Local cinemas go dark

All cinemas in Australia have been closed. And slowly it’s become apparent that the shutdown will not be a matter of “a few weeks”, but months.

So, how many… The six that everyone seems to perversely “hope” for? Twelve? It’s eighteen until the vaccine, according to the optimists…

It hardly matters. The businesses that make and exhibit movies in Australia have always been precarious, and will not survive even the shortest of those time frames. Few, if any, of the welfare and income survival measures Scott Morrison has announced will make any difference. Most of the workers in the industry – from the high profile creatives to the caterers on set, from the hard working publicists to the cinema counter staff – are casuals, gig workers, contractors, sole traders and small businesses. None of them now have any forward bookings. The best most can look forward is whatever is on offer as a Centrelink client, and good luck with that now…

The prospect for cinema-goers couldn’t be bleaker. In South Korea, where the “curve” has been flattened by aggressive tracking of its citizens and mass testing, people are at work and cinemas are open. But no one is going to he movies. Cinemas are slowly closing their doors – not by government edict, but insolvency.

In the space of just a couple of weeks, an entire industry has died. It is unlikely to recover. And for those who say, “Oh, but there’s the web,” know this: Most of the platforms rely on advertising and/or on selling your data to advertisers – for products and services which, for the most part, now cannot be sold. Social media (YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram all those “free” services we’ve so willingly allowed to rule our lives), will now die a slow and painful death too. Google and Facebook, virtual monopolies, have already (March 23) dropped more than 30% of their advertising revenue.

Which leaves the subscription streaming services as the only hope. But there will be no new product for them – future projects are now in the process of being wound down, or cancelled. They simply cannot be made under social distancing rules. Anyway, I don’t know about you, but for most film lovers, watching on a small screen with all the distractions of home-life (and now 24 hour work-life) ever-present is a hugely diminished experience – at least compared with turning your phone off and losing yourself in a darkened theatre, surrounded by hundreds of like-minded fans. Of all the cherished parts of our social, creative and communal lives, all them now, apparently, a mortal danger to us all – that’s the one I’ll miss the most.

I haven’t got a clue what the world of eighteen months time will look like. Except that it won’t be anything like the recent past. And the inner west of Sydney, where I have lived for over 40 years, will not have any of my beloved art house cinemas… I wrote the reviews below for them just two weeks ago. It already feels like a hundred years…

Local cinemas this week

A dreamily seductive road trip through a divided America, a heart warming crowd pleaser from Britain and a dress that kills. It’s another week at the movies…

Queen & Slim

That poster – the arty black and white shot of an unnamed black male-and-female duo striking a casually defiant pose, says everything you need to know about Melina Matsoukas’s stylish but empty road movie. You half expect to see a credit line under each frame: “Snake skin boots by … form-fitting tiger-striped halter top by …” Now, glamorous eye candy isn’t at all a bad thing – it certainly makes for a visually diverting (if somewhat indulgent) trip to the cinema. The camera just adores this good-looking photogenic couple and every shot they’re in together is exquisitely composed. It looks gorgeous – the art direction is sensational. But isn’t all that perfection more than a little incongruous in a film so grimly determined to make a political point?

Our two heroes (Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya) have only just met on an unsuccessful Tinder date when they’re pulled over by a thuggish white cop during a traffic stop. Things spiral quickly out of control with fatal consequences, and believing they’ll be blamed for his accidental death, the pair hit the road the road together, along the way meeting a cross section of Americans, most of whom are supportive. Their deadly confrontation with the Cleveland cop, who as it turns out, had a nefarious racist past, was captured on dash cam, and the video quickly goes viral. Angela and Earnest (their real names, which we don’t know until the very end) become folk heroes, “a black Bonnie and Clyde”, as Angela’s uncle (Bokeem Woodbine) calls them. They head for Florida through the beautifully photographed US South, hoping to make it to Cuba, and along the way, gradually fall in love.

As symbolic icons for everything that’s wrong with race relations in America, there’s never any doubt that they won’t actually get to live happily ever after in Havana – to drink Cuban coffee in colourful bars, dance seductively under dim lights in noisy bodegas, walk hand-in-hand into the sunset, doing what good-looking people do to look good on camera – the sort of things we’ve just watched for a dreamy and seductive 132 minutes. Their bloody end is forebodingly signposted several times, though when it comes, it’s so OTT as to be almost surreal.

Yet as it happens, Queen & Slim’s message is as vital as it is urgent. The danger faced by black Americans during routine traffic stops in many parts of the US is real. The systematic bias built-in to the American judicial system is real. The multitude of discriminatory practices black Americans face everyday, so dramatically revealed in that nation’s monstrously distorted rate of prison incarceration, are all real. So what a pity that almost nothing of what happens after that cop’s gun goes off feels even remotely realistic – that so much of the plot feels contrived, more determined to push buttons than convince as something that might just happen. The real pity is – that for many black Americans – it could… MA15+ from March 12. Local cinemas include Palace Norton Street, Central and Dendy Newtown. ★★★ 1/2 View the trailer.

Military Wives

It’s been over 20 years since Peter Cattaneo created a whole new genre with The Full Monty – odd-shaped people getting their kit off for a cause. There have been countless imitations and variations of that formula since, some with nudity, some without, none of them half as good. Meanwhile in all that time, the British director himself never repeated its astonishing breakout success either. His latest attempt starring Kristin Scott Thomas and Sharon Horgan as two woman who form a choir to support the troops away at war (their husbands and partners), probably won’t set the box office on fire either. Though as an amiable, low-stakes dramedy which never misses a beat in winning our hearts and minds, it does deserve to…

Much to that is down to its two stars, who shine together as unlikely sparring partners. Horgan is Lisa, an earthy matter-of-fact Irishwoman, high-spirited though less acerbic than the character she plays in her own hit TV series Catastrophe. While there’s plenty of tension, there’s only one full-bore screaming match, and of course that’s with Kate, the posh, uptight control freak wife of the base’s top brass (Greg Wise). Scott Thomas is predictably funny in the role – one she’s played many times before. She’s a noble do-gooder, who tries hard and means well, but her social class and position on the hierarchical army base means she doesn’t know how gratingly she comes across. So she desperately needs Lisa’s organisational talents and energy to get the motley group of women to forgo their favoured social pastime (girls’ nights out getting pissed) and do something a bit more helpful to the base’s morale while the men are away in Afghanistan and in danger. Naturally one of the ladies turns out to have vocal chords like fine honey. The Welsh one, but you guessed that… One of the wives will be lesbian, and you knew that too. Meanwhile, you can set your watch on the time it will take for one of the combatant husbands to be killed. And then when the hankies have been put away, right on cue, it’s time to start toe-tapping and singing along to an incredible vocal cappella version of Yazoo’s Only You.

And while its plot never deviates from its single path trajectory – from the choir’s scrappy start-up to the ladies’ triumphantly rousing performance at London’s Royal Albert Hall – it’s almost impossible to resist its familiar beats. Military Wives is bit like comfort food on a cozy Sunday night – you know exactly what you’re in for (that’s why you order it) But oh boy, it sure feels good going down… M Local cinemas include Palace Norton Street, Central, Burwood and Dendy Newtown. ★★★★ View the trailer

Also opening: In Fabric

Any movie that lists someone as a “Mannequin pubic hair stylist” on its credits roll is surely worth seeking out, though right at the outset, let’s note that Peter Strickland’s decidedly strange In Fabric is getting only a strictly limited season at a couple of Sydney cinemas. For those new to this director’s (The Duke of Burgundy) lurid and eccentric style, expect a dose of off-kilter comedy/drama, a bit of disgusting slasher horror combined with a serve of 70’s-style soft-core porno, all with a twisted satiric edge. In the first of the two stories here, a lovely red dress purchased by a shy bank teller Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) turns out to have a mind of its own and attacks and eventually kills anyone who wears it. The second is a repeat with a different set of characters after the dress winds its way through the retail trail and ends up in a charity store.

Strickland’s target is modern capitalism, or rather its essential by-product, our fetishism of consumption. Sure, that’s always worth a poke in the bum, and his movie does have its savagely funny moments (along with quite a few curiously flat ones). But a piece of clothing, even from a high end fashion department store? As a symbol that feels antiquated, as old-school as the movie’s archly mannered style. Nowadays we’ve all been persuaded to buy shiny devices programmed by algorithms programmed to extinguish all intelligent life on the planet. Now that’s a real horror story. MA15+ at Dendy Newtown and Randwick Ritz from March 12. ★★★ 1/2
View the trailer

Reviews – Russell Edwards