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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

The New Movies You Can Watch at Australian Cinemas From October 8

Head to the flicks to see a long-awaited adaptation of an Australian novel, a locally made horror-comedy and a crime caper about a Chinese grandmother taking on gangsters.
By Sarah Ward
October 08, 2020
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By Sarah Ward
October 08, 2020
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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.

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DIRT MUSIC

An adaptation of a beloved novel, a tourism campaign for Western Australia and a soapy, Nicholas Sparks-esque romance: combine all three, and that's the long-awaited big-screen version of Dirt Music. For most of the past two decades, Australian filmmakers have been trying to give Tim Winton's 2001 multi-prize-winning book the cinematic treatment; however, the movie that results doesn't prove worth the wait. Winton's work, and its poetic, descriptive prose, isn't the easiest to turn into a script or movie. The Turning was able to translate short stories into a short film collection, and Simon Baker's version of Breath was soulful, well-acted and found a way to explain, explore and convey the lure of the ocean, but Dirt Music has long been considered difficult to adapt. It's clear why thanks to Gregor Jordan's film. Strip out the lyrical words and spend too long inserting shot after shot of the scenic location, and all that's left is a padded-out love triangle populated by stock-standard tortured souls.

Georgie Jutland (Kelly Macdonald) is unhappy in her live-in relationship with commercial fishing magnate Jim Buckridge (David Wenham), so when often-shirtless town outcast Lu Fox (Garrett Hedlund) motors his boat into the patch of ocean she's skinny-dipping in, it doesn't take long for something to spring between them. But the ex-musician turned poacher has a troubled past, as flashbacks to happier times in a band with his brother (George Mason) and sister-in-law (Julia Stone) — and to hanging around his rural house with his niece Bird (Ava Caryofyllis), too — demonstrate. And, when Lu is attacked, he's very quick to take off through WA's rugged outback and to its scenic remote islands. What feels rich on the page is far too thin and flat in the hands of Jordan (Ned Kelly) and screenwriter Jack Thorne (Enola Holmes), and while Macdonald and Hedlund are both great actors (see: Boardwalk Empire and Mudbound), they're hemmed in by the script's lack of depth. Also distractingly noticeable is how heavily Dirt Music stresses its surroundings, and therefore its all-round homegrown nature, while also enlisting overseas talent to play its quintessentially Aussie protagonists. Indeed, at almost every point, this film goes through the motions rather than meaningfully and substantially trying to convey the heart and essence of its source material.

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MISS JUNETEENTH

It doesn't take long in the observant, tender but clear-eyed film Miss Juneteenth for a simple truth to arise. Working two jobs and still struggling to get by, Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie) hasn't been living the life she wished for as a child, and she's striving to ensure that things are better for her 15-year-old daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze). Also evident: that Turquoise was on a different path a decade and a half ago, after winning the local Miss Juneteenth beauty pageant and earning a scholarship to the historically black college of her choosing. Doing the math, it's easy to work out why Turquoise's plans faltered, and why she's so determined that Kai enter the upcoming pageant, wow everyone, win and make the most of the coveted opportunity. Miss Juneteenth is a movie about choices, though — a movie about grabbing what you can when so much is snatched away or simply out of reach for unfair reasons — and it never forgets that it takes strength and courage to truly understand what the best options are.

The feature directorial debut of writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples, Miss Juneteenth makes a careful and graceful effort to balance two ideas: that American society doesn't just have a problematic history with race relations, but that inequality is now engrained in everyday life; and that choosing one's own future, rather than ever simply towing a mandated line, is wholeheartedly worth fighting for even with seemingly insurmountable obstacles in the way. Turquoise describes her 2004 crown win as feeling "like I was walking into a new life", while Kai would prefer to join her school's dance team and hang out with her boyfriend (Jaime Matthis) than don formal gowns, memorise Maya Angelou poems and learn which cutlery to use when. Little about Miss Juneteenth's message, themes or the clashing predicament the film covers is new, of course. Nor is the time spent watching, with a cynical eye, the pomp and ceremony of the eponymous pageant. And yet this affecting drama always proves keenly observed, sincerely handled and authentic, as aided not only by naturalistic cinematography, but the picture's naturalistic central portrayals — including complex, nuanced performance from Shame, Black Mirror and Little Fires Everywhere actor Beharie.

Read our full review.

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SAVAGE

Tattoos covering his cheeks, nose and forehead, a scowl affixed almost as permanently, but raw sorrow lurking in his eyes, Jake Ryan cuts a striking sight in Savage. He's a walking, drinking, growling, hammer-swinging advertisement for toxic masculinityhow it looks at its most stereotypical extreme, and how it often masks pain and struggle — and the performance is the clear highlight of the Home and Away, Wolf Creek and Underbelly actor's resume to-date. Playing a character named Danny but also known as Damage, Ryan's efforts also perfectly epitomise the New Zealand gang drama he's in, which similarly wraps in-your-face packaging around a softer, richer core. Savage's protagonist and plot have had plenty of predecessors over the years in various ways, from Once Were Warriors' exploration of violence, to Mean Streets' chronicle of crime-driven youth, plus the bikie warfare of Sons of Anarchy and even Aussie film 1%, but there's a weightiness on display here that can't just be wrung from a formula.

That said, although written and directed by feature debutant Sam Kelly based on true tales from NZ's real-life gangs spanning three decades, Savage does noticeably follow a predictable narrative path. Viewers first meet Danny in 1989, when he's the second-in-charge of the Savages, which is overseen by his lifelong best friend Moses (John Tui, Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw, Solo: A Star Wars Story). The film also jumps back to two prior periods in his life, in 1965 and 1972, to explain why Danny is in his current situation physically, mentally and emotionally. Aided by suitably gritty and restless camerawork that mirrors its protagonist's inner turmoil, Savage packs a punch when it lets that unease fester in quiet moments. It's also particularly astute when honing in on Danny and Moses's complicated friendship, and how pivotal it is throughout their constantly marginalised lives. There's never any doubting that Savage is a movie about family, including the traumas they can inflict, the hurt that comes with being torn away from loved ones at a young age, the kinship found in understanding pals and the concept of brotherhood in gangs, and the feature is at its most affecting when it lets these truths emanate naturally.

Read our full review.

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BLOODY HELL

All that Bloody Hell's protagonist Rex (Ben O'Toole, Detroit) wants is to ask out bank teller Maddy (Ashlee Lollback, In Like Flynn), but he happens to time his latest attempt to do just that with an armed robbery. The whole ordeal leaves him dateless, turns him into both a viral star and a convicted criminal, and eventually sees him en route to Finland to flee the resulting infamy and attention. There, however, worse awaits. In this Gold Coast-shot film, Rex is American, but he could be forgiven for exclaiming this horror-comedy's title like a stereotypical Aussie, and doing so more than once. Shortly after his arrival in Europe, he's kidnapped, strung up and stuck at the mercy of a twisted Helsinki family with vicious plans — although Alia (feature first-timer Meg Fraser), who doesn't quite in with the rest of her relatives, just might be the only chance he has to both escape and survive.

There's an added twist to Bloody Hell, and it stems from a serious case indecision and self-doubt. Whether deciding what to do in the bank or facing a grim situation chained up in a basement, Rex is mighty fond of talking to himself, with director Alistair Grierson (Sanctum) and screenwriter/editor Robert Benjamin bringing this fact to the screen visually — tasking O'Toole with playing two roles, including the cooler, more confident version of Rex that pops up to try to assuage his worries. It's a gimmick in a film that otherwise follows a predictable storyline, but O'Toole's committed dual performances make it work. Indeed, Rex's back-and-forth banter with himself, and the rhythm that springs, comprises many of the movie's best moments. Fraser also shines, in a part that'll hopefully be her springboard to bigger things, and Grierson delivers a slick dose of jumps, bumps, gore and laughs with gusto. This is the type of movie that gels together better the longer it continues as well, after taking time to both set up its scenario and settle into its vibe.

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LUCKY GRANDMA

Lucky Grandma might be the second American-produced film about a Chinese grandmother in as many years, but no one should be mistaking Sasie Sealy's feature writing and directing debut for The Farewell. That isn't a criticism of either movie, both of which offer up something special in their own ways, but rather it's recognition of how their similarities are truly only superficial. Here, the titular elderly woman (Tsai Chin, Now You See Me 2) is first seen chain-smoking and glaring her way through a fortune teller's appointment. When Grandma Wong is told that luck is coming her way — and on a specific day — she's quickly on the bus to Atlantic City. And when she spies a hefty stash of cash in the bag belonging to the gentleman sitting next to her on the return ride home, she barely hesitates. This string of events comes with consequences, however, with local Red Dragon  gangsters soon following her every move. To cope, the feisty senior enlists the help of their rivals, the Zhongliang gang, and pays the towering Big Pong (Hsiao-Yuan Ha) to stick by her side as her bodyguard.

Chin, who has featured in everything from You Only Live Twice to The Joy Luck Club, is such a gruff, no-nonsense delight to watch in Lucky Grandma — and Sealy smartly lets audiences peer her way closely and regularly. As Grandma Wong tries to evade one set of mobsters with the help of another, and test whether she really is having a stroke of good fortune, Chin navigates both the silly and more reflective aspects of the film's narrative with pitch-perfect precision. There's much to wade through, too. Sometimes, Lucky Grandma is a drama about a widowed woman trying to make the most of what's left of her life. Sometimes, it's a crime caper that's hopping around Chinatown with glee. In Sealy's hands, that combination always works — even if it doesn't seem like it should — and this dark comedy proving both engaging and entertaining.

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THE LEADERSHIP

From gender equality to climate change, The Leadership charts a course through a sizeable array of topical subjects. Indeed, this jam-packed documentary touches upon everything from toxic workplace behaviour to the destruction of the natural world — so much so that it often feels as if one film won't do justice to everything that it keeps bring up. These topics are all not only important, but thoroughly worthy of standalone investigation; however, they all tie into the feature's primary focus. The main point of interest here is the Homeward Bound program, which takes talented women working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics on a 20-day intensive leadership course while sailing around the Antarctic, with its maiden voyage overseen by Australian leadership expert Fabian Dattner.

As Ili Baré's debut feature documentary lays bare, that first trip was eventful and notable in a plethora of ways. Again, there's much to cover — so many ideas to sift through, so many viewpoints to explore and such a wealth of data to share — that it often feels as if The Leadership could go in any direction. The onboard cinematography alone, peering over the Antarctic, could fuel its own film. The tension that springs throughout the voyage could do the same; many a fictional thriller has coasted by on far less. But in unpacking the many challenges facing Homeward Bound's first participants and facilitators, who all take to the seas and head south with the best of intentions, The Leadership hits its mark. This documentary could've simply served up familiar messages amidst scenic icy landscapes, but what it offers instead is a fascinating fly-on-the-wall look at what happens when great, noble and crucial aims — including around lifting up women by women in fields that aren't known for their gender inclusivity — don't turn out as planned.

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THE OUTPOST

In The Outpost, in north-eastern Afghanistan circa 2009, a unit of US soldiers stationed in difficult circumstances just try to do their jobs. They're tasked with getting local villagers onside and also stopping the Taliban in the area, a mission made all the more complex thanks to their base's location — with Combat Outpost Keating sitting right in the heart of a valley surrounded by mountains where enemy fighters can easily hide. Still, they persevere. And in telling this true tale about their efforts and the resulting Battle of Kamdesh, The Outpost itself takes the same approach. This is a workman-like film with a clear aim and a no-fuss attitude to making it happen. As tends to be the case with US-focused war films, patriotism plays an unavoidable part, and there's no escaping its occasional lack of nuance (one character calls the part of the world they're stationed in a shithole, and it stands out); however, for most of its two-hour running time, this is a movie more concerned about men in a tough situation just trying to see it through than flag-waving and celebrating the country that put them there.

To play its real-life figures, The Outpost features plenty of recognisable faces, including Scott Eastwood (Pacific Rim: Uprising) and Orlando Bloom. Some characters make it through the combat, some don't — and, while death's lingering presence is felt, the film doesn't try to trade in easy tears. Indeed, there's a matter-of-fact air to the lengthy scenes where the unit plans and prepares, fights back when they're under attack, stages dangerous quests and tries to survive the main battle. Adapting Jake Tapper's non-fiction book The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor, director Rod Lurie (Straw Dogs) prefers to show the soldiers in action, doing their jobs and attempting to simply get by, rather than continually overtly playing for sentiment. That tactic results in a well-staged, well-performed addition to the always-growing war movie canon. It doesn't quite threaten 1917 as this year's most visually immersive example of the genre, but it's still impressively choreographed and executed. Also, The Outpost constantly benefits from casting Caleb Landry Jones (Get Out, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, The Dead Don't Die) as the most complicated, conflicted and compelling of the unit's men.

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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; and October 1.

You can also read our full reviews of a heap of recent movies, such as The Personal History of David Copperfield, Waves, The King of Staten Island, Babyteeth, DeerskinPeninsula, Tenet, Les Misérables, The New Mutants, Bill & Ted Face the Music, The Translators, An American Pickle. The High Note, On the Rocks, The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Antebellum.

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Top image: Savage, Domino Films, Matt Grace.

Published on October 08, 2020 by Sarah Ward

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