‘Angels in America’

Whilst an overblown miniseries adaptation of Tony Kushner’s visceral two-part stage play, Angels in America, directed by Mike Nichols, remains an angry, powerful commentary on the political, religious and personal responses to the HIV/AIDS crisis in 1980s US.

Disparate stories connected, some fictional, some factional. Infamous New York lawyer Roy Cohn (Al Pacino) refuses to acknowledge he has AIDS (it’s liver cancer, motherf*cker as Cohn threatens to discredit his doctor of more than 20 years). Republican Mormon lawyer Joe Pitt (Patrick Wilson) simply refuses to acknowledge he is gay – something his wife Harper (Mary-Louise Parker), trapped in a sexless marriage, is only too aware. Her escape is copious amounts of valium. And then there’s Prior (Justin Kirk) who’s just told his lover of four years, Louis (Ben Shenkman), that he’s HIV+. Ben panics and abandons Prior, leaving him to deal with the ravages of the disease and the slow emotional and physical breakdown.

Such narratives are interwoven into fantastical visions as Prior’s nurse (Emma Thompson) invites him as an angel to be a prophet in death: Harper simply ‘travels’ in her mind’s eye whilst Joe’s deeply religious mother (Meryl Streep) arrives to sort out her son – who is having a clandestine relationship with Louis.

Angels in America is no easy watch – a confronting melodrama of life and, more prevalent, death. Wholly committed performances from an extraordinary depth of a cast add to the impact. As a live experience stage play (Royal National Theatre, London production in the ’90s), Angels in America personally blew me away. The medium of television dilutes the impact of some of the more fantastical scenes involving the Angel of Death, but this miniseries remains a riveting six hours.

Winner of 11 Emmys in 2004.

Rating: 73%

‘Underbelly: Vanishing Act’

Multi-millionaire Melissa Caddick disappeared from her Sydney home in November 2020. Several months later a single shoe – with her foot still in it – was found on a beach several hundred kilometres to the south of the city. At the time of her disappearance, Caddick was facing legal action against her Ponzi scheme and the defrauding of A$40 million from friends, family members and individuals.

Underbelly: Vanishing Act is a woeful, two part miniseries exploring both known facts and suppositions on the fate of Caddick (a miscast Kate Atkinson). With its extensive use of voiceover (particularly in the longer first episode), a lazy narration replaces story telling or character development as Caddick’s luxurious lifestyle in Sydney’s eastern suburbs with younger husband Anthony Koletti (Jerome Velinsky) is explained. Living off the savings of her parents, friends and family contacts, the Australian Securities & Investments Commission (ASIC) eventually moved against Caddick, seizing assets including bank accounts, homes, cars and extensive designer-label wardrobe. Summoned to an online court hearing, Caddick promptly disappeared, leaving behind Koletti and Josh, teenage son from an earlier marriage.

Episode two is mostly pure conjecture in looking to an alternative to the assumed suicide. Having already introduced the fictional local gangster, George (Colin Friels) and his money laundering arrangement with Caddick to add spice to the tale, his presence adds some credence to the gossip of Caddick having been murdered by a dissatisfied client. Underbelly contacts would also help with false passports and disappearances.

Underbelly: Vanishing Act cannot provide the answers to Caddick’s disappearance and leaves the conclusions open. Sadly, this somewhat cobbled together lightweight tosh ultimately belittles her victims – and fails to present the level of intelligent manipulation by Melissa Caddick into her defrauding those around her.

Rating: 30%


The big budget follow up to the deeply disturbing Alien, James Cameron’s (Avatar, The Terminator) Aliens sadly lacks the psychological undercurrent of its predecessor. Instead, Aliens is simply a testosterone-fuelled high adventure war film.

With Lt Ripley (Sigourney Weaver – Avatar, Paul) the only survivor from the ill-fated Nostromo, she finds herself disbelieved and dismissed from duty. The Company refuses to accept her story. In the 57 years Ripley has been in hyper sleep, there’s been no reported problems from LV-426 on which the Nostromo landed. But then communication with the planet is lost.

Reluctantly agreeing to travel, on arrival the planet settlement is found to be deserted – with the exception of Newt, a surviving young girl. Taking her under her wing, Ripley discovers she is in the company of trigger happy grunts – and a Company representative (Paul Reiser – Whiplash, Diner) determined to recover the aliens for biological weapon research.

It’s a full-on, blast-your-way-out-of-trouble approach from Cameron that ultimately becomes dull and tedious – not helped by a Newt that spends most of the time she is on screen screaming.

Nominated for 7 Oscars in 1987 including best actress, editing, art/set direction, won 2 for best visual and sound effects.

Rating: 50%

‘Better Days’

Shot predominantly at night time or within the confines of a claustrophobic school environment, the Oscar-nominated Better Days provides a visceral insight into global issues affecting modern urban China.

Coping with the intense pressures of the forthcoming gaokao school exams is one thing but for Chen Nian (an extraordinarily nuanced Dongyu Zhou – Soulmate, Us and Them), bullying is a far more immediate threat. With an absent mother selling contraband cosmetics on the black market, Chen Nian is the perfect target for the wealthy and spoiled Wei Lai (Ye Zhou – 1921, Railway Heroes) and her cronies. With a schoolfriend having already committed suicide, fate throws Chen Nin to making a pact with the shady small-time criminal Xiao Bei (Jackson Yee – The Battle of Lake Chanjin, Forward Forever).

In the pressure-cooker atmopshere of the Chinese education system, Better Days, directed by Derek Tsang (Soulmate, Lacuna) and adapted from the YA novel by Jiu Yuexi, is a gripping melodrama with an unexpected intensity in its exploration of its themes.

A huge box office success in China due to the casting of pop star Jackson Yee, Better Days became, in 2021, only the third Hong Kong film in history to achieve an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film.

Rating: 77%


A low-budget sci-fi horror set in the distant future that spawned a cult, Alien is an iconic feature within its genre – and beyond.

As the commercial spaceship Nostromo makes its way home, a distress call from a distant planet is picked up. The crew is under obligation to investigate. On landing, a hive colony of an unexplained organism is discovered. Kane (John Hurt – Midnight Express, The Elephant Man) is attacked and, on returning to the ship, the crew discover they are prey to a life form that hunts them down within the claustrophobic confines of the Nostromo.

Director Ridley Scott (The Martian, Gladiator) uses darkness and psychological suggestion to perfect effect as Sigourney Weaver (Avatar, Gorillas in the Mist) sees her colleagues picked off one by one. With its constant sense of menace, Alien is one of the creepiest, scariest and most shocking films ever made.

Nominated for 2 Oscars in 1980 including best art direction, won 1 for best visual effects.

Rating: 74%

‘Death Comes to Pemberley’

An adaptation of the P.D.James novel, the Regency-set murder mystery is the author’s homage to Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice with its storyline six years after the socially controversial marriage of Elizabeth Bennet (Anna Maxwell-Martin) and Fitzwilliam Darcey.

Respectful of the earlier novel and written as it is in the style of Austen with characters and family and social narratives adhered to, Death Comes to Pemberley includes the reappearance of the disgraced George Wickham (Matthew Goode) and his wife, Lydia (Jenna Coleman), Elizabeth’s sister. It is the arrival of a distressed Lydia late at night that sets in motion a chain of events that could easily see the ruin of Darcey (Matthew Rhys), both financially and socially.

Plans for the annual Pemberley ball are cancelled as a body is found in the woods and a drunk, blood-covered Wickham claims he is responsible for the death of his friend. With evidence mounting against Wickham, his trial and hanging looks a foregone conclusion – and with it, as a brother-in-law, the good name of Darcey.

It’s a fun upstairs/downstairs ride as Elizabeth moves comfortably between the two worlds of the rambling estate where events in the kitchens and grounds impact on the lives of the Darceys. She is determined to find out the truth that will save Wickham but, more importantly, her husband.

Rating: 64%


Deeply respectful, Milk is the sad story of the 1978 murder of Harvey Milk, a gay activist and elected member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. His death was part of a double murder alongside Mayor Moscone (Victor Garber – Argo, Titanic) by a former city supervisor, Dan White.

Sean Penn (I Am Sam, Mystic River) is revelatory as the extremely personable Milk whose constant fight for gay rights and City representation (he lost three times before finally being elected) cost him his relationship with Scott Smith (James Franco – 127 Hours, The Disaster Artist). But it was also to cost Milk his life as the former police officer and practising christian, Dan White (Josh Brolin – No Country For Old Men, Dune) struggled with equality and gay rights.

Episodic in its recording of the Californian gay movement in the late 1970s, director Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho, Elephant) allows a superior script (Dustin Lance Black – J. Edgar, Rustin) determine the pace of the story’s triumph, in spite of the tragic outcome.

Nominated for 8 Oscars in 2009 including best film, director, supporting actor (Brolin), editing – won 2 for best actor and original screenplay.

Rating: 81%

‘How We Disappeared’ by Jing-Jing Lee

A fractured time narrative set in Singapore, How We Disappeared is a gently told yet visceral tale of history and its consequences, moments of time that change futures and break family bonds.

Jing-Jing Lee talks of Kevin, a bookish, bullied schoolboy who, alone in a hospital ward, overhears a whispered confession from his grandma on her deathbed that changes his family’s life. Lee also talks of the recently widowed Wang Di, a woman who experienced terrible abuse as a young girl during World War II at the hands of the Japanese occupying army. Haunted by events of the past, the two look for understanding as their paths inevitably inch closer and closer.

Lonely and alone, Kevin makes the verification of his paternal grandmother’s secret a school holiday mission. Hidden documents and letters written in a Chinese he does not understand, photographs and tape recordings add to the mystery of Ah Ma’s past. With his father suffering from acute depression, Kevin is only too aware that he cannot expect any support – no matter how many times the boy tries to pluck up the courage to ask. With both parents at work, Kevin slips away from the family apartment to follow leads – even though as a teenage boy he’s not too sure what he’s looking for and where to find it.

An illiterate Wang Di is trying to come to terms with the loss of her husband of 50 years and an enforced move to a new apartment. Singapore is constantly renewing but for the old, poorer communities progress is not always a good thing. A hoarder and renowned throughout the neighbourhoods new and old, Wang Di is ostracised by her neighbours. Intertwined in her struggles of today are tales of a war time past and the horrors of imprisonment with other young ‘comfort women’ serving up to 50 Japanese soldiers a day. The shame of this past continues to haunt Wang Di.

Wholly absorbing, whilst Jing-Jing Lee’s novel occasionally falls into repititive over-indulgence, How We Disappeared is a deeply affecting and effective interwoven series of narratives of family, guilt, reconciliation and acceptance.

‘Head On’

Controversial Christos Tsoliakos novel Loaded adapted for the big screen, Head On is a confronting, sexualised drama of acceptance and rebellion.

Eldest son in a migrant Greek family, unemployed 19 year-old Ari (Alex Dimitriades – TV’s The Slap, The Principal) constantly clashes with his father. Good looking and a popular lad around the predominantly Greek Sydney neighbourhood, Ari is a closeted gay male involved in drugs and furtive sexual encounters.

Director Ana Kokkinos (The Book of Revelation, Blessed) perfectly captures the insular migrant environment of early 1990s Australia with its brutal, dog-eat-dog world of survival as Ari, with a mix of vulnerability and arrogance, confronts family and friends within his double life.

Rating: 64%

‘The Wages of Fear’

Full of claustrophobic tension and suspense, The Wages of Fear is one of the finest anti-action movies ever made.

A squalid 1950s South American village where bored Europeans, travelling to the American-owned oil fields in the hope of fortune, kick their heels. An out-of-control fire in a remote mine needs an urgent delivery of nitroglycerin. The oil company offers to pay four men to deliver the supplies in two trucks – a dangerous journey across the desert and through mountain roads: one jolt could see the entire supply of the unstable chemical explode. In the race against time, a competitive streak evolves between the two teams as they confront vehicle malfunction, hairpin bends, rock falls – and each other.

Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzet (Quai des Orfèvres, Les diaboliques), shot in an evocative black and white, and adapted from the novel by Georges Arnaud, The Wages of Fear is a tense thrill of a journey. The four, simply looking for the money to pay for an air ticket home, push themselves and their vehicles to the limit.

Winner of the 1953 Palme d’Or at Cannes.

Rating: 91%