‘The Meg’

Trashy popcorn fodder, The Meg sees things go badly wrong for a group of marine scientists exploring deep into the Marianas Trench. With their submarine stuck on the ocean floor, its disgraced former Naval Captain and down-at-heel Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham – Spy, Transporter) who’s called in to help. But in saving the sub, things get a little more complicated when the seafloor ecosystem is disturbed, allowing a believed-extinct Carcharodon Megalodon, the largest marine predator known to have existed, to rise from the deep.

Derivative, bland and templated, directed by Jon Turteltaub (National Treasure, While You Were Sleeping), there’s little soul to the narrative as Taylor puts his bad boy reputation behind him to win over the fearless Suyin (Bingbing Li – Resident Evil: Retribution, Snowflower and the Secret Fan), daughter of the head scientist, and save the innocent swimmers of Hainan.

Rating: 38%

‘Auntie Mame’

Yes! Live! Life’s a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!

So speaks Auntie Mame (Rosalind Russell – Gypsy, His Girl Friday), the larger than life wealthy socialite who suddenly finds herself the guardian of her 12 year-old nephew, Patrick. Taking to the task like a duck to water, Mame revels in her responsibilities – even if she has to take a series of minor jobs when she loses all her money in the 1929 Wall Street Crash before, by marrying Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside (Forrest Tucker – Sands of Iwo Jima, TV’s F Troop), she makes it all back.

An elaborate and garish adaptation of a Broadway play, Auntie Mame avoids all sense of realism (World War II is not mentioned!) as Mame herself wafts through life determined to ensure the now adult Patrick (a stuffy Roger Smith – Man of a Thousand Faces, TV’s Sunset Strip), is, like herself, a free spirited adult. Episodic and lacking depth, played for its humour, as directed by Morton DaCosta (The Music Man, The Island of Love) Auntie Mame comes across as superficial and, ultimately, dull (along with the questionable portrayal of Ito, the Japanese servant).

Nominated for 6 Oscars in 1959 including best film, actress, supporting actress (Peggy Cass) and cinematography.

Rating: 47%

‘Maestro’ by Peter Goldsworthy

The ordinariness of 1960s Australian suburban life searching for something extraordinary is Peter Goldsworthy’s deceptively simple tale.

Transferred to the distant tropical Darwin from Adelaide, the close knit Crabbe family look to establish a life worth living, removed as they are from their passion of music. Dad (a work promotion resulting in his transfer to the Darwin hospital) is the piano player, mom is the font of knowledge as they look to teenage son Paul to make the grade. So much so Paul finds himself the reluctant student of Eduard Keller, a hard-drinking Austrian with a boozers incandescent glow and of whom little in known.

Narrated from the perspective of an adult Paul, more than a tinge of remorse and regret underpins Maestro as the now underachieving recital pianist reflects on the opportunities once offered by Keller. Whilst his parents trade music-related witticisms and help establish the likes of the local Gilbert and Sullivan Society, Paul suffers for his art. A hard-task master, the exercising of fingers forming weeks of lessons before any piano key is touched, Keller demands focus and commitment. Blunt and devoid of any social skills, the man’s history is, in part, slowly revealed. But to a teenage boy in the early 1960s, much to the regret of an older Paul, recent European history is a distant fug. The respect deserved for a musician of the Vienna Opera House, widowed Holocaust survivor and renowned teacher was neither forthcoming nor understood.

Maestro is a gentle, compassionate coming-of-age where childhood and Paul’s teenage years are one of looking to be accepted with Keller and piano lessons a chore. It’s only as a less-than-successful adult can he reflect on missed opportunities and the reality of a lonely, ageing old man a long way from his former sophisticated world.

An Australian Society of Authors Top 40 Australian Books of All Time, Maestro was shortlisted for the 1990 Miles Franklin Award but lost out to Tom Flood and Oceana Fine.

‘Raymond and Ray’

A wry, buddy buddy narrative as two half brothers head to a funeral of their estranged father that offers a number of surprises.

Uptight Raymond (Ewan McGregor – Moulin Rouge, Trainspotting) persuades a reluctant former addict Ray (Ethan Hawke – Boyhood, Training Day) to travel with him – only to find the final wish is for them to dig his grave along with leaving them personal items and a few unexpected revelations.

It’s a complex, occasionally laugh-out-loud character-driven slow reveal of a feature written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia (Albert Nobbs, Mother and Child). As the two men come to terms with a man they never knew and the impact he had on them, so the people they meet at his funeral provide a different side to their father’s character.

Rating: 64%

‘Three Thousand Years of Longing’

Essentially a two-hander, Three Thousand Years of Longing is a disappointing telling of a philosophical fairytale as a lonely scholar is given three wishes.

In Istanbul for a conference, the flat-shoed, flat Mancunian accented academic, Alithea (Tilda Swinton – I Am Love, Michael Clayton) picks up a glass bottle from the bazaar. Cleaning it reveals a Djinn (Idris Elba – Thor, Beasts of No Nations) who grants her three wishes in return for his freedom. Being the academic she is, Alithea takes her time.

As they ponder and discuss the three things Alithea most desires, the Djinn recounts his life with director George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road, Babe) creating a world of short fantasies to accompany its telling. From the Ottoman Empire to present day London, Three Thousand Years of Longing is a homage to love. But it’s all a little flat, wordy and unengaging with little chemistry between the two leads.

Rating: 51%

‘The Watcher’

Based loosely on real events, The Watcher is a messy suburban horror story as a family’s move into a dream home quickly becomes a nightmare.

Just an hour’s drive from New York, Westfield in New Jersey appears to be the perfect location for the Brannock family. Rolling all their finances into one, they can just afford the rambling home and the renovations required to suit their needs. Dean (Bobby Cannavale) can commute with Nora (a miscast Naomi Watts), as a successful ceramicist, working from home. Neighbours, however, are odd and less than welcoming – with approval needed for any rennovations on the protected historic home. Problem is the Bannocks get off on the wrong foot with the head of the committee, Pearl (the dotty Mia Farrow) and her brother, Jasper (Terry Kinney). And then the first sinister letter arrives…

Over seven episodes, The Watcher unfolds into a who’s who of responsibility for the threatening letters (and unexplained events), with Dean and Nora quick to point an ever-changing finger. Even the hiring of a private investigator (Noma Dumezweni) provides inconclusive answers.

And there’s the rub. Constant jumping to conclusions by the Bannocks creates tedious repetition – it’s Jasper, it’s Pearl, it’s the realtor (Jennifer Coolidge being the splendid Jennifer Coolidge), it’s…, it’s… . And as the accusations fly, so The Watcher needs to prove or disprove the suspicions – or leave them hanging. It’s all rather unconvincing. The result is that The Watcher runs out of steam as it heads towards it’s less than impressive finale.

Rating: 50%

‘The French Dispatch’

As with most Wes Anderson films, the cast list reads like a who’s who of Hollywood. Yet his latest, The French Dispatch is a surprisingly disappointing hotch-potch of short story narratives.

Under editor-in-chief Arthur Howitzer Jr (Bill Murray – Lost in Translation, Ghostbusters), The French Dispatch is an outpost of a Kansas newspaper that provides stories of Europe to its American readers. But its time for the final issue. Bringing together loyal journalists and staff members, complex narration with Anderson’s trademark whimsy and nostalgic sadness all encased in a stage set design follows. Tales of mundane and extreme, all are dull and uninvolving – whether it’s the institutionalised artist (Benico Del Toro) discovered by Parisian galleryist (Adrien Brody), the 1968-style student demonstrations with Timothée Chalamet as a student rebel or the dispassionate writer Jeffrey Wright reflecting on an earlier article.

There’s no question The French Dispatch remains an intelligent, visual quirky delight – but the substance and authenticity of character is lost as the likes of Tilda Swinton and Elisabeth Moss are seen for minutes whilst Saoirse Ronan, Edward Norton, Christoph Waltz and more for even less. The sum of its individual parts, sadly, do not add up.

Rating: 50%

‘Heaven’ by Mieko Kawakami

Tender yet raw, graceful but cutting, Japanese author Mieko Kawakami’s Heaven is a coming-of-age tale of two young teenagers bullied mercilessly at school.

An unnamed 14 year-old boy – nickname Eyes owing to his suffering from strabismus (unaligned eye direction) – is constantly picked upon, both verbally and physically, by his male classmates. Kojima is in the same class and is bullied by the girls. She begins to leave notes for the boy to arrange to meet. Initially wary of a trap, he eventually agrees.

Two complex teenagers, both from broken homes with their coming together an inevitability. Yet, both victims for so long, there exists a guarded nervousness. The coming together of kindred spirits it’s not. Kojima (nicknamed Hazmat) is oddly evangelical about the punishment meted out. Since her mother’s remarriage to a wealthy stepfather, Kojima has stopped bathing in sympathy with her impoverished father. She refuses not only to bathe herself but also wash her clothing. The other girls in the class react: it’s this reaction that Kojima sees as part of her choice in her affinity to her father. If we’re weak, our weakness has real meaning. Eyes cannot and does not agree. He has chosen to passively accept the bullying rather than react. Yet he wants the corrective eye surgery in the belief that sense of other or difference is the cause.

A relatively short novel, Heaven beautifully explores its themes – a visceral tenderness that is raw in its philosophical musings.

‘Conversations With a Killer: the Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes’

A fascinating accompaniment to the Netflix drama miniseries, Dahmer – Monster: the Jeffrey Dahmer Story, Conversations … is one of a trifecta of Netflix docuseries built around the release of taped interviews with serial killers (Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy being the other two).

Over three one hour programs, Dahmer is heard talking, in interview, to his lawyer Wendy Patrickus prior to his trial in 1991 for multiple murder. Witness accounts, journalists, law enforcers, family and friends of victims along with Patrickus herself are all interviewed and included in the series. Milwaukee by night, Dahmer’s neighbourhood and film from gay bars of the 1980s add background context

The dismemberment and dispersement of the bodies are detailed by Dahmer to a young and relatively new defence attorney with Patrickus admitting she found it difficult to hear all the details. But a non-judgemental reaction was crucial. The tapes are balanced with archival news footage, interviews with police and legal representatives at the time along with (limited) courtroom footage of the trial.

It’s an extraordinary unfolding (and the docuseries also highlights the level of accuracy presented in Dahmer – Monster: the Jeffrey Dahmer Story – even to the point of the physical appearances of many cast members to the people they portray) although padded. Lots of moody, soft-focus footage of ‘Dahmer’ and ‘Patrickus’ in prison meeting rooms and graphics of the internal mechanisms of cassette recorders highlight the limited visual appeal of the raw material. But that does not distract from the horrors of Dahmer’s crimes, told by the perpetrator in a matter-of-fact tone. The series avoids overt sensationalism – footage of the emptying of Dahmer’s flat along with a few descriptions is sufficient for the extent of his crimes to be understood.

Rating: 70%

‘The Buddy Holly Story’

A standard biopic following the short-lived rise prior to an untimely and tragic death at the age of 22, The Buddy Holly Story is anchored by an outstanding Gary Busey (Lethal Weapon, The Firm) in the lead role.

The first white band to play at the Apollo in Harlem (booked sight unseen), a string of hits including Peggy Sue and That’ll Be the Day, Holly escaped small town Texas for the promise of New York. With schoolfriends The Crickets, the band quickly established itself but Jesse and Ray soon returned home. Marriage to Maria (Maria Richwine – Sex Crimes, Foreign Land) was cut tragically short in February, 1959 when the light aircraft he and members of his band were travelling crashed in Iowa.

Director Steve Rash (Son in Law, Good Advice) emphasises the upbeat in the telling of a man full of charm and guile who also wrote some of the iconic songs of the burgeoning rock and roll age. There’s no dwelling on the tragedy and The Buddy Holly Story instills a very real sense of raw realism in the music.

Nominated for 3 Oscars in 1979 including best actor and sound, won 1 for best adapted score.

Rating: 64%