Hustlers

“This is a story about control” starts the opening scene of Hustlers, as Janet Jackson’s hit plays while we meet Dorothy, now Destiny, (Constance Wu), the apparent new girl at a strip club in New York back in 2007. She is struggling financially to support her grandmother and doesn’t seem particularly entranced by this line of work, but she smiles and does her thing. 

Based on the New York Magazine article by Jessica Pressler, Hustlers takes no time to get us into the world of exotic dancers and develop the friendship between Destiny and Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), undoubtedly the key player and dancer who’s entrance in the film is something to be mentioned for years. Once Destiny sees Ramona, she is entranced by her and automatically is drawn to her. As Ramona takes Destiny under her wing, and her coat, and shows her the ropes of embracing her sexiness and using her charisma to make the work lucrative for her, the film really takes off. Money begins rushing in for the duo, but as soon as the Global Financial Crisis begins, it turns out the Wall Streeters have less to throw around. Desperation drives Ramona to come up with a new plan: microdosing high earners at bars near Wall Street and drag them back to the strip club to drain their cards of cash. It’s a tricky proposition with interesting highs and lows, whilst simultaneously showing Destiny talking to a reporter, relaying the story to her (Julia Stiles). 

On the acting front, Jennifer Lopez is superb as Ramona, her own JLo energy coming through Ramona in a way a lot of her recent characterisations have not allowed. The writing of Ramona doesn’t present many opportunities for us to see her insecurities and vulnerabilities that could have catapulted Lopez higher to an Oscar win, but her performance is still incredible. Wu is also in top form, a far cry from her comedic performance in Crazy Rich Asians, where we can see her character arc from innocent bystanders to active criminal, yet still empathise with her actions. Most of all, the bond between the two comes across as genuine and realistic, and you can feel that the characters are more than the sum of their actions, which is hard to portray as an actor when the character is a perpetrator of crime. Cardi B and Lizzo come and go in small bit roles that aren’t greatly memorable, but Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart establish themselves as strong young actresses with comedic timing and charisma. The line up all have perfect chemistry and the weight of Stiles’ acting and her character is another facet of the film that draws out the human side of the story. 

Writer and director Lorene Scafaria has clear inspiration from Goodfellas and relies too often on those tropes through much of the story, but it isn’t as entertaining as its uses in I, Tonya. She tries to make a crime drama with sprinkles of comedy throughout, but the long opening shot shows she still has a bit of originality to bring into her style. The soundtrack, a mix of Britney Spears and Lorde is effective and really underlines the scenes they appear. The writing could have been more entertaining and more character arcs could have made the personalities more memorable and brilliant, but it’s still a strong third outing from Scafaria. 

Tone is the biggest issue of the film. The front part of the film is fun, addictive and energizing, but loses this after about ⅓ of the film as Destiny settles into domestic life and the story slows down. Unfortunately it takes a while to revive the film from there, but the music certainly helps. Hustler’s ode to music of the time is one of its highlights, as is the inclusion of Usher during another memorable scene early on. Too many montages of shopping remind us of the power of money and how it has transformed these women, but there is still an undercurrent of emotional depth that ebbs and flows during the film.

It’s a classic film about sexuality, social security and financial inequality, but transforms it into a film about the struggles of these individuals and how they “take back” from people who are part of a system that effectively financially ruined a nation. A sibling picture to Magic Mike, another film about the entertainment industry and the real life personalities trying their best to make money despite the post-recession circumstances in the USA. 

Yet there isn’t much impartiality throughout, as the film seems to make the defence that these women’s crimes are not that morally bankrupt. Sure there are casualties along the way, but they are the real hustlers and scammers without white collars, taking what they think they deserve and only caring for themselves. The film tries to create a humanistic approach to understanding them with vague backstories that have drawn them to this, but equally doesn’t depict them as very nice or centered people, but rather unlikeable. Scarfaria isn’t wrong, this is a story about the control of these women, but it’s not as empowering as it may come across at times. 

Hustlers is really Jennifer Lopez’s film and will be one of her most memorable roles going forward and possibly her best to date. She’s the ringleader and the movie rests on her capable shoulders. But ultimately the film isn’t unlike the characters within: a tease, but also a promise that so much more could come. If only Scafaria explored the characters more and made them more than the sum of their actions.

The Best

Jennifer Lopez’s performance is the drawcard and keeps you watching. Constance Wu is due for an Oscar nomination soon. The story is insanely interesting and watching it unfold is engaging. 

The Rest

The never never quite takes off and hits the heights that could be accomplished by these excellent actresses and stranger than fiction story. Also wish it was funnier.

Ready Or Not

Woke horror-thrillers appear to be the thing of the moment after the successes of Get Out and Us, and the new Ready Or Not plays off a lot of similar concepts and narrative structure in this comedic take on a classic slasher film. 

Grace (Samara Weaving) is the doting new bride of Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brien), a family member of the wealthy Le Domas family whom Grace describes as “richer than God”, of whom made their millions by creating board games. Since Grace is an orphan she is longing to be integrated into the family and truly belong. But there are a few key members who seem to grate with her: Alex’s mother Becky (Andie MacDowell) isn’t enthusiastically approving, his brother Daniel (Adam Brody) is an alcoholic with his eyes on Grace, the father Tony (Henry Czerny) disapproving of her status and aunty Helene (Nicky Guadagni) with her terrifying presence. It’s a wild grouping of individuals, but Grace sees tying the knot as the closing of the courtship and official a Le Domas family member. But alas, it is not the end as Alex tells her that there is one last family ritual: a game that has to be played. As she learns, the family made its money from a connection with another traveler many years ago and this is the tradition to keep the family going. Grace pulls “Hide and Seek” from the box and as she finds a place to hide out, the family weaponise themselves and seek her out intending to kill her, not that she knows.

There’s lots to like about Ready Or Not. Weaving is an incredible actress and plays the role to perfection. Her fortitude is palpable and it’s a killer performance (literally). She comes out of her shell, slowly and her acting mimics her character development perfectly. Brody is also very strong here, showing off his acting chops. Another shining light is Kristian Bruun as sister Emilie’s husband Fitch, who brings the laughs at every scene. MacDowell, Czerny and O’Brien are all solid, but not as fleshed out characters for much to be remembered. Overall there could have been more meat for the actors to work with. It’s great but not amazing, and that bit more of character could have taken it to that next level.

At times there are sequences that verge on the overly simplified: Grace seen in her wedding dress with a rifle and ammunition placed perfectly across her body is a signature look for the film, but also visually you can tell the directors are relying too much on these moments to inspire confidence in the main character. “She’s a badass”, it makes you think, but also it’s a bit lame considering the scene that follows. Yes she’s fighting back against privilege and entitlement, but where is the “so what?”. Where is the punch beyond that?

Of course much of the comedy centers on Grace being the odd one out, seeing this insanity from this wealthy family and how far one will go to preserve their money and life. It “others” the wealthy family and mocks them for their ways – not that I’m saying it’s a bad thing – but at times it’s a joke that plays out too many times. Yes, it’s funny how “the rich” are with their commitment to money that they’d kill, but it doesn’t go beyond this. Even more so is the accidental killing of the family’s three maids, which becomes a running joke, gets tiresome after some time.

It’s a subversive film that balances the crowd pleasing and the witty to a strong effect and most certainly one of the best horror films of the year ideal for Halloween time. It struggles with the satire and with its political messaging, resorting to cheap laughs towards the end and leaving the viewer with a barely funny joke that appeals to many, but isn’t very thought out. The cast could have been provided with better to rise to the occasion but even then Weaving makes the film. It’s a fun romp that thrilling and sarcastic in equal measure with enough charisma to please even thriller film haters.

The Best

Give Samara Weaving her own Hollywood movie now as she shines on screen at every shot. It’s smart and funny. It has the cultural critique that is growing in cinema but doesn’t overcompensate it at the risk of not creating a crowd pleasing film.

The Rest

A bit more opportunities for the characters to be fleshed out could have resulted in funnier moments and a script with more bite. 

Billy Elliot, Sydney Lyric Theatre, 2019

Opening with black and white footage of the UK in 1984, with clips of the nationalisation of the coal industry and the ensuing miner’s strike in an attempt to prevent colliery closures, sets the stage for Billy Elliot’s return to Sydney 12 years after its last visit. Based on the modern classic film, class tensions, masculinity and family obligations come together with as much energy as its opening 14 years ago on the West End. 

With book and lyrics by Lee Hall and directed by Stephen Daldry, both original creators of the 2000 films, stage presence is heightened by Elton John’s music, which plays against the story of a 12 year old boy who switches his father’s want for him to do boxing with his own undiscovered dream to be a ballet dancer despite the financial difficulties his family faces and the sexist views of his father and brother. 

It’s a very poignant story, still as relevant as it was when it first premiered, particularly as young boys like Prince George are still bullied on television for interest in ballet lessons and a love of dance. Its themes are powerful – both that of the class warfare of the time under Margaret Thatcher as well as the familial tensions of this masculine family. The musical shows the realism of the world at the time, the hatred between the police and miners, the opinion of the downtrodden working class and the social impact this has on the community.

But this is entirely contrasted to the fun performances and flashiness of Billy’s dancing and the antics of his cross-dressing friend Michael. There is optimism in the form of Billy’s dance teacher Mrs Wilkinson’s admiration of Billy’s talent who pushes him to do more, and fights against the intolerance of the community. Another funny moment is the mockery of Thatcher at a Christmas celebration in Act 2 that is brilliant comedy but also inherently dark in its message.

On the music side, I expected more from John’s music. It’s simple and pop fuelled, but lacks the emotional deft that the original film had. The seminal ‘Electricity’ doesn’t take off and it’s much easier to appreciate the choreography and staging over the music. The closing moment of Act 1 has a brilliant tap solo that brings down the house with more sentimentality than any of the songs. 

The cast are generally solid. Jamie Rogers, one of our boys playing the role of Billy, dances extremely well and you can feel his emotion during the key moments of the show. Acting left something to be desired at times, but no doubt he will ease into the role post-Opening Night. Kelly Abbey is superb as Mrs Wilkinson, with some key comedic lines and showing her vulnerabilities at time. You can feel the simmering emotion beneath the exterior and gravitas the show needs. Justin Smith, who originally played Billy’s brother Tony in the original Australian production, returns as his family and really brings the show home in his exploration of emotion and eventual embracing of Billy’s aspiration. His solo at the Christmas party is a tearjerker and one of the touching moments of the play. All supporting characters are also strong and work well with the source material.

To critique the original musical, Hall and Daldry drop the ball when taking the film to the stage, downplaying more heartbreaking moment and Disney-fying some moments that were integral to the original. Michael, played by James Sonnemann, is the cross-dressing best friend of Billy and is a bit of a running joke through the show, but we don’t really see a great deal of his characterisation or exploration of who he is beyond his hobby. There are also scenes that rely too much on broad, physical humour that could have been replaced with sharper dialogue, but alas, none of this is the fault of this production by the source material.

The show rings true as when the original film was released. Inequality is growing across the world and the working class continue to be misunderstood and their problems misheard. It’s also a story about tolerance and changing social norms, another real issue facing many communities that may be all too close to home for Australia a few years after the Yes vote. It’s a moving show with human emotion abound that is uplifting and enjoyable for a night out.

The Best

It’s a slick and clean production of a classic that has raw emotions and strong storytelling. It stands out for its heart-warming story and I’m excited for a new generation of viewers to learn about this impactful story. This is exactly what art should do.

The Rest

Elton John’s music isn’t as memorable as some of his hits, with relatively simple parts. It supports the story rather than doing it over the top, but isn’t that part of what being a musical is?

Judy & Punch

I doubt there are fans of XVI century puppet theatre tradition dying for a live-action adaptation of their favourite characters. But in case there’s someone like that out there, and they unsuspectingly stumbled upon Mirrah Foulkes’ debut feature, then they should’ve paid attention to the little clue in the title – this is the point of view of Judy, and you can expect that that just doesn’t sound as fun, does it?

 Set in a sort of idealised Ye Olde Europe, Judy & Punch re-imagines the original characters as the artists behind the original puppet show. Punch (Damon Harriman), the husband, is the self-confessed genius still waiting for his break in the city, and Judy (Mia Wasikowska) is the subservient wife who enables, supports him, and takes care of their baby and household. It does well fleshing out the archetypal characters of the puppet show into this version of the real world, but it quickly feeds us with a good dose of harsh reality – the funny over-the-top antics of Punch as a puppet, turn into domestic violence on different point of view. A clear and understood point that the film expertly announces within its first five minutes, and then barely explores it in the remainder 95.

As per the original, Punch kills the baby, and goes through a series of hoops and turns trying to get away with the murder and in time to present his show to a talent scout from ‘The Big Smoke’ (I’m guessing London, though it’s strange as the city would only get this nickname after the Industrial Revolution). Unlike the show, though, Judy survives Punch and finds subterfuge with a group of outcast women in the forest, and from there we follow her journey as she regains her confidence that she had lost after years of marriage with a serial narcissistic abuser, and starts plotting her vengeance. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t have the cinematic flare to represent this in a compelling way, so while Harriman seems to be having fun playing the villain, paradigm of irresponsible toxic masculinity, Wasikowska spends broods around the fire camp with her new found sisters, or broods around town like a haunted spirit. There’s a moment she has a vision in a lake featuring a crocodile, which just comes out as another opportunity to add another element from the original play, within a completely different context.

The problem is there are good ideas here; Mirrah Foulkes is brave enough to go after the west’s tradition of normalising violence against women in our storytelling. And she does it in her first film. But I suspect she wrote down all the topics and ideas that this story could pursue, and decided to include them all in the final script. As a result, the film goes from tragedy to comedy in a decidedly clunky way. From caricature to a strong dramatic point with no segue. Don’t get me wrong, it’s possible to do something like this – others have done it in the past – but it requires more experience than just good intentions.

The baby death scene, for example, is set up like a tragedy, but ends just short of a drum rim shot. Surely this would’ve been an opportunity to continue the idea of real-world consequences of Punch’s violence, like it had been set up before. Instead it felt like a remnant of an old draft when this story was going to be a completely different film.

This inconsistency hurts  Wasikowska more who doesn’t get to show off her skill for the most part. That is until the end when she’s given an empowering speech that is more directed at us, the audience, then the people in the town. But like the rest of the film, it’s a good idea that lacks the craft to work, and instead of being the triumphant, world-changing, moment it could’ve been, it leaves us asking that question that no filmmaker wants to be asked – who is this film made for? It’s too violent, and serious to be for the children who react to the puppet show. It lacks subtleties to be for adults. Those who could listen to the message have tuned out halfway through, and us who agree with it are still hanging around waiting for one last piece of unexpected truth that never comes. 

And this is not a lot to ask for a film about a silly puppet show. There are important things being said here, but they get they lost in the unnecessary complexity of this story.

The Best

A twist on a classic story of leisurely sexist violence and glorification of toxic masculinity? There’s a philosophical take we definitely need to confront…

The Rest

But good intentions don’t make a good film. It just a little bit of a mess that needed several redrafts and just a pinch of focus.

The Politician: Season 1

First there was Popular, a teen drama in the 90s, then there was Nip/Tuck, then a return to teen drama with Glee. Then he wanted to do horror with the anthology American Horror Story, which bred American Crime Story and Feud. There was Scream Queens, a mash of Glee’s comedy and American Horror Story’s scary moments. Then there’s Pose, a drama of New York City in the 1980’s ballroom scene, which was the predecessor to The Politician. Ryan Murphy’s new show, and his first on Netflix, once again combines the teen drama of Glee, a blend of Scream Queens camp and the anthology of his three most critically acclaimed shows. But like most of Murphy’s creation, it loses steam early on, but not so much that it’s an easy 8-episode watch.

The Politician tells the story of Payton Hobart (Ben Platt), a young, ambitious, privileged boy who wants to be President of the USA and is fast approaching his first step in his political career – running for student body captain in his senior school. And from the outset he’s got it all: a team of dedicated political masterminds, a beautiful girlfriend who is first-lady-in-waiting, wealthy parents with influence and on track to be new School Captain. But he’s also troubled with his closeted sexuality and being himself in a world of people who aren’t as committed and highly strung.

A lot happens in the Pilot, including an unexpected suicide scene that doesn’t have the emotional deft it could have had later in the show. But again, this is Payton’s world and everyone only lives in it, and this ghost continues to follow him and becomes a Manic Pixie Dream Thing to help him grasp his emotions. In fact the audience is reminded time and time again that Payton doesn’t feel like other people and that he’s acting through his life. It’s a worthy motif to consider, but it doesn’t amount to much but another trait of an increasingly frustrating character.

It’s, as everything Murphy does, an over-exaggeration, a far cry from the trampled How To Votes and non-event of school elections that the average viewer might still remember from their high school (if they even had one). There’s no doubt it’s Election on steroids. But that’s what makes it so fun. It brings the drama of office elections, one which is obviously still in the consciousness of the American people, and the pettiness of high school students, this of which are spoilt, wealthy teens with too much money and time on their hands.

Payton’s homosexuality is another sticking point. The Politician never says why he can’t come out, though it suggests because it’s not part of his wider political narrative. But equally it doesn’t seem to care about breaking this mould either. Why couldn’t he be gay and still run for high office? What about Pete Buttigieg? What does this new narrative look like? Instead we are given the story of a man repressing his sexuality, no doubt based on the life of a few current politicians – not really groundbreaking.

The best part of the season is the ending, when Payton finally has the opposition to break free of his own narrative, but unfortunately Murphy gets the better of himself with a neatly tied bow that sees characters come together for precisely no reason and it’s like everything that came before didn’t matter. I felt it ended like the first dish of a degustation. This is just Murphy’s preview, and you know the next season is where the real fun begins. 

On the acting front, Ben Platt is good, playing an insufferable character with a bit of charisma so you still root for him. His henchmen McAfee (Laura Dreyfuss), James (Theo Germaine) and Alice (Julia Schlaepfer) are scene stealers, his Scream Queen’s Chanels if you will, who are dedicated to him and quip sharp lines one after the other. You find yourself wanting more scenes with them. Lucy Boynton is also as good as her role lets her, as Astrid, Payton’s nemesis. Gwyneth Paltrow and Bob Balaban are both superb as Payton’s parents, really grounding the show from the teen drama elsewhere. Strangely enough is the casting of Zoey Deutch and Jessica Lange as Infinity and Dusty Jackson, respectively, as characters who should have been written out of the show entirely. Mimicking the actions of Dee Dee Blanchard and Gypsy Rose, it’s a storyline that could have been left behind and greatly depreciates the show as a witty comedy. Never mind asking why these two brilliant actresses took these roles, no doubt a deal with the devil aka Murphy in return for too many scenes that are unnecessary.

I don’t know what the point of The Politician is. Rich kids fighting over nothing at school? A boy on the spectrum with ambitious ideas and no humility? The emptiness of politics as a whole? Part of me thinks it doesn’t matter as Murphy has already planned a multi-season arc that ends with a presidential election. It’s a beautiful production with too many ideas that doesn’t explore them all as well as they could. It’s just another rote learned show by the Murphy factory and I can feel season two coming as a Feud/The Politician crossover with bigger drama and competing public figures. It’s been done and done before. If only Murphy could get out of his own head.

The Best

It’s a campy soap with ridiculous characters and moments to keep you watching. There are times it swerves into a great idea, but is never fully realised. If you loved any of Murphy’s previous stuff, this is likely to entertain you enough for 8 episodes.

The Rest

No new Murphy converts will be found with this one. The Infinity/Dusty storyline was a joke gone too far and the end shows that character development isn’t always front and mind for writers when writing long-running series.

Sweetbitter: Season 2

Sweetbitter is just as the misnomer suggests, a bittersweet show. Part slow burner erotic drama, part No Reservations, the series is based on Stephanie Darnier’s novel of the same name. Starz, not unlike the show, is also a new network that is forming its own identity, particularly after earlier success of the similar The Girlfriend Experience. The first season of the show was slow and moody, with a naïve Tess (Ella Purnell) at the heart of the show, set back in the 2000s that played off some nostalgia but felt like it has been left on the Twilight cutting room floor at times.

Thus I am happy to report that in season two Sweetbitter does what few shows do successfully, and that’s craft a sophomore season with more engaging characters, more spicy moments and generally, more. Tess is back, having grown past her naivety. We don’t see her make the same mistakes this season and the show matures past the coming of age story it leaned too heavily on. Now Tess is well equipped to deal with the drama, but begins to become as strategic as the people around her. Jake (Tom Sturridge) and Simone (Caitlin FitzGerald) are still in Tess’ life, the former with whom she still has a crush on and the latter her inspiration, but now her growth has her on a level playing field. She reads them both a lot better and her growth sees her seeking out more answers on their fraught relationship. There’s conflict that arises with Simone that, even if not 100% explained, is still engaging to watch. The student has become the master and Tess has learnt well.

Returning as well as Tess’ main friends from the restaurant floor: Ari, Sasha and Heather finally step into the spotlight and no longer only as conduits in Tess’ life. Sasha is still as earnest as before and his emotional rollercoaster is portrayed well. Learning more about Ari and Heather, and what makes them tick, creates a better world of the restaurant and becomes part of Tess’ awareness of other people’s problems and personalities. Restaurant manager Howard (Paul Sparks) also has a metamorphosis, as his own future comes into jeopardy and his tight relationship with Simone begins to crumble. He still holds himself at arm’s length, but his methods for manipulating the staff becomes more apparent, even as he gets Will (Evan Jonigkeit) to become his protégé to do his bidding for him. It’s interesting to see this dynamic as well as how Will slowly becomes more like Howard in how they abuse their power.

Real problems also begin to come into play as a dishwasher goes to Howard asking for a change in the way tips are distributed that sparks a battle between the chefs, servers and kitchen staff. It’s a genuine issue in many American restaurants that finally gets put center stage here. And Sweetbitter shockingly explores the controversy with delicacy and presents all sides of the issue. Then there’s the comedy, with the presentation of the first white truffle in the restaurant and the ensuing pomp from this arrival, while Tess dares to taste the rare delicacy without being caught.

The growth of characters isn’t the only change, as the first season’s swirling wine opening is replaced with a montage of cooking food that changes every episode. This reflects the growth in the show as well, as it moves to equally be about the art of cooking and hospitality than just the drama on the floor itself. And the show ends with a shocking moment with Tess that really shows how far she’s come and the changes power dynamic that could shake up the restaurant.

Season two has been a massive improvement on season one and fortunately it has moved past its teething issues. The next season (if there is one) hangs on how the writers will continue after the final moment of this season, and what they will choose next for the characters. But I am sure, despite that, that the drama will continue in the next Sweetbitter.

The Best

Ella Purnell is very good in the role and you can tell her mannerisms have changed as she expresses the new person Tess is. The growing of the Sweetbitter-world is also welcome, as is the development of supporting characters. The cliffhanger finale leaves a nicer taste in your mouth more than last seasons did.

The Rest

It’s still overly moody, dark and annoyingly similar to The Girlfriend Experience in a lot of ways. It’s not exactly prestige television and is probably better suited to a Twilight fan who lives off the slow pauses and long stares between characters. 

The Nightingale

And for her sophomore effort, Jennifer Kent went for the jugular.

It was in 2014 that this new Australian filmmaker set the world ablaze with an intense allegory of domestic violence in The Babadook. Kent was quickly crowned the saviour of horror – the breath of fresh air fans of the genre had been wishing for, the beginning of something great. But when the dust settled it was evident that she wasn’t interested in being a conduit restrained by the rules of a genre, after all Kent is a filmmaker that I would compare more to William Friedkin than Wes Craven. It just so happened that The Babadook needed a horror frame, so for her second feature she changed lanes. Kept the guts, but told through a different way.

Set in Tasmania in the early 1800s, The Nightingale is at its core a simple revenge story in the background of colonial turmoil. Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is an Irish mother held in the island way past her original seven-year sentence. The local officer, Hawkins (Sam Calflin, in a career defining role), refuses to sign her release papers so he can abuse her both sexually and for his own entertainment, due to her pristine voice she is the nightingale of the title. In a tragic and horrifying incident, Clare’s husband and newborn son are murdered by Hawkins and two of his men, Ruse (Damon Harriman) and Jago (Harry Greenwood). With nothing left to lose, Clare hires the help of a local aboriginal man Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to catch and kill the three English men.

To say that The Nightingale needs trigger warnings is an understatement, but in case you missed out on the controversy, this film includes three brutal scenes of rape, a graphic infanticide, and enough gore to make the hardest viewer squirm. Kent left the tension of psychological horror, but didn’t make it easier to the unsuspecting viewer. If anything she let herself indulge in the themes of her story, without having to hide it all in subtleties. The Nightingale is no frills, straight-forward, blood-in-the-wall cinema. The kind of film you’d imagine a young go-getter filmmaker would make to shock old-school cinephiles. But because it’s Kent, a genuine artist with a plan and defined agenda, nothing comes out as exploitative or pornographic. Instead each scene explodes like a bright spotlight shining at the woes of colonialism, its patriarchal foundation and the wounds that still resonate today.

This is why the protagonists are an Irish woman controlled by a powerful man, and a mob-less Indigenous man torn between his anger and apparent lack of identity. Kent doesn’t bring misery unto these characters, for both Clare and Billy are victims of a larger tragedy. But she gives them the opportunity to purge the wrongs made since 1770. Every step they both take in this long journey is filled with rage and a lot of it seems to come from Kent herself. Rage for what was done to those women. Rage for what was done to those cultures. Rage that it continued long past the end credits into our very own recent history.

It helps that all the actors embody this emotionless lawlessness. Especially for Aisling, who controls her desperation, and later her anger, like she could feel Clare in her bones, and Baykali – hard to imagine a more difficult film to start a career, but here we have it, he nails it like an experienced professional.

The Nightingale holds nothing back. The end may not feel cathartic, especially after recent revenge fantasies that give us the historical payoff that we all wanted, but it was the right one for a film like this – because ultimately Kent isn’t aiming to warm our hearts. Lesser messages have started bigger revolutions

The Best
The Nightingale is the kind of film that will divide audiences and stir controversy. But I’ll laud Kent’s masterful approach to violence that never feels dishonest and immoral. You know how hard that is to do? Hardly any other filmmaker, in the history of filmmaking, pulled this kind of brutal sincerity.

The Rest
I can already hear the voices of dissent, calling out, not the depiction of rape, but the anti-colonial message. The blood and ire may deter some viewers, but it will definitely start a larger conversation that goes beyond its tale. Maybe it can air every year on January 26 until the date is changed.

Ad Astra

Tackling space in film is a frontier I think has been well exhausted in recent years. Whether it’s the time shifting and multi-dimensional Interstellar or incredible visual effects of Gravity, it’s been shown that graphics are now capable of really capturing the reality of movement in space. Add to that the classics of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien, and you have a hard genre to break in to – just ask First Man. But nonetheless, director James Gray of Two Lovers and The Lost City of Z tackles space in a more metaphysical and emotional way, one that shoots for the stars but doesn’t quite make it.

The story revolves around Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), an accomplished astronaut who learns that his missing father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), another accomplished astronaut and presumed dead during a past mission, may be alive and responsible for sending power surges through the galaxy as is presumably searching for aliens. There’s no real explanation as to why he would do this nor is that really the point of the film, but merely the vehicle to explore how Clifford’s disappearance has impacted Roy and changes his own relationships for the worst. Soon he is sent across the solar system to see if his father is alive and get to the bottom of the power surges that are leading to the Earth’s destruction.

From the outset, Ad Astra is a meditative film that sees Roy balance his want for answers with his want to do the right thing by his country. In a similar vein to Two Lovers, which is a raw depiction of two relationships, Gray tries to capture the immense grief Roy has and couples it with a space adventure flick to keep the audience engaged. In fact, Ad Astra tries to be deep and contemplative but comes across like a Diary of A Wimpy Brad Pitt, where his voiceover drowns out the films emotional weight as it tells you how he feels, and not actually showing how it affects him. It has a consistent psychological exam that Roy takes that feels a bit like the plot device of Blade Runner with the Voight-Kampff exam, where Deckard gets his test subjects to explain how they feel and judges the emotion of it, but here it feels lazy and insincere.  

Yes, they create an interesting character; Roy can keep his heart rate low during life threatening circumstances and has absolutely no flaws – except his father shaped hole in his heart, apparently – but it also feels so predictable. Of course, this relationship has affected his relations on Earth with people like his wife (Liv Tyler), in such tepid scenes you’d forget she was in the film. He’s disconnected and isolated, a sad boy who can only feel whole by discovering what happened to his father. Some may argue it creates dimension to a character, but in Ad Astra it just falls flat.

However, the universe (literally) that Gray creates for the film is the best part. Roy goes to the moon via commercial travel and when he gets there, we see how it has been colonised and commercialised for mainstream visitors. There are battlegrounds and pirates fighting over stretches of land. And there’s Mars, it’s red desolation planet with a few inhabitants (Ruth Negga and Natasha Lyonne included) that feels so removed and real, you can taste the dust. It’s exhilarating and fresh to see these worlds but brought down by the unravelling of Clifford’s history and the silent meditation of Roy as he stares, stares, stares out windows and into old memories (very Inception-like).

That being said, there is a small emotional punch that culminates at the end of the film, whereby it seems that this space adventure is secondary to the story between a father and son’s relationship. The score by Max Richter and cinematography of Hoyte Van Hoytema really make the film worth staying awake for. Pitt does stretch his acting ability here and focuses more on face work to accommodate his meditative voiceover, as he delves deeper and deeper into the Heart of Darkness. The ending is human, which is guess was the point all along, it just could’ve done it so much better. It’s not wholly original and it’s not a space adventure that the movie poster seems to promote. And its human element slowly unravels itself. For the average viewer expecting a whirlwind space flick, they will be disappointed. It’s about finding out who you are and why we are who we are. It’s Eat, Pray, Love in space that doesn’t reach the ends of the universe its main the character does.

The Best

The film is about human and parentage, particularly about how it can influence who we are and all our relationships. It’s rare to have a film in cinemas that is so big budget but retains these themes. Gray’s work here is contemplative and driven by emotion. Brad Pitt’s crying on demand is also a strong point.

The Rest

In the absence of strong writing of emotional displays, the voiceover overcompensates for the character and drags the high art of filmmaking down. Show us how Roy feels, don’t just tell us.

The Angry Birds Movie 2

The Angry Birds Movie in 2016 was, to say the least, a travesty. Based on the phone gaming app that captured the world’s attention about a decade ago, the first film stuck to the story of the games’ canon, focusing on the war between the birds on Bird Island as they are colonised by the invading pigs. This war of course features the slingshots and flying birds that have come to define the game in pop culture and captivated millions of children and adults. It had no heart or life, and focused on replicating the game so much so that it turned out to be a total waste of time.

That’s why I was pleasantly surprised with The Angry Birds Movie 2. Following on from the first movie Red (Jason Sudeikis) is still celebrated on Bird Island for rescuing the bird eggs from the pigs who now live on nearby Piggy Island, and he is loving the fame as the two communities continue to out prank each other. But when they start getting attacked from a new Eagle Island, pig Leonard (Bill Hader) comes to the birds to join up to fight a new enemy. Old friends return including super speedy Chuck (Josh Gad) as well as new friends in the form of Chuck’s brainiac sister Silver (Rachel Bloom). Things come to a head when they confront purple eagle Zeta (Leslie Jones) who is attacking the nearby islands as a result of her heartbreak, and another battle ensues that is actually funny and exciting.

Crazily enough this sequel is far funnier than its predecessor, and because the story deviates from the story detailed in the Angry Birds app, there is more opportunity for fleshed out character and funny quips. There is no repeating of the previous set up and instead it plays on the expectations of the story. Once the new complication is established, it goes all out on humour and appeals to both adults and children alike. There are moments when you can tell only adults would get the jokes, but equally there are times with toilet humour that brings it back to the young audience.

Voice work is also really strong in the film, particularly from Jones as the flamboyant Zeta who has most of the funny lines throughout. There are also cameos from Nicki Minaj, Awkwafina, Tiffany Haddish and Pete Davidson who add a little flavour to the plot. It’s in a similar vein to The Lego Movie, but without as much impact, though still enjoyable. The animation also improved upon in comparison to the first film, more fleshed out and no doubt up with the expectations of children who watch it.

It’s not a perfect film, and the script could be tighter with less broad humour, however what can you really expect from a film based on an app. It’s not a movie to rush out and see, but it’s a lot better than some of the trash out there. Let’s hope if there is an Angry Birds 3  that it’s more like this than its predecessor.


Animals

I’ve heard many people speak highly of Emma Jane Unsworth, therefore I was very interested to watch Animals, an adaptation of her classic 2014 novel, also written by her. Said to be the story of two best friends finding their way (already see the likeness to animals?) and coming to a crossroads, the book is well known for its comedic elements and strong writing – ripe material for a comedy about messy friendships and self destructive females looking for a happy ending.

Aspiring writer Laura (Holliday Grainger) has been long time friends with the creative and free Tyler (Alia Shawkat) who spend their nights gallivanting through Dublin in drug-fuelled, alcoholic riots, but spend the days “creating” and talking up their process. Things take a turn when Laura meets pianist Jim (Fra Fee) and her relationship with Tyler changes as her future begins to deviate from the life they’ve known.

Off the bat, the script for Animals is excellent. Parts that out think should play out one way, don’t, and you never feel 100% on top of it. There are moments of uncomfortable silences and delicacy in certain scenes that aligns so strongly with real life, that you can tell that the friendship is based on something real. But from a direction perspective, there lacks subtlety at times and there are times that the film glosses over parts of the story that it could have afforded to go further in on. 

The characterisations also fall short, particularly as we see Laura’s constantly stares into nothingness and Tyler is relegated to the role of the contemptuous friend and erratic force in Laura’s life. Director Sophie Hyde never finds a great sense of pace – perhaps intentional – an feels lazy at times. The beginning montage shows the vices of the women, but we never come to learn much more about them. The friendship runs its own course and we never really see the nuance or the cogs that make it tick so effortlessly. Hyde’s direction feels stylised and sometimes compromises the human element at the heart of Unsworth’s writing.

There are certainly funny moments of the film, which is where credit is due for the actresses. You can tell when they have more freedom outside of the script as both Grainger and Shawkat’s reactions and delivery stick the landing. The former really shines and the audience is immediately captivated at every turn and Shawkat is her normal hilarious self. The costuming is also fabulous and channel exactly the vibe to represent the stage the girls are in their lives. 

One of the biggest issues of Animals is that the relationship between the two girls feels so overdone by the likes of Girls, Trainwreck, Bridesmaids, etc, that it loses newness here. While at times vibrant, the film becomes dreary at times and Tyler’s spotlight dims as the film goes on. By the end, you feel like you have lived the lives of these girls twice over, and gained very little.

The Best

The acting performances here are great. Plus we get to see more of a modern Dublin that is fun and bursting with life. Unsworth’s dialogue is carefully crafted and poetic at times.

The Rest

Hyde’s direction feels uncertain and doesn’t do the script justice. Pacing is a big problem throughout and you can’t help but feel like there’s more to be said. The three false endings at the conclusion show that the film is also overlong and lacks a strong conclusion.