the sequels to the original, Little Men and Jo’s Boys. Or just give her a damn Oscar nomination!

Knives Out

The whodunnit renaissance is upon us! Wedged between Kenneth Branagh’s reimagining of The Murder on the Orient Express in 2017 and the upcoming sequel Death on the Nile, Knives Out sticks it in to the genre and twists it, with equal amounts of mystery and humour. Directed by Rian Johnson, Knives Out is an entertaining caper that plays on the notions of Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries and combines it with a sort of “post-modern” self-aware comedy with a sharp enough bite to kill. That, combined with a superb all star cast sets it up as one of the best films of the year.

Set in modern-day New England in the Thrombey household, adorned with gothic décor and nods to various old-fashioned murder mysteries, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead in his attic. From the outset it seems like a suicide, but questions remain if there was foul play, particularly as he ruffled some feathers on the night of his death with his privileged and spoiled family. We center immediately on his nurse and carer Marta (Ana de Armas), who wasn’t invited to the funeral and whose ethnicity is regularly misidentified by the Thrombeys. She is at first above suspicion as she vomits when she lies, but she is also hiding dark secrets, as is the rest of the family. There’s black sheep Ransom (Chris Evans), bubbling buffoon Walt (Michael Shannon), adulterous son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson), lifestyle and Instagram guru Joni (Toni Collette) and a cast of more.

As daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) says early on in the film, we are all “waiting for the big reveal”, and that is made all the more fun by Poirot-rip off Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a cigar smoking Southerner with a nose for mystery. But even he doesn’t know who has hired him and what for. He is flanked by Detective Lieutenant Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield), a local detective involved in the murder investigation.

To Johnson’s credit, the films set up is flawless and it destabilizes the expectations of the murder mystery. The murder doesn’t happen 30 minutes in after characters have already been established. Instead we open on the murder and the interviewing of potential suspects and work back from there. For the first half of the film, there’s no doubt it’s a whodunnit, but at the same time, in the latter half of the movie Johnson tries to subvert the film, turning part comedy and part drama. It’s a tone I wish could have been consistent throughout the whole film, but also again plays on audience expectations.

For me, interest in the mystery is underscored by the characters. Though almost caricatures at times, each characterisation is grounded in reality with just enough satire to conjure laughs (See Joni and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop stage). The dynamic script is sharp and smart, but also with social commentary, particularly with immigrant Marta at the heart of the story, particularly for a time in the USA where socially-politically things are as convoluted as a murder mystery.

The house itself is also a character, reminiscent of Cluedo with its rooms and secret entries.  Bringing to life this pompous house is like bringing to life Buckingham Palace, humanising it but also holding it just enough away for mystery to evolve. You only must look at the circular display of knives in the main interrogation room to see what I mean.

My one criticism is with the underused talents of Katherine Langford and Jaeden Martell, two young actors who could have been provided with more to shine and be equals with their adult co-stars. Same with Stanfield, who’s impressive filmography continues to expand more into the mainstream space. However Knives Out is definitely a star vehicle for de Armas, who after a string of smaller roles takes centre stage here as a young Cuban woman.  

Johnson brings his own to the genre and creates a wicked world of deceit and drama with the perfect level of comedy to make every moment enjoyable. Its ensemble cast bring their best throughout and it is a fun adventure from beginning to end.

The Best

Johnson sends up the murder mystery genre with a cast as dedicated to honouring it as it is to bring humour to it. There’s no real better crowd-pleaser this year that defies expectations and it’s an all-round entertaining flick that’s both Agatha Christie and 2019 in a nutshell.

The Rest

The film could have done better for its younger cast, but it’s nice for Ana de Armas’ star to shine in this one.

Interview with Drew Livingston

The 10th Anniversary Australian tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Billy Elliot is currently playing at the Sydney Lyric Theatre and actor Drew Livingston is taking out the role of Tony, Billy’s brother in an emotional role that sees him acting and singing in a number of performances every week.

Drew toured Australia in the National Theatre’s global phenomenon War Horse, composed and acted in Bell Shakespeare’s Henry V and appeared on Australian television series Tricky Business.

Here Back Row chat to the actor about Tony and his own experiences as an actor.

How did you get the role of Tony?

I was asked to audition for the role. At the audition I sung some of the material from the show and also did two of the scenes. I was also called back to do some dancing which I was not expecting but I must have done ok because now I am in the show.

Who is this character to you and why is their relationship with Billy so important?

To me, Tony is a man of passion, loyalty and integrity. A lot of his anger and frustration throughout the musical comes from the sense of great injustice he feels that others have not lived up to these values. First of all, Tony and Billy are brothers and in the show, Tony really represents the most obvious outcome for Billy were he not to find dance. 

What is the heart of Billy Elliot about?

Belonging, family and community. There is a great song that Michael, Billy’s best friend sings which is all about expressing who you are and staying true to yourself, and that is what the show is about.

How are you like Tony?

I think I am very passionate and have a keen sense of justice.

What’s your favourite scene or musical number?

My favourite song in the show is a song called “Once We Were Kings”, it’s about all the miners expressing their collective pride in their community and who they are. It is a great song to belt out at the end of the show.

What have been your biggest challenges in bringing this character and this show to life?

I have never had any dance training and it wasn’t until the first week of rehearsals I realised how much dancing I have to do in this show. It required a lot of rehearsal, mental and physical effort and a few private lessons with the choreographer but I think we got there in the end.

You have a strong history of theatre. What’s your dream role?

There’s a whole host of great Shakespearean roles I would love to play but also I love to do musicals so I will be happy with any role that comes along.

What’s next for you and where is Billy Elliot heading after Sydney?

Billy Elliot is heading all over the country – Adelaide, Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane.  At this point, that is my primary focus and we’ll see what happens when next year rolls around.

Terminator: Dark Fate

I quite enjoyed Terminator. Terminator 2: Judgement Day is an excellent film that I can watch at any time. Sadly I can’t say the same for Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. I barely remember Terminator Salvation and never even gave a chance to Terminator Genisys aka the one with Khaleesi as Sarah Connor. And between all the travelling back and forward in time, changing the past and future, going onto Terminator: Dark Fate, I immediately wondered if I would keep up or be able to understand what the previous film’s have left for this sequel.

Fortunately I think director Tim Miller and the screenwriters also wanted to avoid this slog and instead decide to stick to the original storytelling of Judgement Day, with some changes. The biggest of all is bringing back Sarah Connor herself, Linda Hamilton, in a tough woman role that made her so memorable in the second film. With these two actions, Terminator: Dark Fate is off to a right start: rewriting the story and bringing back one of the most beloved characters.

Set in the present day, we meet an augmented soldier from the future, Grace (Mackenzie Davis, a far cry from her role in Black Mirror’s San Junipero), sent to Mexico City to protect Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) as a new Terminator Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) comes to attack her. It’s very similar to the Sarah Connor story, which is why of course she turns up. Then naturally all roads lead them to the original Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who is now living in the woods in the USA, reeling from his old actions from this timeline. 

What I find interesting is how this sequel revives the series without only servicing diehard fans. It’s engaging and feels back to form. Indeed whilst there are sequences and dialogue that seems copied from previous movies, the movie stands on its own, which is hard considering the series first debuted in 1984 with a much younger Schwarzenegger. Most of all the visual effects are superb. The first 20 minutes feels like a shortened version of Mad Max: Fury Road; relentless and frenetic. The choreography is insanely good and it’s a solid sequence and start to the film.

Sure there are lame moments of dialogue and some cop outs, but for the most part, the film succeeds. Davis is absolutely phenomenal in her role, a true vehicle for her acting ability. She embodies the roughness of a Terminator with a sincerity and human element that Schwarzenegger could never find the right balance of. Reyes is also very cool in her role, easily playing on the trope of the confused average person whose life is said to become incredibly important. And Luna is also very strong as the new Terminator, another star vehicle that will hopefully cement him in future roles. It’s also worth noting the strong Hispanic representation in the film, with both Reyes and Luna’s inclusions, as well as their own incredible talents and excellent writing from the scriptwriters.

Hamilton is a presence on screen, heightening anxiety when necessary and the fearless leader of the pack when necessary. There is the tension between her and Grace, then her and the Terminator, which she plays out carefully. There is also the changing of the guard, where she is now protecting Dani, who is now the Sarah Connor of the story: hunted for her future and in need of saving. The trio are a strong set of women who hold their own and the end nods to this as well. Sadly having the original Terminator come back in does undermine this attempt but ultimately it succeeds most of the time.

The Best

Kickass sequel with fierce female leads and plenty of action. A throwback to the original films, but modernized as well. Add it to the list of must watch action flicks this year.

The Rest

It’s still just a Hollywood action flick. Sometimes the visual effects are a bit too overwhelming and dialogue can often be uninspired. A few lame jokes ruins the Sarah character, but could we expect more after 5 sequels?

The Report

The American political movie is so multi-faceted it deserves a case study just to unpack its multitudes. Regardless of the genre it crosses with, whether it’s the gentle comedy of Mr Smith Goes To Washington, the drabness of Robert Rossen’s classic noir All The King’s Men, or the recent procedural of Steven Spielberg’s vastly underrated The Post, it has a style and a common narrative language so much so it should be considered a subgenre in itself. 

It starts with a reverence for the American democratic institution; Washington DC is an inspiring place of marbled halls that our hero admires like it’s the representation of all just ideals. Those expectations are then squashed and squandered by the only imperfection of democracy – lawmakers – who Jefferson Smith, or Bob Woodward, needs to expose to keep  the Great American Experience alive and pure from the claws of dishonourable man. I don’t mean to sound reductive as I appreciate it’s idealistic ambition, but mostly because, when done well, it elevates an abstract notion, like the government, to an almost frightening character. When done well the American political movie is as inspiring and subversive as a romantic drama. The Report is a good American political movie.

Directed by Scott Z. Burns, The Report follows the investigation, and aftermath, of the report on the use of torture (read Enhanced Interrogation Techniques) by the CIA after 9/11. Daniel Jones (Adam Driver) is a young go getter who wants to work in the higher echelons of the American government but is told by Denis McDonough (Jon Hamm) that he should gain experience in Intelligence services before. This leads him to meet Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Benning) and kickstart what would end up being an almost 7,000-page damning evidence of human rights abuse by a U.S. agency. 

It’s a story fitting for political tension, men in suits walking and talking, slammed doors and very stern statements about the integrity of the institution, and Burns delivers all this in spades. The script spares no time to start the procedures, it wastes no words with futile character development, such is the confidence in the source material. All we know of Jones is that he doesn’t want to run for office (because he wants to make a difference, ah) and that he likes to jog around the National Mall when he needs to clear his head – everything else is what drives him, against all odds, for the greater good. And yet both Driver and the script sell Jones as the well-fleshed man he is.

Burns knows how to keep pace without giving in to too much melodrama. He rightfully lets the story speak for itself, but enhances it with some staggering visual notes. Some of the shots around DC are breathtaking, leading lines frame the characters around buildings or confined spaces like it’s Edward Hopper directing an episode of House Of Cards. In contrast the flashbacks of the torture scenes are violent, handheld, and saturated like they are shot by Steven Soderbegh (who produced this film). It’s all carefully built by a filmmakers that shows great confidence with little experience – Burns positions himself as a serious name to follow.

But it’s perhaps this overconfidence that finds the film’s shortcomings. 

The respect Burns has for the subject doesn’t let him explore larger philosophical questions. Everything that happens does so in a shroud of veracity, like we’re watching an expensive dramatisation of a really good podcast. But it misses the opportunity to get away from the docudrama mantle, and make a larger open statement. At a certain point the film references Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, another film that tried to stick as close as it could to the known truth, but the difference between the two is that in the end Bigelow let’s the catharsis of its climax pass and lingers in a confused protagonist who doesn’t know where to go next. The Report spends almost two hours exposing the unjustness of the American democracy with the same surgical eye of a WSJ investigator, so it falls cheap when the final message is a romantic, almost Caprian, “as Americans we are better than this” because, evidently, they’re not.

It’s still not enough to squander all the pleasure you can take from it. The cast, especially Annette Benning, all bring their a-game, and Burns proves to be an even better director to his already enviable, repertoire. The Report is closer to All The President’s Men than Lions For Lambs – and that’s an endorsement right there.

The Best

It has all the right DNA of a good political thriller, but it’s the revelation of Scott Z. Burns that keeps me going – why has Soderbegh been hiding him from us all this time?

Annette Benning also deserves more than just a little passing mention, her Dianne Feinstein has so much depth in a single look, it’ll be a farce if the Academy forgets her.

The Rest

It just needed that last lingering question to achieve greatness. In the end, a subtitle says what we already know – that no one was convicted for these crimes – the two minutes before that play it like everything was going to be fine. In an especially strong moment Feistein says she wants to live in a country where such report is released, the film should have noted that it’s better to live in a country where such report matters.

KURIOS – Cabinet of Curiosities, Sydney Entertainment Quarter, 2019

Cirque du Soleil is hit and miss. For over 35 years, French Canadian street performers-turned businessmen Guy Laliberte and Gilles Ste-Croix have been growing as the largest circus producer in the world, now a global brand that has tours running across the world and Las Vegas residencies. However more and more the brand has become known for its successes and its failings in almost equal part – the Cirque du Soleil name has a certain weight that other performance productions don’t, and the formula hasn’t changed all too often.

Since the company’s first visit in 1999, Cirque du Soleil has become a constant figure in Australian entertainment with regular tours, and the return in 2019 with Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities is no different. The show follows the typical format of Cirque: drawing spectacle and performances out of a central theme, usually more abstract than a European indie film. Fortunately Kurios is full of life and vibrant in a way that some of Cirque’s other productions have lacked the heart or drama of a circus. At times the company have sacrificed storytelling and depth for beauty, but Kurios feels somewhere before the modern circus expected in the wake of The Greatest Showman revival of circus fairs, and the traditional acts. 

There’s still the acrobatics, the clowns, live band echoing through the Big Top, incredible costumes and makeup. Kurios succeeds in capturing the imagination of the audience and is reminiscent of steampunk/gothic design, part-A Series of Unfortunate Events and part-Around The World in 80 Days

As mentioned, costumes are superb and outlandish to an extent. Invention is at the heart of the story and it’s good to see this echoed in the production itself as well. It doesn’t have as much colour as 2016’s Kooza. But instead, it looks more at staging and experiments with the medium in a way I think hasn’t been the centre of Cirque’s interest in past years. 

On the acts side, there is the usuals: contortion, clown acts, balancing acts, but there is also new including a few aerial performances which dazzle and a yo-yo moment that is such a crowd pleaser. Some fall flat: the clown embarrassing an audience member onstage and an “invisible circus” goes far too long to be enjoyed by anyone than a young child. 

The central theme is a bit more confusing for the average viewer and I think the production doesn’t give enough time to explore it or have much character development as a result. It’s a loose narrative that frequent Cirque visitors would be aware of, but it’s almost a little too vague here. The music makes up for this, with its jazz and electro vibe.

It’s not an explosive new show but it’s an above average rendition from the Cirque du Soleil team. The production takes you into a new world where the performers are at perfect ease and do the tricks without much stress. It’s an enjoyable time out for the family and what more could you ask for really?

The Best

Excellent production and art design, with a dazzling musical accompaniment. The performers know exactly what to do and do it with such ease.

The Rest

No acts that really get your heart racing and a lack of a cohesive narrative are the few distractions in this production. Keep upping the ante Cirque du Soleil.

School Of Rock, Capitol Theatre, Sydney, 2019

I love School of Rock. The 2003 film written and starring underrated Mike White is a fun, music-filled romp that is inspirational to kids everywhere and teaches them about “sticking it to the man”. Ripe for stage adaptation, it is now another show in Sydney with music by the ineffable Andrew Lloyd Webber, and it succeeds in the same way the original film did.

Telling the story of Dewey Finn (Brent Hill), a lazy rock-obsessed musician who is kicked out of his band only weeks away from competing at the amateur Battle of the Bands contest, School of Rock really kicks off when he is told by his friend Ned Schneebly and Ned’s girlfriend Patty, who house him for free, to get a job and start paying rent or lest he be out on the street. Then in a moment of desperation, Dewey takes a phone call offering Ned work as a substitute teacher at the prestigious Horace Green school. Despite showing up late, he convinces the strict principal Rosalie Mullins (Amy Lehpamer) that he is the right substitute teacher. But once he learns that the class he teaches are musically gifted, he decides to compete them in the Battle of the Bands against his old band, and teaches the kids to embrace rock music in a way that they haven’t had the opportunity to before.

The musical sticks fairly closely to the film, which is probably why it succeeds entirely. The cast of children, of which there are a revolving door, are all superb singers and dancers, on top of playing the instrument’s their characters play live. It makes you feel as if they are acting playing their instruments. Some deserve shout outs including Zane Blumeris, Jude Hyland, Deeanna Cheong Foo and Sabina Felias, all excelling in their roles and shining in the cast. The show also captures the audience with this enthusiasm and Dewey’s love for rock’n’roll is palpable. Hill does an excellent job of bringing the character to life and is equally as convincing as Jack Black was in the original, albeit with some misguided lines from the show’s book. There is also more depth to the character of Miss Mullins, not just casting her as the prim, uptight principal, but also struggling with the pressure of running a prestigious school.

The set design is excellent and the costuming works hand in hand with the energy of the show. Sure, it’s a ridiculous show, as bombastic as Black was in the original film. The musical is phenomenal. The book by Julian Fellowes is pretty sharp, but you can feel that it is an older person writing about younger people. For Lloyd Webber, it’s not the perfect show for him to write music for, but you can feel that he is reverting to the rock opera semantics of Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar. He can certainly please and he does here in spades. The score is generally a bit more lackluster.

There were some sound issues in the production – at times middling and not flowing as one would like. But generally the show charms the pants out of anyone. The cast is filled to the brim with talent and the story is still as engaging as ever. Without its excellent cast of young children, there is no way it would soar as much as it did. You can see and feel them the whole way through. The kids are more than alright.

The Best

A brilliant collection of young cast members brings life to this film turned musical and really do stick it to the man. All adult cast are also on pointe with their comedic timing and you’ll leave the theatre happy you went. It’s the best show on in Sydney right now.

The Rest

The book and score leave something to be desired. And it may have been opening night jitters, but the sound mixing didn’t always underscore the best musical moments of the show. 

Ford v Ferrari

The serious racing film subgenre is overlooked to an almost criminal degree, and I’m not even a car person. Really serious though, not the pantomime of Fast & Furious franchise, nor corniness of Days of Thunder, but the story of stern men whose life revolves around engine and diesel. Neither family nor foe can stop them achieve the goal of perfect symbiose between them and the vehicle. The kind of film where the closest thing to a love scene is the moment our hero gentle presses the pedal just to hear the almost growling eroticism of that vroom – fumes between us the camera and our hero, like low-key lighting from a fireplace. Yeah, there aren’t many of them, and I don’t really understand why.

Ford v Ferrari, the new film from James Mangold, fills the void left by Ron Howard’s 2013 film Rush, an incredibly entertaining film on it’s own. But where Howard obsessed in the rivalry between two drivers, Mangold goes back to the basis and looks in to the pursuit of perfection – there is no time for relationships or ego trips, the two men in front of centre in Ford v Ferrari strive for the same goal, and it’s only petty things like other people that stand in the way of excellence. Ford v Ferrari is the kind of film that Steve McQueen fans will quietly cherish.

The Australian (and original) title tells us part of the plot, but in the UK the film is called Le Mans ‘66, which refocus the film in the objective of the protagonists. Struck by poor sales and even worse reputation, Ford motors decides to take on the historic annual French race 24 hours of Le Mans and compete directly with Ferrari, at the time the indisputable kings of racing cars. The plan starts by hiring the last American to win said race, Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), to get a team that can build, and race, the fastest car in the world. Only one man seems fit to be at the wheel, the intrepid Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a driver so good as he is impossible to work with.

The two men are driven (eheh) by a love for the car. They discuss engines, pistons, valves a lot of other impressive technical jargons, and then drive the cars like they are extensions of themselves. It’s almost like winning the race is just a passing thought, and their real goal is to write their names in the history of racing. 

What stops them, unfortunately, is corporate America. Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), a man so deep in his grandfather’s shadow he can barely see the sunlight, wants to expand his brand worldwide and stick it to Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) for refusing to sell his business. Constantly surrounded by a posse of marketers, lawyers, business analysts and other sycophants (including Josh Lucas and Jon Bernthal), Ford’s approach is purely financial, lacking the passion that both Shelby and Miles have. In one of the main dramatic problems, Miles is asked to step down for not being “Ford-material” and it’s hard not to see a thinly veiled critique of the current Hollywood business paradigm against auteurship, especially from Mangold, a director that found a way to have his voice in a couple of successful superhero films that still stand as unique outliers.

The script, penned by Jez & John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller, is sometimes at odds with Mangold’s direction. On the page it feels that it admires the big soulless corporation as the force that shapes our society for the good. It has moments so bootlickingly nauseuos I I wanted Ferrari to win just out of principle. The introduction of Henry Ford II stands out as the worst example of this, especially because nothing in the film seems to condemn it or stand against it. On the other hand there’s Mangold who shoots the Ford boys as almost grotesque caricatures of rampant capitalism. In a particular emotional moment, the kind that Mangold is good at exploiting, he gives an exchange of looks of respect between Miles and Ferrari. In that moment we wished we understand the heart is worth more than the bucks.

No actor stands out here. Both Damon and Bale embody their characters with the confidence that only someone with their pedigree could. Letts is decadent as Ford, and I say this as a compliment, but my MVPs are Bernthal and Lucas – the first for doing a great job at a new role thus proving that he’s the most unexpectedly versatile actor in Hollywood right now, and the second for nailing the right tone of the villain without making it too obvious.

Ford v Ferrari is a good film that ironically could’ve been better if Mangold was left to work on his own. It takes itself so serious, its approach is almost engineered with the meticulousness of a master that just doesn’t want to fail. The race scenes are tremendous and exciting, but it’s when it stops that it struggles to, not unlike Miles, connect in an emotional level past the machine. 

The subgenre has here a good breath of fresh air, but it’s yet to give us its own Raging Bull. Heck, it’s yet to give us its own Rocky.

The Best

Those races, shot and cut like a battle scene, it would’ve made David Lean proud. Mangold always delivers the goods. So does Damon, Bale, Letts, Bernthal and Lucas. Seriously, there isn’t much here that surprises us.

The Rest

A little tonal conflict with the script, a little too dry. Everytime there isn’t a car in the frame, the film struggles to feel something. A whole subplot with Miles’ family tries to make up for that loss, but the head of the filmmakers just wasn’t there.

But who’s watching this for a father-son story? This is the kind of race film where the brakes sparks fire and it’s still exciting even after someone explains the mechanics of why that happened. Be ready to be excited about a brake rotor swap.

Little Monsters

The unexpected film genre-du-jour in 2019 is the zombie-comedy film. As I am writing this, there are three of these playing in Australian cinemas, and frankly I’m surprised as much as you are. Zombie-comedies were an answer to fatigued genre that didn’t have much new to give, so by the time Edgar Wright’s instrumental Shaun Of The Dead redefined the genre to the gentle sensibilities of popular culture, it was a gentle wink to an audience that both wanted to revel in the nostalgic feeling of the familiar, and demanded a bit of a new and refreshing edge. Zombie-comedies play in the fine line of the rules of horror, play with the audience’s expectations, and reframe the tension by putting the audience (and sometimes even its characters) in the know. It’s self-referential because it knows that the mere naming of the genre is, in itself, meta. 

Since 2004 it seems that every year we get a new one, which is ironic for a category that started specifically has a reaction to the predictability of horror. Little Monsters, directed by Abe Forsythe, is another Australian take (there have been a few over the years), and what it adds to the category is absolutely nothing. This is the rare zombie family that could’ve been exactly the same if the living dead were replaced with anything you want – rabid cows? Sure. Silly firemen with fluffy hats? Why not. A baboon? Yes. Actually that one would’ve probably make a better film.

The story revolves around a good-for-nothing unsuccessful musician, Dave (Alexander England) who chaperones his nephew’s field trip to a farm so he can get closer to the teacher Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o). Unfortunately there’s an outbreak in a nearby secret US army base and soon enough Dave, Miss Caroline and Teddy McGiggle (Josh Gad), a famous kid’s TV-star that is somehow involved, have to protect all the children until the military intervenes. 

If most of the plot was this, like a kind of Life Is Beautiful but with zombies and annoyingly unlikable protagonists, it would be partially fine, but if you caught the film from the start you’ll be presented with a long and contrived set-up of Dave’s life until the outbreak – he argues with his girlfriend, catches her cheating on him, moves in with his sister, meets Miss Caroline. There are 20 minutes of irrelevant set-up before we even get a glimpse of what was promised. The problem is that none of that means anything in the grander scheme of the world of this film. Remember the opening credits of Shaun Of The Dead with the tracking shot of normal citizens in performing mundane tasks like they are mindlessly dead? Little Monsters doesn’t have that level of ingeniousness.

More aggravating is how it develops our characters. Dave’s journey is simply finding meaning to his aimless life via caring about others – nothing new here – but it’s his characteristics that lay bear the film’s shortcomings. He’s crude, rude, moronic and child-like, or at least what a child thinks a crude, rude, moronic and child-like person is. There’s nothing subtle or gentle about his persona, so he goes on about like a man that doesn’t exist. I figure that this is so we can have some good comedy skits about his complete cluelessness of ordinary behaviour, but it doesn’t work like that because the film never paces itself like one of those comedies where one of these characters would live. Instead it tries to make important moral points about responsibility, but neither of them are important enough to have weight, nor do they connect with any of the metaphors presented – of which, I believe, there are none.

The Best

The production team that managed to convince both Lupita Nyongo’o and Josh Gad to be part of this film. That’s some impressive work right there.

The Rest

A half-assed script could’ve gotten away with the lazy characters, the cheap morals, the lack of drive and the long set-up, if it delivered in the comedy. It doesn’t. It’s like a personification of a living dead – slow, aimless, and you kind of just want to shoot him in the head to spare his misery.