On a podcast recently I heard the actor Sam Neill refer to the lifestyle he was enjoying in New Zealand at this stage of the pandemic as a ‘strange privilege.’ It was the perfect phrase, far better than ‘survivor guilt’, which is not in any way actually appropriate.
In Australia, we’re also enjoying this strange privilege, and it may have rubbed off on our cinema industry. For at least five weeks now, multiple Australian films have dominated the Australian box office; while each have many merits, there is no doubt that the enormous financial success of The Dry, Penguin Bloom and High Ground in cinemas around the country has been augmented by the lack of Hollywood blockbuster competition. Australians historically have a terrible habit of shunning their own movies at the box office, but, during this strange privilege, we seem to have enthusiastically embraced a suite of movies that have come along, paradoxically, at a very good time.
The Dry, the most successful of the three, has finally been knocked off its number one position at the Australian box office by the kind of Hollywood product that has been around forever: the serial killer thriller (it’s called The Little Things, and stars Denzel Washington, the kind of American movie star who can still drive people to the cinema). But The Dry dropped just 18% in its eighth weekend, which is pretty phenomenal; it is on track to make $20 million at the first-run domestic box office, and is already the 14th highest grossing Australian film of all time.
This is reason to be proud, and, of course, it’s hard to feel proud in a pandemic, because our privilege is strange. But hearing today that New Zealand is trialling digital vaccination passports that will be the prototypes for the world, and reading about the vaccine support Australia will be providing across the South Pacific, does make me kind of proud to live and work in Australasia. Our strange privilege comes partially from the societies we have built, and the current success of our movies comes from the industry of artists who have been allowed to develop within them.
I’m pleased to announce that my Movieland podcast is back, with seven episodes already in the can. Have a listen via your favourite podcast platform, please subscribe, and please rate and review it highly to ensure it ‘gets out there’.
The most recent episode – 7 – features Kitty Green talking about her incredible film The Assistant, which was my ‘Best Film’ of 2020. Start there! You’ll also find discussions on The Godfather Coda, Promising Young Woman and the best films of 2020.
A sprawling, shaggy, thrilling, moving, very Spike Lee take on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Da 5 Bloods is a whole lot of movie, most of it very good indeed, all of it supremely entertaining. With Oscar allowing streaming-only movies this year thanks to You Know What, Delroy Lindo, who has collaborated with Lee for decades, has a very clear shot at a gold statue for his monumental portrayal of Paul, a very damaged Viet Nam vet who returns to Country with his ‘Bloods’ – his brothers in arms from the war – to recover a case of gold bars they buried there during their tour of duty. Riffing on the Bogart role from Madre, Paul is a fascinatingly complicated character, and Lindo pours a major career’s worth of craft into him, and with it a barrel of blood, sweat and tears.
Lee tosses other homages and references around gleefully (particularly to Apocalypse Now) as well as doubling down on some of his own stylistic extravagances, all of which work here tremendously. This is a film of massively bold swings, anchored by Terence Blanchard’s huge score, which echoes that of 25th Hour. In tone and temperament, the film reverberates with BlacKkKlansman, offeringhumour and the ‘good hang’ joys of a delightfully cohesive ensemble along with genre thrills, black history, socio-political critique and complex moral reckoning. It’s plainly the work of a middle-aged master, confident and bold, completely unafraid to take risks, answering to no-one. It’s a Spike Lee Joint, and it matters.
Mingling aesthetic and stylistic DNA from The Thing, Poltergeist, Annihilation and The Shining, among others, Richard Stanley’s adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s Colour Out of Spacemanages to mutate into its own legitimately creepy, and at times quite terrifying, beast. It is something of a triumphant return for a director who was last seen playing a mutant beast extra on the set of the film he’d been fired from, 1996’s The Island of Doctor Moreau, starring Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer. Word of his mental disintegration clearly has either been premature, exaggerated, or at the very least overcome.
A family on a farm finds their lives getting super weird after a small meteorite crashes in their yard. Nicholas Cage plays the dad, who’s not coping well with what’s happening to his alpacas, his well water, and his wife. As with The Shining, the terror comes from two fronts: the invasive effects of an alien presence, and the more terrifying idea that Dad can’t cope with it.
Lovecraft is a popular challenge for filmmakers, and continues to have a huge readership. I’ve never read him, so can’t comment on how valid Stanley’s film is as an adaptation, but as a freaky film about cosmic infection, it’s frighteningly effective.
* * * 1/2, out now on demand via Telstra, Google Play, iTunes, Fetch TV, Foxtel & Umbrella Entertainment plus DVD and Blu-Ray
Just recently I reviewed The Art of Self-Defense, starring Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots, and here they are again together, in another intriguing indie, Vivarium, from Irish director Lorcan Finnegan. This time the billing is swapped; Poots’ name comes first at the beginning of the movie, the first time I can recall seeing that, and she’s indeed the protagonist, even if her screen time is barely greater than Eisenberg’s. Since he is by far the bigger ‘star’, and since that would, in many circles, grant him the first credit, I like to think that her billing indicates a general sense of decency around the production of this modest film, and, indeed, perhaps Eisenberg himself.
They’re very good together, as a young couple who find themselves trapped in a new housing development being forced to play out a nightmarish version of aspirational peripheral suburban living. It’s Black Mirror adjacent, except that Black Mirror’s loose connective tissue seems to be tales of theoretically near-achievable tech getting nasty, while the plot here plucks a little more at cosmic or unexplainable events. A touch more Twilight Zone than Black Mirror, then, and if that distinction makes perfect sense to you, you’re the intended demographic for this film.
What’s very distinctive about Vivarium’s release in the present moment is how much it reflects that moment. It was clearly designed as a nightmare take on cookie-cutter suburbia and the persistent societal pressure for young people to settle down and procreate, but viewed in Covid-era isolation, it absolutely plays as a tale of the tensions a nice young couple face when forced to live with each other 24/7 in their bland house, small garden and immediate neighbourhood. It’s quite uncanny, a film released in our time, about our time, that was not intended so. Creepy, visually distinctive, and very well acted by the new Lunts of indie cinema, Vivarium will never be more relevant than right now. It’s another timely release from Umbrella Entertainment, who are leading the way in interesting online distribution for the Australian market during lockdown; it can be streamed at http://www.umbrellaent.com.au from April 16th.