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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

The New Movies You Can Watch at Australian Cinemas From December 10

Head to the flicks to see a new take on an old favourite, a twist on the usual superhero formula and a big-thinking space movie.
By Sarah Ward
December 10, 2020
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By Sarah Ward
December 10, 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 back in business — spanning both big chains and smaller independent sites in Sydney 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 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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THE WITCHES

What's the one thing that every movie remake has in common? No matter how it turns out, the original film still exists. So, if the latest version doesn't cast a spell, you can return to the old one — revisiting it, appreciating it anew and steeping yourself in nostalgia in the process. That's worth remembering regarding the latest screen adaptation of Roald Dahl's The Witches, even with writer/director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Polar Express) and co-writers Kenya Barris (Black-ish, Girls Trip) and Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth and The Shape of Water's) involved. Its main achievement: reminding everyone just how great the previous screen adaptation of Roald Dahl's book from back in 1990 still is. It might be unfair to think that some remakes only eventuate because a studio executive thought it was time to wring some more cash out of a beloved story, but that's how this movie feels. It's simultaneously broader and tamer — including Anne Hathaway's (Dark Waters) over-the-top performance as the Grand High Witch, although she does appear to be enjoying herself immensely — and it radiates big pantomime energy. Indeed, there's a lack of overall magic in The Witches, either of the twisted or charming type (unless sending viewers clamouring to find wherever the original is currently streaming counts).

A few things have changed in this fresh iteration. It's 1968, and the the film's unnamed young protagonist (Jahzir Bruno, The Christmas Chronicles 2) moves to Alabama to live with his grandmother (Octavia Spencer, Onward) after his parents are killed in a car accident. He's grief-stricken, but they bond over her shocking revelation: that witches exist, they're everywhere, they despise children and she has experience with them. Also, once a witch sets their sights on a kid, it never lets up. That's why, after one crosses the boy's path, grandma whisks him off to "the swankiest resort in Alabama", where she's certain they'll be safe among rich white folks. Of course, she couldn't have predicted that the group of women that have taken over the Grand Orleans Imperial Island Hotel's ballroom — the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, apparently — are all witches. Or, that the Grand High Witch is in attendance, unveiling a plan to turn every kid in the world into a rodent via a potion called 'Formula 86 Delayed Action Mouse-Maker'. Much that has endeared The Witches to readers and viewers over the years remains in the latest film, but tinkering with the details and tone makes an unfortunate impact. Brimming as it is with bright colours and overdone CGI, the new version of The Witches favours gloss and shine over chills and potential nightmares. Everything here is overt to an in-your-face extreme, and also far less intricate and much more bland.

Read our full review.

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THE FURNACE

At this point in Australia's cinema history, audiences can be forgiven for wondering if homegrown movies have unearthed and told every tale there is to be found among the vast outback. The answer: an overwhelming no, especially when Aussie filmmakers traverse the country's sunburnt and sprawling expanse to explore stories steeped in our problematic past. The Furnace is one such movie that proves the point. The first feature from writer/director Roderick MacKay, the gold rush-era western serves up a powerful interrogation of Australia as a multicultural nation — harking back to 1897, to Western Australia, and to a time when transporting freight around the country relied upon a network of cameleers trekking across the desert. The men covering great distances to move goods from one place to another hailed from India, Afghanistan and Persia, were largely of Muslim and Sikh faith, and were badged together under the label 'Ghan' by white Aussies. They were treated poorly, except by Indigenous Australians. And, they're a real but oft-forgotten part of the nation's story, so much so that The Furnace will introduce their existence to many viewers for the first time. That's just one of this vividly shot, exceptionally acted film's achievements, though. Another: posing the kinds of questions about our national identity that we should always be asking.

Afghan cameleer Hanif (Ahmed Malek, Clash) didn't choose to come to Australia, or to take up this line of work. So, when he witnesses the death of his mentor at the hands of a white man, he's eager to find a way to get the cash he needs to return home. The Indigenous Yamatji Badimia people he often spends time with on his travels, including leader Coobering (Trevor Jamieson, Storm Boy) and Hanif's friend Woorak (Baykali Ganambarr, The Nightingale), suggest that he stays and joins them instead. But, after stumbling across injured thief Mal (David Wenham, Dirt Music), he's determined to use half of his new acquaintance's stolen Crown-marked gold bars to finance his escape and leave the life he hates behind. Troopers led by the fervent Sergeant Shaw (Jay Ryan, IT: Chapter Two) are swiftly on the unlikely pair's trail; however, Hanif and Mal keep traipsing towards the eponymous smelter, where Mal promises they'll be able to melt down the precious metal and remove any trace of the government's ownership. Following Hanif's journey — physically, and emotionally and spiritually as well — The Furnace is a patient film. It's a meat pie western through and through, applying the western genre's trademarks to an Australian context, and it joins The Proposition, Sweet Country and the aforementioned The Nightingale as one of the best 21st-century examples. MacKay spies the beauty and the imperfections in Australia's arid, dusty landscape, as many filmmakers have before, but he also never lets the flaws in our national character that are made plain by this chapter of history ever fall out of view.

Read our full review.

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THE MIDNIGHT SKY

The Midnight Sky is George Clooney's first film role in four years (since 2016's Hail, Caesar! and Money Monster), so it's fitting that he's at his most bearded and reclusive within its frames. This sci-fi drama also joins the small but significant list of features that combine the star and space, following Solaris and Gravity — and there's something particularly alluring and absorbing about seeing Clooney get existential, as all movies that reach beyond earth's surface tend to. He clearly agrees, because he not only leads The Midnight Sky but also directs it as well. This is a big-thinking and big-feeling film, with its characters grappling with life, love and loss. It boasts aptly pensive and probing cinematography, too; however, both on-and off-screen, Clooney is the key. When the movie spends time with astronauts onboard the spaceship Aether, including the pregnant Sully (Felicity Jones, On the Basis of Sex), ship commander Adewole (David Oyelowo, Gringo), veteran pilot Mitchell (Kyle Chandler, Godzilla: King of the Monsters), and other crew members Sanchez (Demián Bichir, The Grudge) and Maya (Tiffany Boone, Hunters), it's at its most generic. Indeed, when it ventures to space, The Midnight Sky almost screams for either Clooney to head there as well, or for the feature to plummet back down to earth to join him once more.

The actor/filmmaker plays workaholic research scientist Dr Augustine Lofthouse and, although The Midnight Sky rockets beyond the earth, it doesn't send its protagonist there. Instead, in 2049, after an environmental disaster has made the planet uninhabitable, he chooses to remain in the Arctic as his colleagues evacuate. He's dying anyway, and frequently hooks himself up to machines for treatment — in between downing whiskey, watching old movies, eating cereal and talking to himself. Then, interrupting his lonely decline, two things change his status quo. Firstly, a young girl (debutant Caoilinn Springall) mysteriously pops up out of nowhere, refusing to speak but obviously needing an adult's care. Secondly, Augustine realises that he'll have to trek across the oppressively icy terrain outside to connect via radio to Aether's crew, who've been on a two-year mission to ascertain whether newly discovered Jupiter moon K-23 can support life, and are now making their return unaware of what's been happening at home. The space movie genre is as busy as the sky above is vast, and The Midnight Sky proves familiar as a result, delivering plenty of elements that viewers have seen before — but this isn't merely an exercise in flinging together derivative parts. While this isn't Clooney's greatest achievement as a director in general or as an actor in a space flick, it's still an involving, engaging and poignant addition to his resume on both counts.

Read our full review.

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WORDS ON BATHROOM WALLS

When it comes to portraying illness of either the physical or mental kind, Hollywood doesn't have the greatest track record. Case in point: this year's awful All My Life, a cancer-fuelled weepie that decided it'd rather focus on the girlfriend of its sickness-stricken character — who is based on a real-life person — than on the man fighting to survive. Accordingly, by actually directing its attention towards Adam (Charlie Plummer, Lean on Pete), a high schooler who is diagnosed with schizophrenia in his senior year, Words on Bathroom Walls immediately demonstrates a willingness to actually engage with its protagonist's predicament. The film is based on a YA novel by Julia Walton, rather than on reality, but it sees Adam as a person rather than a reason that someone else's existence increases in drama. That's a pivotal move by filmmaker Thor Freudenthal (Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters) and first-time screenwriter Nick Naveda, and one that improves their movie immensely. But Words on Bathroom Walls doesn't completely avoid cliches and tropes. Instead, it saves them for the usual teenage experiences, serving up everything from bullying classmates to first kisses, prom night antics and graduation chaos as Adam doesn't just try to cope with his condition, but with testing every treatment option there is, and also navigating the disappointments and the side effects.

Adam's struggles begin in science class, where he has traumatic hallucinations, injures a friend and gets expelled. Seeing people who aren't there isn't new to him but, with the incident badged a psychotic break, his mother Beth (Molly Parker, Deadwood) devotes every waking hour to finding him the best care — when she isn't spending time with the new boyfriend, Paul (Walton Goggins, Fatman), that Adam doesn't like. For the teen himself, he's most concerned about chasing his dreams. He wants to be a chef, but he needs to get his diploma to get into his chosen culinary course. The local private school agrees to let him attend, as long as he undertakes a specific treatment plan and doesn't trouble his peers with his illness. Consequently, when he meets the studious and resourceful Maya (Taylor Russell, Waves), he keeps his condition to himself, even as a friendship and something more springs. At its core, Words on Bathroom Walls endeavours to address and break down the stigma that surrounds schizophrenia and mental illness, a feat that it perkily but thoughtfully achieves. Still, there's no missing the fact that it squeezes its empathetic intentions — and its narrative in general, and Adam's plight within it — into a well-worn teen formula. While Words on Bathroom Walls still succeeds where many other movies about health struggles fail, thanks in no small part to excellent performances all-round from Plummer, Russell, Parker and Goggins, its need to fit a template threatens to undercut its sensitive approach to its subject.

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ARCHENEMY

Looking for a world where superheroes don't exist? Archenemy travels between two dimensions, or so the often whiskey-swilling Max Fist (Joe Manganiello, Rampage) claims, and finds the super-strong figure in both of them. That said, Fist could be a fallen fighter from another realm who is trying to stop his nemesis Cleo (Amy Seimetz, The Secrets We Keep). Or, he could be a homeless person with problem or someone about to start waging a crusade for the forces of good after teaming up with siblings Hamster (Skylan Brooks, Empire) and Indigo (Zolee Griggs, Bit). Fist joins forces with the latter duo after Hamster starts pestering him to tell his story. The teen, who has the word 'fiction' tattooed across his face, is trying to land a photojournalism job at a clickbait-chasing website called Trendible (and to go viral doing so), and thinks that Fist could be his ticket. Their new camaraderie is reluctant on elder man's part, but he's willing to talk about his alternate-universe home world of Chromium to anyone will listen. However, complications arrive via Indigo, who works as a drug dealer for a seedy figure known only as The Manager (Glenn Howerton, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia). Although she's trying to earn enough money to send Hamster back to school, she's soon immersed deep in murky gangster business.

One of the small joys of this low-key caped crusader affair is that writer/director Adam Egypt Mortimer (Daniel Isn't Real) and his co-screenwriter Luke Passmore (Slaughterhouse Rulez) aren't trying to tell the usual story, or to make it fit the usual boxes — as the fact that Fist's tale could go one of several ways illustrates. Also impressive, as well as visually striking: the hot pink and black animation that literally illustrates Fist's narrative back on Chromium, and nods to the page origins of the superhero genre at the same time. Still, Archenemy is a mixed bag of a movie. It's trying to serve up a thematic and narrative mixed bag on purpose, but that quest spills over to unintended areas. The film strives to add something different to an overpopulated field, for example, but swiftly brings the likes of Hancock and Super to mind. It attempts to subvert a plethora of recognisable tropes, but also leans on a swathe of them itself. It features a moody performance by Manganiello that screams for more screen time (and, yes, more movies), but tasks Howerton and Seimetz with being cartoonish in a one-note manner. As its actors demonstrate, Archenemy often seems as if it's hedging its bets, trying to offer something more grounded than the usual superhero blockbuster but also more outlandish at the same time — and, while often messily entertaining and definitely benefiting from an attention-grabbing score, it doesn't ever find the ideal balance.

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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.

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, Antebellum, Miss Juneteenth, Savage, I Am Greta, Rebecca, Kajillionaire, Baby Done, Corpus Christi, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, The Craft: Legacy, RadioactiveBrazen Hussies, Freaky, Mank, Monsoon, Ellie and Abbie (and Ellie's Dead Aunt), American Utopia, Possessor, Misbehaviour, Happiest Season, The Prom and Sound of Metal.

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Images: The Midnight Sky, Philippe Antonello/Netflix.

Published on December 10, 2020 by Sarah Ward

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