LaPaglia and Corr.

* * * 1/2

Bold, ambitious, colourful, a big swing, Maziar Lahooti’s feature debut Below, now available on STAN, is full of ideas. Set in the daunting milieu of a migrant detention centre in a (very slightly) alternative-reality Australia, the film takes black-comedy aim at all manner of hot button issues swirling around our – Australian – sense of identity, as well as cancel culture, the dark web, gambling, corporate-speak, privatisation, and, inherently, the ethical and moral quagmire of migrant detention itself. It’s loaded to the brim, thrillingly, bracingly, at times almost gluttonously – the work of someone with a lot to say and only 93 minutes to say it.

Ryan Corr plays Dougie, a young man forced by circumstance to work in a private detention centre in an arid region that’s been effectively erased from Australia – a no-man’s land of no accountability. There, he encounters a punitive system of cage-fighting that’s been set up to keep the detainees in line, and sees an opportunity to profit.

A kind of unholy cross between Catch-22, Fight Club and The Road Warrior, Lahooti’s nihilistic, anti-heroic and at times ferociously angry film is visually energetic and excitingly paced, creating a vibrantly dangerous world with one foot in reality and the other in low-key science fiction. Corr is an entertaining – if amoral – guide, and Anthony LaPaglia is ridiculously enjoyable as Terry, Dougie’s step-father and head honcho at the detention centre who gets him into this mess. As black comedy it’s not the funniest, as political satire it’s not the sharpest, and as sci-fi it’s not the most rigorous, but part of its charm is how it resists trying too hard to excel as any of these. You might say that it’s tonally inconsistent; I would suggest it’s tonally bold. It’s its own thing, original and unique, not for everyone, and all the better for it.

A Month of Sundays

mmt872-flatpack1***1/2 (out of five)

Frank (Anthony LaPaglia), a middle-aged Adelaide real estate agent, is drowning in a funky stew of self-loathing, grief, abandonment issues, loneliness and regret. It is entirely possible he’s become clinically depressed. His Sunday routine of showing modest suburban houses has lost any jazz it may have once held for him, and even when one of his offerings achieves a staggering result, his resultant smile only just manages to crack across his stony, downcast face. He’s a bit of a mess, albeit in a quiet, contemplative way. Then a strange phone call offers him a chance for… yep. Redemption.

Matthew Saville’s script is simultaneously modest and wildly ambitious, and he shoots it with quiet, understated precision. He’s a terrific director; this is his third feature, and his first two, Noise and Felony, were both fantastic. All three films value character first and foremost, but each also has a plot that is original and surprising. A Month of Sundays is, in terms of production elements, by far the “smallest” of the three, but its themes are grand. In a nutshell, it’s a film about letting go, which may not sound very sexy, but Saville plays out this concept on a personal, intimate and relatable level that is powerful and moving. He examines with acute clarity the parent / child bond in a very fresh way: when was the last time you saw a film that dealt with middle-aged people and their parents?

John Clarke plays Frank’s boss, Phillip, and every scene between the two of them is a masterpiece of comedic performance, writing and direction. Clarke is one of the most naturally funny performers on the planet and his scenes are so good, you miss him when he’s gone, which does have the slightly wayward effect of highlighting the sadness permeating the rest of the story: when Phillip’s on screen, A Month of Sundays is a comedy, but when he’s not, it’s very much a drama, even a tragedy.

I found myself squirming through the film’s third act, as it seemed to lose momentum, at times becoming almost still. But there hasn’t been a waking hour since I saw it that I haven’t thought about it. It’s a very adult film, and it’s doing very, very well (in a relative, modest context) among older Australian audiences; the first screening I tried to attend, on a Sunday at 1:30pm, was sold out, and the next, at the same time on the Monday, was full of, well… old people. Which is not to say that it doesn’t play fair to all, but I suspect to relate to Frank, Phillip and the rest of the film’s characters you’ll need to at least have middle age somewhere on the horizon. If you’ve recently experienced any of Frank’s life-altering events, it’s possible that this film will move you in staggering ways.

Incidentally, Sydney audiences will be tickled – or perhaps dismayed – by the absurdly low prices the Adelaide houses in the film are being sold for.