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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

The New Movies You Can Watch at Australian Cinemas From July 1

Head to the flicks to watch an eerie sci-fi/horror standout, a moving drama about escaping domestic violence and a werewolf whodunnit.
By Sarah Ward
July 01, 2021
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By Sarah Ward
July 01, 2021
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Something delightful has been happening in cinemas across the country. After periods spent empty during the pandemic, with projectors silent, theatres bare and the smell of popcorn fading, Australian picture palaces are back in business — at present, spanning both big chains and smaller independent sites in 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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LITTLE JOE

Pipes blow gently. The camera swirls. Rows of plants fill the screen. Some are leafy and flowery as they reach for the sky; others are mere stems topped with closed buds. Both types of vegetation are lined up in boxes in an austere-looking laboratory greenhouse — and soon another shoot of green appears among them. Plant breeder Alice (Cruella's Emily Beecham, who won the Cannes Film Festival's Best Actress award for her work here) is cloaked in a lab coat far paler than any plant, but the symbolism is immediately evident. Audiences don't know it yet, but her shock of cropped red hair resembles the crimson flowers that'll blossom in her genetically engineered new type of flora, too. "The aim has been to create a plant with a scent that makes its owner happy," she tells a small audience. She explains that most research in her field, and in this lab, has revolved around cultivating greenery that requires less human interaction; however, her new breed does the opposite. This species needs more watering and more protection from the elements, and responds to touch and talk. In return, it emits a scent that kickstarts the human hormone oxytocin when inhaled. Linked to parenting and bonding, that response will make everyone "love this plant like your own child," beams Alice like a proud parent.

So starts Little Joe, which shares its name with the vegetation in question — a "mood-lifting, anti-depressant, happy plant," Alice's boss (David Wilmot, Calm with Horses) boasts. She's borrowed her own teenage son's (Kit Connor, Rocketman) moniker for her new baby, although she gives it more attention than her flesh-and-blood offspring, especially with the push to get it to market speeding up. The clinical gaze favoured by Austrian filmmaker Jessica Hausner (Amour fou) is telling, though. The eerie tone to the feature's Japanese-style, flute- and percussion-heavy score sets an uneasy mood as well. And, there's something not quite right in the overt eagerness of Alice's lab colleague Chris (Ben Whishaw, Fargo), and in the way that Planthouse Biotechnologies' other employees all instantly dismiss the concerns of the one naysayer, Bella (Kerry Fox, Top End Wedding), who has just returned to work after a mental health-induced sabbatical. Making her first English-language feature, Hausner helms a disquieting and anxious sci-fi/horror masterwork. Like many movies in the genre, this is a film about possibilities and consequences, creation and its costs, and happiness and its sacrifices — and about both daring to challenge and dutifully abiding by conformity — and yet it's always its own beast. There are aspects of Frankenstein at play, and The Day of the Triffids, and even Side Effects also. But as anyone familiar with Mary Shelley's iconic work knows, combining familiar elements can result in an intriguing new entity that's much more than just the sum of its parts.

Read our full review.

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HERSELF

Survivalist films typically pit humans against the elements, nature or space, testing a character's endurance when they're cast adrift in the ocean (as in Kon-Tiki and All Is Lost), enduring unwelcoming expanses (Into the Wild, Arctic), faced with animal predators (The Grey, Crawl) or navigating the heavens (Gravity, The Martian). Herself doesn't tick any of those boxes, but it still fits the genre — because what else is a movie about a woman trying to escape an abusive marriage, care for her two young daughters alone and build a safe future if not a story of survival? In Dublin,  Sandra (Spider-Man: Far From Home's Claire Dunne, who also co-wrote the feature's screenplay) is unhappily married to Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson, Vikings), and has the bruises to prove it. When he finds money hidden in her car, a badly fractured hand becomes the latest marker of their domestic horror. She leaves, children Molly (Molly McCann, Vivarium) and Emma (debutant Ruby Rose O'Hara) in tow, but forging a path forward proves complicated at every turn. Social services can only put the trio up in a hotel far away from the girls' school, juggling two jobs to barely scrape by becomes even trickier and, by court order, Gary still gets weekend visits with the kids. Then, thanks to a spark of unexpected inspiration, Sandra decides to try to build her own house — a €35,000 self-build that'll require an overwhelmingly thoughtful gift from one of her bosses (Harriet Walter, Killing Eve), the kindness of a construction industry veteran (Conleth Hill, Game of Thrones) and all the help she can muster.

As a writer (with What Richard Did's Malcolm Campbell), Dunne doesn't make easy choices. Her narrative doesn't follow a straightforward path, either. Herself's script highlights the devastating complexities that surround Sandra at every turn, but avoids plotting the obvious course — because more hopeful and more grim moments are always in everyone's futures, even when it seems that worse surely can't come. Stress, resilience, tender gestures and uncaring powers-that-be are all a part of this story. So is interrogating a system that's quick to push back at victims in the name of family, and the impact upon children who grow up in a household blighted by domestic violence. Herself fleshes out this reality, but always hurtles forward, because that's all that Sandra can do. Worlds away from the two other features on her resume — Mamma Mia! and The Iron Lady — director Phyllida Lloyd helms an intense , compassionate but still clear-eyed drama. It's as bleak as French standout Custody, which also plunges into an abusive marriage. It's also as brutal in its unflinching depiction of navigating bureaucracy as fellow Irish film Rosie, which also tells of a mother trying to find housing for her kids. And yet, without any cloying sentiment, there's hope and tenacity here as well, including in Dunne's phenomenally rich and vulnerable performance.

Read our full review.

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WEREWOLVES WITHIN

The last time that filmmaker Josh Ruben trekked to a snowy mountainous locale and tracked the characters stranded in its midst, Scare Me was the end result, with the entertaining horror-comedy combining cabin fever chaos with creepy tales. Accordingly, it's easy to see how he's jumped from that Sundance hit to Werewolves Within, which shares the same kind of setting and setup — but with lycanthropes and a whodunnit twist. Forest ranger Finn (Sam Richardson, Promising Young Woman) has just arrived in the remote town of Beaverfield as the weather turns and the strange attacks start. He's barely been given a tour by fellow outsider Cecily (Milana Vayntrub, This Is Us), the local mail carrier, when the village's generators are found destroyed and the bodies start piling up. Finn has already established that he's surrounded by eccentric characters, including an oilman (Wayne Duvall, The Trial of the Chicago 7) trying to build a pipeline through the foliage, a store owner (Michaela Watkins, Search Party) obsessed with her dog, a constantly arguing couple (No Activity's George Basil and Barry's Sarah Burns) with a fondness for skirting the law, and a pair of ex-city slickers (What We Do in the Shadows' Harvey Guillén and Saved by the Bell's Cheyenne Jackson); however, he's soon forced into close quarters with his new neighbours as they all try to work out who's transforming into a ravenous creature and indulging their hunger.

If it all sounds a bit like Cluedo but with werewolves, there's a reason for that; the 2016 virtual reality game that Werewolves Within is based on also matches that description. Adapted into a movie, the narrative aims for Knives Out with claws — but, while overflowing with one-liners, sight gags and a healthy sense of humour to a not just jam-packed but overstuffed degree, the end result is never as funny as it should be. It's never quite as fun, either, even though the concept is a winner on paper. Comedian-turned-screenwriter Mishna Wolff spends far too much time trading in the glaringly apparent, not to mention the predictable. Hell is other people here, and the fact that a seemingly quaint and friendly small town can be filled with deceit, duplicity and disaster is hardly a new observation (and neither is the musing that the sniping within the community just might be worse than the supernatural threat they're now facing). That almost every character remains purely one-note doesn't help, and nor do the over-amped performances given by all of the film's supporting players. Richardson is a delight, though, as he has been in everything from Detroiters to Veep. Indeed, he makes the case not just for more work, but for more leading roles. Vayntrub sinks her teeth into her part, too, and her rapport with Richardson is one of the movie's highlights. Also engaging: the off-kilter tone that Ruben adopts throughout, again aping his previous — and better — feature.

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PERFUMES

Add Perfumes to the lengthy list of odd-couple comedies that bring folks with opposing personalities together, and suddenly, all so that they can learn life lessons, face much-needed realisations and ultimately live better futures. This French feature also hinges upon an only-in-the-movies setup, after a professional "nose" — someone with enhanced olfactory receptors who plies their talents in the fragrance trade — strikes up an unlikely connection with the struggling father that starts working as her chauffeur so that he can eventually win shared custody of his tween daughter. The key here: sincerity. There's sweetness in writer/director Grégory Magne's (L'air de rien) film, and whimsy, too, but this tale about two lost souls unexpectedly finding commonalities in each other never plays up its quirks. Instead, as penned with heart, helmed with patience, and performed with soul by stars Grégory Montel (Call My Agent!) and Emmanuelle Devos (Violette) as well, Perfumes is like smelling a familiar yet still enticing, comforting and surprising scent. Just as fragrance designer Anne Walberg (Devos) builds aromas out of recognisable ingredients while striving to create something that stands out, this charming movie blends its array of easy-to-spot elements into a pleasingly distinctive cinematic treat.

In the latest French-made or -adjacent feature to include a custody battle of late (see also: Custody and My Zoe), all that Guillaume Favre (Montel) wants is to convince a judge that he can spend every other week with his daughter Léa (Zélie Rixhon, The Ideal Palace). To do so, he needs to radiate stability, something that he starts seeking through his driving job. When he's assigned to ferry Anne between assignments, he's far from impressed by her aloof demeanour or unusual demands. Helping her change the sheets at her hotel isn't in his job description, he notes. But he's also intrigued by her work, which currently involves recreating the specific odour of a cave, masking an unpleasant smell that's infected a leather brand's handbags, and trying to counteract the stench being pumped out by a rural factory — new gigs she's pushed into by her money-motivated agent (Pauline Moulène, Boomerang) after starting out concocting designer perfumes. Magne's film isn't about narrative surprises, but about emotions. It's also about spending time with two nicely fleshed-out characters who find friendship blossoming despite their initial misapprehensions, and bring out the best in each other as a result. Perfumes wouldn't work if it didn't unfurl with gentle but genuine warmth, if it didn't value attention to detail so highly, and if it didn't have both Devos and Montel as its anchors; however, thankfully they're all a part of this elegant Gallic effort.

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ESCAPE ROOM: TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS

More than once in Escape Room: Tournament of Champions, a supporting performance stands out — and not for the right reasons. Overdone and obvious, these portrayals leave audiences with no doubt that the corresponding characters are part of the game that this franchise has been playing for two movies now. The overall premise of this series sees ordinary folks receive invites that lead them into a maze of escape rooms. These are literal life-and-death spaces, and the body count grows room by room. This time around, Zoey (Taylor Russell, Words on Bathroom Walls) and Ben (Logan Miller, Love, Simon), the sole survivors of 2019's series starter, are trying to track down the villains responsible for the death traps. Of course, they're soon stuck in another one, alongside four fellow winners (In Like Flynn's Thomas Cocquerel, Follow Me's Holland Roden, Queen & Slim's Indya Moore and Step Up: High Water's Carlito Olivero) from other games. There's supposed to be a sense of anxiousness about where the escape rooms begin and the outside world ends, and vice versa, but that's completely stripped out of this second effort. Throughly unsubtle bit-part performances, even for a movie this blatant at every turn, will do that. Escape Room: Tournament of Champions is still tense when Zoe, Ben and their fellow pawns are trying to sleuth their way to safety, thankfully, but that's largely a result of giving them twisty puzzles to solve at an urgent pace. 

Watching people trying to problem-solve quickly comes with innate tension. Will they succeed? Won't they? The seesawing between those two extremes is inherently suspenseful. That, and the rooms themselves, are two of Escape Room: Tournament of Champions' three highlights. The third: Russell, who is capable of so much more — as seen in Waves, for example — and gives her part here more depth than is written on the page. But, as much as returning director Adam Robitel (Insidious: The Last Key) tries to spin something memorable out of the nervous tone, elaborate spaces and Russell's presence, the repetition and overtness gets tiring fast. While individual scenes may be tense, the overall film never is. It's always apparent where the narrative is headed, even when the six credited writers (Mortal Kombat's Oren Uziel, Hand of God's Daniel Tuch, Counterpart's Maria Melnik, The Hive's Will Honley, Invincible's Christine Lavaf and Wildling's Fritz Böhm) think they're serving up surprises; thought has clearly gone into the minutiae of each escape room, and yet little seems to have been afforded the bigger picture. Visually, and in its soundtrack, every stylistic touch paints by the numbers, too. Also much too predictable: that the film is a setup for yet more to follow. The Final Destination franchise has ratcheted up five instalments so far, so the Escape Room series, the closest thing it has to a successor, can obviously keep milking its setup for several more formulaic movies to come.

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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, April 8, April 15, April 22 and April 29; May 6, May 13, May 20 and May 27; and June 3, June 10, June 17 and June 24.

You can also read our full reviews of a heap of recent movies, such as 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, Supernova, The Dissident, The United States vs Billie Holiday, First Cow, Wrath of Man, Locked Down, The Perfect Candidate, Those Who Wish Me Dead, Spiral: From the Book of Saw, Ema, A Quiet Place Part II, Cruella, My Name Is Gulpilil, Lapsis, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, Fast and Furious 9, Valerie Taylor: Playing with Sharks and In the Heights.

Published on July 01, 2021 by Sarah Ward

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