Local cinemas this week

Top pick: Animals

Animals is an odd beast – a film so obscure that if you type its title into Rotten Tomatoes, nothing appears. In Sydney it appears to be scheduled only for Randwick Ritz and one week only at Dendy Newtown. Why? Plenty of screen space is available for Hollywood monstrosities like It: Chapter 2 in our arthouses, but so few for one of the most genuinely original and hilarious indies in years? I first saw Sophie Hyde’s (52 Tuesdays) second feature at a packed screening at the Sydney Film Festival, where it earned a genuinely rapturous applause. With the right exposure, this could be a major hit of Bridesmaids proportions amongst its target audience – the self-aware 30-something females who binged all six season of Girls and are currently lapping up Fleabag. Instead it risks vanishing into streaming oblivion.

That oddness extends to its origins. It’s based on the hit breakout novel by English author Emma Jane Unsworth, who set the tale of her two rebellious self-destructive best friends in Manchester. She wrote the screenplay too, though the movie is an Australian/Irish co-production (how does that happen?) and the action has been transferred to Dublin. Maybe that was a requirement of the funding, but why not to Aussie director’s native Adelaide? Brit actress Holliday Grainger (Patrick Melrose) manages a convincing Irish accent as Laura, while Tyler (Alia Shawkat, Arrested Development) was American in the book, so no issue there. But somehow in all that cross-cultural pollination, a sense of place has been lost. Where in the world would Tyler be able to steal a huge stash of MDMA from someone she knows, be seen doing so, and not be immediately paid a visit by a tattooed gang of thugs? Sure Dublin is a nice place to live, but a fantasy paradise as well?

The two co-dependent pals, intimate enough to sleep in the same bed and joke about the colour of each another’s pee (but not have sex together, apparently) spend a fair chunk of the movie consuming those stolen drugs. And drinking (wow, the Irish can drink!), picking up men for oral sex in grotty gig toilets and generally having a great time, all the while dishing out scathing appraisals of those “boring” people from the burbs who don’t how to live. And Tyler’s potty mouth delivers some wildly funny lines, the sort of sneering snobbishness that will amuse inner city types everywhere. Trouble is one of those bores “imprisoned” by the social expectations of the hated capitalist patriarchy is Laura’s close sister (Amy Molloy), once a rebel herself but now married with a baby. And Laura, already the wrong side of 30, is belatedly realising that her hedonistic life is actually a cover for under-achievement. She’s supposed to be a writer, but instead is doing shitty low-paid service work and hasn’t managed more than ten pages of the novel that has consumed her entire adult life. Then when she meets the handsome, sensitive and amusing Jim (Fra Fee) who is everything she isn’t – disciplined, focussed and a rising star as a classical pianist – everything changes…

To Tyler, Jim is an existential threat, Nice enough, sure but someone “with the shoes of an undertaker and the smile of a despot.” The way this fractious love-triangle pans out may not be 100 percent surprising, but it is satisfying – and even a bit (warily) hopeful for Laura. Animals is a razor sharp examination of the painful way we grow into so-called “responsible adults”, and a brutally honest look at the ways close relationships can fray. It’s poignant and funny too – what a pity it will it be so annoyingly hard to find. MA15+ from Sept 12 at Randwick Ritz and Dendy Newtown ★★★★

The Farewell

Scan the programming of Events, Hoyts or Village’s suburban cinema multiplexes, and you’ll find plenty of Asian-language films. They do well too, often turning up in the Top 10 Australian Box Office lists published in the Sunday papers (titles they never otherwise mention, and certainly don’t review). In the arthouse belt of Sydney’s inner west, once the city’s “multi-cultural heartland,” you almost never find anything from Asia – not unless it’s been made acceptable by winning a major prize at a European film festival like Cannes (Parasite). Sure, Palace run all those international film festivals – but all featuring only movies from the whitest bits of Europe. It’s almost as if a form of cultural apartheid has developed in Sydney. Both the arthouse chains and the “mainstream” multiplexes are only reflecting the demographics of their catchments (the suburbs being culturally diverse and multi-ethnic, the inner west increasingly white), and you can hardly fault them for that. But still, it’s a disturbing trend.

So when a Mandarin-language film not only turns up at Palace and Dendy but gets a significant promotional push from a major distributor (Roadshow), it must be a big deal. And The Farewell is, though really, it’s about Asian as a dish of Honey Chicken from a Chinese-Australian restaurant. The three production companies credited are all American, so is debut director Lulu Wang, who has lived in the States since she was six, and its major star Awkwafina is also American (actually of Chinese-American and Korean background).

She was the “zany” Singaporean cousin from Crazy Rich Asians and here plays a very different sort of character. As Billi she’s hunched over and seemingly suspicious of everyone, prickly with a coating of protective cynicism only a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker could have developed. Her parents Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Australian actress Diana Lin) came to the States decades ago, and although its not stressed, never quite “made it.” Billi certainly hasn’t, her latest art-related grant has just been rejected. That’s a subject mentioned later when Billi’s family return to China and other relatives ask, “Why go to America? You can get richer here.” And ain’t that the truth.

The farewell of the title is a family reunion, a hasty wedding arranged to get the extended family together. Feisty and sweet matriarch Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), beloved by Billi when she was younger, is terminally ill, but doesn’t know it. “In China we have a saying,” Billi’s mother tells her. “When you get cancer, you die.” Well yes, that often happens, but no one wants to tell Nai Nai, the notion being that she’ll have a better remaining time not knowing. Billi is incredulous that anyone should be denied the right to own their own life, every aspect of it, including its end – a Western notion for sure. And that’s the premise for all sort of cultural misunderstandings and low-key wry jokes involving a colourful cast of eccentrics as everyone gathers for the festivities, puts on a brave face, and pretends… Gradually Billi comes around to some sort of acceptance of her familial past – that in the East, a single life is only part of a whole. It’s an wryly amusing journey of cultural discovery for both her and us, involving bad karaoke, mountains of glazed food and garishly fluorescent-lit function rooms – its humour pointed and tender. Maybe a bit too sweet and gentle to make it the major movie some are suggesting. But if it signals more diversity in our arthouse cinema’s programming, it may well be a very significant one indeed. PG on now. Inner west cinemas include Palace Norton St, Central, Burwood, Rhodes and Dendy Newtown. ★★★1/2

Also opening: Downton Abbey

Few coming new to the world of the ultra-toffy world of the “beloved Crawleys and their intrepid staff” (the press notes’ gushing description of these social parasites and their fawning employees) will get much out of this latest movie-length version, which comes four years after the last series appeared on our TV screens. Directed by Micheal Engler and as always penned by Julian Fellowes, it’s little more than a 120 minute check-in on “all your favourite characters” wrapped around a royal visit to the Crawley’s estate. None of the myriad of plot lines, seemingly devised to give everyone something to do, amount to anything of any consequence – even the attempted assassination of the King in the village (a big deal, surely!) or the eventual destination of a vast inheritance. The LGBTIQ butler sub-plot was a box-ticking exercise of absurd woke-ness, which only made me wonder, where were the the “people of colour” that today’s casting and plotting dictates as a necessity? Yes I know it was 1927, and that would have been absurd – but then so is everything else that happens in and around Highclere Castle. Though if they’d been positioned amongst the servants, there would have been all hell to pay.

An honour-roll of notable British thespians (all white) form the cast, but the one I wanted to learn more about didn’t get a mention anywhere in those 90 pages of press notes. That was the gorgeous golden Labrador who gets the prime spot in the front of the film’s promotional artwork. In his fleeting cameo he’s fed bits of exquisite venison by the otherwise utterly useless Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville, better known as Paddington Bear’s adopted father) There was an “Extras casting” credit to a “Mad Dog”. Maybe that was him… PG from Sept 12 at Palace Norton Street, Central and Dendy Newtown. ★★1/2

Sydney Underground Film Festival

The inner west’s annual program of “unsavoury and indecent” content, the Sydney Underground Film Festival runs this weekend (Sept 12-15) at the Factory Theatre at Marrickville. It claims to “push the boundaries” of what’s acceptable in the cinema. But does it? There may well be something appropriately “revolting and abhorrent” buried in its programming somewhere, but the opening film – a stoner comedy called the The Beach Bum from Harmony Korine (Spring Breakers) starring Hollywood royalty Mathew McConaughey and Zac Efron was “subversive” enough to play in mainstream suburban multiplexes in the US.

I read a glowing recommendation for the other film that caught my eye – The Art of Self Defence starring Jessie Eisenberg, in The New Yorker – a staidly establishment publication if ever there was one! The really difficult and challenging films these days are the ones that take issue with the ever-so correct world-views of the lovely progressive folk (ah, shucks) who go to arthouse cinemas and underground film festivals. Movies like the superbly tough crime drama Dragged Across Concrete, or Jennifer Kent’s ultra-contentious The Nightingale… Funny though – the near-empty public screenings I saw both in during their opening weeks in inner west cinemas indicates that few of us really want to be challenged… 

ReviewsRussell Edwards