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The New Movies You Can Watch at Australian Cinemas From December 2

Head to the flicks to see phenomenal new version of 'Dune', Disney's latest lively animated musical and an Oscar Isaac-starring gambling drama.
By Sarah Ward
December 03, 2021
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By Sarah Ward
December 03, 2021
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Something delightful has been happening in cinemas in some parts of the country. After numerous periods spent empty during the pandemic, with projectors silent, theatres bare and the smell of popcorn fading, picture palaces in many Australian regions are back in business — including both big chains and smaller independent sites in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

During COVID-19 lockdowns, no one was short on things to watch, of course. In fact, you probably feel like you've streamed every movie ever made, including new releasesStudio Ghibli's animated fare and Nicolas Cage-starring flicks. But, even if you've spent all your time of late glued to your small screen, we're betting you just can't wait to sit in a darkened room and soak up the splendour of the bigger version. Thankfully, plenty of new films are hitting cinemas so that you can do just that — and we've rounded up, watched and reviewed everything on offer this week.

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DUNE

A spice-war space opera about feuding houses on far-flung planets, Dune has long been a pop-culture building block. Before Frank Herbert's 1965 novel was adapted into a wrongly reviled David Lynch-directed film — a gloriously 80s epic led by Kyle MacLachlan and laced with surreal touches — it unmistakably inspired Star Wars, and also cast a shadow over Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Game of Thrones has since taken cues from it. The Riddick franchise owes it a debt, too. The list goes on and, thanks to the new version bringing its sandy deserts to cinemas, will only keep growing. As he did with Blade Runner 2049, writer/director Denis Villeneuve has once again grasped something already enormously influential, peered at it with astute eyes and built it anew — and created an instant sci-fi classic.

This time, Villeneuve isn't asking viewers to ponder whether androids dream of electric sheep, but if humanity can ever overcome one of our worst urges and all that it brings. Dune tells of birthrights, prophesied messiahs, secret sisterhood sects that underpin the galaxy and phallic-looking giant sandworms, and of the primal lust for power that's as old as time — and, in Herbert's story, echoes well into the future's future. Blade Runner 2049 ruminated upon a similar idea in its own way, as many movies do. Indeed, Ridley Scott was hired to helm Dune before Lynch, then made the original Blade Runner instead, so Villeneuve is following him again here. Dune's unpacking of dominance and command piles on colonial oppression, authoritarianism, greed, ecological calamity and religious fervour, though, like it's building a sandcastle out of power's nastiest ramifications. And, amid that weightiness, it's also a tale of a moody teen with mind-control abilities struggling with what's expected versus what's right.

That young man is Paul Atreides, as played by Timothée Chalamet in a stroke of genius casting that seems almost fated — as if returning Dune to the big screen had to wait for the Call Me By Your Name star. (The book also earned the TV miniseries treatment in 2000, and we should be thankful that a 90s iteration soundtracked by the Spice Girls' 'Spice Up Your Life' didn't ever eventuate.) When the narrative begins in Villeneuve and co-screenwriters Jon Spaihts (Prometheus) and Eric Roth's (A Star Is Born) retelling, Paul's life has been upended. House Atreides, led by his father Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac, Scenes From a Marriage), must leave its watery home planet of Caladan to take over the desert world of Arrakis. Previously run by their enemies in House Harkonnen, it's the source of the universe's melange stores, with the spice making interstellar travel possible.

Spice also expands consciousness and extends lives — and, while forced by imperial decree, the monstrous Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård, Chernobyl) isn't happy about handing Arrakis over. To say House Atreides' move doesn't go smoothly is like saying that its new home is a tad toasty, but the tricky transition is just one of Dune's concerns. Another: the plans for Paul. House Atreides' heir, he's being trained as such by the Duke, security expert Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson, Devs), swordmaster Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa, Aquaman) and weaponry whiz Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin, Avengers: Endgame). But Paul's mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson, Reminiscence) hails from the Bene Gesserit, an all-female group who pull the galaxy's strings, and she sees him as its fabled chosen one.

Read our full review.

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THE CARD COUNTER

Another Paul Schrader film, another lonely man thrust under a magnifying glass as he wrestles with the world, his place in it and his sense of morality. The acclaimed filmmaker has filled the screen with such characters and stories for more than half a century — intense tales of men who would not take it anymore — as evidenced in his screenplays for Martin Scorsese's brilliant Taxi Driver and Bringing Out the Dead, and also in his own directorial efforts such as Light Sleeper and First Reformed. You can't accuse Schrader of always making the same movie, however, as much as his work repeatedly bets on the same ideas. Instead, his films feel like cards from the same deck. Each time he deals one out, it becomes part of its own hand, as gambling drama The Card Counter demonstrates with potency, smarts and a gripping search for salvation.

The film's title refers to William 'Tell' Tillich (Oscar Isaac, Dune), who didn't ever plan to spend his days in casinos and his nights in motels. But during an eight-year stint in military prison, he taught himself a new skill that he's been capitalising upon after his release. His gambit: winning modest scores from small-scale casinos. If he doesn't take the house, the house won't discipline his card-counting prowess. The money keeps him moving, but each gambling den could be the same for all that Tell cares. His motel-room routine, which involves removing all artwork from the walls, making the bed with his own linen, and covering every other surface and item with carefully tied cloth — making each space as identical as it can be, and resemble incarceration — lingers between fierce self-discipline and a stifled cry for help.

Assistance arrives in two forms, not that Tell is looking or particularly receptive to having other people in his life. The regimented status quo he's carved out so meticulously is first punctured by fellow gambler-turned-agent La Linda (Tiffany Haddish, Like a Boss), who backs other punters and believes they should team up to profit big on the poker circuit. That'd bring Tell more visibility than he'd like, but it'd also increase his pay days, which would come in handy for his second new acquaintance. In Atlantic City, he meets the college-aged Cirk (Tye Sheridan, Voyagers), who has proposes a quest for revenge. Tell shares a grim past with Cirk's dad, and the twentysomething wants to punish the retired major-turned-security expert (William Dafoe, The Lighthouse) that he holds responsible — which Tell is eager to discourage.

Isaac doesn't ask his reflection if it's looking in his direction. And, given that The Card Counter joins a filmography overflowing with exceptional performances — including Scenes From a Marriage already this year — it won't define his career as Taxi Driver did for a young Robert De Niro. Still, it's the highest compliment to mention the two in the same breath. At every moment, this blistering film is anchored by Isaac's phenomenal portrayal, which is quiet, slippery and weighty all at once. As conveyed with a calculating glare that's as slick as his brushed-back hair, here is a man who dons a calm facade to mask the storm brewing inside, revels in routine to avoid facing change, and anaesthetises his pain and past deeds with the repetition he's made his daily existence. Here is a man desperate to paper over his inner rot with time spent amid meaningless gloss, preferring to feel empty than to feel anything else, until he has an innocent to try to save and a clear-cut way to rally against the soulless world.

Read our full review.

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ENCANTO

Five years after Lin-Manuel Miranda and Disney first teamed up on an animated musical with the catchiest of tunes, aka Moana, they're back at it again with Encanto. To viewers eager for another colourful, thoughtful and engaging film — and another that embraces a particular culture with the heartiest of hugs, and is all the better for it — what can the past decade's most influential composer and biggest entertainment behemoth say except you're welcome? Both the Hamilton mastermind and the Mouse House do what they do best here. The songs are infectious, as well as diverse in style; the storyline follows a spirited heroine challenging the status quo; and the imagery sparkles. Miranda and Disney are both in comfortable territory, in fact — formulaic, sometimes — but Encanto never feels like they're monotonously beating the same old drum.

Instruments are struck, shaken and otherwise played in the film's soundtrack, of course, which resounds with energetic earworms; the salsa beats of 'We Don't Talk About Bruno' are especially irresistible, and the Miranda-penned hip hop wordplay that peppers the movie's tunes is impossible to mentally let go. Spanning pop, ballads and more, all those songs help tell the tale of the Madrigals, a close-knit Colombian family who've turned generational trauma into magic. This is still an all-ages-friendly Disney flick, so there are limits to how dark it's willing to get; however, that Encanto fills its frames with a joyous celebration of Latin America and simultaneously recognises its setting's history of conflict is hugely significant. It also marks Walt Disney Animation Studios' 60th feature — dating back to 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs — but its cultural specificity (depictions of Indigenous, Afro Latino and Colombian characters of other ethnicities included) is its bigger achievement.

The focal point of their jungle-surrounded village, the Madrigals are the local version of superheroes. They live in an enchanted home, complete with a magical candle that's burned for three generations, and they each receive special powers when they come of age. The latter wasn't the case for Encanto's heroine Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz, Brooklyn Nine-Nine), though, and that absence of exceptional abilities has left the bespectacled teen feeling like an outcast. Plus, with her young cousin Antonio (Ravi Cabot-Conyers, #BlackAF) now going through the ceremony, Mirabel's perceived failings linger afresh in everyone's minds. But then la casita, as their supernatural home is known, starts cracking — the flame begins to flicker as well, as everyone's powers waver with it — and it looks like only its most ordinary inhabitant can save the day.

Encanto doesn't refer to the Madrigals by any term you'd hear in a Marvel movie, but the imprint of Disney's hit franchise remains evident. Thankfully, director Byron Howard (Tangled), and co-writers/co-helmers Charise Castro Smith (Sweetbitter) and Jared Bush (Zootopia) have sprinkled in a few fun abilities — because mixing up a template sits high among the feature's powers, even when those generic underlying pieces can still be gleaned. Accordingly, one of Mirabel's sisters, Luisa (Jessica Darrow, Feast of the Seven Fishes), is super strong, but the other, Isabela (Diane Guerrero, Doom Patrol), makes flowers blossom with her loveliness. Similarly, while their aunt Pepa (Carolina Gaitán, The Greatest Showman) controls the weather, their mother Julieta (Angie Cepeda, Jane the Virgin) heals through cooking.

Read our full review.

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THE LOST LEONARDO

Art of either great or dubious origins. Airport facilities where items can be stored — art masterpieces included — without their owners abiding by taxation rules. Both played parts in Christopher Nolan's Tenet; however, it's no longer the only recent thriller to include the two. The Lost Leonardo doesn't feature a phenomenal heist of a disputed piece from a freeport, but it is as tense and suspenseful as its 2020 predecessor. It also tells a 100-percent true tale about the artwork dubbed the 'male Mona Lisa'. Exploring the story of the Salvator Mundi, a painting of Jesus that may hail from Leonardo da Vinci, this documentary is filled with developments far wilder and stranger than fiction (sorry not sorry Dan Brown). And while there's little that's astonishing about the film's talking heads-meets-recreations approach, it still couldn't be more riveting.

Although the Salvator Mundi itself is thought to date to the 15th century, The Lost Leonardo only jumps back as far as 2005. That's when the High Renaissance-era piece was sold for US$1175, and when Alexander Parrish and Robert Simon, art dealers eager to dig up sleepers — works from renowned masters that've been mislabelled or misattributed — suspected there might be more to it. The pair tasked restorer Dianne Modestini with tending to the heavily overpainted and damaged work, which revealed otherwise unseen details in the process. Cue a now-prevailing theory: that the Salvator Mundi sprung from da Vinci's hands.

That's a shattering revelation given that, despite the prominence that the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper enjoy, the list of surviving works attributed to da Vinci barely hits 20 — and that's with questions lingering over his involvement in quite a few. Uncovering one of his previously unknown paintings was always going to be huge as a result; locating it in such a way, and for so cheap, only bolsters the extraordinary tale. Debates over the painting's provenance have continued for the past 16 years, although that's not the only reason that The Lost Leonardo exists. The piece has increased in fame over the last decade thanks to two factors, including the Salvator Mundi's inclusion in a 2011–12 da Vinci exhibition at the National Gallery, London, placing it alongside the author's accepted works — and its sale for US$75 million in 2013, then for US$127.5 million, and finally again in 2017 for a whopping US$450.3 million.

Its unglamorous discovery, the ongoing argument over authenticity, the legitimacy gained by exhibiting in one of the world's most influential galleries, that it's now the most expensive painting ever sold: these details are unpacked and analysed by writer/director Andreas Koefoed (At Home in the World) via his array of interviewees — and so is the fact that, when that mind-blowing sale occurred, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was the secretive buyer. It's little wonder that the filmmaker has chosen to unfurl the ins and outs of these remarkable events as if he's joining the dots and puzzling together the pieces right in front of viewers' eyes, making The Lost Leonardo a detective story of a doco. It isn't a new approach, let alone a unique or unusual one, but it savvily relies upon the combined force of a ripping yarn and rollicking storytelling.

Read our full review.

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THE HAND OF GOD

For anyone that's ever watched a Paolo Sorrentino film and noticed his fascination with breasts, The Hand of God has the answers. It explains why the director behind The Great Beauty, Youth and Loro — and TV's The Young Pope and The New Pope, too — took to his chosen career as well, and why his features frequently feel pinpoint-accurate when they're either at their most sorrowful or their funniest. And, if he was ever to make a Diego Maradona biopic, the reasons why are also laid out. Sorrentino's latest drama takes its name from the Argentinian soccer superstar's infamous move during a 1986 World Cup match, where he used his hand to score a goal, wasn't penalised and helped win the game. Based on the filmmaker's own adolescence, it also tells of a time when the player was a deity to the not-yet-film-obsessed future Italian cinema great.

First, those boobs: they belong to Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri, La vita promessa), aunt of teenager Fabietto Schiesi (Filippo Scotti, Luna Nera), Sorrentino's on-screen surrogate. She isn't shy — sunbathing nude on family boat trips and calling him over to hand her a towel — and the boy is obsessed to the point of chatting about it with his wannabe-actor elder brother Marchino (Marlon Joubert, Romulus). He's also fixated on Maradona's possible move to SSC Napoli, his local team, although that's a family-wide passion. At home with his mother Maria (Teresa Saponangelo, Porcelain) and father Saveria (Sorrentino regular Toni Servillo), and at get-togethers with all of his relatives, it's a frequent topic of conversation. But then a summer takes a turn for the tragic and, thanks to his devotion to Maradona, he's spared — but also caught adrift. 

For a filmmaker who often lets his excesses guide his frames, The Hand of God sees Sorrentino in a softer mode. The naked female skin remains, the dips into lavish visual extravagance and the eye-catching use of dolly shots as well — plus his penchant for following in Federico Fellini's footsteps, which also manifests when Fabietto tags along with Marchino to audition for the iconic figure — but this is Sorrentino at his most reflective and poignant. Bringing your most painful memory to the screen and sifting through all the complicated feelings it evokes will do that, understandably. Indeed, when Fabietto meets another real-life filmmaker, Antonio Capuano (played by Veleno's Ciro Capano), and says he wants "an imaginary life, like the one I had before" rather than his curent sea of hurt, Sorrentino reveals exactly why The Hand of God and his whole cinema career exists.

It may start with a striking flight of fantasy involving a limousine and a small monk, but this is an affectionate and intimate family portrait, as populated with a wonderfully detailed central quartet. It's also a tender and touching coming-of-age story that's equally about sexual awakenings, farewelling childhood and confronting the worst that a teen can face, too. And, it's a movie layered with details about the tidbits that shape us in moments big and small, be it sport or friends or family practical jokes, and it always feels personal. As always, Sorrentino guides wonderful performances out of his cast — along with his striking cinematic eye, its long been one of his best filmic traits — and The Hand of God is never better than when Scotti, Joubert, Saponangelo and Servillo light up the screen together.

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BACK TO THE OUTBACK

Joining the lengthy list of all-ages-friendly animated flicks that preach the importance of being yourself and not judging others on appearance (see also: Encanto and Ron's Gone Wrong), Back to the Outback hits screens with two differences. This overly glossy film is set in Australia, and sports the Aussie voice cast to prove it — Eric Bana, Isla Fisher, Jacki Weaver, Miranda Tapsell, Tim Minchin, Guy Pearce and even Kylie Minogue — while focusing on our native critters. Here, no one should assume a koala is nice, for instance. Fearing spiky, snapping and slithering creatures is similarly frowned upon. That's an immensely well-worn life lesson for kids, and also echoes with cognitive dissonance. When the animals in question are crocodiles, snakes and spiders, wanting them to be your next Finding Nemo or Finding Dory-style pet is hardly the best choice.

Misreading how children will likely respond to the movie — begging for their own creatures, rather than taking a message they've already heard countless times to heart yet again — is one of Back to the Outback's many missteps. It smacks of trying to give a by-the-numbers formula a local spin but not thinking it through, a feeling that's also evoked elsewhere in the movie. Take its Steve Irwin-esque zookeeper Chaz Hunt (Bana, The Dry), who plays like a mean-spirited parody, and is the villain of the piece. Again, it must've been a quick decision to caricature Irwin and, while that choice is eventually grounded in the script, it really just seems like the easiest shorthand to make the movie more stereotypically Aussie. In the same vein, Chaz also mentions Vegemite and budgy smugglers when he's not uttering "crikey", unsurprisingly.

He dons khaki and hosts wildlife shows at his Sydney zoo, too, which is where taipan Maddie (Fisher, Godmothered), funnel web spider Frank (Pearce, Mare of Easttown), scorpion Nigel (Angus Imrie, Emma) and thorny devil Zoe (Tapsell, Top End Wedding) all live — but koala Pretty Boy (Minchin, Upright) is the star of the show. That truth hits home for the sensitive Maddie when she makes her public debut and is called a monster because of her venom, while the cute and cuddly PB is a viral sensation the world over. Maternal croc Jackie (Weaver, Penguin Bloom) counsels not to take it all personally, although that's obviously easier said than done. So is the escape plan to flee the zoo and head back to the outback in search of her family — and yes, the film does utter its title in dialogue.

Directed by Clare Knight (The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part's editor) and Harry Cripps (screenwriter of The Dry and Penguin Bloom, and also this), Back to the Outback hails from the distraction-filled school of family-centric filmmaking. Think: expensive and overt needle drops that add nothing to the story, but will keep kids bopping ('Bad Guy' is one such choice here); and a need to pack in as many flimsy jokes as possible in the hope that some will stick and, even if they don't, that they'll all keep viewers moving onto the next thing split-seconds later. Also high among its grating traits is an evident lack of understanding that great stories rather than half-baked sight gags and onslaughts of colour and movement make all-ages filmmaking special. Oh, and Back to the Outback's overemphasis on celebrity voicework is just as testing, as is that aforementioned heavy-handed messaging. 

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SIT. STAY. LOVE.

As Netflix keeps reminding its subscribers each and every festive season, Christmas rom-coms aren't usually known for their style, substance or depth. Instead, the most stereotypical flicks in the genre tend to favour cheese and cliches decked out in seasonal trimmings, and are designed to be consumed as easily and undemandingly as possible. They're the brandy custard of the cinema world, or the candy canes used to stuff stockings. Filler is a great way to describe the Hallmark-style fare that keeps getting churned out, too. Releasing in cinemas but surely destined to settle into a streaming platform's end-of-year roster in the future, Sit. Stay. Love is one such movie. And, while it gleefully owns all of its tropes — and all that Christmas packaging — that isn't the same as giving viewers a present.

Festive-themed romantic-comedy meets animal-centric heartstring-tugger: even with an Eat Pray Love-knockoff of a title, that's the recipe here. Christmas brings people together, cute critters do as well, and Sit. Stay. Love doesn't hide either the formula at work or how blatantly it's splicing together two well-worn templates. The Australian-made film is better at getting a Gold Coast studio to stand in for Vermont in the thick of winter — because that's how firmly the movie embraces cookie-cutter Christmas flick inclusions, requisite snowy backdrop and all. Director Tori Garrett (Don't Tell) has nowhere near the same success in presenting the Australian cast as American, though, adding unconvincing accents to the feature's sack of struggles.

As paint-by-numbers as it is, there's still wholesome potential in Sit. Stay. Love's premise, as penned by veteran sitcom writer Holly Hester (Ellen, Grace Under Fire, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, The Drew Carey Show). Overachiever Annie (Georgia Flood, American Princess) has returned to New England after a stint building a school in Nepal, but the aid worker still needs to keep herself busy — lest she actually spend meaningful time with her dad (Anthony Phelan, The Nightingale) and come to terms with her mother's death in the process. When the local animal rescue charity looks set to go under, her solution is to help save it, and to try to find homes for three of its dogs. But that isn't enough of a feel-good setup, so Sit. Stay. Love also has Annie flirtatiously banter with her old debating nemesis, Dylan (Ezekiel Simat, Back to the Rafters), who's now the town vet.

The schmaltz falls as thick as snow, the dialogue is trite and no one's putting in their best performance. They're all hallmarks of exactly this kind of Christmas movie, as is the complete absence of surprises served up by the plot. Still, simply adhering to a terrible pattern shouldn't be any feature's biggest strength, even in a genre as padded out and merrily content to always stick to the obvious as seasonal rom-coms. Festive flicks have a built-in recourse to criticism — if you don't like them, you must be a grinch, or so the accusation goes — but saying bah humbug to cloying movies shouldn't stop at any time of the year. The dogs are adorable, at least, but that was always going to be a given.

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If you're wondering what else is currently screening in Australian cinemas — or has been lately — check out our rundown of new films released in Australia on August 5, August 12, August 19 and August 26; September 2, September 9, September 16, September 23 and September 30; October 7, October 14, October 21 and October 28; and November 4, November 11, November 18 and November 25.

For Sydney specifically, you can take a look at out our rundown of new films that released in Sydney cinemas when they reopened on October 11, and what opened on October 14October 21 and October 28 as well.

And for Melbourne, you can check out our top picks from when outdoor cinemas reopened on October 22 — and from when indoor cinemas did the same on October 29.

You can also read our full reviews of a heap of recent movies, such as The Suicide Squad, Free Guy, Respect, The Night House, Candyman, Annette, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), Streamline, Coming Home in the Dark, Pig, Big Deal, The Killing of Two Lovers, Nitram, Riders of Justice, The Alpinist, A Fire Inside, Lamb, The Last Duel, Malignant, The Harder They Fall, Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, Halloween Kills, Passing, Eternals, The Many Saints of Newark, Julia, No Time to Die, The Power of the Dog, Tick, Tick... Boom!, Zola, Last Night in Soho, Blue Bayou, The Rescue, Titane, Venom: Let There Be Carnage and Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn.

Published on December 03, 2021 by Sarah Ward
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