‘Billy Elliot’

A bittersweet feelgood of a narrative as young Billy Elliot, coming to terms with the recent death of his mother, finds solace in the world of dance – much to the dismay of his father and older brother.

Set in the northern England mining towns during the year-long Miners Strike, Billy (Jamie Bell – Rocketman, Flags of Our Fathers) skips boxing classes for ballet and the no-nonsense Mrs Wilkinson (Julie Walters – Mamma Mia, Harry Potter). But dad (Gary Lewis – Gangs of New York, The Keeper), already struggling with the loss of his wife and the financial impact of the strike, is less than happy.

Sheer joy on screen as the immensely likeable Billy determindly fights for what he wants – even when there’s no electricity or thousands of police descend on the town restricting movement of the mining townsfolk. Acclaimed theatre director Stephen Daldry (The Reader, The Hours) nailed it in his film debut.

Nominated for 3 Oscars in 2001 – best director, supporting actress and original screenplay (Lee Hall).

Rating: 77%


Two school friends are unexpectedly reunited in very unusual circumstances in 1920s New York.

Shopping outside Harlem, dressed in the latest demure fashions, Irene (Tessa Thompson – Creed, Thor: Ragnarok) bumps into Clare (Ruth Negga – Loving, TV’s Preacher), a woman passing as white and married to a wealthy racial bigot, Alexander Skarsgård (The Legend of Tarzan, TV’s True Blood). Exploring the fear and thrill of discovery, Clare keeps returning to the New York of her childhood, stirring mixed emotions for Irene and her doctor husband, Brian (André Holland – Moonlight, Selma) both of whom identify as proud Black Americans.

Adapted from the 1929 Nella Larsen novel, Passing, with its nuanced understatement, is a quiet, reflective chamber piece of identity, desire and acceptance expertly presented in its grey tonal palette by debutant writer/director Rebecca Hall.

Rating: 71%

‘The Outsider’ by Albert Camus

One of the great novels of existential philosophy, Camus is seen as the conscience of existentialism (a view he personally rejected).

In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.

An ordinary man, Meursault, an indifferent French settler in Algeria, takes time off work to travel to his mother’s funeral. Elderly, she has lived in a care home, a place Mersault has only occasionally visited. At the overnight vigil, he drinks a coffee and takes a cigarette with the janitor of the home. There are no tears or expected signs of grief.

A few weeks later he murders a man. It is almost irrelevant as to the man’s identity (a local Arab and the brother of a friend’s girlfriend): the emotional detachment to the world around him creates a sense of purposelessness. Not even the relationship with Marie, a former secretary at his place of work and who he bumped into the day he arrived back in Algeirs after his mother’s funeral, ignites any emotional response. It’s the existential view that we’re born without purpose into a world that makes no sense: whilst Mersault has the ability to create his own sense of meaning, it’s ultimately meaningless. A chance of being transferred to Paris or marry Marie are both met with equal indifference. Mersault agrees if it makes the other party happy.

Part two of Camus’ short novel sees Mersault imprisoned – awaiting trial and, denounced at trial for his lack of empathy and remorse, awaiting his execution.

The Outsider (L’Etranger) is a deceptively simple novella, told in matter-of-fact prose but which is ultimately rich in its hidden values and meanings. Frequently compared to/with Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Meursault is indifferent to both his actions and their consequences, whilst Raskalnikov is riddled with remorse and guilt.

‘Sweet Smell of Success’

Media sleaze and corruption, New York newspaper-columnist style, as the abrasive and arrogant J.J. Hunsecker with his poison pen looks to get exactly what he wants. Fawning publicist Sidney Falco (a never better Tony Curtis – Some Like It Hot, Spartacus) is prepared to do almost anything to get a client’s name in print.

A magnificent black and white hard-edge narrative with an abrasive, jazz-flavoured score from Elmer Bernstein and snappy dialogue, Sweet Smell of Success is a shadowy intensity of a feature. Both Curtis and Burt Lancaster (Elmer Gantry, Birdman of Alcatraz) as Hunsecker play against type as the columnist calls upon Falco to destroy his younger sister’s relationship with a jazz musician.

Taut and intense, director Alexander Mackendrick (The Ladykillers, The Man in the White Suit) saw his film poorly received at the time but which has since grown in stature, frequently appearing in 100 Greatest Movies of All Time lists.

Rating: 88%

‘Firestarter: the Story of Bangarra’

Celebration, empowerment, respect and tragedy are an integral part of Australian indigenous Bangarra Dance Company’s 30+ year history. Founded in Sydney in 1989, Stephen Page was appointed artistic director two years after its founding (a position he remained in until 2021). But where there’s one Page, there’s two other brothers – Russell and David. The three together, with Russell labelled the Nureyev of indigenous dance and David an award-winning musician and composer, made Bangarra one Australia’s leading performing arts companies.

Firestarter: the Story of Bangarra looks to the early history of the Page brothers and a total of 12 siblings in a poor Brisbane suburb. Their eventual move to Sydney in the mid 1980s and interest in performance led them eventually to Bangarra. Over the next 30 years, the company evolved from its base at a church hall to purpose built Sydney studios, an extensive education and outreach program and acclaim around the world.

But for all the company’s successes, the story is laced with tragedy as it carries the history of loss and intergenerational indigenous trauma. Both Russell (2002) and David (2016) died young as their legacies continue to be explored by Stephen (the middle brother), company members and adult children of Stephen and Russell.

Chocked full of archival footage and interviews with those integral to Bangarra’s establishment, including co-founders Carole Johnson, Cheryl Stone as well as current and former dancers and collaborators, Firestarter: the Story of Bangarra is engrossing and deeply moving. Directed by Nel Minchin and Wayne Blair, it’s an exploration of a history – of a family, of a company, of a culture.

Rating: 78%

‘The Witcher’ (Season 1)

Based on the multiple cult fantasy novels and short stories by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, The Witcher is a big, bold battle of good versus evil, magic, sword fights and dastardly deeds.

The Witcher himself, Gerait of Rivia (Henry Cavill at his eye candy best) is a loner, a powerful warrior of indeterminate age, a product of a conversion process few boys survive. An outsider, feared and frowned upon in equal measure, Gerait travels the medieval countryside battling monsters and gremlins for a fee. As he comes across the powerful mage, Stregobor (Lars Mikkelson), the kingdom of Cintra is sacked by Nilfgaardia: the only survivor of Cintran royal blood is the young princess, Cirilla (Freya Allen).

In rejecting Stregobor’s advances of a mutually beneficial alliance, Gerait creates an enemy – but he also discovers his fate is tied to that of Cirilla, somewhere in hiding and on the run from Nilfgaardian troops. The eight part first season of The Witcher, based on the short stories that precedes the first novel, follows the two as their separate paths inevitably come together.

A series full of adventure, murder, lust and earthy profanity, The Witcher is a charisma of brawny charm, thrills and old-fashioned fun. Elves, witches, minstrels (splendid lighthearted relief from Joey Batey as Jaskier), monsters, curses all feature as Gerait is confronted by those who would prevent him finding Cirilla. And that includes Yennefer of Vanderberg (Anya Chalotra), the all-powerful young witch for whom lusty emotions are stirred for an unsuspecting Gerait as powerful magic and determined politics of war and power unfold.

Rating: 69%


An English-language remake of the French hit La famille Bélier, CODA moves the action to a coastal fishing village in New England as teenage Ruby (Emilia Jones – High-Rise, One Day) struggles to be the only hearing member of her family.

It’s a feelgood narrative underpinned with wry humour and serious issues – the isolation of the family in a close-knit community and the pressures placed on Ruby to translate for her family. As school years come to a close, Ruby’s dream is to enrol in Berklee College of Music in Boston. But with the family having no idea how good a singer she is, the concern is for their fishing business.

A sincere and heartwarming crowd pleaser, CODA, with an exceptional cast, provides rare mainstream focus on its subject. Writer/director Sian Heder (Tallulah) allows the film to evolve into total predictability, but when you have Troy Kotsur (The Number 23, Wild Prairie Rose) in the cast as dad, it’s best to simply go with the flow.

Expect Oscar nominations.

(Update: Nominated for 3 Oscars in 2022, won 3 – best film, best supporting actor (Kotsur), adapted screenplay)

Rating: 73%

‘Red Amnesia’

Recently widowed, Deng (Zhong Lü – Snow Flower & the Secret Fan, Empire of Silver) finds it increasingly difficult to stay out of the lives of her two adult sons. But, as she starts to receive mysterious, anonymous phone calls, so the foundations of her life are threatened as past decisions made during the Cultural Revolution decades earlier come to the fore.

Weaving the diversity of experience of the older Chinese generation through a superb, nuanced Zhong Lü, director Wang Xiaoshuai (So Long My Son, Beijing Bicycle) looks to complex moral and ethical consequences of the past. Deng chose to forget – but not everyone can.

As with Xiaoshuai Wang’s other films, Red Amnesia is a slow unfold, an intimate observational reveal of uncertainty. From the everyday moments in contemporary China to remote industrial cities of the past, a lingering precision creates elements of threat and mystery.

Rating: 64%

‘Wolfe Island’ by Lucy Treloar

Slowly sinking in a rising ocean, (a fictional) Wolfe Island has long been abandoned as a habitable place. Except, that is, by artist Kitty Hawke and her wolfdog companion, Girl. It’s a desolate place, but she is content in her isolation away from the politics of the mainland and its increasing lawlessness and surveillance. With more than a nod towards Gilaed and The Handmaid’s Tale, refugees are being imprisoned or making a run for the border to the north with the very real threat of being shot by authorities or vigilantes.

Kitty is only too aware that time is not on her side. What was once a bustling little community of permanent residents and tourists is now a place being eaten by the sea as rising salt, violent storms and water levels eat away at the island. As she picks her way across the increasingly sodden land and its memories, making sculptures from the flotsam and jetsam that have made a name for her on the mainland, so Kitty maintains, as best she can, the island that she cannot abandon. The pull of the island has already proven to be too strong, breaking up her family with husband Hart and daughter Claudie unable to continue living in so remote a place. Only son Tobe understood the pull, but he too eventually left, only to be killed in an accident.

But Wolfe Island is not ‘simply’ an environmental polemic. There’s so much more to Australian author Lucy Treloar’s wholly engrossing second novel, set in a factionalised Chesapeake Bay on the American east coast and a place of hundreds of small islands. Many have been submerged by the rising tides as Treloar speaks of climate change. But the narrative is much broader. One dark and stormy night, approximately one third into the book, her estranged granddaugher Cat and friends are blown ashore, fearful for their lives and obviously in need of hiding. Kitty’s life of isolation will forever change.

Cat and Theo are activists but Luis and his younger sister Alejandra are refugees, in need of refuge.

From protecting the four on Wolfe Island to eventually travelling north and the safe haven hopefully offered, Kitty and her band of misfits pull together (or not) as they navigate a hostile environment, natural and manmade, in order to find some semblance of order, safety and security. Once they have left the island, every interaction with a stranger is fraught with suspicion, questions hovering, left unasked. 

It is Kitty who is, years after the events, our narrator. Time and distance has allowed a level of normalcy to return to her everyday, even though Wolfe Island itself has all but disappeared. It’s that distance that’s allowed the shock of its unravelling be put into perspective and the frontier mentality they faced in their desperate bid in this no-so-distant future dystopia. It’s a powerful thrill of a narrative.

‘Law of Desire’

Arguably his international breakthrough film, Law of Desire set writer/director Pedro Almodóvar on a 15 year journey of sexually risque, funny yet sublimely passionate melodramas and introduced to the world a (young) Antonio Banderas.

Obsessed by successful gay filmmaker Pablo Quintero (Eusebio Poncela – Martín (Hache), Matador), the violently jealous Banderas looks to marginalise the absent Juan, Quintero’s young lover. The filmmaker is high on a stream of successes: his latest is to be loosely based on the life of his transsexual sister, Tina (Carmen Maura – Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Volver). As Pablo (who himself has an insatiable, often selfish, sexual appetite) fights off increasingly disturbing demands from Banderas, Tina herself has problems with men. It’s these struggles that are the emotional core of the film.

Anarchic and extreme, Law of Desire builds to a crushing idiosyncratic finale. Add Almodóvar’s love of excess in colour and a subterranean, camp sense of humour and Law of Desire ultimately runs away with itself. It’s silly and a complete mess involving murder and complete mayhem. Entertaining silliness. But still a mess.

Rating: 52%