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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

The New Movies You Can Watch at Australian Cinemas From November 19

Head to the flicks to see David Fincher's latest, two queer romances, a new version of 'Pinocchio' or two homegrown — but very different — docos about creative endeavours.
By Sarah Ward
November 19, 2020
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By Sarah Ward
November 19, 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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MANK

In 2010's The Social Network, David Fincher surveyed the story of an outsider and upstart who would become a business magnate, wield significant influence and have an immense impact upon the world. The applauded and astute film tells the tale of Mark Zuckerberg and of Facebook's development — but it's also the perfect precursor to Fincher's latest movie, Mank. This time around, the filmmaker focuses on a man who once spun a similar narrative. A drama critic turned screenwriter, Herman J Mankiewicz scored the gig of his lifetime when he was hired to pen Orson Welles' first feature, and he drew upon someone from his own life to do so. Citizen Kane is famous for many things, but its central character of Charles Foster Kane is also famously partially based on US media mogul William Randolph Hearst, who Mankiewicz knew personally. Accordingly, Mank sees Fincher step behind the scenes of an iconic movie that his own work has already paralleled — to ponder how fact influences fiction, how stories that blaze across screens silver and small respond to the world around them, and how one man's best-known achievement speaks volumes about both in a plethora of ways. Mank is a slice-of-life biopic about Mankiewicz's (Gary Oldman) time writing Citizen Kane's screenplay, as well as his career around it. It's catnip for the iconic feature's multitudes of fans, in fact. But it also peers at a bigger picture, because that's classic Fincher.

When the film introduces its eponymous scribe, it's 1940, and he's recovering from a car accident. In a cast and confined to bed due to a broken leg, he has been dispatched to a Mojave Desert ranch by Welles (Tom Burke, The Souvenir) and his colleague John Houseman (Sam Troughton, Chernobyl), all so he can work his word-slinging mastery. As Mankiewicz toils, the movie wanders back to times, places and people that inspire his prose, especially from the decade prior. Dictating his text to British secretary Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), he draws upon his friendships with Hearst (Charles Dance, Game of Thrones) and the news baron's starlet mistress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) in particular. And yes, as anyone who has seen Citizen Kane will spot, Mank's nonlinear structure apes the script that Mankiewicz pens. Many of the latter film's glimmering black-and-white shots do as well, although you won't spot a sled called Rosebud here. In a script by Jack Fincher — father of David, who wrote the screenplay in the 90s before passing away in 2003 — Mank suggests other factors that made Mankiewicz the person he was, and that shaped Citizen Kane's script as well. Combine all of the above, and a dense and detailed movie results. That's Fincher's wheelhouse, after all. Mank is also visually ravishing and textured, and tonally cutting and icy — which, along with weighty performances, are all Fincher hallmarks. But there's both depth and distance to Mank. It peers in and pokes about, but it never wholly lures the audience in. Watching Oldman and Seyfried's rich scenes together, viewers will wish it did, though.

Read our full review.

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MONSOON

Home may mean different things to different people but, in Monsoon, Vietnam doesn't mean home to Kit (Henry Golding). He was born there, in the aftermath of the war. He spent his earliest years in the Asian nation, with his parents caught up in the aftermath of the conflict. But when he was still a child, his family left for a refugee camp in Hong Kong and then moved permanently to London. Now, as an adult who has lived the bulk of his existence far away, he returns for the first time to bring back his mother's and father's ashes. He's instantly thrown off balance upon his arrival, whether he's driving through moped-filled streets or walking around crowded markets. Little of what he remembers is the same — his old house and his neighbourhood stomping grounds, particularly — and he doesn't recall as much as his childhood best friend Lee (David Tran), who stayed behind, would clearly like. Of what he does recollect, some crucial details clash with Lee's versions, too. Consequently, as Kit roves around Saigon and then Hanoi (his place of birth and his parents' original home, respectively), he's searching for a connection. He'll make one, but not in the way he expects.

Monsoon tells a noticeably slight tale, but Cambodian-born Chinese British writer/director Hong Khaou (Lilting) is keenly and overwhelmingly aware that a sense of belonging doesn't simply come with one's birth certificate. He's also a minimalistic filmmaker, in a sense. He delves into straightforward scenarios, and knows that he needn't layer them with too many external complicating factors. In other words, he's cognisant that merely examining how a person copes — even in a very commonplace situation — can deliver several lifetimes worth of complexity without a wealth of other narrative roadblocks or setbacks. As a result, both Khaou and Monsoon ask a significant amount of Golding; they demand more than his previous charisma-driven roles in Crazy Rich Asians, A Simple Favour and Last Christmas have combined, actually. Viewers of those three films already know that he can radiate charm like few other actors currently appearing on-screen, but Monsoon requires Golding's soulful best. At every moment, he's tasked with conveying the potent thoughts and jumbled emotions swelling inside Kit, and with doing so largely without dialogue. It's a quietly powerful performance, and it's one that the movie steadfastly needs. It's one that Monsoon depends upon, kin fact. Thanks in no small part to his efforts, Monsoon feels comfortable and intimate and eye-opening and new all at once — and proves immensely affecting viewing.

Read our full review.

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ELLIE AND ABBIE (AND ELLIE'S DEAD AUNT)

As a teen rom-com about two high schoolers working through their attraction for each other as they're also trying to work out what to do with their lives and how to simply be themselves, there's a strong sense of familiarity about Ellie and Abbie (and Ellie's Dead Aunt). That isn't a sign of laziness, however, because first-time feature writer/director Monica Zanetti wants you to register how much her film resembles other entries in its genre — and to notice what it's doing differently. There's a purposeful sense of clumsiness about the Sydney-set movie, too. Again, that's by design. Studious school captain Ellie (Sophie Hawkshaw, Love Child) has a simmering crush on the far cooler, calmer and more collected Abbie (Zoe Terakes, Janet King), but is struggling to stump up the courage to ask her to the school formal. When the pair do slowly start becoming closer, Ellie doesn't know exactly what to do, or what's expected, or how to be the person she wants to be in her first relationship. Complicating matters is the distance she feels from her mother, Erica (Marta Dusseldorp, Stateless), as she navigates such new emotional terrain — oh, and the fact that, as the title gives away, Ellie's dead aunt Tara (Julia Billington) suddenly starts hovering around and dispensing advice about following her feelings.

So far, so sweet. Of course, unfurling a queer romance within such well-worn confines shouldn't be such a remarkable act (and an Australian teen queer romance at that), but it still currently is. Ellie and Abbie (and Ellie's Dead Aunt) isn't just entertaining and understanding, cute and creative with its teen romance, and proudly celebratory of LGBTQIA+ perspectives, though. It's all those things, but Zanetti's decision to open the door to a deeper contemplation of Australia's historical treatment of the queer community gives considerable depth and weight to a movie that mightn't have earned those terms otherwise. The brightly shot feature has a strong sense of place, but without including all of the usual landmark shots that make many features feel like tourism campaigns. More importantly, it has a clear understanding of what LGBTQIA+ Sydneysiders have weathered in past decades. That activism is layered throughout the film in an overt subplot and, while it's hardly treated with nuance (an observation that applies to much of the picture), it's a powerful inclusion. Simply by reaching local cinema screens, Ellie and Abbie (and Ellie's Dead Aunt) makes a statement, but it also pays tribute to all the statements made in big and bold ways — and with tragic and painful outcomes, too — to get to this point in Australian queer history.

Read our full review.

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PINOCCHIO

It has been 80 years since Disney's Pinocchio unleashed a wooden puppet and the woodcarver who made him upon animation-loving audiences, adapting Carlo Collodi's 1883 Italian children's novel The Adventures of Pinocchio in the process. And, over that period, that film has remained the version of record. Indeed, it's the reason that generations of viewers are familiar with the story. Matteo Garrone's (Gomorrah) new live-action movie of the same name earns a place alongside it, however. It's one of three new and upcoming features tackling the narrative, ahead of a stop-motion flick co-directed by The Shape of Water's Guillermo del Toro that's due to hit Netflix next year and Disney's own flesh-and-blood iteration that's slated to be helmed by The Witches' Robert Zemeckis — and it serves up a tender and sumptuous take on the fairytale. In relaying how the kindly Geppetto (Life Is Beautiful Oscar-winner Roberto Benigni) shaped a lively log into a boy-sized puppet (Federico Ielapi), who then decides to see the world and strive to become a real child, it  also hews far closer to the source material than its animated predecessor. This is a movie clearly made with an abundance of affection for its inspiration, too, and that love and devotion shines through in every frame.

In fact, the feature's visuals prove its strongest element, including in bringing Pinocchio to life. He's a detailed marvel who appears oh-so realistic and yet also looks uncanny as well, as intended, and the decision to use a child actor wearing prosthetics rather than relying heavily upon CGI works a charm. The world that Garrone spins around the eponymous puppet is similarly rich and fantastical — and whimsical, although the latter is overdone. Pinocchio is far more resonant when it's letting its central figure discover that being human involves weathering all the cruelties that the earth's population has in store for each other, and watching him learn that Geppetto's unconditional fondness and acceptance is sadly rare. It's much less involving when it's leaning overtly into quirkiness, although that should probably be expected with Benigni involved. Where eccentricity is concerned, this tale already has plenty baked in, as the Fox (Massimo Ceccherini), the Cat (Rocco Papaleo) and the Fairy with Turquoise Hair (Marine Vacth, If You Saw His Heart) all make plain. But even if the whole movie is a little overstated, Garrone has still made a beautiful movie — and one that feels like the natural next step after 2015's Tale of Tales and even 2018's Dogman.

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MORGANA

Many a big-screen drama has stepped through the plight of a middle-aged woman unhappy with the state of her life, constrained by the path she's been forced to take, and uncertain about her next steps or committed to do whatever it takes to leave the existence she hates behind. Indeed, it's a list too long to detail; however, the entire history of fiction on celluloid couldn't conjure up anything as distinctive, empowering and intriguing as Morgana Muses' tale — or the wealth of literary narratives about the same idea, either. After charting the course expected of her when she grew up, she found herself not just unhappily married, but despondent in her domestic trappings. Accordingly, the Albury housewife decided to leave her husband and the small town she called home, initially in a tragic fashion. But, as perceptive Australian documentary Morgana shows, Muses thankfully only achieved the first two parts of that equation in her quest to regain control and agency over her choices. From there, she decided to step into the world of feminist pornography, resulting in an acclaimed career that has earned her accolades, applause and attention from Melbourne to Berlin and back again (and, obviously, that has resulted in her journey being immortalised in this movie).

It's no wonder that filmmakers Isabel Peppard and Josie Hess were eager to document Muses' story and share it with the world, because it's quite the tale. This isn't likely to be the last film made about Muses, actually, because she instantly screams for several documentaries dedicated to her exploits — and will likely one day inspire a fictionalised drama as well. There's much to unpack, including Muses' resolute determination to bravely put herself first, express her own desires, and create both sex-positive and age-positive erotica. Every one of those decisions isn't just revelatory, but also proves revolutionary in their own way. Candid and complex, Muses is the type of subject that all filmmakers wish they could stumble across, as Peppard and Hess continually show in their engaging film. Morgana isn't just a celebration, though, because even Muses' new life has had its ups, downs, highs and lows — all of which are captured with help from the documentary's willing point of focus, with the help of both talking-head interviews and fly-on-the-wall-style footage, and with glimpses of the work that's transformed Muses' existence.

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LOVE OPERA

Australia's performing arts scene has been shuttered for much of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But documentary Love Opera lets viewers peer behind the scenes of a production that hit the stage long before anyone had ever heard of the novel coronavirus that changed life as we know it this year — and to spend time with the talented folks who toiled to make the show in question happen, too. The opera: Carmen. The bodies responsible: the Lisa Gasteen National Opera Program (LGNOP) and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. The year: 2017. Established by internationally renowned Australian soprano Lisa Gasteen, the intensive program trains Australian and New Zealand opera singers, and has put on a semi-staged production at the end of each year since 2017. Accordingly, Love Opera follows LGNOP's first attempt to do just that, from the casting through until the final product. Gasteen features prominently, understandably, chatting not just about the show at hand and the process of bringing it to fruition, but also running through her career, its ups and downs, the reality of getting to the top of the industry and her decisions for embarking upon her current path. Also lending the film their thoughts, feelings and observations are the program's cofounder Nancy Underhill, plus conductors Alondra de la Parra and Simone Young, as well as singers such as Rachel Pines and Morgan England-Jones.

There's much to cover, as filmmaker Liselle Mei recognises, with the film quickly flitting through a wealth of material — and touching upon a plethora of topics in the process. The physicality required to be an opera singer, the passion that drives it, the difficulty of being a younger talent when many roles are written for older characters, the way the art form has been changing over the years, the treatment of queer creatives: all of this earns the documentary's attention, and each could've received more screen time if there wasn't so much to cover. But Love Opera never feels slight on any area of interest. It doesn't break the behind-the-scenes doco mould, either, but it delivers a broad rather than shallow snapshot of everything required to make the LGNOP's version of Carmen happen. Brisbanites will notice all of the drone shots of the movie's setting, which can border on intrusive; however, both opera lovers and newcomers alike receive an insightful glimpse at the ins and outs of the medium, its homegrown stars both established and emerging, and the hard work behind crooning its tunes in such a resonant fashion.

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FATMAN

When a film or TV show fills one of its roles in a gimmicky way that's obviously designed to garner publicity, it's called stunt casting. The term wholeheartedly applies to Fatman, a flimsy action-comedy that features Mel Gibson as Santa (and delivers his second big-screen release of 2020 after the abysmal Force of Nature). Even just reading about the premise, you can probably see the light bulbs going off in casting executives and other filmmaking powers-that-be's heads when they came up with the idea — because enlisting the American-born, Australian-raised actor as the symbol of all things wholesome and jolly sits in stark contrast to the far-from-jovial string of controversies that have popped up in his personal life, especially over the past decade. But a movie needs more than a blatant stunt to actually serve up something worth watching. And as far as shameless attempts to grab attention go, getting Gibson to play the red-suited figure just proves ill-advised and uncomfortable rather than provocative. Writer/directors Eshom Nelms and Ian Nelms (Small Town Crime) must feel otherwise, though, because there's very little else to this festive-themed movie. 'Tis the season for dull and muddled movies that aren't anywhere near as edgy as its makers think, and aren't funny or entertaining at all, it seems.

Three male characters drive Fatman's narrative, starting with Chris Cringle (Gibson), who oversees a Canadian workshop that's forced to take a military contract to get by. Kids just aren't behaving themselves enough these days, so he's delivering more lumps of coal than presents — and the stipend he receives from the US government to cover the elf-made gifts has decreased as a result. One of those bratty children, 12-year-old rich kid Billy Wenan (Chance Hurstfield, Good Boys), decides he isn't happy with his haul one Christmas. His solution: enlisting an assassin to bump off Santa as payback. Said hitman, who is just called Skinny Man (Walton Goggins), has been harbouring a lifelong grudge against the titular character anyway and doesn't take much convincing. Ant-Man and the Wasp and Them That Follow star Goggins is the best thing about a movie that has very little going for it, which speaks volumes about the one-note plot points. But given the distinct lack of jokes, the clumsy attempts to satirise today's supposedly uncaring times and the routine feel that infuses even its frenzied scenes of violence, he can't turn the film into a gift for anyone. Fatman wants to be an action-packed take on a Bad Santa-esque comedy, but ends up faring even worse than that beloved movie's awful sequel Bad Santa 2.

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ALL MY LIFE

No one with cancer would wish for their experience with the horrific disease to be turned into a schmaltzy movie about how hard their illness was for their partner. Based on the true story of digital marketer-turned-chef Solomon Chau and his psychology masters student girlfriend and later wife Jennifer Carter, that's what All My Life serves up — and while it feigns to focus on both of them, this overt attempt at tugging on viewers' heartstrings makes it clear that it's really about the latter. The title refers to Jenn (Jessica Rothe, Happy Death Day) and the 'make every moment count' wisdom she discovers watching Sol (Harry Shum Jr, Crazy Rich Asians) battle liver cancer. Over and over again, especially in tough and devastating situations, the film's visuals focus on her rather than him, too. It cuts away from him when he's explaining how difficult it all is, to follow her anger about their changed wedding plans instead. It literally foregrounds her in a shot when he's just received a big blow, and is understandably failing to cope. And it gives her time to scream in anguish in her car after yet more unpleasant news comes his way, in case viewers weren't certain who the movie thinks is the real victim. All My Life may be shot in the soft and sunny hues of a trite Nicholas Sparks-penned romance — and clearly aspire to sit in their company — but it's insidious in the way it uses one real-life person's sickness to make its preferred protagonist seem more interesting.

It's a gender-flipped, illness-driven variation on the dead wife trope, as seen in the likes of Inception and Shutter Island, where the male lead is given a sob story to make his tale more dramatic. It's firmly in line with the way that cinema routinely sidelines those dealing with cancer over those standing by their sides, as seen far too often (when a movie about cancer or featuring a cancer-stricken character doesn't stick to the template, such as Babyteeth earlier this year, it stands out). The narrative details that All My Life chronicles may stem from reality, but they're ground down to a formula: girl meets boy, sparks fly, their future sprawls out before them, then cancer gets in the way and she can't have her dream nuptials. There's also never any doubt that this movie wouldn't exist if the GoFundMe campaign set up for Sol and Jenn's initially postponed wedding didn't garner significant media attention, as if some level of fame makes one cancer story more important than the rest. But it's the choice of focus that transforms this film from an expectedly cliched addition to the weepie genre and into overt slush. Director Marc Meyers' My Friend Dahmer also struggled with a similar approach, also choosing to spin a story around someone other than the obvious point of interest — and the fact that Shum puts in All My Life's best performance makes the tactic all the more galling and grating here.

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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 and November 12.

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 and Freaky.

Top image: Mank, Nikolai Loveikis/Netflix; Monsoon, Dat Vu.

Published on November 19, 2020 by Sarah Ward

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