‘Chicago’

Gorgeously staged adaptation of the Kandor & Ebb musical, Chicago is a 1920s-set black comedy with big, snazzy numbers and an undercurrent of sleaze as Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly find themselves on death row for murder.

Having dispatched her disloyal sister and philandering husband, Velma (Catherine Zeta-Jones – Ocean’s 12, Traffic) belts out Overture/All That Jazz, watched by wannabe star, a naive Roxie (Renée Zellweger – Judy, Cold Mountain). Before the morning’s out, Roxie has joined Velma in the local jail with lover Fred (Dominic West – Pride, Colette) dead on her apartment floor. Watch the two women battle for supremacy in the jail, lorded over by Matron Mama Morton (Queen Latifah – Hairspray, Girls Trip) and the attentions of lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere – Pretty Woman, Norman).

It’s bold, it’s full of vaudeville showmanship with seductive choreography and memorable songs – and unexpectedly fine performances by the three leads. But Chicago is ultimately a little vacuous and runs out of steam as a narrative way before its grand finale.

Nominated for 13 Oscars in 2003 including best director (Rob Marshall), actress, supporting actress (Queen Latifah), supporting actor (John C. Reilly), won 6 including best film, supporting actress (Zeta-Jones), costume, art design.

Rating: 63%

‘Black Widow’ (Marvel #15)

The focus has shifted to the law suit between Disney and Scarlett Johansson – which is a pity as the Cate Shortland-directed origin tale is one of the best in the Marvel Cinematic Universe canon.

As a child, Natasha Romanoff and her younger sister, Yelena, were taken from their ‘parents’ (a sleeper family based in Ohio) and trained as deadly assassins. Now an outlawed Avenger, the Black Widow must confront events tied to her Russian past alone – and deal with a sister (Florence Pugh – Little Women, Lady Macbeth) with her own agenda. The present includes faces from the past – so-called father David Harbour (Suicide Squad, Revolutionary Road) and mother, Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardener, The Favourite). But more threatening to the sisters is the sadistic Dreykov (Ray Winstone – Sexy Beast, Hugo), former head of their training program.

There’s plenty of fast-paced action in a good old-fashioned spy thriller, 21st century style. But with Shortland (Somersault, Berlin Syndrome) at the helm, character, dialogue and an engrossing narrative are given equal focus. A Black Widow stand-alone has been a long time coming, but it’s worth the wait – with Harbour very nearly stealing the show from the two sisters.

Rating: 70%

‘Lot’ by Bryan Washington

Tough, bruising short story narratives, Lot tells of an interconnected world of poverty, violence, dashed dreams where Nicolás lives surrounded by basic shotgun dwellings with busted TVs and perennially blocked pipes. Set predominantly in the poorer, migrant communities of Houston, Lot connects the dots in the lives of characters who cannot escape the drudge of their lives. Their lot has been determined.

Nicolás, with a black mother and feckless Latino father who abandons his family, is central to Washington’s focussed yet fractured narrative. A teenager who lives above the family restaurant, neither he nor his older siblings go hungry. Yet they struggle and the pull of the streets is too much for brother Javi, who finds himself hustling drugs, discovering sex and beating on Nicolás. His younger brother has himself just discovered he likes boys – something Nicolás can never reveal to his homophobic brother.

But Washington offers no linear narrative – like Houston itself, this is a sprawling miasma – of storytelling, of the everyday of living on the margins where, in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, even those living on the margins are pushed further out. Houston is molting. The city sheds all over the concrete. … [A]fter the storm, they pushed the rest of us out, too: if you couldn’t afford to rebuild, then you had to go. If you broke the bank rebuilding, then you couldn’t stay. If you couldn’t afford to leave, and you couldn’t afford to fix your life, then what you had to do was watch the neighborhood grow further away from you.

Tales of neighbourhood reactions to a local woman and her affair with a white boy, an ageing drug dealer, the apartment with a group of young queer sex workers who discover their de facto leader has contracted HIV: Lot is vibrant, beautifully modulated. Dotted throughout with Spanish of the ‘hood, it’s a visceral soul that is both unflinching yet tender, compassionate yet honest.

‘On the Waterfront’

Marlon Brando (The Godfather, The Wild One) at his strutting, mumbling best as former boxer turned dockworker Terry Malloy confronts corrupt union bosses.

The murder of nice-guy Joey Molloy by the union mob, headed by Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb – 12 Angry Men, Exodus) leads to unrest among the New Jersey dockers. Corruption, extortion and racketeering is the norm – with Joey’s convent-educated sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint – North by Northwest, Raintree County) turning to Father Barry (Karl Malden – Patton, A Streetcar Named Desire) and Malloy to end the violence.

The overt and unsubtle anti-union politics of director Elia Kazan (East of Eden, A Streetcar Named Desire) and scriptwriter Budd Schulberg (The Harder They Fall, A Face in the Crowd), both ‘friendly witnesses’ in McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities, makes On the Waterfront a controversial feature – particularly as the original script was written by Arthur Miller and changed to reflect popularist politics of the day. But there’s no denying the power of Brando’s sultry Oscar-winning performance and the unfolding claustrophia of the drama.

Nominated for 12 Oscars in 1955 including 3 for supporting actor (Cobb, Malden and Rod Steiger – In the Heat of the Night, The Pawnbroker), won 8 – including best film, director, actor, supporting actress, script.

Rating: 76%

‘The Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2’ (Marvel #11)

Continuing in the same fast-paced, irreverent fun mode as its predecessor, The Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 sees the team become united in spite of family issues threatening to undermine that bond.

Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) knew his mother but now he’s about to meet his celestial Star-Lord father, Ego (Kurt Russell – Backdraft, The Hateful Eight), a being who totally lives up to his name. It’s getting away from his attention that proves to be difficult – not helped by Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and her family problem with sister Nebula (Karen Gillan – Jumanji, The Big Short) out for revenge. If that’s not enough, Rocket has annoyed the Sovereigns, headed by Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki – Widows, Breath) to the point where they’re out to destroy the Guardians.

A sequel that follows the same formula (if it works, why change it) as director James Gunn once more packs in the visuals, the action, the jokes and the soundtrack.

Nominated for the 2018 special effects Oscar.

Rating: 62%

‘Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!’

Dodgy subverted sexual politics are at play in Pedro Almodovar’s 1989 feature.

Released from a mental home, the manipulative yet handsome Ricky (Antonio Banderas – The Skin I Live In, The Mask of Zorro) kidnaps former porn star now serious actress, Marina (Victoria Abril – Kika, Amantes). Holding her hostage in her own Madrid apartment, Ricky’s objective is to make Marina fall in love with him.

Lots of near-miss farce – particularly with sister Lola (Loles León – Talk To Her, El mundo entero) – pepper the narrative as the two come to understand each other and their lives living on the margins. With its threatening undercurrent, Almodavar (Talk To Her, The Skin I Live In) instead chooses to twist its dark humour creating a colourful, anarchic serious rom-com. Go figure!

Rating: 60%

‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’

A delightfully wry documentary, insightful and questioning as Frenchman Thierry Guetta, vintage clothing store owner in downtown LA, finds himself at the centre of the burgeoning rise of the street art scene.

In the right place at the right time, the self-proclaimed filmmaker Guetta is given access to key street artists as they hit the LA streets. Day and night, Guetta is out with his camera, neglecting family and business. For 10 years, he is a man possessed, driven by the documenting of the movement as it moves from the street to mainstream gallery success. But, with years of unedited footage, it takes Banksy to turn the focus on Guetta to produce a film – and sets in motion a series of very unexpected results as the affable, eccentric Frenchman evolves into something very different.

On one level, Exit Through the Gift Shop is an insightful look into the rise of street art and a select few of the ‘stars’ (Banksy, Space Invader and Shepard Fairy in particular) of the movement. Grainy nighttime footage attests to the risks taken. But, in following Guetta, it also evolves into a commentary on the commercialistion of that art and a character-driven thriller as he becomes immersed in the world he is filming.

Nominated for the 2011 best documentary Oscar.

Rating: 77%

‘Clickbait’

A wholly engrossing, addictive kidnap thriller miniseries (eight episodes), Clickbait sees family man Nick Brewer (Adrian Grenner) an internet sensation. But not in a way of choice. An obviously distraught Brewer holds a sign in front of an online camera – ‘5 million views I die’. But why? What has he done? As the story breaks and views pass one million, two million, three, so new signs appear accusing him of violence and abuse towards women.

It’s all a mystery to wife Sophie (Betty Gabriel), his two sons and twin sister, Pia (Zoe Kazan). Nick is almost too perfect – a loving husband, a great father, a close twin brother, popular at work. But slowly, a different Nick Brewer is revealed. Accounts on different dating sites, romantic liaisons in LA whilst on business trips from his Oakland home. The family is left reeling as more and more unknowns are exposed – including the fact Nick knew of Sophie’s affair with a (now former) colleague.

Uncertainty of truths pervade as police liaison officer Roshan Amiri (Phoenix Raei) tries to keep the family abreast of enquiries but the press and social media are quick to jump to conclusions and pass judgement. Accusations can be made without recourse as viral anonyminity and trolling grows rampant. It’s an ever increasing circle as Pia in particular demands (loudly) answers to her brother’s disappearance.

The beauty of Clickbait is the constant twists and unexpected reveals as Australian creators Tony Ayres and Christian White explore the role the press, social media and the internet play in our lives. Over eight episodes, the tale is told from the perspective of a different character, creating overlaps and repeats of the same scenes. Minor characters early in the story grow in importance as the narrative develops, others drop away only to reappear dependent on the central character of the given episode. It’s an engrossing, enjoyable journey – even if occasionally Zoe Kazan as Pia is guilty of slipping into an ‘I’m angry – and now I’m very angry’ actorly trope as she stomps around the kitchen.

Rating: 74%

‘Journey to the Stone Country’ by Alex Miller

A compelling and beautifully written tale, Journey to the Stone Country sees Annabelle Beck retreat from Melbourne domesticity and return to the country of her childhood and remote North Queensland.

Betrayed by her husband, Annabelle packs her bags and, without a word, heads to Brisbane. Uncertain where her future lies, the home of now-dead parents provides some respite. Meeting Bo Rennie, a man who claims to hold the key to that future, intrigues her. A member of the Jangga tribe where his and her homelands meet, Bo, although not much older, remembers Annabelle as a child on the neighbouring station property.

Finding themselves attracted to each other, the two set out on a personal journey of return and reconciliation as they look to understand their pasts and events that impacted on them both, repercussions of which continue to this day.

A young, disconnected Annabelle who, sent to boarding school from an early age, remembers little of life in the rugged surrounds. Bo, peripatetic stockman and member of the Rennie family with a (white) Scottish grandfather and traditional Jangga woman as a grandmother. When Iain Rennie died young – killed in a fall from his horse – Grandma Rennie continued as undisputed mistress of the property. An almost unheard of situation, she struggled for years yet, late in life, she is fraudulently dispossessed. Bo is looking for repossessing the land.

It’s not an easy journey as European settlement history and that of the Jangga come together and merge – or at least subsist on the surface. Bo shares his knowledge where he can, but much of it is tacit, leaving Annabelle uncertain, an outsider wanting to understand, but unable. Her own family left, failing in the inhospitable wilds of the stone country, a connection unfounded.

Miller writes beautifully, transporting the reader to experiencing the moment, capturing the fleeting yet resonating for a long time –

They ascended the incline of the ridge through a tract of country where prehistoric grasstrees and cycads stood in isolation among bloodwoods and stunted hickory, petrified sentinels from the age before man, their shaggy topknots and skirts trembling in the mountain breeze as if they would flee at the sight of the oncoming vehicles.

Journey to the Stone Country (as with most of Miller’s novels) sees the landscape as a central character within its narrative: it’s power and everpresence is evocatively captured, it’s history dormant but ever ready to spring forth, to engulf the reader in emotive responsiveness. Bo, his cousin and former stockman partner, Dougald (who features in Miller’s later novel, A Landscape of Farewell), Annabelle are all temporary visitors, their presence felt but ultimately temporary. Journey to the Stone Country is haunting in its redemption.

Alex Miller won the 2003 Miles Franklin Award for Journey to the Stone Country (he won the same award in 1993 for The Ancestor Game).

‘Worth’

It’s 20 years since 9/11. Directed by Sarah Colangelo (The Kindergarten Teacher, Little Accidents) and based on a true story, Worth looks to an initiative established to compensate dependents and families of the victims killed and injured.

Just how do you put a price on the value of a human life? Washington D.C. attorney Ken Feinberg (Michael Keaton – Birdman, The Founder) finds himself in that very position as he draws up a compensation formula. But the lack of any human compassion results in cynicism and outright anger by many families – $14.5 million to a CFO family, $200,000 to a dishwasher or janitor. So much so the target of a sign-up rate of at least 80% looks impossible.

Himself initially somewhat insensitive to need, Feinberg fears loss of willingness by federal government to financially recompense the families. He alienates the alternative, more humanitarian Fix the Fund organisation, founded by Stanley Tucci (Supernova, The Devil Wears Prada). But as deadlines loom, outreach by members of Feinberg’s staff, including administration manager Camille Biros (Amy Ryan – Birdman, Gone Baby Gone) slowly win over trust.

It’s an engaging enough template of a feature – politico-legalese speak, a few personal stories to tug the emotions, occasional soapboxing, the long-time-coming epiphany. Based on true cases, Worth is solid, respectful procedural filmmaking.

Rating: 62%