It’s a throwback to the kind of films Australia was making in the 1970s and ’80s. Michelle and her brother, Stevie, who has Down Syndrome, are great fans of Simon Wincer’s1983 movie, Phar Lap, which Griffiths may well be taking as her model. Phar Lap re-cast the fable of the Ugly Duckling as a horse story while this one is a classic tale about a close relative – the underdog.
As Payne said after her big win, racing is a chauvinistic sport full of men ready to snort with derision at the idea of a woman winning a big race. Better still, she added that anyone who agreed with them could “get stuffed”.
It was a remark full of the larrikin spirit for which Australian horseracing is famous. But, sadly, little of that irreverence finds its way into the film, which suffers from a pervasive wholesomeness. The only time you get so much as a whiff of the sweaty, cutthroat urges that must be an inevitable part of the business is in the racing scenes. The camera puts us so close to the horses as they bunch up on the rails that you finally get a sense of just what it takes for a jockey to find a gap and force a way through.
Palmer’s performance doesn’t have the larrikin spirit. Her Michelle is graceful and determined, as is her real-life counterpart, but it’s hard to see where that moment of cheeky defiance springs from.
Her father, Paddy, raised her and her siblings on his own after the death of his wife in a motor accident and Sam Neill gives him a lot of laconic charm. You can see the patience and stoicism it must have taken to stay sane while dealing with all life has thrown at him. When he’s angry, he withdraws rather than explodes. And Stevie Payne, playing himself, has an equally relaxed relationship with the camera. He’s a natural.
Sadly, little irreverence finds its way into the film, which suffers from a pervasive wholesomeness.
The film has been hit with one stroke of bad luck. Griffiths and her crew had already finished shooting when Darren Weir, the trainer of Payne’s Melbourne Cup mount, Prince of Penzance, was banned from racing for possessing “jiggers”, electric shock devices outlawed for their cruelty.
Weir makes a brief appearance in the film, played by Sullivan Stapleton, but the script doesn’t dwell on his role in furthering Payne’s career.
Nor does it analyse the nature of her stubbornness and the source of her audacity – the impulses that propel her through that gap in the field despite the strong possibility of breaking yet another bone or sustaining a potentially fatal blow to the head. The contrast between that kind of impetuousness and the seeming mildness of her manner and temperament remains unexplored.”
The Goldfinch ★★
John Crowley’s The Goldfinch, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Donna Tartt, boasts a full quotient of upmarket trappings, including fancy cinematography from regular Coen brother collaborator Roger Deakins and lavish production design by K.K. Barrett. Even Peter Straughan’s screenplay “goes all in on snob appeal, harping on art, literature and classical music” but that is its downfall, according to reviewer Jake Wilson. And despite Crowley’s 2016 film Brooklyn being nominated for three Oscars, including best picture, The Goldfinch doesn’t come close so “there’s undeniable joy in seeing an aspiring prestige movie go down in flames”.
“In more populist terms, the film could be described as a romantic coming-of-age story, with thriller elements that furnish the precocious hero Theo (played as a child by Oakes Fegley), with a suitably tragic backstory. His mother (Hailey Wist) was killed in a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – which is undeniably classy as far as such atrocities go.
As compensation, he’s taken in by a wealthy family who introduce him to a life of luxury: his adoptive mother is played by Nicole Kidman, eyes darting anxiously beneath a forehead smooth as marble. Around this time, too, he meets his future mentor Hobie, a wise old furniture restorer played by Jeffrey Wright with a hammy “restraint” that would suit a crafty gang boss in one of the John Wick films.
This is just the start of the convoluted plot, a deliberate throwback to 19th-century fiction: Tartt’s book runs for almost 800 pages, which Straughan and Crowley somehow have to condense into two and a half hours. Much as Hobie assembles new ‘antiques’ from parts of the items he buys, The Goldfinch feels like three or four films in one, glued together with an unwieldy flashback structure.
The strongest scenes come once Theo is packed off to the suburbs of Las Vegas, in the custody of his abusive shyster father (Luke Wilson). The concept isn’t promising, but the big drawcard here is Finn Wolfhard from Stranger Things as Theo’s new best friend Boris, the drug-addled son of a sadistic Ukrainian mining executive.
Over the past year or two, Wolfhard has transformed from an elfin kid to a lanky clown, with a shock of black hair and a strikingly androgynous, oddly-proportioned face. His scenes with Fegley are mostly just the two of them hanging out and getting high, and have an energy independent of the cumbersome surrounding narrative.
Less can be said for the portions of the film centred on the smirky Ansel Elgort as the adult Theo, who has found his way back into the upper class while losing part of his soul. While the character is not meant to be altogether sympathetic, Elgort makes it hard to see why we should care about him at all – or indeed, why he has a career playing lead roles as opposed to minor preppie villains.
The Goldfinch is an unmistakable fiasco, pretentious and incoherent even on its own terms. Yet beyond a few central misjudgments, it is hardly worse than other movies cut from the same dreary cloth – say, the awful Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, or even the celebrated The Hours, for which Kidman won an Oscar for playing Virginia Woolf.
What links these movies is a cynical pandering, a determination to flatter the audience’s supposed sensitivity and taste. In plot terms, this manifests here as an appalling elitism: the idea that some people are expendable while others are worth saving at any cost.”
The Dead Don’t Die ★★★½
This American horror comedy from independent writer-director Jim Jarmusch gathers together an ensemble cast, with deadpan comedy actors Bill Murray and Adam Driver at the helm, to fight off a zombie invasion of their small town. And Driver’s character is quick to draw the conclusion that it’s just like a zombie movie, complete with his own appointed “theme music” by country singer Sturgill Simpson. “Jarmusch has made a style out of winking self-awareness long before Quentin Tarantino introduced such tactics to a wider public,” says reviewer Jake Wilson.
“So it goes in The Dead Don’t Die, a flippant pastiche that nonetheless has more emotional force than anything from Jarmusch in a while. Among other things, it’s a moving tribute to a fellow pioneer of US independent cinema: the great George Romero, of Night of the Living Dead fame, who died in 2017.
While Romero was far from being a one-trick pony, he remains best known for Night and the sequels that followed. These have been imitated so widely, the zombie genre is now close to exhaustion —though this is not a problem for Jarmusch who likes his premises threadbare, all the better to distil them into absurdist ritual.
Set in the imaginary Pennsylvania town of Centerville (not too far from Pittsburgh, Romero’s long-term base) the film offers a deliberately half-baked explanation for its imagined zombie uprising.
Polar fracking has tipped the earth off its axis, disrupting the alternation between day and night as well as between life and death. This is absurd, clearly, but is it any more so than global warming causing the ice caps to melt?
The implications about the future of real-life humanity are unrelentingly bleak, though Jarmusch’s global concerns are hard to separate from his sense of personal mortality: the film serves as a stealth summary of his career, with a cast including at least one actor from each of his 12 previous features.
The characters are conceived as a cross-section of American life, all dealing with the emergency in different ways: Tom Waits is a hermit lurking in the woods, Tilda Swinton a mystical undertaker, Steve Buscemi a racist crank, Caleb Landry Jones a geeky store clerk and so on.
In the midst of it all are police officers Ronnie and Cliff (Adam Driver and Bill Murray), along with Chloe Sevigny as a fellow cop whose vulnerability (she fears the sight of blood) brings her especially close to the story’s heart.
The clubhouse atmosphere of Jarmusch’s films can be annoying, as can his habit of running through a checklist of obvious cultural references, ranging here from Romero to Moby Dick.
But the cosy familiarity is part of the point. Watching The Dead Can Die for the first time, we’re made to feel we already know it backwards.
The goal here is admirable, even if it doesn’t entirely come off: to create a movie where everything is sketchy, conventional and therefore reassuring, and then to allow the shadows to creep in until suddenly the darkness is no longer a joke.”
Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark ★★★½
This teen horror opens on the eve of Halloween in 1968, with Stella (Zoe Colletti) and her fellow high school misfits Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) trick or treating when they come up against school bully Tommy (Austin Abrams). They’re about to get beaten up when Ramon (Michael Garza), a newcomer to town, comes to their aid. The four then decide to visit the town’s most notorious landmark – a haunted mansion once owned by 19th century mill tycoons, the Bellows. It is there that the friends discover Sarah Bellows’ book of scary stories, which begins to come to life. “It was Mexico’s Guillermo Del Toro, the king of the monster movie, who came up with the idea of filming this haunted house story,” writes reviewer Sandra Hall, “And it’s clever enough to spawn a franchise – Hollywood’s own species of monster”.
“Del Toro has always been a fan of American Alvin Schwartz’s children’s book series, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, with their notoriously macabre illustrations by Stephen Gammell, but he decided not to direct the film, producing and co-writing it instead. Another monster specialist, Norway’s Andre Ovredal (Trollhunter), directs and Kevin and Dan Hageman (The Lego Movie) wrote the screenplay from Del Toro’s draft.
Del Toro incorporated several of Schwartz’s stories into a single narrative, tying them together with a device cribbed from his earlier creation, Pan’s Labyrinth. The film’s teenage heroine, Stella, comes across a magic book that writes itself, shaping its plots to include nasty ways for the reader to vanish into oblivion or somewhere equally inaccessible.
Ovredal had not read Schwartz. He came to the film dreaming of the small town movies made by Steven Spielberg and his team of like-minded directors in the 1980s. Scary Stories is also set in a small town – Mill Valley, Pennsylvania.
The plot takes many twists with an ingeniously designed set of monsters creating havoc at regular intervals. They bear some resemblance to Gammell’s drawings but lack their impact. With its sooty tones and economy of line, Gammell’s work packs a punch which is hard to emulate in a live-action film. In its place, we get a measure of mordant humour and a lot of affection directed at the film’s beleaguered teens. They’re not used as target practice on the way to final gorefest. Ovredal steers away from that kind of cynicism. After all, he and Del Toro justifiably want them around for a sequel.”
Chakra (Sarm Heng), a 14-year-old boy, leaves his rice-growing family in Cambodia and crosses the border to Thailand, looking for construction work. He is fed up with the back-breaking farm work foisted on him by his father. Chakra longs for a wider world beyond the paddies, but has no idea how brutal such a world can be. He is delivered to a boat run by charismatic and cruel Thai fisherman Rom Ran (Thanawut Kasro). The captain soon demonstrates the realities of life to the new crew, pushing one overboard when he can no longer work. “Buoyancy might seem an odd debut for a Victorian film school graduate but Rodd Rathjen grew up around farms and farming in northern Victoria, and this is essentially the story of a boy’s coming of age, on leaving the family farm,” says reviewer Paul Byrnes.
“The people-smugglers deliver him to a life that is hard to credit in our times, but the film is based on solid research. An end credit tells us 200,000 men and boys are believed to be working as slaves and indentured labour in the fishing industries of south-east Asia. The industry is worth $6 billion a year. The workers, by contrast, are worth very little to the ruthless men who run some of the boats.
There’s an elemental beauty to this story, made more stark by the violence. Rathjen reduces everything to essentials: the sea, the boat, survival. Chakra can see his fate in the water, but he is determined to avoid it. The captain sees himself in the boy: he tells him he came up the same way, facing even worse hardships. Once we’re on the boat, Rathjen keeps the drama focused on the relationship between man and boy, so the film feels almost classical, like a tale from Dickens or Hemingway.
Everything depends on the performances. Rathjen shows judgment and poise in his management of two largely untrained actors. Sarm Heng, the Cambodian boy playing Chakra, has a great stillness and gravity. Kasro, as the captain, brings restrained menace and just a glimmer of humanity. Something has made him into the monster he has become, and now he has a chance to raise a boy in his own image. In that sense, Buoyancy is a kind of horror movie, as well as a wake-up call. This industry supplies seafood around the world, including to Australia. Rathjen makes a powerful statement with this gripping debut.”
Based on plush toys of the same name, the story centres on a band of “imperfect” dolls who travel outside their hidden town of Uglyville to the Institute of Perfection, where dolls go through a number of tests to be with their perfect child. And while beauty gets treated as a value above all else, the UgyDolls battle on and eventually emerge victorious. Despite its well-meaning storyline, reviewer Jake Wilson found that “like so much computer animation, this is less of a movie and more of an ad campaign”.
“The film is, rather appealingly, a full-scale musical, with pop stars making up most of the voice cast. The one citizen who wants something more (there’s always one) is a romantic dreamer named Moxy (voiced by Kelly Clarkson, who came to fame as the first ever winner of American Idol – not irrelevantly, given how the plot plays out).
Unlike her fellow dolls, Moxy understands her purpose as a toy and longs for the child who will love her. So, with a small band of followers, she ventures into a dark tunnel at the heart of a gigantic flower, the pipeline from which UglyDolls emerge in the first place, in search of what she calls the Big World.
By this point in the story (concocted, believe it or not, by sometime Quentin Tarantino associate Robert Rodriguez), things have become a little unnerving, especially given the lack of clear indication of what lies at the tunnel’s other end.
It’s all pretty derivative but also pretty wacky, and there’s meaning, if you look for it, on a whole lot of levels, from Freudian imagery and hints of religious allegory to the satire of reality TV. All of it amounts to a fairly brutal and direct commentary on the agony of not fitting in: a theme, surely, almost any child will recognise, bar the youngest and most innocent.
On the other hand, there may be a limit to how persuasively non-conformity can be championed in a glossy cartoon with a budget of around $US50 million ($73.6 million). The bottom line, moreover, is that UglyDolls in reality are standardised factory products and those judged defective are, presumably, thrown away.”
Sandra Hall is a film critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Jake Wilson is a film critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
Paul Byrnes is a film critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.