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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

The New Movies You Can Watch at Australian Cinemas From January 21

Head to the flicks to see a twisty French thriller, an Australian drama about a helpful magpie and a documentary about a New Zealand hip hop label.
By Sarah Ward
January 21, 2021
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By Sarah Ward
January 21, 2021
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Something delightful has been 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 back in business — spanning 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 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.

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PENGUIN BLOOM

Nature is healing in Penguin Bloom, but not in the way that 2020's most famous meme has taught us all to expect. This Australian drama tells the story of Sam Bloom (Naomi Watts, The Loudest Voice), a nurse who becomes paralysed from the waist down due to a tragic accident during a Thailand vacation. Then, while adjusting to being in a wheelchair upon her return home, she finds solace in the company of an also-injured magpie chick. Her three young sons Noah (Griffin Murray-Johnston), Rueben (Felix Cameron) and Oli (Abe Clifford-Bar) name the bird Penguin. They're keen to look after it until it recovers, something they're unable to do with their mother. But the strongest bond between human and magpie forms between Sam and Penguin, albeit reluctantly at first. Traumatised by her experience, pushing her husband Cameron (Andrew Lincoln, The Walking Dead) away, subjected to her mother Jan's (Jacki Weaver, Never Too Late) fussing, and struggling with the changes from her old life — so much so that she's barely able to look at photos from the past — Sam is angry, upset and unhappy. She's hurt, and not just physically. As enjoying the presence of and caring for a pet is known to do, however, she finds hope, purpose and perspective via her new feathered friend.

Describing Penguin Bloom's plot is bound to make anyone think that it's a piece of fiction conjured up by a screenwriter, but the Glendyn Ivin (Last Ride)-directed movie is based on real-life events — with scribes Harry Cripps (The Dry) and Shaun Grant (True History of the Kelly Gang) adapting the book by Cameron Bloom and Bradley Trevor Greive. Still, overcoming that manufactured, formulaic, sentimental feeling is the movie's chief obstacle, and one that it can't completely manage. In her first homegrown role since 2013's Adore, Watts puts in a film-lifting effort. The several exceptionally trained birds by her side all do too, vying with their high-profile co-star for the feature's best performance. And the rapport between human and magpie is as touching as it should be, ensuring that you don't need to have sat in Sam's exact seat or seen the world through the picture's wheelchair-height cinematography to understand the impact that Penguin has on her emotional and mental wellbeing. But, as most Australian films that that focus on a human-animal connection have been (with 2014's Healing a rare exception), Penguin Bloom is firmly a family-friendly affair. Movies that are suitable for all ages should genuinely earn that term, engaging adults as much as children; here, though, chasing that feat involves sticking to a noticeably easy, straightforward and simplistic template even when the film does strike a chord.

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ONLY THE ANIMALS

Murder-mystery Only the Animals starts with a killer opening image, featuring a live goat being worn like a backpack. The animal is slung over the shoulders of a cyclist as he rides through the streets of the Côte d'Ivoire city of Abidjan, and the unique picture that results instantly grabs attention — for viewers, even if it doesn't appear to interest anyone in the vicinity on-screen. This involving French-language thriller doesn't explain its attention-grabbing sight straight up, though. Instead, it jumps over to the Causse Mejean limestone plateau in southern France, where snow blankets the UNESCO World Heritage-listed site and — unrelated to the weather — a number of locals are icily unhappy. Indeed, farmer Michel (Denis Ménochet, Custody), his insurance agent wife Alice (Laure Calamy, Call My Agent!) and Joseph (Damien Bonnard, Dunkirk), one of her clients, are all far from content before word arrives of a shock death in the area. Doing house calls is part of Alice's job in the small, close-knit community, and it sees her embarking upon an affair with the awkward Joseph, who has shut himself off from everything beyond his property after his mother's passing a year prior. The surly Michel barely seems bothered about his marriage, spending all his time in the office attached to his cattle-feeding shed ostensibly working on the farm's accounts. When the grim news spreads, it has implications for all three.

Adapting the novel Seules Les Bêtes by Colin Niel, writer/director Dominik Moll (News from Planet Mars) and his frequent co-screenwriter Gilles Marchand switch between Only the Animals' characters and relay the details from their perspectives. First, Alice's take on the situation graces the screen. Next, it's Joseph's turn. Waitress Marion (Nadia Tereszkiewicz, The Dancer) earns the third chapter, which charts her hot-and-heavy rendezvous with Evelyne (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Let the Sunshine In), the woman who'll turn up dead — while the final and longest segment belongs to Armand (debutant Guy Roger 'Bibisse' N'Drin), without the goat, as he tries to catfish his way to riches, success and the girl of his dreams. A whodunnit, Only the Animals tasks its audience members with sleuthing their way through its fractured tale, all to discover who is responsible for Evelyne's demise and why. Thanks to its multiple parts, it also gets viewers guessing about events that initially appear unrelated, and how they'll end up linking into the broader story. But the suitably cool-hued film is filled with other questions, too, ruminating on the primal nature of love and pondering the ways in which pursuing it — or chasing a mere moment, however fleeting, with someone else — can lead down immensely complicated paths.

Read our full review.

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DAWN RAID

When Danny 'Brotha D' Leaosavai'i and Andy Murnane set up their own record label in the late 90s, they took its title from a bleak chapter in New Zealand's history. During the 70s and 80s, early-morning round ups were deployed by the government to locate and detain Pacific Islanders who had overstayed their visas — a racially motivated tactic that left a strong imprint in South Auckland, where Leaosavai'i and Murnane grew up. Accordingly, by using Dawn Raid as moniker for a venture that supported Polynesian artists, the duo were reclaiming and repurposing a problematic term. Their clothing line, also under the same name, was filled with slogan-heavy apparel that did the same thing with other words. And, as their business empire grew quickly to also encompass stores, bars and even a barber shop, the pair employed the same irreverent, enthusiastic, passionate but carefree approach at every turn. The local impact was considerable, launching careers, giving aspiring musicians a pathway and inspiring hope throughout the local community as well. But, as the new documentary that's also called Dawn Raid makes clear, Leaosavai'i and Murnane's entrepreneurial spirit and can-do attitude sent them on a complicated rollercoaster ride. Their rise was meteoric; their struggles, when they came, were just as significant.

Filmmaker Oscar Kightley details Dawn Raid's tale, paying tribute to the label's influence and the artists that it brought to the public's attention as well — including hip hop group Deceptikonz; its members Savage, Mareko and Devolo, who have each pursued solo careers; singer Aaradhna; and R&B duo Adeaze. The filmmaker may have already been well-acquainted with Leaosavai'i and Murnane after the pair oversaw the soundtrack to Kightley's big 2006 hit Sione's Wedding, but he still takes a warts-and-all approach to their ups and downs. It'd be impossible to do justice to their story otherwise and, as the movie's main interviewees, Leaosavai'i and Murnane are just as frank and willing to discuss both the good and the bad. They need to be, of course; it's their experiences after meeting in business school, overcoming troubled childhoods, lucking into some of their success and making as many fortunate choices as mistakes that makes the documentary particularly compelling. Indeed, Kightley doesn't need to amass much more than talking heads, archival footage and music videos to unfurl Dawn Raid's history, or to keep viewers interested. Still, he not only skilfully weaves together this engaging and comprehensive chronicle, but also knows when to give particular incidents from the company's past — like Savage's surprise viral hit when his single 'Swing' was used in the movie Knocked Up — the spotlight.

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THE MARKSMAN

If film stars are ever able to digitise their likenesses, then let CGI versions of themselves do the acting for them, Liam Neeson could end up with an even longer list of forgettable action flicks on his resume. That idea for that kind of technology stems from the 2013 movie The Congress, which didn't feature Neeson — but, perusing much of his recent output, you can be forgiven for wondering if letting a computer insert him into however many Taken ripoffs that Hollywood seems to need would be any different. For now, Neeson keeps performing the usual way. And, he keeps making movies that call upon his particular set of fist-throwing, villain-dispensing skills more than the talents that saw him receive an Oscar nomination for Schindler's List. The good news with The Marksman is that it's an improvement on 2020's Honest Thief; however, it's also yet another thoroughly by-the-numbers movie that only seems to exist so that it can star Neeson. This time around, he plays a retired marine-turned-Arizona rancher who lives near the Mexico border, has spent his time since his wife died reporting illegal crossings, and earns a drug cartel's bloodthirsty interest after he helps the fleeing Rosa (Teresa Ruiz, Narcos: Mexico) and her 11-year-old son Miguel (feature debutant Jacob Perez).

Neeson's character, Jim, isn't the type to let murderous thugs hunt down a boy — or to trust that they won't still get to Miguel in police custody, even with his own stepdaughter Sarah (Katheryn Winnick, Vikings) on the force. So, in an inversion of the role that cemented Neeson as a 21st-century action star, Jim takes the kid on the run in an effort to deliver him safely to relatives in Chicago, all while both assassins and the cops try to hunt them down. Unsurprisingly, The Marksman trades in routine action scenes, but it thankfully does so in an unflashy way. It's far less subtle about its patriotic imagery; when Jim is told that the bank is selling off his house, the cringeworthy scene sees him deliver a speech about serving his country and working hard all of his life while grimacing sternly and wearing an American flag slung over his shoulder. It's the type of dialogue you might expect Clint Eastwood deliver and, in case you weren't thinking about him during the film, writer/director Robert Lorenz even has Jim and Miguel watch a clip from the actor's 1968 western Hang 'Em High. The filmmaker has a history with Eastwood, actually, directing him in 2012's Trouble with the Curve and working on a long list of Eastwood-helmed movies. Lorenz doesn't have ties to John Wick, but that doesn't stop him borrowing a little from that franchise as well — and stranding Neeson in a passable-enough but always derivative movie several times over in the process.

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If you're wondering what else is currently screening in cinemas — or has been lately — check out our rundown of new films released in Australia on July 2, July 9, July 16, July 23 and July 30; August 6, August 13, August 20 and August 27; September 3, September 10, September 17 and September 24; October 1, October 8, October 15, October 22 and October 29; and November 5, November 12November 19 and November 26; and December 3, December 10, December 17, December 26; and January 1, January 7 and January 14.

You can also read our full reviews of a heap of recent movies, such as The Craft: Legacy, RadioactiveBrazen Hussies, Freaky, Mank, Monsoon, Ellie and Abbie (and Ellie's Dead Aunt), American Utopia, Possessor, Misbehaviour, Happiest Season, The Prom, Sound of Metal, The Witches, The Midnight Sky, The Furnace, Wonder Woman 1984, Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles, Nomadland, Pieces of a Woman, The Dry, Promising Young Woman, Summerland, Ammonite, The Dig and The White Tiger.

Published on January 21, 2021 by Sarah Ward

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