The New Movies You Can Watch at Australian Cinemas From August 20
Head to the flicks to see a moving animated film about life in Afghanistan, a vivid Australian queer coming-of-age drama or a New Zealand crime comedy.
Something delightful is happening in cinemas across the country. After months spent empty, with projectors silent, theatres bare and the smell of popcorn fading, Australian picture palaces are starting to reopen — spanning both big chains and smaller independent sites in Sydney and Brisbane (and, until the newly reinstated stay-at-home orders, Melbourne as well).
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 over the past three months, including new releases, comedies, music documentaries, Studio 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.
THE SWALLOWS OF KABUL
When French-made, Cannes-premiering animation The Swallows of Kabul first introduces aspiring artist Zunaira (Zita Hanrot), she's drawing images of herself and her historian husband Mohsen (Swann Arlaud) on their apartment walls. Secreted away behind a curtain, her charcoal sketches join others just like them and, in the process, this opening moment makes a clear and determined statement. Depicting humans in art is cautioned against in the hadith, the record of words ascribed to the prophet Muhammad, after all, and Zunaira lives in Kabul in 1998, when her homeland is under Taliban rule. She's breaking their laws, which she knows; however she's not the only one being rebellious. In using a medium that's frowned upon in the Islamic faith to tell a tale of life in Afghanistan, and to paint a powerful portrait of its sorrows and oppression, directors Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec are being just as defiant with their big-screen adaptation of the novel of the same name.
Zunaira and Mohsen, their modest existence, and their dreams of fleeing and becoming teachers all form one half of The Swallows of Kabul's narrative. Also earning the film's focus: elder pair Atiq (Simon Abkarian) and Mussarat (Hiam Abbas). He's the warden at the local women's prison, and has long been conditioned to adhere to the regime, while his ex-nurse wife is terminally ill. The two couples are brought together by tragedy, with Breitman and Gobbé-Mévellec — and author Yasmina Khadra (a pseudonym for Algerian writer Mohammed Moulessehoul) before them — refusing to shy away from the brutality of their everyday routines in a place where failing to conform even for a second has harsh repercussion. As splashed across the screen with sensitivity, and via eye-catching scenic watercolours, this is a memorable and moving exploration of its Afghani characters' plights, and of the reality of everyone subjected to such a forbidding way of life. Its scenes of capital punishment aren't easily forgotten, nor is the glee evident in officials' and onlookers' eyes, but the film's lattice-impeded views of the world — mimicking peering out from a burqa — leave as much of an imprint.
LOWDOWN DIRTY CRIMINALS
A decade ago, New Zealand actor James Rolleston burst onto cinemas screens with a cheeky grin and an earnest and engaging presence, as seen in his starring role in Taika Waititi's Boy. And while he has only added a handful of roles to his resume since, he always demands attention — in drama The Dark Horse, in Maori action-adventure epic The Dead Lands, in the acting school-set The Rehearsal and in hilariously funny female-driven rom-com The Breaker Upperers, for example. You can add Lowdown Dirty Criminals to the list, too, albeit with a strong caveat. Playing a pizza delivery guy who dreams of a better life and, after his latest job gone wrong, willing to employ drastic means to improve his situation, Rolleston is the best thing about this crime comedy. His is an understated but always supremely watchable performance; however nothing about the purposefully scrappy but always struggling movie around him earns the same description.
Rolleston's Freddy and his dimwitted best mate Marvin (Samuel Austin) want to get 'high on the hog', as they repeat over and over, and they see local shady nightclub owner and crim Spiggs (Scott Willis) as their gateway to riches. Soon enough, they're trying to prove themselves to their new boss, including by agreeing to kill the man (Min Kim) sleeping with his wife (Fingal Pollock). Given that Lowdown Dirty Criminals starts with all the film's main players in a Quentin Tarantino or Guy Ritchie-style standoff, the fact that Freddy and Marvin's plan doesn't go smoothy never comes as a surprise — and, thanks to clunky dialogue and laboured scenarios, never plays as amusing either. Director Paul Murphy (Love Birds) and screenwriter David Brechin-Smith (TV's Doubt: The Scott Watson Case) may nod to their influences at every opportunity (hint: they really love 90s and 00s crime capers), but their feature suffers terribly from the comparison. Also missing the mark: the supporting cast, which includes Rebecca Gibney as a vicious heavy called The Upholsterer, and the use of a disjointed narrative structure to attempt to make a slim plot seem more complicated than it is.
SEQUIN IN A BLUE ROOM
Sequin in a Blue Room may be a coming-of-age movie, but it definitely isn't a coming-out one. Its titular protagonist (Conor Leach), who uses the name Sequin on the queer dating app that he can't stop swiping his way through day and night — his pseudonym reflecting his love of wearing a glittering halter top — isn't hiding his sexuality or his search for instant gratification from anyone. Rather, the 16-year-old is so keen to experiment that he ignores the high-school classmate (Simon Croker) who is clearly trying to get his attention. He has implemented a once-only rule for his anonymous online-fuelled tumbles between the sheets, too. When the older and married B (Ed Wightman) endeavours to convince him that they should hook up again, however, he finds himself being pursued to the point of being stalked — all while Sequin also finds himself pining for a repeat encounter with another guy that he gets physical with at an orgy.
Filmmaker Samuel Van Grinsven made Sequin in a Blue Room as his Australian Film, Television and Radio School masters project, with the feature then going on to screen at local and international film festivals over the past year — for a good reason. This is an immensely confident work from a writer/director (co-scripting with Jory Anast) with a clear, firm and vivid vision, and with a knack for equally evoking erotic thrills and conveying the ins and outs of gay adolescence. It's also a movie with a compelling central performance by first-timer Leach, and with an affectionate awareness of queer cinema history that never veers into overly, obligingly copying its predecessors. Crucially, too, Sequin in a Blue Room is always stylish, expressive and immersive, with Van Grinsven proving both assured and commanding with his aesthetic sensibilities, and skilled and successful at using every frame, angle, shot, sound and set — including the plastic sheet-clad, moodily lit, alluring blue room also mentioned in the film's moniker — to align his audience with Sequin's experiences.
Inspiring true tale, average movie: too often when it comes to recreating real-life stories about impressive folks, that proves the case. It certainly is with Saint Judy, which has a very worthy figure as its subject. A public defender turned crusader for detained immigrants fighting to stay in the US — and often desperate to avoid returning to their home countries where they face maltreatment and even death — Judy Wood is credited with bringing about a significant change to America's asylum laws. Before the case that the film focuses on, women who were oppressed and punished for fighting for the rights of their gender in nations that treat females poorly were not recognised as the victims of persecution by the US. Wood strove to ensure that the judicial system saw the error of that viewpoint, using the case of Afghani teacher Asefa Ashwari as her example, and obviously this movie wouldn't exist if she hadn't managed to have an impact. But Saint Judy remains content to relay her experiences in standard legal-drama fashion, and to come off as a lesser version of Erin Brockovich along the way.
As directed by Sean Hanish (Return to Zero) and scripted by debutant Dmitry Portnoy, this film cycles through all of the stock-standard plot points seen in many a movie in this genre. While the minutiae here is based on truth, the feature's approach (including its beige colour scheme) makes the details of Wood's life feel routine. She's a single mother who has moved to the other side of the country, starts working for a jaded boss (Alfred Molina), and immediately finds the system against her and her first client (Leem Lubany). Indeed, even if you've never heard of Wood or her achievements, you'll be able to predict every twist and turn that the feature serves up. It feels like a wasted opportunity as a result, with top-notch legal flicks able to both move and inform when they're done well — take this year's Just Mercy, for instance. Monaghan, who has been getting better roles on TV than in cinema of late (see: True Detective, The Path and Messiah) puts in a strong performance though, one that makes you wish the movie's script tried harder. Also potent in limited screen time is Common as a surprisingly empathetic lawyer on the other side.
If you're wondering what else is currently screening in cinemas, check out our rundown of new films released in Australia on July 2, July 9, July 16, July 23, July 30, August 6 and August 13 — and our full reviews of The Personal History of David Copperfield, Waves, The King of Staten Island, Babyteeth, Deerskin and Peninsula.
Published on August 20, 2020 by Sarah Ward