Review: ‘Limbo’ (2023), starring Simon Baker, Rob Collins, Natasha Wanganeen and Nicholas Hope

April 15, 2023

by Carla Hay

Simon Baker and Nicholas Hope in “Limbo” (Photo courtesy of Brainstorm Media and Music Box Films)

“Limbo” (2023)

Directed by Ivan Sen

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Australian Outback fictional town of Limbo, the dramatic film “Limbo” features a cast of white and First Nations/indigenous characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A police detective travels from an unnamed Australian city to Limbo to review a cold case about a teenager who disappeared from Limbo 20 years ago. 

Culture Audience: “Limbo” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Simon Baker and well-made, “slow burn” crime dramas about missing people and fractured families.

Pictured from left to right: Simon Baker, Andrew Dingaman and Rob Collins in “Limbo” (Photo courtesy of Brainstorm Media and Music Box Films)

The spellbinding and atmospheric crime drama “Limbo” moves at a pace that might be too slow for some viewers. But beneath this unhurried tone are simmering tensions and resentments over racism and generational trauma. Viewers expecting a format that’s similar to a TV series crime procedural will be disappointed by “Limbo,” which offers no easy answers to the mystery at the center of the story. However, by the end of the film, there is at least one outcome that shows the reality of how people can expect one thing and end up getting something else.

Ivan Sen is the chief creative force of “Limbo,” since he is the movie’s director, writer, cinematographer, editor, composer, colorist and visual effects supervisor. He is also one of the movie’s producers. “Limbo” had its world premiere at the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival and made the rounds at other film festivals that year, including the Toronto International Film Festival. “Limbo” earned three nominations for the 2024 Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) Awards—Best Indie Film, Best Lead Actor (for Simon Baker) and Best Supporting Actor (for Rob Collins)—and won the prize for Best Indie Film.

“Limbo” takes place in the Australian Outback fictional town of Limbo, but the movie was actually filmed in Coober Pedy, Australia, whose main industries are mining and tourism. “Limbo” was filmed in black and white, which makes the desert atmosphere look even more stark and at times even more foreboding than if the movie had been in color. In this remote area depicted in “Limbo,” feels of isolation and stagnation seep into the tone of the movie as well as the character performances.

“Limbo” begins with the arrival of police detective Travis Hurley (played by Baker), who drives into Limbo and stays at the only motel in town: the Limbo Motel. It’s an unusual motel because it’s partially inside a cave. (Several of “Limbo’s” scenes take place inside or near caves.) Therefore, Travis’ room looks like a cave room.

Travis is in Limbo for a few days to review the missing person case of Charlotte Hayes, a First Nations/indigneous person who lived in Limbo and who disappeared when she was a teenager 20 years ago. The case has gone cold, but Travis has been assigned to investigate the case and to find out if there are any new clues that can be uncovered. During his investigation, Travis gets more emotionally involved with Charlotte’s family than he expected when he first arrived in town.

Viewers soon find out that Travis is not a squeaky-clean police officer. One of the first things that he does when he goes in his motel room is melt an unnamed opioid powder in a spoon and shoot up the substance in his arm with a hypodermic needle. Most people will assume that the drug is heroin or Fentanyl, based on how Travis has a “nodding out” reaction after injecting this drug.

Travis’ drug addiction is not mentioned or shown again in the movie, until he has a private conversation with someone where he confesses that he uses drugs. It’s during this conversation that Travis also mentions that he was formerly an undercover narcotics officer and used drugs as part of this job. It’s unknown if he got hooked on drugs directly because of his narcotics officer job or if he had already been addicted. However, what’s clear is that his drug addiction is a secret from almost everyone Travis knows. He tells the person he confesses this secret to that this is the first time Travis has told anyone that he currently uses drugs.

Most of “Limbo” shows Travis doing interviews with Charlotte’s family members and other potential witnesses. The people he spends the most time with are Charlotte’s older stepbrother Charlie (played by Collins) and Charlie’s sister Emma (played by Natasha Wanganeen), who is a single mother raising three kids. The parents of Charlotte, Charlie and Emma are all deceased.

The family is still haunted by Charlotte’s disappearance and have become disillusioned about ever finding out what happened to her because police have treated cases of missing indigenous people as inferior to cases of missing white people. The indigenous people in the area call themselves “black” people. Charlie tells Travis that in Charlotte’s missing person case, police delayed investigating until a week after Charlotte disappeared. Charlie and Emma believe that if Charlotte had been white, police would have investigated Charlotte’s disappearance immediately.

Two of the children whom Emma is raising are actually Charlie’s biological kids: rebellious and sullen son Zac (played by Marc Coe) is about 12 or 13 years old, while cheeky and inquisitive daughter Ava (played by Tiana Hartwig) is about 9 or 10 years old. Emma’s biological daughter Jessie (played by Alexis Lennon), who is about 11 or 12 years old, has an absentee father, and she is often bluntly rude and brutally honest. For example, Jessie tells Travis that he looks like a drug dealer instead of a cop.

Charlie is a bachelor who lives alone. Why is Emma taking care of Charlie’s children? The movie doesn’t mention what happened to the mother(s) of Zac and Ava, but Emma tells Travis that Charlie had some type of guilt-ridden mental breakdown after Charlotte disappeared. For a while, Charlie was under suspicion for Charlotte’s disappearance, but he insists that he was falsely accused by two local indigenous men, one of whom had a personal grudge against Charlie. Charlie says he was at a cousin’s house when Charlotte disappeared. Charlie has been estranged from his children for years and doesn’t talk to them, but he will often drive by in his truck and look at his children, and then drive away.

As Travis continues his investigation, he hears more about the racial divide in Limbo. This racial tension doesn’t surprise Travis, but he sees firsthand how this racism can affect people’s lives and attitudes. Charlie is very suspicious of Travis when they first meet each other and says to Travis, “I don’t talk to cops, especially white ones.” However, Charlie eventually opens up to Travis when he sees that Travis is the Hayes family’s best chance of getting Charlotte’s case investigated. Emma is also wary of Travis at first (but she’s not as openly hostile as Charlie is), and she eventually agrees to be interviewed by Travis too, which she does separately from Charlie.

During interviews and conversations between Charlie and Travis, Charlie sometimes bitterly complains about how indigenous people are unfairly targeted by white law enforcement officers, who are quick to harass or arrest indigenous people for the same things that police officers excuse or ignore if white people do these things. There’s a scene where Travis and Charlie are talking outside while Charlie is drinking a beer. A police car drives by them and doesn’t stop. Charlie says to Travis: “Usually, they tell you to move along [for] drinking on the street like this.” Charlie tells Travis why he thinks the police inside the car didn’t stop to reprimand Charlie: “Maybe because of you.” In other words, Charlie is saying that Travis has white privilege.

Throughout the investigation, Travis keeps hearing about a white man named Leon, whom Charlie and Emma believe is the most likely suspect in Charlotte’s disappearance. Leon had a reputation in the area for hosting parties for young people, who got alcohol and maybe other drugs illegally from him. Leon seemed especially fixated on indigenous teenage girls. Leon had a green Ford Laser at the time of Charlotte’s disappearance. What happened to that car is revealed in the movie.

Travis finds out soon after he arrives in Limbo that Leon died of dementia the year before. Leon’s elderly brother Joseph (played by Nicholas Hope), who is a heavy drinker and is in obvious ill health, tells Travis about Leon dying and also shows Leon’s unmarked grave to Travis. Leon’s photo is never seen in movie, but it’s implied that Leon was close to the same age as Joseph, so Leon was most likely a middle-aged man when Charlotte disappeared. Travis also listens to audio recordings of interviews that police did separately with Charlie and Leon, who also denied anything to do with Charlotte’s disappearance.

As Charlie begins to cooperate more with Travis, Charlie points Travis in the direction of more potential witnesses in the First Nations/indigenous community. A middle-aged man named Stoney (played by Andrew Digaman), who is very suspicious of police, told Charlie that years ago in a pub, Leon once made a drunken confession to Stoney that Leon killed an unnamed person. Oscar Porter (played by Joshua Warrior), who had a personal feud with Charlie that involved at least one physical brawl, was one of the men who accused Charlie of having something to do with Charlotte’s disappearance. Travis finds out that Oscar’s accusation was because of something other than a personal vendetta against Charlie.

Because Travis is only in town for a few days, and he is the only investigating officer for this cold case review, the chances are very slim that Travis will solve this case in such a short period of time. However, there is enough revealed in the story for viewers to put together the pieces of this puzzle, as certain conclusions can be made, based on what Travis and other people discover. Viewers will have to look for visual clues, as well as consider things that are said and the credibility of the people saying these things.

It’s not revealed right away, but Travis is a divorced father who is no longer in contact with his only child (a son) because his ex-wife remarried, and his son likes his stepfather more than he likes Travis. When Travis tells Emma about his family situation, he describes it as bowing out of his son’s life, but you get the feeling that there’s more to the story that Travis isn’t telling, especially since his drug addiction undoubtedly affects all aspects of his life. “Limbo” doesn’t go too deep into Travis’ personal history, but this information about being estranged from his son is enough to see why Travis is emotionally touched by Charlie’s estrangement from his own children—especially with Zac, who feels abandoned by Charlie and is very angry at Charlie.

Emma makes a confession to Travis about something that happened in her past. This confession shows that Charlie isn’t the only one who feels guilty about Charlotte’s disappearance. Baker, Collins and Wanganeen give admirable performances as three damaged but not completely broken people who are doing what they can to ease some of their pain and hopefully heal. By the end of the movie, viewers will care not just about the “whodunit” aspect of the story but will also be concerned about the well-being of these characters.

“Limbo” is the name of the movie and the name of the fictional town in the movie, but it also describes the tragic state of mind that loved ones of missing people feel when they don’t know what happened to their loved ones who disappeared. Travis sees the trauma that this case has brought onto the Hayes family, so it makes him confront certain issues in his own life. The way that Travis reacts doesn’t make his problems go away but it might give him a little bit of redemption. “Limbo” is a solemn and meaningful reminder that when people talk about a system that fails, there are untold numbers of people who get hurt and might never recover.

Brainstorm Media and Music Box Films released “Limbo” in select U.S. cinemas on March 22, 2024. The movie was released in Australia and part of Europe in 2023.

Review: ‘The Royal Hotel,’ starring Julia Garner, Jessica Henwick, Toby Wallace and Hugo Weaving

September 20, 2023

by Carla Hay

Jessica Henwick and Julia Garner in “The Royal Hotel” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“The Royal Hotel”

Directed by Kitty Green

Culture Representation: Taking place in South Australia, the dramatic film “The Royal Hotel” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Aboriginal people and one Asian) portraying the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two young female tourists from Canada take a live-in bartending job at a shabby and sordid pub in a remote, male-dominated mining town, and they experience various levels of danger and harassment.

Culture Audience: “The Royal Hotel” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Julia Garner and movies about subtle and not-so-subtle sexual tensions and power-based dynamics between men and women.

Ursula Yovich and Hugo Weaving in “The Royal Hotel” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“The Royal Hotel” is a realistic observation of how two female friends can have very different reactions to being in the same male-dominated environment. Despite a few story flaws, the movie accurately shows how people try to dismiss harassment as “joking.” “The Royal Hotel” had its world premiere at the 2023 Telluride Film Festival and its Canadian premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.

Written and directed by Kitty Green, “The Royal Hotel” touches on many of the same themes that are in Green’s 2020 film “The Assistant.” Both movies are about how women navigate in an enviroment where men have almost all of the power, and most of the men in that environment abuse that power through misogynistic harassment or violence. Julia Garner stars in both movies.

“The Assistant” is based partially on real-life experiences of administrative assistants of Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced entertainment mogul who became a convicted and imprisoned rapist. “The Royal Hotel” is also inspired by real events: The movie is based on the 2017 Australian documentary “Hotel Coolgardie,” which is about two young Scandanavian women who became trapped in a remote mining town in Australia.

That’s what happens to Canadian tourists Hanna (played by Garner) and Liv (played by Jessica Henwick), who are best friends leading a nomadic existence. Hanna (the responsible and cautious friend) and Liv (the free-spirited and spontaneous friend) aren’t really on vacation, but they don’t have any immediate plans to go back to Canada. They both like to party, but Hanna doesn’t drink alcohol. It’s later revealed that Hanna’s mother abused alcohol when Hanna was a child.

In the beginning of the movie, Hanna and Liv are partying at a nightclub somewhere in Australia when Liv discovers (after her credit card is declined) that they have run out of money. Hanna and Liv are in a work/travel program that helps people find temporary jobs in places where they are visiting. It’s never made clear in the movie how long Hanna and Liv have been living this way.

At an office appointment, an unnamed woman (played by Bree Bai), who works for this program, informs Liv and Hanna that the only immediate job opening available is a bartending gig at a pub in a converted hotel in a remote mining town in Australia. This office worker tells Liv and Hanna that the job, which includes free lodging for the pub employees, involves a lot of “male attention,” because most of the people who live in this area are men. The office employee describes the job as something that attracts a lot of young women. She tries to make it sound like it would be adventurous to work there.

From the beginning, Hanna feels uneasy about this job offer and is reluctant to take the job because she thinks it might be dangerous. Liv doesn’t have any of those concerns and asks out of curiosity about this remote location: “Will there be kangaroos?” Because they are desperate for money, Hanna and Liv accept this job offer. It’s a decision that they will later regret.

Because Hanna and Liv can’t afford to have their own car in their current circumstances, the pub’s manager Carol (played by Ursula Yovich) gives a car ride to Hanna and Liv to this unnamed, desolate town in South Australia. (“The Royal Hotel” was filmed on location in South Australia.) At first, Carol has a gruff and unfriendly attitude toward the two pals. The pub is located in a shabby place that used to be known as the Royal Hotel. Hanna and Liv plan to live and work there for only a few weeks to make enough money to go back to their carefree lifestyle of partying while traveling.

Hanna and Liv will be replacing two other young women: Jules (played by Alex Malone) and Cassie (played by Kate Cheel), who are close friends and originally from Great Britain. Jules and Cassie are “party girls” too, but Jules is more talkative and more extroverted than Cassie. Hanna and Liv first meet Jules and Cassie in the living room of the messy suite area where Hanna and Liv will be staying. Cassie and Jules are startled out of a drunken stupor when Hanna and Liv arrive. Jules laughs when Hanna and Liv ask if this place has WiFi, because there is no WiFi service in this area. Cell phone service is also spotty and rare.

During the course of the movie, Hanna and Liv are targets of hostile sexism from men who are used to getting away with it. However, Hanna and Liv react differently. Hanna thinks it’s offensive and often isn’t afraid to say so. Liv makes excuses and says it’s just part of the “culture” where they are. “The Royal Hotel” has many examples of how women can often be unwitting or deliberate allies and enablers to sexists who want to treat women as inferior to men, thereby helping perpetuate this vicious cycle.

The warning signs about this awful job are obvious from the beginning, when Hanna and Liv first meet Billy (played by Hugo Weaving), the disheveled owner of this struggling business. The shower that Hanna and Liv have to use isn’t working properly, so Billy (who is in his 60s) angrily storms into the room to fix it, and he strikes up a conversation with his two new employees. During this conversation, Hanna mentions that she can speak some Spanish and Portuguese. In response, Billy calls Hanna a “smart cunt,” in a tone of voice that makes it clear that he thinks Hanna is being uppity. Hanna is so shocked by this insult from her new boss, she doesn’t say anything to him about it.

Hanna and Liv know nothing about bartending, so Billy has to train them. Hanna figures out very quickly that she and Liv (and the other young female employees before them) were only hired to be objectified by horny male customers. Liv knows it too, but she doesn’t seem to care, because she thinks they can have a good time anyway. Liv often scolds Hanna for being too “uptight” over the increasingly alarming and hostile actions that the two women get from some of the customers. Liv convinces Hanna to stay just a few weeks so they can make enough money to go to Australia’s Bondi Beach.

The pub’s customers consist mostly of men in their 20s, 30s and 40s. The vast majority of them work in a nearby mine. One of the rare women in the pub is a regular customer named Glenda (played by Barbara Lowing), who is about the same age as Billy. Glenda, who is often drunk, craves attention from the men in the pub, where the atmosphere (not surprisingly) is often rowdy and vulgar. Glenda has an outdated and harmful attitude that men should be allowed to get away with sexual harassment just because they’re men.

On the last night before Cassie and Jess leave the area, they both get very drunk and dance on the pub’s countertop, much to the delight of the male customers. At one point, Cassie and Jess (who are both wearing skirts) lift up their clothes to flash their naked private parts on their upper and lower bodies. The two women don’t want to be groped in their private parts and have to fight off the men who try to commit this sexual assault, which is excused as “drunken antics.” Liv smirks when she quips to a horrified Hanna: “That will be us in a few weeks.”

One of the young male customers named Matty (played by Toby Wallace) plays a prank on Liv by telling her that he wants a drink called Dickens Cider. Liv says she’s never heard of that drink. It takes Liv (who’s not as street smart as she thinks she is) a few minutes to figure out that Dickens Cider is not a real drink but a pun for “dick inside her.” Liv laughs off the joke, while Hanna doesn’t think it’s so funny.

It soon becomes apparent that Matty is attracted to Hanna. In an effort to impress Hanna (who rebuffs his advances), Matty eventually says he’s sorry for his crude prank. Matty can see that Hanna is repulsed by a lot of what she sees in the pub, so he quickly switches gears and tries to give the impression that he’s the “nice guy” in the group. Meanwhile, another young customer named Teeth (played by James Frecheville), who is often teased by the men for being socially awkward, develops a crush on Liv.

And in a sleazy place like this pub, there’s always at least one creep who gives the impression that he’s just one drink away from committing rape. In this pub, this cretin is Dolly (played by Daniel Henshall), a hate-filled loner who likes to bully and harass people for no reason. Dolly will get no sympathy from “The Royal Hotel” viewers when they see what he does.

It would be very easy for any outside observer to say, “Why don’t Hanna and Liv just leave?” It’s not that simple. Hanna and Liv have no money and no means of transportation (the nearest public transportation is too far away to walk), so unless they can find someone in this land of strangers to drive them out of this hellish place for free, they’re out of luck. Carol won’t help because she needs Hanna and Liv to stay as bartenders for the pub.

All Hanna and Liv have to do is get paid and then use the money to leave, right? Wrong. After a while, Hanna and Liv find out that Billy is an alcoholic who hasn’t been paying anyone to whom he owes money. A local vendor named Tommy (played by Baykali Ganambarr), who delivers food and drinks to the pub, hasn’t been paid by Billy for the past three months. Billy owes Tommy $4,300. And eventually, Hanna and Liv see that Billy has no intention of paying them either.

Billy isn’t doing anything to help his failing business. There’s a scene where the phone rings in the nearly empty pub. Billy picks up the phone, and without even finding out who’s calling and why, he rudely shouts, “We’re busy!” And then he abruptly hangs up the phone. Through conversations, it’s revealed that Billy inherited and ruined this once-thriving family business, which was started by his paternal grandfather.

And where is Carol during all of this mess? Carol, who is Billy’s lover, keeps mostly to herself in the small trailer where they live next to the pub. It’s never really explained why Billy and Carol live in a trailer when there are plenty of rooms in this former hotel. However, considering how run-down the place is and how some of the equipment keeps malfunctioning (with unreliable Billy being the only repair person), it can be assumed that most of the rooms in this place are uninhabitable. Carol has a no-nonsense attitude and isn’t as terrible as she first appears to be.

Unfortunately, the trailer for “The Royal Hotel” shows too much of what happens in the movie, even if these spoiler details are just brief glimpses in a quick-cutting montage. Viewers will probably enjoy “The Royal Hotel” more if they haven’t seen the movie’s trailer first. Regardless of how much people know about this movie before seeing it, the acting throughout is above-average and makes this movie worth watching.

Garner and Henwick give riveting performances as two friends who find their loyalties to each other tested by their contrasting attitudes toward misogynistic sexism. The movie also has very authentic depictions of how sexual harassers and horrible bosses often test the boundaries of what they can get away with and go further past those boundaries if they aren’t stopped. Hanna (who is obviously the story’s hero) finds out that she has more courage and inner strength than she originally thought she did.

“The Royal Hotel” is not without its flaws. In the last third of the movie, someone suddenly makes an appearance that doesn’t really ring true. It looks a little too contrived. The movie also doesn’t do a very good job of explaining Liv’s background and why she puts up with so much blatant and unacceptable harassment. There’s a slight hint that Liv is running away from something traumatic when she’s asked by a customer how she ended up in this remote place, and Liv replies that it’s because it’s far away from where she used to live.

Hanna’s background is also vague. The only information that viewers will learn about her past is that she grew up with a mother who was probably an alcoholic (even though Hanna denies that her mother’s drinking problem was that serious), and Hanna studied business and marketing while she was in college. It’s also never really made clear how long Hanna and Liv have been friends. However, Hanna and Liv certainly find out what kind of friendship they have in these tough circumstances.

Overall, “The Royal Hotel” is a capably written and skillfully directed movie that shows how victims can be trapped in horrendous situations where the people who could help them are the same people who don’t want the trapped victims to leave. The movie also serves as a warning that abuse is abuse and should not be dismissed as “gray areas” or “blurred lines.” “The Royal Hotel” can keep viewers guessing about what will happen next, but by the end of the movie, there should be no uncertainty about who and what caused the worst problems.

Neon will release “The Royal Hotel” in select U.S. cinemas on October 6, 2023.

Review: ‘Talk to Me’ (2023), starring Sophie Wilde, Alexandra Jensen, Joe Bird, Otis Dhanji, Zoe Terakes, Chris Alosio and Miranda Otto

July 28, 2023

by Carla Hay

Joe Bird in “Talk to Me” (Photo by Matthew Thorne/A24)

“Talk to Me” (2023)

Directed by Danny Philippou and Michael Philippou

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in Australia, the horror film “Talk to Me” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A teenage girl, who is grieving over the unexpected death of her mother, joins some of the students from her high school in a party ritual where they can alter their consciousness by summoning up dangerous spirits that can possess bodies, but then things go very wrong. 

Culture Audience: “Talk to Me” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a terrifying and gruesome horror movie with a suspenseful story and good acting.

Alexandria Steffensen and Sophie Wilde in “Talk to Me” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“Talk to Me” is a genuinely creepy horror movie with some disturbing images that aren’t easily forgotten. The last 15 minutes are rushed and could have been explained better, but most viewers should understand the effective ending. The movie explores themes of regret and grief during supernatural chaos. “Talk to Me” had its world premiere at the 2022 Adelaide Film Festival and its North American premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

Directed by brothers Danny Philippou and Michael Philippou, “Talk to Me” is their feature-film directorial debut. “Talk to Me” takes place in an unnamed city in Australia (the nation where the movie was filmed), but the movie’s story could take place in any country or culture where teenagers are always looking for new ways to get thrills from partying. From the movie’s opening scene, “Talk to Me” shows that there’s a menacing danger lurking for the partying teens in the story. Danny Philippou and Bill Hinzman co-wrote the “Talk to Me” screenplay.

The first scene in the movie shows a guy in his late teens named Cole (played by Ari McCarthy) frantically looking for his younger brother Duckett (played by Sunny Johnson) at a crowded house party where the only people there are teenagers. Cole breaks down a bedroom door to find a shirtless Duckett in a daze and sitting on a bed. Duckett’s back is facing Cole. There are noticeable bloody scratches on Duckett’s back.

Duckett is rambling and disoriented as Cole leads him out of the room to go outside and to be taken home. Is Duckett on drugs, is he mentally ill, or both? All of a sudden, Duckett takes out a knife and stabs Cole but doesn’t kill him. And then, Duckett takes out a gun and shoots himself in front of the partygoers. What happened to Cole and Duckett are shown later in the movie.

Meanwhile, at a nearby high school, where most of the students are middle-class, the students have been buzzing about a new way to get high that they don’t want adults to know about at all. Two of the students—a tall, rebellious type named Joss (played by Chris Alosio) and a smirking, androgynous type named Hayley (played by Zoe Terakes)—have come into the possession of an embalmed forearm with mysterious writing all over it. Joss and Hayley are the ringleaders of bringing this forearm to teenage parties to show off as an unexplained “magic trick.”

The word is out that people who go through an occult-like ritual while grasping the arm’s hand will be temporarily possessed by unknown spirits and will experience a high like no other. First, the person holding the hand has to say, “Talk to me,” and then utter, “I let you in.” Students at the school have been video recording these incidents on their phones. These videos have gone viral among the students. The people who look possessed in these videos speak in voices that are not their own, they convulse, their eyes turn black, their faces becomes blotched with strained blood vessels, and they look as if they’ve lost their minds.

The people whose bodies are possessed are also able to see spirits in the room during the possession—and these spirits usually look like rotting corpses. People won’t know in advance if the spirit conjured up will be good or evil. But somehow, Joss and Hayley know that whatever spirit takes possession of people’s bodies cannot stay in that body for more than 90 seconds, or else the spirit will want to permanently stay. As soon as this information is revealed in the movie (the info is also in the “Talk to Me” trailers), it’s easy to figure out what happened to Duckett in the movie’s opening scene. Who will be the next victim of any menacing spirits?

“Talk to Me” focuses on four teenagers who find themselves getting caught up in the mayhem and suffering the consequences. The main protagonist is Mia (played by Sophie Wilde), who’s about 16 or 17 years old. Mia is grieving over the unexpected death of her mother Rhea (played by Alexandria Steffensen), who died one year earlier under mysterious circumstances. Mia’s father Max (played by Marcus Johnson) found Rhea dead in a bathroom at the family home.

The death has been ruled an accident, but Mia has unspoken and probably unfair resentment toward her father for not being there in time to save Rhea. As a result of these hard feelings, Mia barely speaks to he father. Mia also spends as much time away from her house as possible. Mia can usually be found at the house of her best friend Jade (played by Alexandra Jensen), who has known Mia for years.

Jade and Mia do a lot of things that teenage girls do as friends. Mia is much more of a misfit at school than Jade is. Although they are best friends, Mia and Jade have a bit of underlying tension between them because Jade’s boyfriend Daniel (played by Otis Dhanji) is someone whom Mia had a crush on not too long ago. Nothing ever came of this crush except a quick kiss that Mia planted on Daniel, who let her know that he wasn’t interested in dating her.

Daniel and Jade have been dating each other for the past three months. Mia is very surprised when Jade tells her that Daniel and Jade haven’t even kissed yet. However, Mia’s facial experession and body language when she hears this news indicate that she’s secretly pleased that Daniel and Jade haven’t had the intimacy of kissing. The lack of kissing in Daniel and Jade’s relationship later serves as a contrast to one of the most unsettling scenes in the movie. It’s a scene that’s intended to make viewers uncomfortable. Some viewers will be shocked and disgusted.

Rounding out this tight-knight quartet of teens is Jade’s brother Riley (played by Joe Bird), who is 14 years old. Jade sometimes treats Riley like a pest, but Mia (who is an only child) likes hanging out with Riley, whom she treats almost like a younger brother. Riley and Jade live with their divorced mother Sue (played by Miranda Otto), who is always suspicious about Jade and Mia being up to no good. Sue’s suspicion is used as comic relief in “Talk to Me,” which has a lot of dark and horrific moments.

You can almost do a countdown to the scene when Sue will be away from home for a night, and Jade throws a house party with no adult supervision. Needless to say (because it’s already shown in the movie’s trailers), Mia and Riley end up doing the “Talk to Me” ritual on separate occassions. Mia did the ritual under peer pressure but then found herself wanting to know more when she saw visions of her mother’s spirit talking to her. Riley wanted to do the ritual to impress the older teens.

Sensitive viewers should be warned that “Talk to Me” is not for anyone who gets easily squeamish by the sight of blood. There are multiple scenes in the movie where someone repeatedly bashes that person’s own head on hard surfaces, in attempts to commit suicide. The sound effects in these head-bashing scenes are just as nauseauting as all the blood. The same suicidal person also tries to pull that person’s own right eye out of its socket.

“Talk to Me” works so well as a compelling horror movie because the filmmakers wisely chose to center the movie on teenagers—the age group most likely to want to indulge in these dangerous rituals just to be rebellious, even if the consequences could be deadly. The movie adds an extra layer of authenticity in wanting to take these risks when the motive (in Mia’s case) is to see and communicate with a loved one from the spirit world. Wilde’s richly textured performance is what holds “Talk to Me” together when some of the loose threads in the plot threaten to unravel the movie.

The movie comes very close to falling apart toward the end with a flurry of activities that seem like ways to cover up some crucial unanswered questions. The origin of this forearm remains vague (there’s speculation among the teens that it’s the forearm of an unknown serial killer), yet somehow Joss and Hayley seem to know all the “rules” of this forearm. It’s hastily explained that Joss got this forearm from a couple of strangers at a party, and these strangers supposedly told him what to do with the arm.

The subplot over Rhea’s death is also somewhat mishandled. The movie casts doubts over whether her death was really an accident. But based on the injuries that Rhea sustained, a required autopsy would’ve given more clarity. Mia doesn’t have all the details of her mother’s death, but the movie implies that she doesn’t want to know all the details, until she’s prompted to ask her father more questions. “Talk to Me” does a good job of showing that Mia’s grief clouds her judgment. Is that ghost of her mother really her mother, or is it something else disguised as her mother?

Although the “Talk to Me” screenplay isn’t perfect, the movie delivers in serving up plenty of scares and scenarios that will keep viewers riveted, even if what’s on screen might be too sickening for some people’s tastes. Don’t expect “Talk to Me” to be the type of horror movie where all the mysteries are solved by the end. However, “Talk to Me” is definitely the type of horror flick where it’s obvious by the end that this movie was made to have a sequel or a series.

A24 released “Talk to Me” in U.S. cinemas on July 28, 2023.

Review: ‘Of an Age,’ starring Elias Anton and Thom Green

February 20, 2023

by Carla Hay

Hattie Hook, Thom Green and Elias Anton in “Of an Age” (Photo by Ben King/Focus Features)

“Of an Age”

Directed by Goran Stolevski

Some language in Serbian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Melbourne, Australia, in 1999 and 2010, the dramatic film “Of an Age” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few people of South Asian heritage) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: At 17 years old, a semi-closeted gay guy quickly falls for the older, openly gay brother of his female best friend, but this would-be romance is cut short because the brother is moving to South America the next day, and then the two men unexpectedly see each other again 11 years later.

Culture Audience: “Of an Age” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching LGBTQ love stories and movies about love, loss and possibly rekindled romances.

Elias Anton and Thom Green in “Of an Age” (Photo by Thuy Vy/Focus Features)

“Of an Age” is a compelling character study of love connections and the importance of timing in order for a relationship to grow. Elias Anton and Thom Green give memorable performances, but some viewers might not like how parts of the story remain untold. It’s a story that doesn’t fit a certain formula of what many people might expect in romantic dramas because of how the movie is structured. However, this unpredictability is the movie’s strength. By not following clichés, “Of an Age” offers something closer to real life than what most fictional movies about romance have to offer.

Written and directed by Goran Stolevski, “Of an Age” is a big departure from his previous film: the 2022 moody horror film “You Won’t Be Alone,” set in 19th century Macedonia, about a cursed woman who inhabits the bodies of various beings, while the witch who cursed her as a baby follows her to make sure that she does not experience love. In “Of an Age” (which takes place in 1999 and 2010 in Melbourne, Australia, where the movie was filmed), the protagonist is haunted by another type of curse: homophobia. This homophobia is the root cause of his shame about being gay, and it’s deprived him of having a love life up until he meets a man who gives him a liberating perspective. This perspective changes his attitude about his self-acceptance, his sexuality, and how honest he wants to be about himself to the people around him.

“Of an Age” begins on New Year’s Day 2010, when a gloomy-looking Nikola “Kol” Denić (played by Anton) makes a phone call to someone Ebony, who isn’t home, but the phone is answered by a woman who sounds like she lives with Ebony. Kol (whose nickname is pronounced “Cole”) is hesitant about this phone call. He tells the woman who answers the phone: “I was just thinking about her … I wasn’t thinking about her. Sorry.” He hangs up and takes a swig from a liquor bottle. Viewers later find out that January 1 is Kol’s birthday.

“Of An Age,” which is told in two parts, then flashes back to Part One of the story, which takes place over the course of 24 hours in December 1999. Part Two of the story takes place over a few days in 2010, about five months after Kol has made that mournful phone call. The movie has a non-traditional structure because Part One gets the majority (about 70%) of the movie’s screen time, whereas most two-part movies would be structured so that each of the two parts would get about the same amount of screen time.

In Part One of “Of an Age,” Kol is a 17-year-old aspiring dancer who is getting ready for the most important dance competition of his life so far: The Year 12 Ballroom Finals for an unnamed national Australian dance contest. His dance partner is his best friend Ebony Donegal (played by Hattie Hook), who has recently graduated from the same high school class as Kol. Ebony and Kol live in a working-class part of North Melbourne. Ebony is outgoing and rebellious. Kol is introverted and likes to play by the rules.

Ebony is also flaky and very temperamental. The movie shows that she has woken up on a beach, after a night of drug-induced partying with a male stranger she met the night before. Ebony has no idea where she is, and she barely remembers what happened the previous nught, but she knows that the dance competition starts in a few hours at the City Center in Melbourne. She desperately needs a way to get there in time.

After making some frantic phone calls and inquiries about where she is, Ebony has a meltdown when she calls Kol. She begs, cries and screams for him to come pick her up. Ebony—an aspiring actress who wants to go to the National Institute of Dramatic Arts—has a love/hate relationship with her single mother Fay (played by Verity Higgins), and refuses to call her mother for help. Ebony is often rude and demanding to the people close to her, but Kol puts up with it because Ebony is his only friend.

The problem with Ebony wanting Kol to give her car ride back home is that Kol doesn’t have access to a car. And he finds out that Ebony is too far away for him to pick her up and drive them to the dance contest in time. Ebony still needs a ride back home, so Kol enlists the help of Ebony’s visiting older brother Adam Donegal (played by Green), who has a car and meets Kol for the first time during this trip to pick up Ebony, who is disheveled, an emotional wreck, and quite the shrieking drama queen.

Even though there’s little to no chance that Ebony and Kol will make it in time to the competition, Ebony asks Kol to get her ballroom dance dress at the house that she shares with a friend named Jaya (played by Senuri Chandrani), who immediately picks up on the fact that Kol is gay, even though he’s not ready to admit it to anyone yet. When Jaya calls him “gay,” Kol acts slightly offended, but he’s really just embarrassed that Jaya has figured out his secret.

During the car drive to pick up Ebony in the rural area where she is, Adam and Kol have a sarcasm-fueled conversation that will change their lives. Adam is in his mid-20s and highly educated. He graduated from the University of Melbourne with a master’s degree in linguistics. As an undergrad, he majored in Spanish. And he’s about to get his Ph. D. degree.

Kol wants to impress this older man, so he tries to make Adam think that Kol is sophisticated. Even though the production notes for “Of an Age” say that Kol is 17, in the movie, Kol tells Adam that he is 18 and will turn 19 in a few weeks. Adam mentions early on in the conversation that he really likes South America. Adam is playing music from an Argentinian movie soundtrack in the car, so Kol pretends that he likes Argentinian movies too. When the subject turns to literature, Kol tells Adam that he has been reading the work of Jorge Luis Borges, an Argentinian short story writer.

However, Kol shows that he’s not very sophisticated at all when he mispronounces the name of supermodel Gisele Bündchen. Kol mispronounces her first name as “Jizzelly.” Bündchen’s name comes up when Adam says he chose Spanish as a major because he likes “South Americans—they’re just hotter.” Kol agrees and responds by saying (and mispronouncing) that South Americans are hot “like Gisele.” (Bündchen is from Brazil, where the national language is Portuguese, not Spanish.) At this point, Kol might be testing Adam’s reaction to see if Adam believes that Kol is sexually attracted to women. Adam doesn’t look entirely convinced.

Adam rolls and smokes a marijuana cigarette while driving. He offers a puff to Kol, who politely declines and says that he doesn’t smoke. Adam says of the dismal economic prospects of their working-class community: “You’re a good boy. Good boys make it out.” Later, when Adam asks Kol what his favorite book is, Kol says it’s Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” while Adam says his favorite book is Malcolm Lowry’s “Under the Volcano.” Their choices in books say a lot about their personalities.

During this conversation that becomes increasingly filled with sexual tension and romantic attraction, Kol opens up about his family. He tells Adam that he and his family are originally from Serbia. They moved to Australia in 1991, “because of the war,” and Kol’s father died in 1994. Kol lives with Kol’s widowed mother, Kol’s aunt (played by Donna Dimovski Kantarovski) and Kol’s uncle (played by Slobodan Andonoski). Kol says of his home life: “I’m waiting for my uncle to die. He’s a psycho.” Later in the movie, Kol says he rarely sees his mother (played by Milijana Čančar), because she’s busy working at three different jobs.

At one point in the conversation in the car, Adam mentions having an “ex,” but he doesn’t say what gender the ex is. Not long after that, Adam says that a box of music cassette tapes and some other stuff in the back of the car belong to this ex-lover. When Kol accidentally knocks over the box of cassettes, Kol says, “Your ex is going to kill me.” Adam casually says, “He won’t.” It’s at that moment that Kol finds out that Adam is gay.

This revelation and the majority of the movie’s plot is shown in the trailer for “Of an Age.” It’s later revealed that Adam is the first openly gay man whom Kol has ever met. It scares Kol but also excites him because he and Adam have a mutual attraction that they cannot ignore. And then (as revealed in the movie’s trailer), Adam tells Kol that this is his last day in Australia, because he’s moving to South American to get his Ph.D. degree.

Over the next 24 hours, Kol and Adam act on their connection before saying a bittersweet and tearful goodbye. The connection between them is so strong, that they both instinctively know that they could have had a soul-mate romance if circumstances had not prevented them from being together. The “what ifs” about their would-be relationship will affect them for years to come.

The trailer for “Of an Age” already shows that after not seeing each other for years, Kol and Adam happen to end up in the same airport baggage claim area. This is in Part Two of the movie, which takes place in 2010. The movie trailer also shows that they have both arrived in Melbourne because of Ebony’s wedding. And it’s obvious that Kol and Adam are still very much attracted to each other.

What isn’t revealed in the trailer is what Kol and Adam will do about this attraction. Adam and Kol catch up on each other’s lives, as they tell each other what they’ve been doing in the 11 years since they saw each other. However, one of them has a big secret that will have an effect on any possible reunion. Because the trailer of “Of an Age” gives so much of the plot away, the only real question that viewers who’ve seen the trailer will have is: “Will Adam and Kol rekindle what they started 11 years ago?”

“Of An Age” would not be as emotionally touching if not for the stellar performances of Anton and Green, who both authentically portray the heartbreaking reality that sometimes true love can be found quickly but lost just as quickly. Adam is Kol’s first experience with romantic love as Kol’s true self. And so, it’s been harder for Kol to recover from this separation. That doesn’t mean Adam doesn’t care, but Adam had more dating experience than Kol at the time they met and shared this intense connection.

The movie gives vivid portrayals of the personalities of Adam and Kol. However, some viewers might be bothered by the 11-year gap in time that isn’t fully explained except in brief conversations between Adam and Kol when they see each other again in 2010. It’s also a little hard to believe that talkative loudmouth Ebony wouldn’t have told Adam ahead of time that Kol was going to the wedding. When Kol and Adam see each other at the airport, they are very surprised. It’s a small detail that doesn’t ring true in this movie.

“Of an Age” might bring up a lot of questions that the movie doesn’t answer. But there’s no doubt that the passion between Adam and Kol is real for both of them. Viewers will be intrigued by finding out how much Adam and Kol have changed in 11 years—or how much Adam and Kol might have stayed the same. And are they still right for each other 11 years after they have met? It’s a question that’s open to many different interpretations, which can be exactly what “Of an Age” intends for viewers.

Focus Features released “Of an Age” in select U.S. cinemas on February 17, 2023.

Review: ‘Facing Monsters,’ starring Kerby Brown

November 6, 2022

by Carla Hay

Kerby Brown in “Facing Monsters” (Photo courtesy of Level 33 Entertainment)

“Facing Monsters”

Directed by Bentley Dean

Culture Representation: Taking place in Australia, the documentary film “Facing Monsters” features an all-white group of people discussing Australian “slab wave” surfer Kerby Brown, with the documentary having a lot of showing footage of him doing daredevil surfing.

Culture Clash: Members of Brown’s family have concerns about the dangers of him surfing as he gets older and more vulnerable to physical injuries. 

Culture Audience: “Facing Monsters” will appeal primarily to people interested in surfing movies or movies about athletes who have to face decisions on when they’ll retire.

Kerby Brown in “Facing Monsters” (Photo courtesy of Level 33 Entertainment)

The documentary “Facing Monsters” adeptly balances the story of Australian surfer Kerby Brown with captivating footage of his talent and candid confessions about his private life. The movie’s title refers to monster surf waves and Brown’s personal demons. You don’t have to know anything about surfing and you don’t have be a fan of surfing to appreciate this memorable movie.

Directed by Bentley Dean, “Facing Monsters” (which was filmed entirely in Australia) isn’t a comprehensive biography that delves into Brown’s entire life. His childhood, teenage years and young adulthood (he was born and raised in western Australia) are mentioned but not explored in depth. Instead, “Facing Monsters” focuses primarily on a period of about one year in Brown’s life, when he was at a crossroads about deciding how much longer he was going to continue the dangerous sport of “slab wave” surfing. At the time of filming “Facing Monsters” in 2020, Brown was 36 or 37.

“Slab wave” surfing is known as one of the riskiest forms of surfing, because it’s about riding a “slab wave”—a wave that is very thick, as opposed to very tall. Because of this thickness, a “slab wave” can much deadlier than a tall wave, if it crashes on a surfer. It’s this element of danger that’s a big part of the thrill for surf enthusiasts such as Brown.

His younger brother Cortney Brown is his best friend and constant companion on surfing excursions. When the two brothers go out on the waves together, Cortney often drives the boat or jet ski when Kerby and his surfboard need to be dragged by a rope. In the documentary, Kerby describes Cortney as “the best brother … He’s my wing man, my partner in crime.”

Not everyone in his family is enamored with the brothers’ surfing activities. Kerby’s father Glenn Brown, who is a crayfish fisherman, comes right out and says that he gets nervous every time Kerby and Cortney go to certain areas that are considered highly dangerous for surfers. The movie begins with footage of the brothers surfing in Gabagaba, in the midwest coast of Australia. Glenn comments that he doesn’t like this area for his sons to surf. Every time that his sons go to the area, Glenn says he feels like it’s “like going to their funeral.”

When Glenn was young, he was a musician who frequently wasn’t home because of his travels. And so, Glenn missed out on seeing Kerby develop a passion for surfing when Kerby was a child. “I regret it deeply,” Glenn says in the documentary. Kerby’s mother Nola Brown seems supportive of her sons’ surfing activities, but she has less screen time than Glenn and doesn’t say much in this documentary.

Early on in the documentary, Kerby says in a voiceover: “The ocean is where I go to peace and a place where I belong. It’s where I feel free. Without that connection, I don’t feel like I’m the person I’m supposed to be. I lose that balance. It’s where I feel most alive.”

As a young adult, Kerby says that he tried competitive surfing to make a living, but he gave it up because he didn’t like the rules and politics of entering competitions. Instead, Kerby made a name for himself as an independent daredevil surfer who made money through sponsorships. Kerby says that he knew from an early age that he was never meant to have an office job. When he can’t get money for surfing, Kerby often takes work where he can be near the ocean, such as oil-rig jobs.

Kerby also talks about what is often an obsession for surfers: finding and riding the biggest wave they can possibly find. “Facing Monsters” follows him on this quest. Cortney talks about Kerby getting many surfing injuries and still going out on the waves after barely recovering from those injuries. Kerby describes how it feels to be crushed by an ocean wave: “It’s like your skull is in a vice. You can’t black out.” Cortney comments, “It’s an addiction, really, surfing these kinds of waves.”

Speaking of addiction, Kerby opens up about the period of time in his life when he was addicted to drugs and alcohol. He says his addictions were at their worst when he didn’t have surfing to keep him occupied. His on-again/off-again girlfriend Nicole Jardine comments in the documentary about Kerby’s self-destruction: “That was hard to watch. I’m not his mother. I’m his partner. He had to make better choices.”

Kerby had moved to Perth to be with Jardine. And he says he cleaned up his life after the birth of his and Jardine’s first child: a son named Phoenix, who was born in 2012 or 2013. The couple also has a daughter named Sahara, who was born in 2017 or 2018. Phoenix and Sahara are both shown in the documentary. And not surprisingly, Phoenix shows signs that he’s picked up an enthusiasm for surfing.

Jardine has mixed emotions about Kerby’s surfing passion. She thinks his type of surfing is “dangerous” but “uplifting” and “positive.” It goes without saying that she would rather have Kerby surfing for his own peace of mind than damaging himself through drugs and alcohol.

Kerby says his determination to chase the biggest monster waves in Australia was the main reason why he decided to move from Perth to Wadandi Boodja, which is known for having some of the biggest monster waves in Australia. Kerby says moving away from his brother was “the hardest decision I ever had to make.” The brothers still have a very close bond, and when they’re together, they inevitable surf together.

“Facing Monsters” shows a fateful surfing trip that Kerby and Kortney took to Waudaarn, on the southern coast of Western Australia. Before this trip, Kerby is shown saying goodbye and giving hugs to Jardine and Sahara. Jardine looks worried bur accepting of the fact that there’s nothing anyone can do when Kerby has his mind made to go surfing in a dangerous area.

Kerby says in a voiceover, “There’s a huge fear of not coming home to my family and not being there for my kids. I really don’t want to have those thoughts going through my head while I’m trying to do what I do. I don’t see what I’m doing as a reckless thing anymore. I try to be calculated with it.”

Despite the best intentions and all of his surfing experiences, Kerby gets an enormous setback on this surfing trip. This setback is briefly glimpsed near the beginning of the documentary, which circles back to this harrowing moment in the last third of the film. The remaining part of the movie chronicles how Kerby overcame this obstacle. Kerby’s father Glenn wrote a song about this experience called “World’s Been Changed,” which Glenn performs in the documentary.

“Facing Monsters” wisely took the approach of not having a lot of talking-head interviews and lets a lot of the surfing footage speak for itself. Outside of Kerby’s immediate family, the only other people featured in the documentary are his surfing pals Rit Rayner and Chris Shanahan, as well as Cortney’s girlfriend Imogen Caldwell. The documentary is about Kerby, but a great deal of the story is also about the brotherly bond of Kerby and Cortney.

One of the best aspects of “Facing Monsters” is the gorgeous cinematography by Rick Rifici. Viewers will feel as if they are almost going through a virtual-reality experience of being right there on the waves. It’s an exhilarating feeling that should be seen on the biggest screen possible.

The movie also has some other artistic touches, such as opening with a striking aerial shot of Kerby lying face up in body of water that is salmon pink. This artistic shot is shown again in the movie when Kerby has his setback in Waudaarn, in order to contrast the high and lows of surfing. “Facing Monsters” stands out for having numerous majestic scenes of powerful ocean waves. However, the movie wouldn’t be as compelling without showing the strengths of human resilience and following a life passion when facing obstacles.

Level 33 Entertainment released “Facing Monsters” in select U.S. cinemas on October 14, 2022. The movie is set for release on digital and VOD on November 15, 2022. “Facing Monsters” was released in Australia on March 10, 2022.

Review: ‘How to Please a Woman,’ starring Sally Phillips, Erik Thomson, Cameron Daddo and Tasma Walton

July 31, 2022

by Carla Hay

Hayley McElhinney, Tasma Walton, Sally Phillips and Caroline Brazier in “How to Please a Woman” (Photo by David Dare Parker/Brainstorm Media)

“How to Please a Woman”

Directed by Renée Webster

Culture Representation: Taking place in Fremantle, Australia, the comedy/drama film “How to Please a Woman” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few biracial people and one person of Tongan heritage) representing the working-class and the middle-class.

Culture Clash: After getting laid off from her administrative assistant job at a liquidation company, a middle-aged woman in a passionless marriage decides to start a business that offers men giving housecleaning and sex services for women. 

Culture Audience: “How to Please a Woman” will appeal primarily to people interested in movies that celebrate women over the age of 40 seeking happiness and sexual pleasure, but viewers should be prepared for some clichéd and not-very-realistic handling of the subject matter.

Ryan Johnson, Josh Thomson, Alex England and Erik Thomson in “How to Please a Woman” (Photo by David Dare Parker/Brainstorm Media)

Despite some trite sitcom elements and occasionally uneven pacing, “How to Please a Woman” is an overall entertaining comedy/drama about a middle-aged woman who reinvents herself by starting a business that offers men giving housecleaning and sexual services for women. Written and directed by Renée Webster, “How to Please a Woman” is less about the financial aspects of the business and more about how this business is the catalyst for personal fulfilment for many characters in the movie. Sometimes the movie clumsily handles its themes and messages about female empowerment, while other times the movie handles these themes and messages with grace, wit and charm.

“How to Please a Woman” is the type of movie that doesn’t offer too many surprises. The movie’s protagonist is a stereotypical middle-aged woman who is sexually repressed. Based on the movie’s title, you don’t have to know anything about the plot to know that this protagonist is going to be the one who goes through the personal transformation that is at the heart of the story.

“How to Please a Woman” might get some comparisons to “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” (which is an overall better movie), because both comedy/drama movies (which were released within weeks of each other in 2022) have a plot about a sexually repressed, middle-aged woman getting involved with the sex industry and finding personal satisfaction from it. Both movies have sex-positive messages that women should be more accepting of their individual sexualities and their natural bodies. However, that’s where the similarities end for both movies.

“Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” (which takes place in England) focuses only on two people: a retired widow and the gigolo she hires. “How to Please a Woman” (which takes place in Fremantle in Western Australia) has a much larger cast and is about an unhappily married woman who starts a combination housecleaning/sex business after she’s laid off from her job. “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” has entirely realistic conversations and scenarios. “How to Please a Woman” has some overly contrived scenarios that lower the quality of the movie. The sitcom-like music in “How to Please a Woman” doesn’t help.

In “How to Please a Woman,” Gina Henderson (played by Sally Phillips) is a British immigrant in her 50s who is stuck in a stale marriage to her attorney husband Adrian Henderson (played by Cameron Daddo), who has lost interest in having sex with her. Later in the movie, it’s revealed that Gina and Adrian haven’t had sex with each other for the past two years. Neither of them is unfaithful to each other, and the relationship is not abusive. However, Adrian treats Gina more like a roommate than like a wife.

Gina and Adrian have a college-age daughter named Chloe (played by Asher Yasbincek), who is attending a university in London. She’s seen briefly near the beginning of the movie in a scene where Chloe does a video chat with Gina to wish Gina a happy birthday. However, Chloe doesn’t talk to Gina for as long as Gina would like. Gina seems disappointed about this short conversation, as if it’s hard for her to accept that Chloe is an adult who has her own life.

Gina feels underappreciated not only by her family but also at her job. In the beginning of the movie, she’s an overworked administrative assistant at a company called Lifetime Liquidators, which decides if failing businesses are worth saving or not. She thinks being overworked means that she’s indispensable at this company. Gina is in for a rude awakening when her obnoxious boss Brett (played by Oliver Wenn) fires her due to “company restructuring.”

Gina is the only one let go from the company, and she finds out why: Brett has hired a young, buxom blonde named Alice (played by Emily Rose Brennan) to replace Gina. When Alice innocently asks Gina if she needs any help after Gina gets fired, a normally mild-mannered Gina snaps at Alice: “You can take your double D cups and piss off to your own department!” (Gina gets a chance to redeem herself over this rudeness later in the movie.)

As an attorney, Adrian thinks that Gina should sue Lifetime Liquidators for age discrimination, but Gina doesn’t think it’s worth it. Instead, she decides to help the last company that she was in contact with before she lost her job. It’s a moving company named Pleased to Move You, a small business that is very close to shuttering due to significant financial losses and heavy financial debt. In fact, Brett has already decided that Pleased to Move You should be shut down.

Gina has a close-knit group of friends, who often go swimming with her. They all go to a local gym, where the gym’s locker room has become the center of Gina’s social life. Her three closest pals are no-nonsense bachelorette Sandra (played by Caroline Brazier), sexually fluid and commitment-phobic bachelorette Hayley (played by Hayley McElhinney), and married corporate attorney Monique (played by Tasma Walton), who’s also stuck in a marriage rut.

As a surprise birthday gift, Gina gets a performance from a male stripper named Tom (played by Alexander England), who is in his 20s but who has the maturity and intelligence of someone in their late teens. Gina doesn’t want Tom to strip naked and asks him to clean her house instead with his shirt off. And what a coincidence: Tom just happens to be one of the Pleased to Move You employees. (He says he’s a stripper as an occasional side job.)

This experience leads to Gina coming up with the idea to have Pleased to Move You “diversify” its business by having the company’s all-male employees do housecleaning services while shirtless. Not surprisingly, bachelor Tom (who’s obviously comfortable with getting naked in front of strangers) is the most enthusiastic about the idea of being a sexy housecleaner. The company’s married boss and the other employees (who are bachelors) aren’t so sure, but Gina convinces them that they can save the company from going out of business by making money this way.

In addition to Tom, the other employees of Pleased to Move You are goofy Ben (played by Josh Thomson) and earnest Anthony (played by Ryan Johnson), who is later described as “well-endowed,” which leads to some comedic scenes later in the movie. The company owner/boss is Steve (played by Erik Thomson, no relation to Josh Thomson), whose marital situation affects things that happen later in the story. Instead of doing the “out in the field” work for this housecleaning business, Steve offers to maintain the website and do other information technology work. Gina is hired to be the manager of sales, marketing and accounting for this business.

The first place that Gina goes to advertise the business is the ladies’ locker room, where she puts flyers on the wall. An acquaintance named Claudia (played by Roz Hammond) is the first customer. Tom is the one who goes to Claudia’s home to provide the housecleaning services. But the sight of shirtless Tom is enough for Claudia to ask Tom to have sex with her. He willingly obliges.

Gina gave Tom a car ride to this job, so she waits outside for Tom until he finishes the work. When Gina peeks in a window of the house to see what’s taking him so long, she sees Claudia wearing nothing but a robe, while Tom is naked and getting a drink from the kitchen refrigerator. Tom sees Gina and smiles at her, as if to say, “Hey, if this is part of the job, I like it.”

However, Gina is mortified and annoyed. When Tom comes out of the house, she sternly tells Tom: “That is not happening ever again.” But there would be no “How to Please a Woman” movie if that turned out to be true.

The next time that Claudia is in the locker room with Gina and her friends, she raves about the service that she got. Gina tells Claudia that the sex with Tom was a “mistake” that “is not ever going to happen again.” But when Gina quickly finds out that she can’t make any sales just by offering housecleaning services by shirtless men, she agrees to offer sex from these employees as part of the housecleaning deal. And that’s when Gina is inundated with bookings and requests for these services.

“How to Please a Woman” gets heavy-handed in how easily everything falls into place for this business. The men are quickly convinced to do this work, although there is some realism when Anthony and Ben are worried about how their bodies look, compared to the more physically fit Tom. Whatever their body insecurities are, the movie makes a point that the men get over these insecurities a lot quicker than how the women feel insecure about their own bodies.

Another contrivance of “How to Please a Woman” is that, with one exception, all of the interested clients are women who are in their 40s, 50s and 60s. It’s this movie’s over-the-top way of making it look like women in this age range are more in need for this service, when in actuality there would be more diversity in the adult customers’ age ranges. The locker room scenes in “How to Please a Woman” have mostly women in their 40s to 60s in the room, which also looks unrealistic for a setting that’s supposed to be open to women of all ages.

One of the movie’s annoying aspects is that it makes most of the women customers look insecure, desperate and lonely. It’s a somewhat off-putting depiction because it plays into negative and often untrue stereotypes that women over the age of 40 have less fulfilling sex lives than younger women. However, this negative stereotyping is somewhat balanced out by showing some women customers who are unapologetic and confident about wanting this service. Gina encourages the customers to not be afraid to ask for what they want. It’s advice that she finds harder to apply to her own life.

“How to Please a Woman” doesn’t exclusively address heterosexual needs. The movie includes a queer subplot about a bi-curious woman named Fiona (played by Catherine Moore), who is one of the ladies from the locker room. Fiona asks Gina if she’s open to hiring women to be housecleaners, because Fiona is curious about having sexual experiences with other women. Perhaps as a way to avoid criticism for exploiting women in sex work, Gina doesn’t hire Fiona to do this work, but the movie resolves Fiona’s bi-curious issue in another way.

The queer perspective is only addressed when it comes to women. The movie has absolutely nothing that talks about men giving service to men in this business. There’s a half-hearted attempt at this scenario, but it’s played for laughs, when Ben goes on a service call that he gets from a man, who seems to want to have a threesome with Ben and the man’s wife. It all turns out to be a big misunderstanding, which is another example of a sitcom-like setup that cheapens the movie’s messages.

The comedy in “How to Please a Woman” is definitely for adults (and there are a few brief flashes of female and male nudity), but many of the scenes play out like something in a movie for teenagers. Sandra gives a remote-controlled vibrator to Gina as a gift to cheer her up, and Gina acts like she’s never seen a vibrator before. It’s a bit of stretch to expect audiences to believe that someone of Gina’s age and in her circumstances is that sheltered. Later, this vibrator is used in one of the movie’s funniest scenes.

“How to Please a Woman” gives a little too much screen time to showing Tom’s personal life. He’s a man-child who has trouble keeping a job, and his most recent romantic relationship failed because of his immaturity. His ex-girlfriend Mandy (played by Takia Morrison) is pregnant with their child (which they know will be a boy), and she has already moved on to a new boyfriend named Gary (played by Ben Mortley). These scenes of Tom visiting pregnant Mandy (who never looks happy to see him) have no real purpose in the movie except to show that Tom wants to prove to her that he’s trying to be a responsible adult.

When Tom offers to give money to Mandy for their unborn child, and he offers to clean her house, she rejects this offer, and Tom looks emotionally hurt. Later, Tom tells one of his sex clients that when he and Mandy were together, he always had to initiate sex, but he prefers it when a woman makes the first move with him in having sex. It might be the movie’s way of trying to explain why Tom likes being hired as a sex worker, but it comes across as unnecessary and awkward.

As for the legalities of what Gina is doing with this business and how she wants to keep the business a secret from her husband Adrian, “How to Please a Woman” addresses those issues in some ways that are realistic and other ways that are not. In Western Australia, certain aspects of the sex business are illegal (such as operating a brothel or being a pimp/madam), while other aspects are legal (such as being an independent sex worker), and a gray area is sex therapy that can be considered legal if it’s a licensed business. Viewers will have to keep in mind that this movie is set in Australia, where the laws about sex work might differ from other countries. Still, the legal issues about what Gina is doing are a little too glossed over in the movie.

Even with its flaws, “How to Please a Woman” is fairly straightforward in showing its intentions and tone, so viewers know within the first 15 minutes what type of movie they will be watching. The only symbolism that the movie has is Gina’s love of swimming in the ocean, which is used as a symbol for how she wants to feel freedom or at peace with herself. The last third of “How to Please a Woman” has a few twists that aren’t too surprising because of all the clues that these things were going to happen.

The movie could have done a better job of developing some of the supporting characters. Most people watching “How to Please a Woman” will have a hard time remembering the names of Gina’s friends. Ben is treated as a “clown” and not as a desirable sex worker. (He has no sex scenes in the movie.) The love lives of Anthony and Ben are not shown or mentioned, so it’s unknown how their involvement in this semi-secretive sex work is affecting their personal lives.

Gina and her friend Monique are the only female characters whose jobs/sources of income are shown or mentioned. Viewers can only speculate what Gina and her friends talk about besides sex, relationships and her new business venture, because that’s basically all they talk about in this movie. The rest of the female characters who know about this housecleaning/sex business are only shown in the context of their interest in this business or their sexual needs, instead of giving them more well-rounded personalities.

All of the movie’s production aspects and performances are perfectly fine for how this movie was written, but nothing about “How to Please a Woman” is outstanding or award-worthy. As a statement about female empowerment and female sexual confidence, “How to Please a Woman” veers on the breezy and lightweight side. However, the movie can still resonate with viewers who want to see an entertaining story about the pursuit of pleasure and happiness.

Brainstorm Media released “How to Please a Woman” in select U.S. cinemas on July 22, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on July 29, 2022. “How to Please a Woman” was released in Australia on May 19, 2022.

Review: ‘Wyrmwood: Apocalypse,’ starring Luke McKenzie, Bianca Bradey, Shantae Barnes-Cowan, Tasia Zalar, Jay Gallagher and Nicholas Boshier

May 25, 2022

by Carla Hay

Bianca Bradey and Luke McKenzie (center) in “Wyrmwood: Apocalypse” (Photo by Thom Davies/XYZ Films)

“Wyrmwood: Apocalpyse”

Directed by Kiah Roache-Turner

Culture Representation: Taking place in Australia, the horror film “Wyrmwood: Apocalypse” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with a few Aborigines) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A mercenary soldier has his loyalties tested during a battle of humans against zombies in an apocalypse. 

Culture Audience: “Wyrmwood: Apocalypse” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of zombie movies but don’t care if the story is good and just want to see a lot of bloody violence.

Tasia Zalar and Shantae Barnes-Cowan in “Wyrmwood: Apocalypse” (Photo by Emma Bjorndahl/XYZ Films)

With a forgettable story and even more forgettable characters, the zombie flick “Wyrmwood: Apocalypse” is just an idiotic and incoherent mush of violence that quickly becomes boring. No one is expecting a zombie movie to be high art, but an entertaining zombie should at least give viewers some suspense over what’s going to happen in the story. There are absolutely no surprises in “Wyrmwood: Apocalypse,” which is just an obnoxious and very predictable mess.

Directed by Kiah Roache-Turner (who co-wrote the “Wyrmwood: Apocalypse” screenplay with his brother Tristan Roache-Turner), “Wyrmwood: Apocalypse” is the sequel to 2015’s “Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead,” with both movies taking place in Australia during an apocalypse. (How unoriginal for a zombie movie.) The screenwriting is so lazy, it’s essentially the same story as the first movie: A woman, who has become human mutant zombie, has to be saved by a sibling, who is trying to not let this zombie sister get captured by authorities.

In “Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead,” the zombie sister is Brooke (played by Bianca Bradey), who is supposed to be saved by her mechanic brother Barry (played by Jay Gallagher) during a series of inevitable gory scenes. Brooke and Barry are also in “Wyrmwood: Apocalypse.” In “Wyrmwood: Apocalypse,” a zombie sister named Grace (played by Tasia Zalar) is supposed to be saved her sister Maxi (played by Shantae Barnes-Cowan), while both sisters encounter a mercenary soldier named Rhys (played by Luke McKenzie), whose job is to capture zombie civilians to force them into a military that doesn’t have enough people.

The chief villain in “Wyrmwood: Apocalypse” is Surgeon General (played by Nicholas Boshier), the corrupt leader of the military. In the beginning of the movie, Grave and Maxi are looking for Barry and Brooke, because Brooke and Grace have something in common: They’re both a “hybrid”: a human who has not completely turned into a zombie yet. Rhys ends up capturing Grace, but his alliances might or might not be with Surgeon General during the course of the story.

As a sequel, “Wyrmwood: Apocalypse” does a terrible job of explaining who Brooke and Barry are, as well as their backstories from “Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead.” As a narrative film, “Wyrmwood: Apocalypse” barely does anything to make viewers care about any of the movie’s characters, who say nothing but trite and embarrassingly bad dialogue. All of the acting in this movie is mediocre to horrible. “Wyrmwood: Apocalypse” is just a sloppily directed zombie film that has a lot of blood and guts, but this movie has absolutely no heart or soul.

XYZ Films released “Wyrmwood: Apocalypse” on digital and VOD on April 14, 2022.

Review: ‘Nitram,’ starring Caleb Landry Jones, Judy Davis, Essie Davis and Anthony LaPaglia

April 20, 2022

by Carla Hay

Caleb Landry Jones, Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia in “Nitram” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Nitram”

Directed by Justin Kurzel

Culture Representation: Taking place in Tasmania, Australia, from 1987 to 1996, the dramatic film “Nitram” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Based on a true story, a troubled young man nicknamed Nitram goes on a downward spiral before committing heinous acts of murder.

Culture Audience: “Nitram” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in movies that take a dark and disturbing look into the mind of a mass murderer.

Caleb Landry Jones and Essie Davis in “Nitram” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

Whenever a scripted movie is made about a notorious murderer, there’s a fine line between trying to understand what caused this person to kill and exploiting/glorifying the situation without any empathy for those harmed by murder. “Nitram,” which is based on real events, walks that fine line. As a psychological portrait, “Nitram” has top-notch acting and succeeds at showing the tragic results of enabling toxic people. As a well-rounded story that gives importance to the real-life murder victims, this drama falls very short.

“Nitram” has absolutely no regard for the real-life victims of the 1996 Port Arthur gun-shooting massacre in Tasmania, Australia—a tragedy that killed 35 people, wounded 23 people, and was caused by a lone gunman, whose name will not be mentioned in this review. It’s the movie’s biggest failing, but one could argue that’s because “Nitram” is told from the point of view of the murderer, who obviously had complete disregard for the people whose lives that he destroyed. Fortunately, “Nitram” does not glorify this murderer but instead responsibly takes the approach (and shows in disturbing ways) that this horrific murder spree might have been prevented if better care had been taken to get help for the mental health problems of the murderer.

Directed by Justin Kurzel and written by Shaun Grant, “Nitram” had its world premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, where “Nitram” star Caleb Landry Jones (who plays the title character) won the prize for Best Actor. Released in Australia in 2021, “Nitram” went on to win 11 out of its 15 nominations (including Best Picture, Best Director and all the actor/actress prizes) at the 2021 Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards. All of these industry accolades certainly have their merits.

However, it still doesn’t erase the fact that filmmakers doing scripted movies about real-life murders are much more inclined to want to make movies about the murderers instead of the victims. It sends mixed messages when it’s been proven many times that several of these murderers commit these heinous crimes because they want the publicity and the attention, including movies or TV shows made about them. In many ways, “Nitram” doesn’t really help in the healing process for loved ones of the murder victims.

To be clear: “Nitram” rightfully puts almost all of the blame on the killer for this mass murder spree. However, the movie is also a scathing indictment of those who saw all the warning signs that he was a ticking time bomb, and they chose to do nothing or look the other way. It might be open to debate how accurately the women in Nitram’s life are portrayed in this movie, but they are depicted as his biggest enablers, who have some apparent signs of mental illness too.

“Nitram” (which takes place in Tasmania, Australia) opens with an audio recording of a boy being interviewed about setting off firecrackers in an incident where he accidentally burned himself. The unidentified female interviewer asks the boy if he will still play with firecrackers. If she was expecting him to say no, because he learned his lesson, she’s in for a rude awakening. Without hesitation, the boy says that he will continue to play with firecrackers.

That boy, whose nickname is Nitram, grows up to be a troubled, young adult loner (played by Jones), who lives with his parents and who still sets off firecrackers and ignores neighbors’ complaints about this dangerous activity. Later, Nitram develops a fascination for shooting guns at random targets. Except for a few childhood flashbacks, “Nitram” takes place from 1987 to 1996, during the years when Nitram was his late teens to late 20s.

Near the beginning of the movie, the adult Nitram is shown to be a major nuisance in the neighborhood, but his unnamed mother (played by Judy Davis) also ignores people’s complaints about him. When a neighbor yells at Nitram to stop setting off firecrackers, Nitram’s mother calmly appears at the front door of the family house, and she tells Nitram that dinner is ready. This dinner table scene is a microcosm of the dynamics between these three family members.

Nitram’s mother is smothering, domineering, and at times a little fearful in her relationship with Nitram. Nitram’s unnamed father (played by Anthony LaPaglia) is passive, non-confrontational, and trying to be a loving father. Nitram is highly manipulative and aware that he has mental health problems, but he uses his mental illness as both a weapon to harm or scare people, or as a shield to prevent him from connecting with people because he’s afraid of them hurting him.

As an example of how he keeps people off-balance, in the dinner scene, Nitram starts off the meal dressed in overalls. But then, he abruptly leaves the table in the middle of the meal. Nitram comes back to the table wearing nothing but underwear briefs. When he sits back down at the table, his parents say nothing and continue the meal as if they haven’t noticed Nitram’s change of attire. It’s implied that these parents have become accustomed to Nitram’s bizarre actions, which they ignore as much as possible.

There are signs that Nitram has arrested development when it comes to his maturity and learning skills. In real life, the killer was diagnosed with learning disabilities, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and Asperger syndrome. These conditions are shown or hinted at for Nitram throughout the entire movie. And although “Nitram” doesn’t show his childhood education, it’s implied that in whatever schooling he had with other kids, he was bullied and treated as an outcast.

As a young adult, Nitram tries to show that he’s interested in a hobby. When he sees a surfboard in a store window, he goes home and asks his mother if he can have the surfboard. She refuses to give him the money for it and says, “I love you, but surfing is not for you.”

The movie has a very minor subplot of Nitram trying to befriend a confident and popular surfer named Jamie (played by Sean Keenan), who has a girlfriend named Riley (played by Phoebe Taylor), who meets Nitram at a beach one day. Jamie tries to give dating advice to Nitram, but this advice mostly goes nowhere because Nitram is socially awkward. Most women who encounter Nitram either ignore him or seem a little repulsed by him because he comes across as creepy and weird.

Needless to say, Nitram has trouble holding on to a job, so he lives with his parents while collecting disability benefits. Nitram attempts to earn some money by asking people in the neighborhood if they need yard care services. Most of the people he approaches seem wary of Nitram and his disheveled appearance, so they say no.

However, a lonely, middle-aged eccentric named Helen (played by Essie Davis) says yes and hires Nitram to clean up her backyard. Later, she hires him for more odd jobs and other housework, and he becomes a regular visitor even when he’s not working. Helen, who is single and lives alone, welcomes his company.

Helen is about 20 years older than Nitram. She lives in a run-down house where she has several dogs and a cat. There are indications that she has hoarding tendencies. Helen and Nitram find out they both have a strange sense of humor, so the two of them hit it off almost immediately. At first, they start off as friends, but then they become romantically involved with each other.

Even though she lives in a dilapidated house, Helen is actually a wealthy heiress who is living off of the money she inherited from her late father. It’s information that she doesn’t tell Nitram about right away. But after they become close, he eventually finds out, and it isn’t long before she invites Nitram to move in with her. Nitram eagerly takes this offer and abruptly moves out of his parents’ home.

Later, Nitram becomes fixated on guns. He has a rifle that he shoots at random targets. Helen voices her disapproval and tells Nitram that he can no longer live with her if he’s going to keep any guns in the house. It’s the only time that the movie depicts someone in Nitram’s life actually setting boundaries for him.

However, Nitram has a dangerous habit that Helen sees firsthand, but she dismisses it as harmless. When Nitram is a passenger in a car, he randomly lunges at the car’s driver and starts a physical altercation while the driver fights to maintain control of the car. Even though Helen sees obvious signs that Nitram can be violent, she does nothing to get him help for his mental health. Except for the gun possession, she lets him do whatever he wants inside and outside of her house.

Nitram’s mother vehemently disapproves of Nitram’s relationship with Helen, because Nitram’s mother is suspicious of Helen’s intentions. One of the movie’s best-acted scenes is when Nitram’s parents meet Helen for the first time during an awkward meal at a restaurant. Nitram is also there during the meeting, but Nitram’s mother talks about him as if he isn’t there. Nitram’s mother—who is seething with resentment that Nitram’s attentions are now focused entirely on someone outside of her home—comes right out and asks Helen how Helen thinks of Nitram: “Is he a husband or a son?”

On another occasion, Nitram’s mother tells Helen a disturbing story about something that happened when Nitram was 5 years old. Nitram’s mother had brought him with her when she went shopping at a fabric store. She lost sight of him, and when she saw that she couldn’t find him, she went frantically looking for him. Several people got involved in the search. Nitram was found hiding in the back seat of his mother’s car, knowing that people were looking for him. According to his mother, Nitram could see how distressed she was, but he was laughing at her pain.

And what about Nitram’s father? There’s a scene where he has to pick up an adult Nitram from a schoolyard because Nitram has set off firecrackers in the yard where children (who are about 7 to 10 years old) are playing. The school’s principal is understandably very upset. When Nitram’s father arrives, he profusely says that he’s sorry and that it won’t happen again, but Nitram shows no remorse. When Nitram and his father drive away in the car, he scolds Nitram and tells him to never to set off firecrackers in a school again, but Nitram’s father doesn’t seem to have a full grasp of the enormity of what just happened.

During much of the movie, Nitram’s father is preoccupied with getting a bank loan to buy a house to start a bed-and-breakfast business. What happens in this hoped-for sale becomes a catalyst for a lot of what occurs later in the movie. People who know the full story of what happened in real life already know how this bed-and-breakfast sale had a role in the killer’s downward spiral, but it won’t be revealed in this review.

Because all of the cast members give such realistic performances, “Nitram” is worth watching so viewers can get an up-close and personal look at the unraveling of this family, and how it all culminated in the horrific tragedy that happened in Port Arthur, Tasmania, on April 28 and April 29, 1996. It was Australia’s largest gun-shooting massacre committed by one person in a 24-hour period. (The movie does not show the gory details of this mass murder.) There are no real heroes in this story, but “Nitram” sounds the alarm for people not to ignore red flags when someone shows obvious signs of becoming a murderer.

IFC Films released “Nitram” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on March 30, 2022, the same date that AMC+ premiered the movie. “Nitram” was released in Australia in 2021.

Review: ‘Sissy,’ starring Aisha Dee, Hannah Barlow, Lucy Barrett, Emily De Margheriti, Daniel Monks and Yerin Ha

March 12, 2022

by Carla Hay

Aisha Dee in “Sissy” (Photo by Steve Arnold)

“Sissy”

Directed by Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes

Culture Representation: Taking place in Canberra, Australia, the horror movie “Sissy” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people and one Asian) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A social media influencer is invited to a weekend getaway party by a former childhood friend, and bitter emotions lead to murder and mayhem.

Culture Audience: “Sissy” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in horror movies that have a satirical tone.

Pictured clockwise, from bottom left: Yerin Ha, Daniel Monks, Emily De Margheriti, Hannah Barlow and Lucy Barrett in “Sissy” (Photo courtesy of Shudder)

The darkly comedic horror film “Sissy” sarcastically combines bloody gore with incisive commentary about friendships, bullying and social media culture. It’s a movie that might start off seeming to be one way, but some clever twists and turns take viewers on a bumpy and unpredictable ride. The scares aren’t so much in the violent and gruesome deaths but in the horror of how easily people can be manipulated into thinking certain ways about other people, based on contrived and superficial images. “Sissy” had its world premiere at the 2022 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival.

“Sissy” is written and directed by Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes, who previously teamed up for the 2017 comedy/drama feature film “For Now.” Barlow is also an actress in “For Now,” as she is in “Sissy.” The title character in “Sissy” (which takes place in Canberra, Australia) is named Cecilia (played by Aisha Dee), but her childhood nickname was Sissy. This childhood is shown in several flashbacks depicted through Cecilia’s memories and home videos that she has kept over the years.

The flashbacks show Cecilia/Sissy when she was 12 years old (played by Amelia Lule) and hanging out with her best friend at the time: Emma (played by Camille Cumpston), who is the same age. The two girls are seen doing what adolescent best friends often do: They dance together to pop songs, they talk about their hopes and dreams, and they pledge to be best friends forever. In one of the flashbacks, Emma tells Cecilia/Sissy: “Let’s make a pact: No matter what happens, we end up in the nursing home together. You’re the only person I want to poop my pants with.”

The movie opens 12 years after these home videos were made. Cecilia and Emma (played by Barlow) haven’t seen or spoken to each other in years. Cecilia is now making a living as a social media influencer who gives New Age positive self-help and self-esteem advice on videos that she puts online. Using the social media name Sincerely Cecilia, she currently has about 200,000 followers on social media, where she talks a lot about meditation and creating “safe spaces.”

One day, Cecilia is in a drugstore pharmacy when she randomly sees Emma. Cecilia seems alarmed and backs away, as if she doesn’t want to Emma to see her. But Emma does see Cecilia, and Emma is very happy to see her. Emma and Cecilia give each other updates on what they’ve been doing with their lives.

Cecilia is uncomfortable and a little bit guarded during this conversation, but Emma doesn’t notice this discomfort at all. In fact, Emma seems to be very impressed with Cecilia being an “influencer” with a six-figure following on social media. Emma is also eager to have Cecilia back in her life, so she impulsively invites Cecilia to the engagement party that’s she’s having to celebrate her impending marriage to her fiancée Fran (played by Lucy Barrett). Cecilia reluctantly accepts the invitation.

At this festive party, which is held at a nightclub, Cecilia meets Fran, who is very friendly and tells Cecilia that Emma talks a lot about her. Cecilia doesn’t know anyone else at the party except for Emma, whose many friends in attendance include gossipy Jamie (played by Daniel Monks) and talkative Tracey (played by Yerin Ha). After some initial hesitation, Cecilia ends up having a fairly good time at the party, even though a drunken Emma pulled Cecilia on stage and forced her to sing karaoke with her, and Emma vomited on Cecilia. It’s one of the many comedic moments in the movie.

Emma and Cecilia’s reunion goes well enough that Emma insists that Cecilia come along to a weekend getaway trip that Emma is having with a small group of friends at a remote house in a wooded area. On this trip are Emma, Cecilia, Fran, Jamie and Tracey, who travel in one car to the vacation house. Another guest is already at the house when they arrive. And she’s not happy to see Cecilia at all. In fact, she’s absolutely furious about it.

Her name is Alexandra “Alex” Kutis (played by Emily De Margheriti), who knew Emma and Cecilia in their childhoods. (In the childhood flashback scenes, Alex is played by April Blasdall.) Through a series of events, viewers find out why there’s bad blood between Alex and Cecilia. It’s enough to say that in their childhoods, Alex was a rival to Cecilia to be Emma’s closest friend.

That rivalry opens up old emotional wounds, because Alex is now in Emma’s life as a close friend. On Alex’s social media, she describes Emma as her “best friend.” At this getaway trip, Cecilia is treated like an outsider, since she barely knows anyone in the group except for Emma and Alex. Emma’s friends are very superficial and catty, as they talk about people on social media and are preoccupied with watching a tacky reality dating show called “Paradise Lust.”

Alex delights in making Cecilia as uncomfortable as possible on this trip. For example, Alex smirks when telling Cecilia that Cecilia has to sleep on the couch because Emma didn’t tell Cecilia would be on this trip, and there are no more beds available. Alex also deliberately calls Cecilia her former childhood nickname “Sissy” numerous times, even though Cecilia politely corrects her and tells her that she no longer goes by the name Sissy, which has painful memories for Cecilia.

During a group dinner, Alex’s hostility toward Cecilia is on full display, when Alex belittles Cecilia for being a “public figure” who’s “profiting from people’s pain.” This remark comes after Tracey rudely asks Cecilia how much money she makes from being a social media influencer. Emma tries to keep the peace and says that it’s no one’s business how much money Cecilia makes. Meanwhile, Cecilia is visibly embarrassed by this barrage of disrespectful judgments about who she is from people she’s just met.

Alex also questions the ethics of anyone who gives self-help advice for a living but who’s not a trained and qualified professional in psychology. Even though Cecilia tells everyone that she’s upfront with her audience that she’s not a trained professional, Alex and eventually Jamie attempt to demean Cecilia to make her feel unworthy of her accomplishments. And to make Cecilia feel even more insecure, Alex mentions that Fran is studying to get her doctorate in psychology. Alex snipes to Cecilia, “Fran is helping real people with real problems.”

The story behind the shared history of Cecilia, Emma and Alex unfolds in layers to reveal why there’s so much resentment, jealousy and other negative feels that come out and affect what happens on this trip. The dialogue in this movie is both satirical and authentic when it comes to the psychological warfare that people can play on each other. All of the actors portray their roles with just enough parody to show viewers that “Sissy” is not a movie that’s taking itself too seriously.

“Sissy” has fun playing with some horror movie stereotypes, such as “terror in the woods” and a dimwitted cop who is called to the scene when the mayhem is in full swing. This cop’s name is Constable Martindale (played by Shaun Martindale), and he embodies the typical horror movie cop who arrives alone and has to make quick decisions on how to handle some chaos. The movie is also a hilariously brutal send-up of how people use social media in the worst ways.

As a low-budget movie, “Sissy” makes very good use of cinematography (by Steve Arnold) to convey certain moods. Certain pivotal scenes are bathed in an eerie crimson red. And the color pink is a constant presence in the movie, to conjure up the childhood friendship of Cecilia/Sissy and Emma as a reminder of not only their happy memories but also what went wrong to cause their long estrangement.

Before going on the getaway trip, Cecilia looks back on a childhood video of her and Emma where they were wearing pink wigs, so Cecilia decides to dye her hair pink. It’s a symbolic of how Cecilia wishes she could go back to this happy time in her life. “Sissy” also has an original score (by Kenneth Lambl) that also skillfully goes back and forth between whimsical and ominous, to reflect these contrasting moods in the movie.

But all of these elements really wouldn’t work as well without the performances of the cast members and the direction of the film, which get the tone of a satirical horror film just right. The heart of the movie (as well as the terror) is really about the cauldron of emotions stirred up when Cecilia, Emma and Alex are all on this unsettling trip together. Dee, Barlow and De Margheriti give the movie’s best performances as this trio of women coming to terms with their past. And because Cecilia is the most complex of these characters, Dee has the standout performance.

“Sissy” is not for viewers who are easily disturbed by seeing bloody violence in movies. However, for people who can tolerate this type of content, “Sissy” offers more than the usual horror movie clichés. It’s easy for horror movies to stage bloody death scenes that are messy. But what “Sissy” accomplishes is much harder: It shows in intriguing and sometimes uncomfortably funny ways how life, relationships and people’s inner psyches can be messy too.

UPDATE: Shudder and AMC+ will premiere “Sissy” on September 30, 2022.

Review: ‘Buckley’s Chance,’ starring Bill Nighy, Victoria Hill and Milan Burch

September 2, 2021

by Carla Hay

Milan Burch in “Buckley’s Chance” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Buckley’s Chance”

Directed by Tim Brown

Culture Representation: Taking place in Western Australia’s Outback and briefly in New York City, the dramatic film “Buckley’s Chance” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Aborigine people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 12-year-old American boy, who grew up in New York City, reluctantly moves with his widowed mother to a remote Australian ranch so that they can live with his paternal grandfather, and the boy encounters unexpected dangers shortly after moving to Australia. 

Culture Audience: “Buckley’s Chance” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching family melodramas that have uneven acting and many ridiculous scenarios.

Bill Nighy in “Buckley’s Chance” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Buckley’s Chance” starts off as an earnest but bland family drama before it takes a steep nosedive into being an idiotic chase movie with very little suspense on how it’s all going to end. Not even the talent of the great British actor Bill Nighy can save this corny mess of a film. If the crime drama part of the movie had been written better, “Buckley’s Chance” might have been a film worth watching. But it all just becomes sloppily executed nonsense, including expecting people to believe that a dingo (a wild canine) can suddenly act like a friendly domesticated dog that knows how to do tricks, like shake hands with people.

Directed by Tim Brown, who co-wrote the “Buckley’s Chance” screenplay with Willem Wennekers, “Buckley’s Chance” is the story of what happens when a troubled 12-year-old American boy named Ridley Anderson (played by Milan Burch) moves with his widowed mother from New York City to a remote Outback ranch in Western Australia. Ridley finds out more about his Australian father’s side of the family, and he ends up getting kidnapped over a property deal. Ridley’s kidnapping doesn’t happen until the last third of the movie. Until then, expect to see a lot of scenes of Ridley pouting and sulking because he never wanted to move to Australia in the first place.

Ridley’s mother Gloria Anderson (played by Victoria Hill) is kind and patient, but she’s at her wit’s end on what to do about Ridley. They moved to Australia because Ridley has a history of having anger problems, which have gotten worse ever since Ridley’s father died about a year ago. Ridley’s emotional problems have been so bad that he’s been expelled from several schools. And because Ridley was very close to his father, Ridley grief has made him more likely to lash out in anger. He’s not dangerously violent, but he has very rude tantrums.

Gloria has made the drastic decision to start over in Australia, a country where she’s never lived and where she doesn’t know anyone. Ridley and Gloria will be living at Buckley’s Chance, the name of the sheep ranch that’s owned by widower Spencer Anderson (played by Nighy), the estranged father of Gloria’s late husband Bryce Anderson. The ranch is in an unnamed town in Western Australia, but the movie was actually filmed in Dangar Falls and Broken Hill in Australia. Bryce (played by Josef Brown, in a few flashbacks), who was Spencer’s only child, was a firefighter who died while saving people in a fire.

Bryce and Spencer hadn’t seen or spoken to each other for at least 20 years before Bryce died. Spencer did not attend Bryce’s funeral. Gloria knows very little about what went wrong in the relationship between Bryce and Spencer, because it was a sore subject that Bryce didn’t want to discuss with anyone. All she knows is that Bryce abruptly moved to the United States not long after he graduated from high school, because of a falling out that Bryce had with Spencer.

It’s under these tense circumstances that Gloria is hoping that moving in with Spencer will help heal this family rift. She also wants Ridley to be in an environment where he can have more discipline and be less likely to get into trouble. Of course, Ridley immediately hates living in a place that’s vastly different from New York City, and he’s resentful of having to abide by Spencer’s strict rules. Spencer is determined to turn this city boy into a skilled rancher.

The only thing that Ridley is interested in doing is filming videos with his video camera. It seems like he’s an aspiring director but he doesn’t really know it yet. Spencer has no patience for Ridley’s compulsion to constantly make video recordings of everything. When they go camping together, Spencer gets irritated when Ridley wants to film Spencer doing mundane things such as taking a nap or starting a fire.

Needless to say, Ridley and Spencer clash with each other almost from the beginning. When Spencer gives Ridley the nickname Riddles, Ridley snaps at his grandfather that his name is Ridley, and he better not be called Riddles. When Spencer tries to teach Ridley how to use a rifle by telling him to shoot a dingo that’s on the property, Ridley fumbles and misses his target, and Spencer gripes, “That was a waste of a bullet.”

Gloria doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with Spencer either. She’s very wary of letting Ridley learn how to use a gun. But when Spencer explains that people who live in this rural area need to know how to use a gun for protection against wild animals, Gloria reluctantly lets Spencer teach Ridley, on the condition that Ridley can only use a gun when an adult is nearby.

Ridley has a problem with the idea of shooting dingos, while Spencer insists that dingos need to be kept away and killed if necessary because dingos could be harmful to people and the ranch’s sheep. There’s a small pack of dingos (about five or six) that hang out in an open field near the ranch. One of the dingos is a tan male that escaped being shot by Spencer.

Ridley and the dingo make eye contact in a way that you just know this dingo is going to become like a pet to Ridley. It’s one of the more ridiculous aspects of this movie because the cutesy and contrived way that this dingo behaves is not like a how a feral dingo would behave in real life. Ridley sees the dingo again, when he rescues the canine from being caught in a barbed wire fence while Ridley and Spencer have gone camping.

Spencer has a friendly ranch hand named Jules Churchill (played by Kelton Pell), who is the only Australian adult who doesn’t seem to immediately get on Ridley’s nerves. Jules is a former high school classmate of Bryce, who was a star player on the school’s rugby team. Gloria and Ridley get a little bit more insight about what Bryce was like in his teen years from Jules, since Spencer is very resistant to talking about Bryce.

Spencer tells Ridley that the ranch’s name Buckley’s Chance is inspired by the Australian folk tale of an escaped prisoner named William Buckley, who hid in the wilderness. Years after most people thought Buckley was dead, he suddenly came out of the wilderness—and he was healthy and in great shape. His against-all-odds survival spawned the catch phrase of something having a “Buckley’s chance” if it can beat the odds and exceed expectations. It’s predictably used as a heavy-handed metaphor for what Ridley experiences in this story.

One night, Ridley overhears Spencer talking to Jules in a private conversation. Spencer tells Jules, “I’m trying to run a sheep station, not take care of a grieving widow and her son.” Jules asks why Spencer didn’t decline Gloria’s request to live at the ranch. Spencer explains that he didn’t want it on his conscience to turn his back on his family.

After hearing this conversation, Ridley feels even more alienated from Spencer and even more miserable living in Australia. Ridley verbally lashes out and throws tantrums in public and in private. Slowly but surely, more information eventually comes out about what really happened to cause Bryce to move far away from Australia and stop talking to Spencer. But there’s a lot more family angst, with Ridley at the center, to get through before these family secrets are revealed.

“Buckley’s Chance” unrealistically shows only a few people (including Spencer and Jules) working on the ranch. It’s a low-budget movie, but it wouldn’t have been that hard to hire some extras for a scene or two to show more people working at this ranch. It’s a ranch that’s supposedly so huge that a big company named Plunkett wants to buy the northeastern part of the ranch’s land, but Spencer has refused the lucrative offer.

It’s not stated what type of company Plunkett is, but it’s common knowledge that if Plunkett owned the land that it wants to buy from Spencer, the company would be able to employ numerous people in the area. Many of the townspeople aren’t happy that Spencer is being stubborn about refusing to sell this part of his land. They think Spencer’s unwillingness to sell the land is depriving the area of an economic boost that the area needs.

One of the pro-Plunkett townspeople is named Cooper (played by Martin Sacks), who angrily confronts Spencer about this stymied business deal when Spencer, Ridley and Gloria are having lunch at a diner one day. It’s the first time that Ridley and Gloria find out that the land is a big source of contention and that Spencer is very unpopular with the locals because he refuses to sell the land. Cooper has two lowlife cronies named Oscar Wallace (played by Anthony Gooley) and Mick Wallace (played by Ben Wood)—two dimwitted brothers who later threaten Spencer, who remains unmoved.

Without Cooper’s knowledge, Oscar and Mick end up kidnapping Ridley in a foolish attempt to get Spencer to change his mind about selling the land. Oscar is the bossy brother who comes up with the haphazard schemes and gives orders to Mick. Oscar and Mick plan to hold Ridley hostage until Spencer sells the land to Plunkett.

It’s a crazy idea, of course, and these bungling criminals find out that Ridley is smarter than they thought he was. Ridley escapes and encounters all kinds of obstacles in trying to find his way back to the ranch or to find help, when he has no food, water or survival gear. Blundering brothers Mick and Oscar are in hot pursuit.

And suddenly, Ridley has unrealistic strength, as if he’s some kind of superhero. There he is hanging off of a deadly cliff like he’s Spider-Man. There he is surviving a deadly waterfall like he’s Aquaman. And, of course, the dingo shows up to help Ridley, who names the dog Buckley. None of this is spoiler information, because it’s all in the “Buckley’s Chance” trailer.

And even though a 12-year-old boy has gone missing in the Australian Outback, the search-and-rescue team is woefully small, consisting of only a few police officers. An unnamed patrol officer (played by Julia Billington) is the only cop who’s consistently shown doing any real investigating. However, the one thing that’s somewhat realistic about the investigation is that the adults mistakenly think at first that Ridley has run away, not been kidnapped. Considering Ridley’s troubled history, and because the kidnappers didn’t leave a ransom note, it would be easy to make that assumption.

The hokey tone of “Buckley’s Chance” is even more annoying because of the cornball musical score that sounds like it’s from a sappy TV-movie of the week that has absolutely no interest in doing anything original. It all just a blatant sign that “Buckley’s Chance” will follow the same overused formula of other movies about a boy lost in the wilderness. And although the human/dingo bonding in “Buckley’s Chance” can be considered endearing, it’s more than a little irresponsible to make it look like a dingo can suddenly act like a domesticated dog that’s got some training.

The acting in “Buckley’s Chance” is either mediocre or terrible. Nighy is a better actor in other movies, and he struggles with doing any accent that isn’t British. His natural British accent comes through many times, even though he’s supposed to be portraying a lifelong Australian. “Buckley’s Chance” is told from the perspective of Ridley. And unfortunately, this role needed a more talented actor than Burch, who is too stiff in some scenes and who over-emotes in other scenes.

“Buckley’s Chance” does have some good scenic cinematography of Australia, but you can find similar footage from many professional video travelogues of Australia. At least in a travelogue, you wouldn’t have to sit through a lot of terribly unrealistic action scenes and the cheesy melodrama that stinks up “Buckley’s Chance.” In an effort to make this movie seem more exciting, the filmmakers overstuffed the last third of the movie with idiotic action scenes that ruined any shot of credibility that this movie would have had.

Vertical Entertainment released “Buckley’s Chance” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on August 13, 2021.

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