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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

The New Movies You Can Watch at Australian Cinemas From April 22

Head to the flicks to watch a powerful documentary, the latest music biopic to reach screens and three very different Australian-made films.
By Sarah Ward
April 22, 2021
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By Sarah Ward
April 22, 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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THE DISSIDENT

If you know even the slightest thing about the circumstances surrounding Jamal Khashoggi's death, it's impossible to watch The Dissident without feeling angry. That's most viewers' starting mood, given that the Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist's assassination has garnered ample media attention — and Oscar-winning director Brian Fogel (Icarus) is well aware of how much coverage the subject has received, and of how the world feels about the situation. Indeed, his thorough and exacting documentary both feeds upon and fuels that shock and ire. The mood is tense, the commentary is pointed and the prevailing sentiment is savage. Both rage and outrage permeate each frame, unsurprisingly so, as the film lays bare the brutal facts surrounding Khashoggi's murder, its lead-up and its aftermath. No other tone would be acceptable. Nothing other than dismay, abhorrence and anger would be either. When you're making a movie about a man who entered his nation's embassy to obtain paperwork so that he could get married, then left it in dismembered pieces while his bride-to-be waited outside, how could anything other than fury, horror and alarm eventuate?

Although the details have already been well-documented since October 2, 2018, they're still reassembled in The Dissident. Accordingly, the doco tells of Khashoggi's visit to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul just over a year after fleeing his country, after which he was never seen alive again. He wanted to marry academic Hatice Cengiz, his Turkish fiancée. To do so, he needed a document certifying that he was no longer wed to his prior wife. He'd first sought that necessary certification from the embassy just a few days earlier, so they knew that he'd be returning — and once he stepped inside once more, he was ambushed, attacked and killed by a newly arrived team of Saudi agents. Cengiz contacted the authorities when the man she thought she'd be spending the rest of her life with didn't surface, but the Saudi government claimed that the exiled reporter had left via a back entrance. It didn't take long to ascertain the truth, as was suspected from the moment he failed to reemerge. The official story changed several times, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman denied any knowledge of a premeditated plot, but the fact remains that Khashoggi was slaughtered by operatives from his homeland.

Read our full review.

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THE UNITED STATES VS BILLIE HOLIDAY

More than 80 years after it was first sung and heard, Billie Holiday's 'Strange Fruit' still isn't easily forgotten. Drawn from a poem penned to protest lynchings, it's meant to shock and haunt. It's designed to galvanise and mobilise, too, as drawing attention to the extrajudicial killings of Black Americans should. Indeed, so vivid is the song in its language — "Black bodies swingin' in the southern breeze" describes the third line — US authorities demanded that Holiday stop performing it. She refused repeatedly, so there were repercussions. Concerned that the track would spark change, inspire Holiday's fans to fight for civil rights and justice, and perhaps motivate riots against against oppression and discrimination as well, the US Treasury Department's Federal Bureau of Narcotics went after the musician for her drug use. If it couldn't get her to cease crooning the controversial tune via other means, such as overt warnings and a prominent police presence at her shows, it'd do whatever it could to keep her from reaching the stage night after night.

With Andra Day (Marshall) turning in an intense, impassioned, career-defining portrayal as its eponymous figure (and in her first lead film role, too), so tells The United States vs Billie Holiday, the latest Oscar-nominated biopic to step through its namesake's life. Back in 1972, Lady Sings the Blues loosely adapted Holiday's autobiography of the same name, enlisting Diana Ross to play the singer — but, in taking inspiration instead from Johann Hari's non-fiction book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, this latest big-screen vision of the music icon's story adopts its own angle. Holiday's troubled childhood and youth has its part in this tale, which is scripted for the screen by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. Her addiction, and the personal woes that she tried to blot out, clearly don't escape filmmaker Lee Daniels' (The Butler) attention, either. But The United States vs Billie Holiday also falls in alongside Seberg, MLK/FBI and Judas and the Black Messiah in interrogating bleak truths about mid-20th century America. In a film that manages to be both rousing and standard, that includes surveying the misplaced priorities of its government during multiple administrations, and the blatant determination shown by an array of agencies under various presidents to undermine, persecute and silence those considered a supposedly un-American threat to the status quo.

Read our full review.

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MORTAL KOMBAT

No one enjoys watching someone else mash buttons. While it's a passable way to spend a few minutes, losing interest quickly simply comes with the territory. That's how viewing Mortal Kombat feels as well, except that watching your friends play any of the martial arts video game franchise's 22 different arcade and console titles since 1992 (or any game at all) would be far more entertaining. Shot in South Australia and marking the feature debut of filmmaker Simon McQuoid, the latest attempt to bring the popular series to the big screen — following a first try in 1995 and a sequel in 1997 — feels like watching cosplay, too. The movie's cast literally dresses up in the outfits needed to recreate the game's characters, of course, but the film shouldn't so overtly resemble fans donning costumes at a pop culture convention. And yet, Mortal Kombat evokes this situation from the moment its 17th century Japan-set prologue, which is also its best scene, comes to an end. After establishing a mythic and bloody backstory for the movie's narrative as a whole, the character that'll become an undead ninja ghost called Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada, Westworld) and his prophecised descendants, this B-grade flick is happy to, in fact. It's not just the violence that's cartoonish here; it's every glare exchanged and word uttered, with much of the script trading in cliches, dramatic pauses and catchphrases.

Mortal Kombat's gaming fanbase may be eager to see their beloved characters given flesh and blood, face off against each other and spout lines that usually emanate from a much smaller screen, but that doesn't make a movie engaging. Nor can a flimsy screenplay by first-timer Greg Russo and Wonder Woman 1984's Dave Callaham, which follows the battle between Earthrealm and Outworld — one that'll be lost by the former if an MMA fighter named Cole Young (Lewis Tan, Wu Assassins), who bears a dragon birthmark, doesn't team up with the other figures with the same marking to stop humanity from losing for the tenth time. That's where the no-nonsense Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee, Black Water: Abyss) comes in, and also the grating, wisecracking Kano (Josh Lawson, Long Story Short). The villainous Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim, Warrior) might be threatening to freeze all of earth's champions so that Outworld's Shang Tsung (Chin Han, Skyscraper) can rig the tournament before it even happens, but Mortal Kombat still has time — and far too much of it — to spend pondering supernatural destinies and letting an over-acting, always grating Lawson mug for attempted laughs. The end result is intentionally ridiculous, and presumably unintentionally dull, all while setting up an unearned sequel. And although brutal enough amidst the silliness for an R rating, even the film's fight scenes merely go through the motions, especially given the heights that films like The Raid and John Wick have scaled in with their eye-popping action choreography over the past decade.

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EVERY BREATH YOU TAKE

In The Nightingale, Sam Claflin wasn't charming, kindly or gallant. He was worlds away from his roles in rom-com Love, Rosie, weepie drama Me Before You and the page-to-screen Hunger Games franchise — and, playing a supporting but still key part in the exceptional 2019 film, he was excellent. Alas, while he remains in darker territory with Every Breath You Take, this psychological thriller isn't a highlight on his or anyone's resume. The good news: it doesn't feature the 1983 single by The Police that shares the film's title. The not-so-great news: it is indeed about someone surveilling others, so it must've taken the production's entire reserves of restraint not to include that song. Little subtlety seems to be displayed elsewhere, including by Claflin, and little intelligence, either. In development for almost a decade, once set to be directed by Misery's Rob Reiner, and also slated to star Harrison Ford and Zac Efron over the years, the film focuses on the fallout from a psychologist's decision to talk to one of his patients about his own problems. Not long after gushing to a lecture hall filled with students about his successful new technique, however, he finds himself the target of a vindictive stalker who is intent on destroying his entire family's lives. Debut screenwriter David Murray has clearly seen Fatal Attraction, Unfaithful, Cape Fear and Fear, and The Silence of the Lambs as well, and he's not afraid to mash pieces of each together here.

Looking pensive, grappling with family woes again but worlds away from his Oscar-winning performance in Manchester by the Sea, Casey Affleck (The Old Man and the Gun) plays Philip, the analyst in question. He crosses paths with James (Claflin, Enola Holmes) at the scene of a tragedy, then finds him knocking on his door — and soon his wife Grace (Michelle Monaghan, The Craft: Legacy) and teenage daughter Lucy (India Eisley, Dead Reckoning) are both bumping into the newcomer seemingly everywhere they go. In an already tense household thanks to an accident years earlier, James easily upsets the status quo. When Philip starts having professional problems as well, the trio's struggles only deepen. It's hard to guess what attracted this starry cast to such a routine film, but it definitely isn't the pulpy script or Vaughn Stein's (Inheritance) overboiled direction. Indeed, in a movie that somehow thinks that being as blatant as possible will ramp up the suspense — which, unsurprisingly, it doesn't — only the icy visuals by cinematographer Michael Merriman (another Inheritance alum) garner much attention. Well, that and the screechy score by Marlon Espino (also returning from Inheritance), although the latter does so with the same obviousness that characterises almost everything about the feature.

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SISTER

More than once during Sister, An Ran (Zhang Zifeng, Detective Chinatown 3) is reminded that her status as a sibling — and as a woman — is burdened with strong expectations in China. With her much-younger brother An Ziheng (Kim Darren Yowon) earning pride of place in her parents' hearts, and in Chinese society's patriarchal hierarchy in general, she's meant to defer her dreams and desires in favour of her family's male heir. That's just what's done, and always has been. And, after the pair's mother and father are killed in a car accident, no one can quite understand why An Ran is determined to buck convention. But, after weathering a childhood coloured by her dad's disappointment about her gender, she has spent years trying to break free from her past. A nurse hoping to gain acceptance into medical school so that she can become a doctor, and so distanced from her parents and brother that she doesn't even know the latter, she doesn't just vehemently disagree with the idea that she should now devote her life to An Ziheng; she refuses to abide by it. Instead, An Ran wants to sell the family apartment, find adoptive parents for her sibling and continue working towards her own future.

Neither director Yin Ruoxin (Farewell, My Lad) nor screenwriter You Xiaoying (Love Education) shies away from the harsh reality facing their protagonist in Sister, or from the fact that her plight is emblematic of the nation's women in a much broader sense. And, for most of its duration, their sensitive but clear-eyed drama firmly and unflinchingly tackles the ramifications of simply being born female in China. The continued pressure directed An Ran's way and the treatment she receives for not toeing the line aren't the film's only sources of conflict, with class differences and the way that power structures play out both domestically and professionally also playing their part in the movie's layered narrative. They're aided by Zhang's weighty performance, too — a portrayal that segues seamlessly back and forth from defiant and committed to exhausted and exasperated, and shows both the will to eschew norms and the weariness from the constant battle on multiple levels. The film's boldness is eventually undercut, though. Budding within its naturalistically lit imagery and its often roving and restless frames is an awareness that the bonds of blood will eventually pull at An Ran. The script ensures that her growing bond with her brother feels genuine; however, it's also a far more sentimental turn of events than Sister indulges otherwise.

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SIX MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT

Eddie Izzard takes inspiration from her home town of Bexhill-on-Sea in Six Minutes to Midnight, using its pre-World War II history as the basis for an intriguing but also muddled thriller. Before the conflict broke out, the coastal spot was home to the Augusta Victoria College, where the daughters of high-ranking Germans were sent to finish their education. In Izzard's hands as the film's star, executive producer and co-writer — the latter with Celyn Jones (The Vanishing) and director Andy Goddard (A Kind of Murder) — this real-life scenario gives rise to espionage antics. She plays Thomas Miller, the school's new teacher, and also a spy sent to keep tabs on the students' whereabouts for British intelligence. Headmistress Miss Rocholl (Judi Dench, Blithe Spirit) dotes on the girls, and naively sees only camaraderie in the college's existence, but Miller and his superiors are concerned that the institution's pupils could be smuggled out in secret. It doesn't help that Ilse Keller (Carla Juri, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit), the school's only German employee, hardly seems trustworthy. The pro-Nazi ideology infused into her lessons is hardly a promising sign, but soon it's Miller that is the object of suspicion, despite his efforts to uncover just who in English society has been pledging their allegiance abroad.

No one can fault Izzard's interest in Augusta Victoria College, or her eagerness to bring its little-known place in Britain's past to the screen. But Six Minutes to Midnight is so caught up in being a spy film — and one that takes its cues from Alfred Hitchcock at that — that it serves up a paper-thin story that's on the verge of blowing over in the East Sussex breeze. Twists, double crosses, wavering loyalty, murder, chases, interrogations and clandestine plots all ensue, but with few surprises, and with exactly why the students' possible return to Germany would be so catastrophic never fully fleshed out. Handsome seaside scenery does abound, though, and so does a committed performance from Izzard. She spends much of her screen-time running, as she often does in reality — completing 43 marathons in 51 days in 2009, 27 in 27 days in 2016 and 32 in 31 days earlier this year — but her wit and charisma are always evident. Saddled with a one-note role, Dench is less convincing, but supporting players Jim Broadbent (King of Thieves) and James D'Arcy (Avengers: Endgame) make the most of their small parts as a kindly bus driver and a wily detective respectively. As for the young women, the fact that they're primarily regarded as a group, rather than given the time and space to convey their personalities, speaks volumes about their function as the feature's MacGuffin.

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MOON ROCK FOR MONDAY

Kurt Martin, the first-time feature writer/director behind Moon Rock for Monday, must owe much of his film education to Australian cinema of the 90s. His road-trip drama — which is also a coming-of-age tale and a crime thriller, and happens to be set in the 90s, too — takes clearcut cues from The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Two Hands. Here, though, a 12-year-old girl and an older teen sit at the centre of the narrative. Thankfully, while the nods towards other prominent homegrown movies are obvious, these sources of inspiration don't cast an overbearing shadow. There isn't much about Moon Rock for Monday that proves overtly novel, but it doesn't simply trudge in other films' footsteps, either. The importance of the feature's canny casting can't be understated, with fellow debutant Ashlyn Louden-Gamble a winsome presence as the titular pre-teen and George Pullar (Playing for Keeps) infusing his wayward but well-meaning jewellery store thief-turned-fugitive with more depth than might be expected. Indeed, their rapport as their characters first evade the police on Sydney's streets, then take to the highway towards the Northern Territory, gives this warm-hearted movie enough charm to do more than simply coast by.

Named for the day she was born, Monday's (Louden-Gamble) entire life has revolved around an illness that requires frequent medical treatment. But, despite the lived-in weariness and worry perennially plastered across the face of her dad Bob (Aaron Jeffrey, The Flood), she handles the situation with a sunny disposition, an eagerness to see the world and an obsession with Uluru — or Moon Rock, as she calls it. Then, this father-daughter duo stumble into Tyler's (Pullar) orbit. Soon Monday is by the latter's side, indulging her thirst for adventure and tagging along as he hightails it out of town. Bob isn't the only one desperate to find them, with Detective Lionell (David Field, Mortal Kombat) also on their trail in the aftermath of Tyler's light-fingered ways. From the outset, even before Monday and Tyler start heading west, there's an episodic feel to Moon Rock for Monday; however, flitting from one narrative incident to the next suits the road-trip premise. When nothing but landscape surrounds its central pair, that dusty red expanse does plenty of heavy lifting — a scene outside of Coober Pedy is particularly striking, both visually and emotionally — but this is still a promising big-screen start for its director and leads alike.

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THIS LITTLE LOVE OF MINE

Blatantly formulaic rom-coms are cinema's version of junk food, as Netflix has been trying to use to its advantage. Scroll through the platform's catalogue, especially around Christmas, and a wealth of straight-to-streaming movies that eagerly play up every trope and cliche await — but being easy to make and undemanding to consume isn't the same as being worth watching. This Little Love of Mine is debuting in cinemas; however, it'll feel at home when it does find its way into a streaming service's lineup. Its story is that predictable and its dialogue is that hoary. The setup: ambitious workaholic lawyer Laura (Saskia Hampele, The Heights) is certain that she'll finally make partner and be able to start doing worthwhile work helping small business owners if she convinces a building magnate's (Martin Portus, Home and Away) island-dwelling boat captain grandson Chip (Liam McIntyre, Them) to take over his billion-dollar development company. The catch: the island, Sapphire Cove, is where she grew up before she left for her high-powered, big-city life in San Francisco, and Chip is the childhood best friend she's thought of fondly over the years, but hasn't seen since she departed.

Romantic comedies don't need to trade in surprises. When you're just aiming to bring two characters together so that they can presumably live happily ever after, twists aren't a necessary feature. But viewers should enjoy their time watching said central figures overcome the obligatory obstacles that come their way on the inevitable path to becoming a couple. They should get invested in their plights, be charmed by their personalities and care about their fates —and, even with the ultimate outcome remaining obvious to anyone and everyone, no one should feel as if they're just peering on as a movie works through a checklist. While Hampele and McIntyre do their best to liven up Georgia Harrison's (Rip Tide) rote script, they can't nudge This Little Love of Mine into engaging waters. The same applies to Lynn Gilmartin (How Do You Know Chris?) as Laura and Chip's fellow lifelong friend Gem, who proves the kind of dutiful sidekick-slash-trusty confidant character that could've strolled out of almost every rom-com ever made. Also unable to lift the material: the eye-catching Far North Queensland backdrop, which sets a suitably swoon-worthy scene; however, the repeated palm tree and beach shots peppered throughout the film by first-time director Christine Luby and cinematographer Simon Harding (Ruben Guthrie) begin to feel like filler quickly.

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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 January 1, January 7, January 14, January 21 and January 28; February 4, February 11, February 18 and February 25; March 4, March 11, March 18 and March 25; and April 1 and April 8.

You can also read our full reviews of a heap of recent movies, such as Nomadland, Pieces of a Woman, The Dry, Promising Young Woman, Summerland, Ammonite, The Dig, The White Tiger, Only the Animals, Malcolm & Marie, News of the World, High Ground, Earwig and the Witch, The Nest, Assassins, Synchronic, Another Round, Minari, Firestarter — The Story of Bangarra, The Truffle Hunters, The Little Things, Chaos Walking, Raya and the Last Dragon, Max Richter's Sleep, Judas and the Black Messiah, Girls Can't Surf, French Exit, Saint Maud, Godzilla vs Kong, The Painter and the Thief, Nobody, The Father, Willy's Wonderland, Collective, Voyagers, Gunda and Supernova.

Top image: Takashi Seida.

Published on April 22, 2021 by Sarah Ward

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