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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

The New Movies You Can Watch at Australian Cinemas From January 28

Head to the flicks to see a new Aussie western, a homegrown sci-fi flick, Tom Hanks' latest and an Irish caper comedy.
By Sarah Ward
January 28, 2021
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By Sarah Ward
January 28, 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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HIGH GROUND

Violence is never splashed across a cinema screen unthinkingly. Depicting physical force is always a choice, even in by-the-numbers action films where fists and bullets fly far more frequently than meaningful moments. Accordingly, when brutality and bloodshed arrives in a drama that peers back at Australia's colonial past, there's no doubting that the filmmakers responsible have thought about what they're including, why, the message it conveys and the impact it'll have on the audience. High Ground is one such Aussie feature. Its main forceful encounter occurs early, motivating everything that follows and proving impossible to forget. In 1919, ex-World War I sniper-turned-police officer Travis (Simon Baker, Breath) sets out across the area now known as Kakadu National Park, leading a law enforcement team on a routine expedition; however, it doesn't take much — namely, the decisions of his less fair-minded colleagues — for the journey to end with the slaughter of Indigenous Australians. Twelve years later, in the 30s, Travis is still haunted by the incident. In one of High Ground's most important choices, it doesn't require any effort at all to understand why he feels the way he does, or why his eyes have taken on a sorrowful glint. The movie's viewers have witnessed the same awful events, with Aboriginal men, women and children who were enjoying a peaceful waterside gathering all suddenly and savagely killed, and a boy called Gutjuk (played by as a child Guruwuk Mununggurr and Jacob Junior Nayinggul as an adult) only managing to leave the scene alive thanks to Travis' intervention.

Even when untainted by blood, the country's landscape has blazed with red, orange and ochre hues since long before European settlement — since the sun first started beating down upon it, undoubtedly — with those colours helping many an Aussie film bake heated feelings of fury and torment into their frames. Indeed, simmering anguish goes with the territory in High Ground. That's true of every movie that recognises that Australia was far from terra nullius when the First Fleet arrived, but there's no escaping the scorching mood that radiates here, as director Stephen Maxwell Johnson (Yolngu Boy) intends. Working with cinematographer Andrew Commis (Babyteeth) to bring screenwriter Chris Anastassiades' (The Kings of Mykonos) script to the screen, the filmmaker fills his first feature in two decades with picturesque yet also pulsating scenery. Peering down at eye-catching swathes of the Northern Territory, the nation's earthy beauty is striking and stunning, and so is the knowledge that it was walked upon by Indigenous Australians for tens of thousands of years. And one goes with the other, as the movie's soundtrack also helps reinforce, layering the noises of birds and wildlife with songs by Yolngu singers such as Yothu Yindi's Witiyana Marika — who also appears in the film as Gutjuk's grandfather Dharrpa — and his son Yirrmal Marika.

Read our full review.

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NEWS OF THE WORLD

A year after his exquisite and rightly Oscar-nominated performance in A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, Tom Hanks returns to the big screen with his latest great film. In News of the World, he plays a Civil War veteran-turned-travelling newsman who becomes saddled with escorting a child back to her family — and he's as gripping and compelling to watch as he's ever been. Hanks' character, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, is a travelling newsman in the very literal and era-appropriate sense. He journeys from town to town to read newspapers to amassed crowds for ten cents a person, all so folks across America can discover what's going on — not just locally, but around the country and the world. Then, on one otherwise routine trip in 1870, he passes an overturned wagon. Only a blonde-haired ten-year-old girl, Johanna (Helena Zengel, System Crasher), remains alive. Kidd soon discovers that she had been abducted by the Kiowa people years earlier during a raid that saw her entire family slaughtered, and was then raised as one of their own, but she has now been left homeless after more violence. The wagon was transporting Johanna to her last remaining relatives and, in the absence of any officials willing to take over — or ensure her safety until they get around to setting off — Kidd reluctantly agrees to the task. Reading the news is still part of their trek, but so is avoiding the many dangers that plague their ride across Texas' golden-hued landscape.

If the sight of a wearied Hanks donning a wide-brimmed hat, sitting atop a horse and galloping across scrubby plains feels unfamiliar, that's because it hasn't happened before — with News of the World marking his first-ever western more than four decades after he made his acting debut. (No, his time voicing cowboy plaything Woody in the Toy Story movies doesn't count.) Hanks is a natural fit, unsurprisingly. The grounded presence he has brought to everything from Apollo 13 to The Post couldn't pair better with a genre that trots so openly across the earth, and ties its characters' fortunes so tightly to the desolate and wild conditions that surround them, after all. As a result, the fact that News of the World eagerly recalls previous western highlights such as The Searchers and True Grit doesn't ever become a drawback. Instead, this adaptation of Paulette Jiles' 2016 novel makes a purposeful effort to put its star in the same company as the many on-screen talents who've shone in — and strutted and scowled through — the genre. Hanks takes to the saddle like he's been perched upon one his entire career, of course, and takes to Kidd's lone-rider status with the same naturalistic air as well. But, in a movie directed with less frenetic and jittery flair but the right amount of pulsating emotion by Captain Phillips filmmaker Paul Greengrass, he isn't the only standout. His young co-star is just as phenomenal, in fact, although that won't come as even the slightest surprise to anyone who saw Zengel's performance in 2019's System Crasher, which won the pre-teen the German Film Prize for Best Actress.

Read our full review.

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MALCOLM & MARIE

Shot in quarantine in mid-2020, Malcolm & Marie meets its eponymous couple on a momentous night, with filmmaker Malcolm (John David Washington, Tenet) all abuzz after the premiere of his latest feature. The critics gushed to him in-person so, arriving back at the flashy house that's been rented for him, he's drunk on praise and eager to celebrate with his girlfriend and aspiring actress Marie (Zendaya, Spider-Man: Far From Home). As she cooks him mac 'n' cheese, he pours drinks and relives the evening's events. But Marie isn't as enthusiastic, or as willing to cast everything about the premiere in a rosy glow. The catalyst for her simmering discontent, other than just the state of their relationship: as Malcolm & Marie writer/director Sam Levinson admits he did himself at the premiere of his 2017 movie Assassination Nation, Malcolm forgot to thank Marie. Levinson's wife only brought it up once, he has said; however, the moment the subject comes up on-screen, Marie isn't willing to accept Malcolm's claim that he simply forgot. Cue oh-so-much arguing, mixed in with cosier banter, broader chats about art and politics, Marie's frequent escapes outside to smoke and Malcolm's impatient waiting for the first reviews of his film to drop. Again and again, their discussion circles back to their history. Malcolm's movie is about a 20-year-old addict, and Marie once was that woman. So, she feels as if her real and painful experiences have hoovered up by him, without any appreciation or recognition — without casting her in the role, too.

Where everything from Blue Valentine and the Before trilogy to Marriage Story have previously gone, Malcolm & Marie follows: into the fiery heat and knotty struggles of a complicated relationship. Like Blue Valentine, it charts ecstatic highs and agonising lows. As Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight did, it relies upon dialogue swapped frequently and passionately. And stepping in Marriage Story's territory, it follows a director and an actor as their career choices highlight issues they've plastered over for far too long. Still, while assembled from familiar pieces, Malcolm & Marie slinks into its niche. It's devastatingly stylish thanks to its black-and-white colour palette, elegant costuming and luxurious single-location setting. It glides by almost entirely on the strength of its ferocious performances, with Zendaya and Washington both exceptional. But it's also indulgent and obvious, as well as clumsy in its handling of many of its conversation topics. The film is at its best when its characters fight specifically about their relationship, and at its worst when it forgets that it's about people rather than about ideas. Like most relationships, it soars at times and sinks at others — and, in a very 2020–1 outcome, it easily leaves viewers wondering what might've eventuated if it hadn't been cooked up in a pandemic, designed to work within COVID-19 restrictions and scripted in just six days.

Malcolm & Marie is screening in select Sydney and Melbourne cinemas. Read our full review.

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PIXIE

2021 is barely a month old, but only one film reaching cinemas this year will feature beloved comedian Dylan Moran as a drug kingpin working out of a fish factory — and remaining as acerbic as ever in the process, of course — as well as Alec Baldwin as a gangster priest who uses his collar and church as a cover. That'd be Irish caper comedy Pixie, which takes its name from the woman, Pixie O'Brien (Olivia Cooke, Sound of Metal), at the centre of a heist, more than a few instances of double-crossing and a long-running feud between two groups of mobsters. Her stepfather Dermot (Colm Meaney, Gangs of London) leads one faction. Her still-yearning ex-boyfriend Colin (Rory Fleck Byrne, Zomboat!) is in his employ, but is willing to put his job and life at risk by ripping off a huge haul of MDMA. That said, most of Pixie's quest to cash in on the big score and flee to art school in San Francisco sees her spending time with best mates Frank (Ben Hardy, Bohemian Rhapsody) and Harland (Daryl McCormack, Peaky Blinders). The former has always had a crush on the titular character, while the latter sports his own feelings — and the fact that they're told "she won't just break you, she'll take a Kalashnikov to your heart" doesn't phase them in the slightest when they think they have a chance to earn her attention and affection.

Directed by St Trinian's and St Trinian's 2: The Legend of Fritton's Gold helmer (and Wayne's World and Spice World producer) Barnaby Thompson using a script penned by his son Preston (Kids in Love), Pixie finds enough charm in two key places: its engaging lead actor and its energy. Cooke is fantastic, running rings around every single one of her almost-exclusively male co-stars with her smart, spirited attitude and mesmerising presence. And, tonally, the film sports a distinct mid-90s/early-00s vibe; if you found it on a streaming platform rather than showing on the big screen, you could easily think that it had been sitting in an online catalogue for quite some time and you just hadn't ever heard of it. Still, Pixie is never anything more than watchable. The younger Thompson's screenplay doesn't quite perfect its attempts to make its protagonist her own person, leaning too heavily on male fantasies even despite Cooke's impressive efforts. Also, almost every aspect of the plot seems like the product of someone who spent their formative years worshipping Quentin Tarantino, Martin McDonagh (In Bruges) and John McDonagh (The Guard). In fact, the elder Thompson's stylistic approach actually does the latter, too, which is evident no matter how quickly the whole movies zips along.

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OCCUPATION: RAINFALL

Every science fiction film that has reached cinemas since 1977 has sat in the shadows of Star Wars, the best-known big-screen franchise there in the genre. But few movies have splashed around their desire to resemble the George Lucas-created saga and its success as blatantly as the Gold Coast-shot Occupation: Rainfall, the second entry in Australia's Occupation series. Narrative-wise, it follows an alien invasion, which its 2018 predecessor first detailed. That might sound more like Independence Day than Star Wars; however, humanity's survivors are cast as rebels fighting back against ruthless extraterrestrial forces with planet-eradicating weapons, which should ring more than a few bells from a tale set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. It's also impossible not to notice the red beams of light adorning sword-like weapons, especially when they're swung around in one-on-one face-offs; the frequent front-on shots of solo pilots sitting in their aircrafts as sky battles rage around them; the way that everything from towering military technologies to bobbing, weaving and crashing aerial conflicts are framed; and the sound effects so familiar you'd be forgiven for thinking they've just been lifted wholesale. There's also a comic green-skinned critter as a sidekick, this time quoting lines from other films rather than saying "ooh, mooey mooey, I love you!" (and, interestingly, voiced by Harry Potter's Jason Isaacs).

That Occupation: Rainfall proves so derivative sits at odds with its ambition. Writer/director Luke Sparke is clearly dreaming big, which is to be admired and applauded — as any attempt to remedy Australia's lack of a big homegrown sci-fi franchise should be. Alas, just as Occupation's aping of Red Dawn and Tomorrow, When the War Began was always evident, the debt that Rainfall owes its high-profile influences is obvious to the point of being distracting. The thin storyline doesn't help, with Rainfall starting with the decimation of Sydney, then splitting its focus between resistance fighter Matt Simmons (Dan Ewing, Home and Away) and his reluctant alliance with alien Gary (Lawrence Makoare, The Dead Lands), and the ideological differences between his colleagues Amelia Chambers (Jet Tranter, Tidelands) and Wing Commander Hayes (Daniel Gillies, The Originals). Matt and Gary head to Pine Gap to track down an item of value to the extraterrestrials, which puts them in odd-couple road-movie territory, while Amelia disagrees with Hayes' willingness to conduct experiments on and torture their otherworldly foes. The clunky dialogue everyone is forced to utter doesn't assist either, and neither does the return of Star Wars alumnus Temuera Morrison or the appearance of Community's Ken Jeong — or the always-apparent reality that keeping the franchise going and laying the groundwork for a third film is the main aim above all else.

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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, January 14 and January 21.

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, The White Tiger and Only the Animals.

Top images: News of the World, Bruce W Talamon/Universal Pictures/Netflix; Malcolm & Marie, Dominic Miller, Netflix.

Published on January 28, 2021 by Sarah Ward

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