Local cinemas this week

A bittersweet Palestinian comedy about identity, a rollicking  jaunt up the Australian coast with a young Errol Flynn and a violent boxing drama set in a Thai prison

Movie of the week: Wajib: The Wedding Invitation

Annemarie Jacir’s understated family drama was an unexpected delight at this year’s Sydney Film Festival where it screened in the official competition. But why the surprise? I guess I was pre-judging – figuring that a Palestinian film dealing with Arab life in the enclave city of Nazareth would be a tub thumping polemic designed to leave its audience in no doubt what to think. Fortunately that’s not Wajib, not at all – one of the most humane, perceptive, and wryly funny films I’ve seen in years. What a pity its getting such a limited post-festival release here in Sydney.

Loosely inspired by event in the writer/director own family, it follows a prodigal’s son Shadi (Saleh Bakri) return to his home town from Rome where he now works as an architect. He’s adopted the attitudes and fashions of modern Europe, somewhat to the annoyance of his schoolteacher father Abu Shadi (Mohammad Bakri). “They wear shirts like that in Italy?” he asks early on. The men are respectful and polite for a while as they drive around in a battered Volvo but soon enough we get the picture that underneath the niggling surface tensions, something much deeper is going on. Shadi has arrived for the wedding of his sister Amal (Maria Zreik), and tradition demands that the men in the family hand deliver all the invitations to extended family and friends. Which lead to all sorts of humorous exchanges, familial misunderstandings and even a few absurd attempts at matchmaking by the father, intent on encouraging his son home (and away from his PLO-affiliated girlfriend).

The film is not in any way overtly political, but the sly way it slips in little asides and observations on what it means for Palestinians to live in this part of Israel, the adjustments, compromises and perhaps even outright betrayals made by those who have stayed is nothing short of brilliant. Naturalistic and gently paced, there’s some clever visual gags there too, subtle rather than laugh-out loud. Importantly, it also reveals what life in their their homeland now looks like to the Palestinians who have chosen to live in exile. Eventually the two perspectives collide, right near the end when the real reason Shadi left is revealed, and the men explosively speak some home truths to each other. It’s not the final scene – there’s one more, almost without any dialogue at all, that gently speaks volumes about intergeneration conflict and family love. It’s powerfully evocative, a lovely exchange that will stay with me for a very long time. M from Oct 11 at Dendy Newtown and Dendy Opera Quays ★★★★1/2

In Like Flynn

There are a lot of myths about Errol Flynn, the Tasmanian-born star of swashbuckling Hollywood epics in the 40s and 50s. I have a distant memory of being told of one of them doing the rounds way back then – that he was exceptionally well-endowed, and admiring grubby-minded little boys of all ages could find “evidence” of that by closely examining the “cut of his jib” so to speak in his many action scenes… Nowadays said appendage would have its own Instagram page and there wouldn’t be any doubt of its size. Actually, nowadays the womanising Flynn would probably find himself in lot of trouble. He did back then too, and was charged with the two counts of statuary rape in 1942. His lawyers managed to get him out of that by impugning his accusers’ motives and morality (make of that what you will…)

Very wisely then, Russell Mulchay’s highly unusual and entertaining biopic takes us back to Flynn’s early and more  “innocent”, pre-superstar days. It’s based on some of his own self-aggrandising interviews, as well as the 1937 memoir Beam Ends, which purported to track his early fortune-seeking seafaring exploits up the East Coast of Australia and Papua New Guinea. The cult director Mulchay (Razorback, Highander) has adopted a breezy free-wheeling approach to the material, treating everything as one giant boys-own-romp. Stylistically it’s similar to Flynn’s own later fictional screen epics, and naturally his exploits involve a fair bit of boozing, brawling and bonking, as well some out-right criminality like yacht theft, fraud, opium smuggling (all just a bit of innocent fun, really…) 

Thomas Cocquerel plays the daring-do adventurer himself with the right amount of swagger. He certainly has the matinee-star good looks, but alas ladies, no visible evidence of unusual endowment… He’s ably abetted by a bunch of rough-and tumble offsiders – the street fighting Rex (Corey Large, who also co-writes and co-produces), a book-ish English adventurer called Dook (William Moseley) and grizzled old sea-dog Charlie (Clive Standen). Later an OTT David Wenham turns up as a crooked Townsville politician, a racketeer so pantomime villainous that he literally twirls his moustache while threatening our heroes with imprisonment and hideous violence. Which naturally they narrowly escape, aided by the requisite femme fatale (Isabel Lucas). 

The film looks lush and gorgeous, as benefitting something shot on the Gold Coast with a budget of $12 million – a respectable amount for any Australian production. Though there is some evidence that everyone involved was having way more fun with their tongue-in-cheek roles and preposterous action than the audience will get. Your enjoyment may well depend on just how far you’re willing to go with it, and buy into extravagantly larger-then-life myths… Maybe its best to just dive in, like Flynn. MA15+ from Oct 11. Local cinemas include Burwood and George St ★★★1/2

Dendy Newtown exclusive: A Prayer Before Dawn

Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s exhausting and gruellingly immersive drama is set in a notoriously tough Thai prison and based on the real life experiences of an English drug addict and boxer Billy Moore (Joe Cole). It could easily act as an endurance test for those macho film festival movie-goers who like to swagger and boast, “C’on, hit me with the toughest film you’ve got, I can take it!” But even those well-inured to the violence both prison and boxing movies routinely deliver might find this one tough going. By the time the no-holds-barred Muay Thai boxing matches start somewhat over the two-thirds of the way in, we’ve already been exposed to over an hour of unremitting misery, as well as a brutal savagery rarely seen on screen. 

The prison scenes are both confrontational and disorienting – literally a sea of writhing sweaty tattooed bodies with only Thai spoken – or rather yelled in a hard guttural staccato. There’s no subtitles and very little English, but it’s not too hard to work out what’s going on. Billy is thrown into prison with fearsome guards and even more vile and dangerous inmates and has to survive, and he’s only got his wits, fists and the odd broken bottle to do it with. Needless to say he manages, but its nearly an hour before we even see him relax enough to (just barely) smile…

Which is the problem with the film. While it’s certainly possible to admire the audacious beauty of the cinematography and the quite majestic artistry of Cole’s performance, it’s harder to care about our central character. The writers have given Billy no back story, no ambitions and no future… Eventually, over the end titles we learn that he has one, and (briefly) meet the real Billy Moore (he plays Billy’s estranged father) who was repatriated in 2010 to serve the remainder of his time in Britain, and later wrote the best-selling memoir. We’re also told he went on to help rehabilitate other addicts, though intriguingly, now he’s back in jail. R18+ on now at Dendy Newtown only. ★★★

Also opening this week

Bad Times at the El Royale and First Man, both unpreviewed

Reviews – Russell Edwards