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.

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 its 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.

Review: ‘Chasing Wonders,’ starring Antonio De La Torre, Paz Vega, Quim Gutiérrez, Jessica Marias, Michael Crisafulli, Francesc Orella, Carmen Maura and Edward James Olmos

June 11, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jessica Marias, Quim Gutiérrez, Paz Vega, Antonio De La Torre, Michael Crisafulli, Edward James Olmos and Carmen Maura in “Chasing Wonders” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“Chasing Wonders”

Directed by Paul Meins

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place over an eight-year period in Spain and Australia, the dramatic film “Chasing Wonders” features a predominantly Hispanic cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: The story’s male protagonist, shown at ages 12 and 20, has a tension-filled relationship with hs father, who is haunted by a tragedy from his past. 

Culture Audience: “Chasing Wonders” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in immigrant stories and stories about people with family secrets.

Antonio De La Torre, Michael Crisafulli, Carmen Maura and Edward James Olmos in “Chasing Wonders” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

The dramatic film “Chasing Wonders” blatantly pulls at people’s heartstrings. However, the acting and story are realistic enough that viewers should find something to like about this movie about a Spanish immigrant family trying to overcome emotional dysfunction while living in Australia. Yes, it’s unabashadly sentimental and at times a little melodramatic, but the movie’s overall message is hopeful and uplifting. “Chasing Wonders” can also be relatable to anyone who understands how events from a family’s past can affect the emotional well-being of the family, possibly for generations.

Directed by Paul Meins and written by Judy Morris, “Chasing Wonders” is a movie that flashes back and forth between two time periods for the story’s Spanish Australian protagonist: Savino Farias (played by Michael Crisafulli) at age 12 and at age 20. Although the story is told from Savino’s perspective, the movie’s narrator is Savino’s maternal grandfather Luis (played by Edward James Olmos), who adores Savino and is Savino’s greatest teacher and mentor.

The back-and-forth time shifts and having two different characters as the narrator and protagonist could result in a very messy film. But fortunately, the movie’s constant jumping over time periods is easy to follow, thanks to the consistently clear screenwriting from Morris, skilled editing from Nicolas Gaster, and solid direction from Meins.

“Chasing Wonders” was also filmed over a five-year period, so the movie did not need two different actors to play Savino as a 12-year-old and a 20-year-old. Keeping the same actor as a child and as an adult just adds to the realistic nature of this dramatic story. It also helps to distinguish between the time periods, because Savino looks his age at these two different periods in his life.

As grandfather Luis explains in voiceover narration in the beginning of the film: “We are all here to dream. It is the very purpose of our mind. And when we are young, our dreams are vivid, crystal-clear. My grandson, he was a dreamer.”

And who is Savino Farias? He is an only child who was born in Spain into a tight-knight but frequently emotionally repressed family. His stern father Felipe (played by Antonio De La Torre) owns a vineyard, while his homemaker mother Adrianna (played by Paz Vega) is the more nurturing parent. Felipe is emotionally troubled: At times he can be cold and distant, while at other times he can fly into a rage over petty things.

Also living in the household are Adrianna’s father Luis and his wife Maribel (played by Carmen Maura), who both adore Savino, who is their only grandchild. Felipe has a handsome and more impulsive younger brother named Goyo (played Quim Gutiérrez), who also lives in the household. Goyo works with Felipe at the vineyard. It’s a family-owned vineyard, but Felipe is in charge, and he never lets people forget it.

Savino spent the first six years of his life living in Spain, until his father decided that the family needed to move to Australia, even though they didn’t know anyone there. Felipe’s parents were deceased by the time the family moved to Australia. Just like in Spain, Felipe owns a vineyard in Australia that is operated with Goyo’s help. The Farias family vineyard and house in Australia are much smaller than the ones that they had in Spain. The vineyard is so small that Felipe and Goyo are the vineyard’s only two employees shown in the movie.

Because Savino’s boyhood scenes show him at 12 years old, it’s during a time when the family has been living in Australia for six years. At some point when they were living in Australia, there was a new addition to the family household: Goyo now has an Australian live-in girlfriend named Janine (played by Jessica Marias), who does some help around the house and the vineyard, but Felipe and Goyo do most of the hard labor outside.

It’s never made clear how long Goyo and Janine have been together by the time that Savino’s childhood is shown when Savino is 12 years old. But based on conversations, it seems like Goyo and Janine have been together for less than two years. There’s a scene of the entire family having dinner together. Savino is asking for family blessings during the dinner prayer, and he doesn’t seem to know how to describe Janine’s relationship to the family in the prayers, since Janine and Goyo are an unmarried couple. Luis tactfully tells Savino that he can describe Janine as “Goyo’s girlfriend.”

Although “Chasing Wonders” might seem to be a family-friendly film that’s appropriate for all ages to watch, it’s not. There’s some cursing (much of it from children) and a graphic scene of Savino killing a hissing snake in self-defense. There’s also a sex scene with Goyo and Janine that briefly shows partial female nudity. Viewers should know this information up front so they can use their own discretion on whether or not to watch “Chasing Wonders,” especially if very young or very easily offended people could be watching.

The scenes with Savino at 20 years old show him going back to visit his original family home in Spain. He is greeted by the property’s live-in caretaker Cosme (played by Francesc Orella), who tells Savino that the family that currently owns the property is from Barcelona, but it’s not the family’s main home. Therefore, the homeowners are not there when Savino comes to visit.

Cosme lives in the property’s guest home. And just like Savino’s beloved grandfather Luis, Cosme lives with several members of his family: Cosme’s wife (played by Imma Vallmitjana); Cosme’s mother-in-law (played by Mariona Perrier); Cosme’s son (played by Marc Guzman); Comse’s daughter-in-law (played by Inés Abad); Cosme’s granddaughter (played by Claudina López); and Cosme’s grandson (played by Eric García).

There’s a brief scene of Savino having dinner with Cosme and his family, and then these family members are not seen again. Cosme is Savino’s main tour guide around the property, so Savino can see how the place might have changed since Savino lived there. Cosme also takes Savino to a few other places that are part of the Farias family’s past.

Most of the story is centered on Savino as a 12-year-old. At school, he’s somewhat of a loner. On the school bus, there are hints that most of his classmates treat Savino as an outsider because he comes from an immigrant family whose first language is Spanish. Savino is fluent in Spanish and English, and he has an Australian accent. He mostly keeps to himself, and there doesn’t seem to be anything outstanding about him at school.

Savino isn’t a complete outcast. His closest and only friend at school is Skeet (played by Jarin Towney), a rebellious kid who comes from a home where his parents have split up and his father rarely keeps in touch with him. When they’re not around adults, Savino and Skeet curse quite a bit. It’s adult language that Savino would never use in the presence of his strict father.

During conversations that Savino and Skeet have, there’s a “grass is always greener” tone to how they view each other’s family situation. Savino seems to think it’s better to have an absentee father than to have a father who is in the household but always seems to be disapproving and ill-tempered. In one scene, Savino says mournfully to Skeet about how Felipe treats him: “I just disappoint him. I don’t know what he wants. I’m not the kid he wants.”

Meanwhile, Skeet (who is emotionally wounded by a father who ignores him) tries to cheer up Savino by saying that having a disapproving father is at least an indication that the father cares. Skeet thinks that’s better than having a father who doesn’t seem to care at all. Savino tries to make Skeet feel better by encouraging Skeet to reach out to Skeet’s father. Although Skeet and Savino have very different views of each other’s family situation, one big thing that they have in common is that they both feel stifled and somewhat unhappy in their families, and the boys like spending time with each other outside of their respective homes.

Savino has a telescope that he got as a gift from his grandfather Luis. Savino loves looking at the stars with the telescope. And he sometimes does some harmless spying on Goyo and Janine, whose bedroom window is directly across from Savino’s. It’s why Savino accidentally sees the couple having sex in their room while their room’s window is exposed. Savino is curious, but he doesn’t fixate too long on watching them have sex. He’s not a perverted Peeping Tom, after all.

One evening while using his telescope, Savino sees a shadow of a big bird and a smaller golden bird that flew over a big rock formation that Savino wants to eventually see up-close in person. Savino excitedly tells his grandparents about what he saw and asks how to get to the rock. Luis mysteriously replies, “You know how. Follow the stars.”

This advice prompts Savino to secretly go exploring at night, knowing that his father Felipe would disapprove and possibly punish him. “Chasing Wonders” has some striking and beautiful cinematography from Denson Baker, especially in the outdoor scenes with wide open spaces. (However, some of the sky backdrops look like visual effects that could have been improved.) The movie was filmed on location in the Spanish cities of Barcelona and Penedés, and in Australia in Barossa Valley, Flinders Ranges and Adelaide Studios.

Savino is fascinated by the Milky Way. And he wants to find the rock formation that he spotted in that telescope sighting. Savino sneaks out of the home to do these walks, but he comes back in time before his parents notice that he ever left. Eventually, Skeet comes along for the journey one night.

There are scenes of Skeet and Savino walking in the outdoors, sometimes on or near a tube-like tunnel, while they talk about their lives. It’s very reminiscent of the 1986 classic film “Stand by Me,” but with two boys instead of four. During their conversations, Savino seems to fear his father but also want his father’s respect and approval.

Felipe is trying to prepare Savino to eventually take over the family vineyard when Savino is old enough to do so. At this point, Savino doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life, but it seems that his father has already decided for him. What bothers Savino is that he doesn’t know why his father is quick to get angry at him.

Savino knows that something happened to Felipe when Felipe was young, but the family doesn’t want to talk about it. Felipe and Luis sometimes clash because Felipe thinks that Luis gives too much encouragement to Savino to be a dreamer. Observant viewers will also notice that Felipe is probably jealous that Savino is closer to Luis than Savino is to Felipe.

Considering the gruff way that Felipe sometimes treats Savino, it should come as no surprise that Savino has more love for Luis than he does for Felipe. Everyone in the household seems to be a little bit afraid of Felipe because of his unpredictable temper. Felipe also seems to hate the possibility that Savino might not be interested in taking over the family business, because it’s a rejection that Felipe would take very personally.

In one scene, Felipe shows Savino the art of wine tasting and how to be able to tell what year that the wine was made. Felipe gets irritated when Savino starts to giggle during this instructional demonstration. And then, Felipe becomes enraged when he figures out that Savino is tipsy from too much wine that Goyo allowed Savino to drink when Felipe wasn’t there. Goyo is apologetic, but he also thinks Felipe is overreacting.

Felipe verbally rips into Goyo (it won’t be the last time) and yells at him that they’re not in Spain anymore, where letting underage children drink alcohol is more acceptable than it is in many other countries such as Australia. Although it’s highly unlikely that any authorities would find out that Savino had too much wine to drink in this situation, Felipe’s anger has as much to do with wanting to be in control as it has to do with being a protective parent. Felipe thinks Goyo has a tendency to be irresponsible, and Felipe doesn’t want Goyo to be Savino’s role model.

Later in the movie, because of a misadventure that happens while Savino and Skeet snuck out of their homes to explore, Felipe takes away Savino’s telescope and hides it as punishment. It’s not enough to deter Savino from wanting to use the telescope. While Felipe is out in the vineyard, Savino snoops around to try to find the telescope.

Underneath Goyo’s bed, Savino finds a hand-drawn illustration of a family portrait. This illustration is the key to unlocking the mystery of Felipe’s emotional problems. The mystery is eventually revealed in a series of flashbacks.

“Chasing Wonders” is a poignant story about the ripple effects of a family tragedy and the realities of losing loved ones, but the movie also has several moments of inspiration in showing how family members can help each other in depressing times. Savino has a troubled relationship with his father. However, Savino gets a lot of love and respect from his mother and her parents, who all accept Savino for the way he is. It’s why Savino doesn’t feel completely unwanted in life.

Felipe could easily be the movie’s villain, but there are no real villains in this story—just a father who is emotionally damaged. Felipe loves his family, but he has personal demons that affect the way he expresses (or represses) his emotions. All of the cast members give admirable performances, but Crisafulli is particularly noteworthy as Savino, the anchor of this story. There’s a maturity of adulthood in someone’s eyes that can’t be faked or replicated when the same actor portrays the same character as a child and as an adult.

De La Torre as Felipe and Olmos as Luis are also very effective as two very different father figures. Savino learns life lessons from both of them. Savino might not have realized it when he was a child, but his emotionally painful experiences with his father probably prepared him to deal with difficult people in the real world, compared to someone who grows up in a very sheltered environment. The takeaway from the movie is that although people can’t control the families they were born into and other things that happen in life, one of the greatest gifts that someone can give besides love is honest and open communication.

Gravitas Ventures released “Chasing Wonders” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on June 4, 2021.

Review: ‘The Dry,’ starring Eric Bana

June 5, 2021

by Carla Hay

Eric Bana, Keir O’Donnell and Matt Nable in “The Dry” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“The Dry”

Directed by Robert Connolly

Culture Representation: Taking place in Kiewarra, Australia, and briefly in Melbourne, the dramatic film “The Dry” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one Aborigine and one Asian) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A federal law-enforcement agent goes back to his hometown to investigate what happened in a murder case, and his investigation dredges up a tragedy from his past.

Culture Audience: “The Dry” will appeal primarily to people interested in watching suspenseful crime dramas that address issues of economic stress and social conflicts.

BeBe Bettencourt, Claude Scott-Mitchell, Sam Corlett and Joe Klocek in “The Dry” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

When most people who’ve moved away from their hometowns go back to visit, they usually don’t have to go back to a community where they were under suspicion for murder. But those are the circumstances faced by Australian federal law-enforcement agent Aaron Falk (played by Eric Bana) in the gripping crime drama “The Dry,” which is based on Jane Harper’s 2016 novel of the same name. More than being a murder mystery, “The Dry” adeptly depicts emotional baggage that people carry and how a hometown visit can be fraught with secrets, lies and resentment in a community teetering on economic ruin.

Directed by Robert Connolly (who co-wrote “The Dry” screenplay with Harry Cripps), “The Dry” begins with the aftermath of a grisly murder scene that’s the catalyst for one of the story’s two mysteries. The other mystery took place 20 years earlier, and it involved the drowning death of a teenage girl. The movie keeps viewers guessing until the last 15 minutes of this nearly two-hour film over whether or not these two mysteries are connected.

Aaron (who is a never-married bachelor with no kids) has a career in Melbourne as a respected investigator in federal law enforcement. He returns to his hometown of Kiewarra, which has been experiencing a drought for nearly a year and has recently been rocked by a scandalous crime that has been ruled a murder-suicide by local law enforcement. Luke Hadler (played by Martin Dingle Wall) apparently shot to death his wife Karen Hadler (played by Rosanna Lockhart) and their son Billy (played by Jarvis Mitchell), who was about 7 or 8 years old, before Luke apparently shot himself.

Through photos and flashbacks, the movie shows glimpses of what the family was like when they were alive. Luke and Karen had a baby daughter named Charlotte (played by Audrey Moore), who was spared from the massacre. Charlotte now lives with Luke’s parents Gerry Hadler (played by Bruce Spence) and Barb Hadler (played by Julia Blake), who are certain that Luke did not commit this heinous crime.

Luke was a childhood friend of Aaron, who only plans to be in Kiewarra for the funeral of Luke, Karen and Billy. Aaron never knew Karen and Billy, and he’s still in shock over the idea that Luke would commit a murder-suicide. In the beginning of the movie, it’s shown that Aaron was somewhat reluctant to go back to Kiewarra. However, Gerry called Aaron to be at the funeral. And not long after that, Aaron got a mysterious card in the mail with this ominous message: “Luke lied. You lied. Be at the funeral.”

There’s a reason why Aaron doesn’t want to be reminded of his past life in Kiewarra: When he was in his late teens, he and Luke were suspected of causing the drowning death of their teenage friend Ellie Deacon. Aaron and Luke, who both denied having anything do with the drowning, were questioned by police but never arrested because there was no proof against them. And now, the community thinks that Luke murdered Luke’s wife and son before killing himself.

The minister’s sermon at the funeral gets some quietly uncomfortable reactions when he mentions Luke (along with Karen and Billy) in the thoughts and prayers that should go to everyone who died in the tragedy. At a wake in Gerry and Barb’s home, many members of the community are there to pay their respects to Karen and Billy, but not to Luke. The atmosphere is filled with more than the usual tension and anxiety at a wake, because no one really knows how to talk about Luke when he’s the one who’s been blamed for causing this tragedy.

Some people seem to feel sympathy for Luke, because they think he might have had some mental illness that caused him to murder. But most people at the funeral and at the wake don’t feel sorry for Luke and only feel sympathy for Karen, Billy and orphaned Charlotte. Luke’s parents seem to be the only ones in town who openly state that Luke was innocent of the crime.

One person at the wake who doesn’t hesitate to badmouth Luke is Grant Dow (played by Matt Nable), a cousin of Ellie Deacon, the teenager who drowned 20 years earlier. Grant has an outburst at the wake, where he calls Luke a “murderer.” Luke’s parents Gerry and Barb are deeply offended. And shortly after the wake, Gerry and Barb implore Aaron to stay in Kiewarra to investigate this murder case and clear Luke’s name.

Aaron is hesitant to take the case because he’s feeling uncomfortable being back in Kiewarra. But he agrees to it because he also finds it hard to believe that Luke committed the crime, and he knows what it’s like to be suspected of a crime despite proclaiming innocence. During this investigation, Kiewarra (which is a primarily agricultural community) has been simmering with tension because the drought has had a devastating impact on the local economy. It’s mentioned in the beginning of the story that it’s been 324 days since it last rained.

In a story about someone going back to a hometown, there’s usually a subplot of that person seeing a former love interest. “The Dry” is no exception. When Aaron and Luke were teenagers, Luke had a girlfriend named Gretchen, but there are hints in the story that Aaron was secretly attracted to Gretchen. After Aaron and Luke fell under suspicion for Ellie’s death, Aaron and his widower father Erik Falk (played by Jeremy Lindsay Taylor, in a flashback) abruptly moved away from Kiewarra.

And as what often happens with people who knew each other in high school, Gretchen and Aaron just never stayed in touch with each other. The movie has several flashbacks of teenage Aaron (played by Joe Klocek), Gretchen (played by Claude Scott-Mitchell), Luke (played by Sam Corlett) and Ellie (played by played by BeBe Bettencourt) on double dates with each other, including the fateful day that Ellie drowned. In these flashbacks, it’s shown that Ellie was attracted to Aaron, and he had feelings for her too, but perhaps not as strong as the feelings that Aaron had for Gretchen.

Luke is portrayed as the extroverted “alpha male” of the group, while Aaron was the more introverted “beta male.” Gretchen seems to share Luke’s adventurous spirit, while Ellie is more of the bookish type, similar to Aaron’s personality. During the flashback scenes, Ellie sings what appears to be one of her favorite songs: The Church’s 1988 international hit “Under the Milky Way.” This song is used as a mood piece during various parts of the film.

Gretchen (played by Genevieve O’Reilly) is now a farmer and a single mother to two underage sons. (Gretchen is reluctant to talk about her children’s father.) And when Gretchen and Aaron see each other for the first time in more than 20 years, romantic sparks fly between them. Aaron tries to keep a professional distance from Gretchen during his investigation, but adult viewers can easily predict that Aaron and Gretchen are eventually going to do something about the sexual tension between them.

Several people cross paths with Aaron during this investigation. Viewers will be intrigued to try and figure out which one might or might not be crucial in solving either or both mysteries. And the movie also keeps viewers guessing over whether or not Aaron really did have something to with Ellie’s death.

The other characters in the story include:

  • Greg Raco (played by Keir O’Donnell), the local police sergeant in Kiewarra who is the chief investigator in the deaths of Luke, Karen and Billy.
  • Rita Raco (played by Miranda Tapsell), Greg’s pregnant wife who is worried about the hazards of her husband’s job.
  • Jamie Sullivan (played by James Frecheville), a local property manager who was with Luke on the afternoon that the murders took place later that day.
  • Scott Whitlam (played by John Polson), the headmaster of Kiewarra Primary School, where murder victim Karen was an administrator who handled accounting.
  • Sandra Whitlam (played by Renee Lim), Scott’s wife whose daughter (played by Angela Rosewarne) was a friend of Luke and Karen’s son Billy.
  • Mal Deacon (played by William Zappa), Ellie’s father who is very angry and bitter over Ellie’s death.

Jamie has a solid alibi for the time period that the murders happened, so he is not a viable suspect. Police segreant Greg is helpful to Aaron during the investigation, and he seems determined to prove that he’s not a country bumpkin cop. Meanwhile, Aaron has a few unpleasant run-ins with Ellie’s father Mal and Ellie’s cousin Grant, who taunt and insult Aaron for daring to being in Kiewarra again.

Mal and Grant are very vocal in telling other people that Aaron and/or Luke killed Ellie and that both of them covered up the crime. These suspicions have been fueled because Aaron and Luke were the last known people to see Ellie alive. Aaron and Luke were each other’s alibi during the time that Ellie is believed to have drowned, but certain people think that the alibi was fabricated.

As a trained investigator of crime, Aaron thinks that in all likelihood, the killings that took place in Luke and Karen’s home were committed by someone who knew the family and someone who’s still in the community. He doesn’t think that a random stranger came to town to commit these murders. And so, the list of likely suspects isn’t that large in this story.

“The Dry” isn’t a typical police procedural, because Aaron is in an awkward position of being a both a native and an outsider in Kiewarra. His visit has brought back painful memories for him that might or might not cloud his judgment in the investigation. And there’s also a question that any reasonable person might ask: Can Aaron really be objective in investigating a murder case involving his former best friend, especially when he and that best friend were suspected of causing someone else’s death?

It’s a lot of personal history and past trauma to unpack, but fortunately “The Dry” doesn’t get too heavy-handed with its approach. A lot of the film’s nuance has to do with Bana’s quietly effective performance as someone who has run from his past but is now forced to confront it. The other cast members also give credible performances, but the movie’s emotional core is with Bana’s depiction of Aaron. Bana delivers a very good balancing act of someone who wants to remain stoic on the outside but who can’t ignore the turmoil that he has on the inside.

The crime-solving aspects of the story are also done well, although after a while, it’s fairly easy to figure things out in the Hadler family murder mystery, based on how certain likely suspects act. The mystery of the Hadler family murders is much easier to deduct than the mystery of Ellie’s drowning. Both of these mysteries’ revelations at the end of the movie are not entirely shocking, but they’re definitely realistic. In “The Dry,” the drought isn’t the only thing plaguing the community, which has been caught in a stagnation of gossip and stereotypes over who should and shouldn’t be trusted.

IFC Films released “The Dry” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on May 21, 2021. The movie was released in Australia on January 1, 2021.

Review: ‘The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee,’ starring Paul Hogan

March 6, 2021

by Carla Hay

Paul Hogan (center) in “The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee”

Directed by Dean Murphy 

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, Melbourne and London, the comedic film “The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee” features a predominantly white cast (with a few African Americans and Latinos) portraying people who are connected in some way to Australian actor Paul Hogan, who’s best known for his “Crocodile Dundee” movies.

Culture Clash: The movie is supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek satire of all the things that go wrong when Hogan tries to make a comeback.

Culture Audience: “The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Hogan, but everything about this movie is a colossal mistake.

Paul Hogan and John Cleese in “The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee” is a very meta and misguided sequel in the “Crocodile Dundee” comedy franchise, made famous by star Paul Hogan, beginning with the 1986 blockbuster “Crocodile Dundee,” the first movie in the series. That movie was followed by 1988’s “Crocodile Dundee II” and 2001’s “Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles,” with each sequel worse than its predecessor. Unfortunately, the “Crocodile Dundee” movie series is like a good meal that went rotten years ago, then retrieved from the trash, and then served up to people who never asked for this stinking mess in the first place.

In the other “Crocodile Dundee” movies, Hogan played the title character as a crocodile hunter from Outback Australia who finds himself out of his comfort zone in urban environments. In “The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee” (directed by Dean Murphy, who co-wrote the movie’s embarrassing screenplay with Robert Mond), Hogan ditches the Crocodile Dundee persona and portrays himself as a has-been actor who hasn’t been able to surpass his “Crocodile Dundee” success with anything else, and he’s persuaded to make a comeback.

You just know it’s going to be a dumb movie when Hogan’s Paul character is supposed to be getting knighted by the Queen of England. That’s something that would not happen to Hogan in real life. But it’s used as a silly plot device in the “race against time” aspect that comes toward the end of the film, which takes place mostly in Los Angeles, but also partially in Melbourne and in London.

It’s repeated throughout “The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee” that the first “Crocodile Dundee” movie was the highest-grossing independent film at that time. It’s mentioned so many times that it’s irritating, as if the filmmakers want to desperately remind viewers why Hogan was a big movie star back in the 1980s. In the movie though, Paul has a not-very-convincing “aw, shucks” humble attitude about his fame. His character claims that he’s been trying to retire for the past 20 years. Not really, because the real Paul Hogan did this very corny mess of a film as a possible comeback vehicle.

In “The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee,” Paul is a bachelor who lives in Los Angeles with his Golden Retriever dog Paddy as his only companion. The movie didn’t get too meta, because there’s no mention of the real-life Hogan’s messy divorces, including one from his former “Crocodile Dundee” co-star Linda Kozlowski. In “The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee,” Paul’s manager/agent is Angie Douglas (played by Rachael Carpani), whose late father used to be Paul’s manager and was the founder of the Douglas Management Team.

Angie is very excited to tell Paul that in six weeks, he will be knighted by the Queen of England. In the lead-up to this big event. Angie thinks it would be a good idea for Paul to get as much publicity and job opportunities as possible. This comeback attempt results in Paul making a series of disastrous public appearances that are supposed to be funny for this movie but the comedy is just dull and poorly executed.

Paul has a son his early 20s called Chase (played by Jacob Elordi), whose vaguely written and brief role in the movie just seems to be about displaying his toned physique, since Chase is shown leading a workout class in Paul’s backyard. Paul and Chase do not have a convincing father/son bond in the film, even though they’re supposed to have a good relationship with each other. Therefore, it seems that Elordi was just put in the film so the movie could attract viewers who know him for “The Kissing Booth” movies.

Paul also has a 9-year-old granddaughter named Lucy (played by Charlotte Stent), who lives in Australia. (Lucy’s parents are not seen, heard or mentioned in the film.) In one scene in the movie, Paul does a video chat with Lucy, who is rehearsing for her school play. Lucy and Paul adore each other, but she’s a little sad that he won’t be able to see her in her play because it’s on the same day of his knighthood ceremony in London.

Several real-life celebrities portray themselves in this movie. Some have supporting roles, while others have quick cameos. Olivia Newton-John has a supporting role as a friend of Paul’s. She invites Paul and Angie to a “Grease” charity event that she’s hosting with John Travolta. The real Travolta was smart enough to stay away from this movie, so don’t expect any surprise cameos from him. A fictional nun named Sister Mary Murphy (played by Dorothy Adams) runs the charity that’s supposed to benefit from the “Grease” event.

John Cleese does a parody of himself, as a washed-up comedian who’s become a rideshare driver to pay his bills. Guess who ends up being Paul’s driver in this movie? Cleese’s immense talent is squandered in this very tacky role that makes him look like a fool. Chevy Chase portrays himself in scenes where he meets up with Paul in restaurants, offers advice, and gets more praise and attention than Paul does. All of these scenes are uninteresting and often awkward.

“The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee” pokes fun at Hogan’s “has-been status” in a scene where he’s visiting a movie studio lot while a group of tourists are nearby on a guided tour. The tour guide points out Hogan to the tourists, but they don’t care. This happens a few more times in other places, but this stale and unimaginative joke wasn’t even that funny the first time it was in the movie.

Another running gag in the movie that falls flat is that a group of fast-talking producers keep approaching Paul in various places to persuade him to do another “Crocodile Dundee” movie. One of these producers suggests that Will Smith could play Paul’s son in this proposed movie. Paul says no for a reason that’s obvious, but no one but Paul says it out loud in these meetings: Will Smith is black. When Paul says it, the producers act horrified and tell Paul that he comes across as racist.

Paul being misunderstood as “racist” is used in another badly written scene, where John drives Paul to the “Grease” charity event, but John accidentally drops Paul off at the fictional Black Talent Awards, which is supposed to be like the BET Awards. In a live TV interview on the red carpet, Paul says to the reporter: “I’m here to help the little people. I’m here to help those less fortunate than I am.”

Naturally, Paul’s condescending remarks come across as racist. And since he said these comments live on TV, he gets immediate backlash on social media and on the red carpet. Before things get more hostile for Paul at this award show, John sheepishly goes up to Paul and tells him that the “Grease” charity event is actually at another building nearby. The movie makes Paul look so clueless that he didn’t notice all the Black Talent Awards logos when he arrived on the red carpet.

More mishaps occur that make Paul look like he’s rude to unsuspecting people, but they’re really just “accidents.” There’s an incident where he’s accused of being cruel to tourist children. And then at the “Grease” charity event, Paul ends up on stage, and there’s a disruption involving a flying object that hits Sister Mary, and he gets blamed for it. All of these gags are so dumb, contrived and the epitome of horrendous slapstick.

“The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee” also introduces a very annoying and unnecessary character named Luke Clutterbuck (played by Nate Torrence), a self-described “mama’s boy” who’s originally from Indiana. Luke was a wedding photographer in Indiana, until he decided to move to Los Angeles to become part of the paparazzi. Paul first meets Luke when Luke falls out of a tree in Paul’s backyard, in Luke’s desperate attempt to get paparazzi photos. Luke gets more and more insufferable as the story goes on.

Wayne Knight portrays a version of himself, as a theater actor who asks Paul for a temporary place to stay because Wayne’s wife Carol (played by Julia Morris) has kicked Wayne out of their house. Wayne is rehearsing for an upcoming musical, so there are some excruciating scenes of Paul being interrupted or frustrated by Wayne loudly singing or doing other musical-related things in the house at inconvenient moments. It’s the type of comedy that most sitcoms would reject.

Australian actors Luke Hemsworth, Costas Mandylor and Luke Bracey all have cameos as themselves doing red-carpet interviews. Australian comedian Jim Jeffries also portrays himself in a quick appearance. They either praise or give mild insults about Paul. Nothing is funny in these bits.

And it should come as no surprise that bachelor Paul gets a potential love interest. Olivia sets him up on a blind date with someone she knows named Ella (played by Kerry Armstrong). Paul quips, “I haven’t been on a date since a man walked on the moon.” That’s news to Hogan’s real-life ex-wives.

“The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee” is so badly made that it seems like many of the celebrities in the movie might have committed to it without seeing the script first and/or did the movie as a big favor to Hogan. No one should tell Hogan when he should retire. But “The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee” is such an atrocious dud, it’s all the proof anyone needs that the “Crocodile Dundee” movie series needs to be retired once and for all.

Lionsgate released “The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on December 11, 2020. The movie was released on Blu-ray and DVD on February 12, 2021.

Review: ‘Ride Like a Girl,’ starring Teresa Palmer, Sam Neill and Stevie Payne

March 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

Teresa Palmer in “Ride Like a Girl” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

“Ride Like a Girl”

Directed by Rachel Griffiths

Culture Representation: Taking place in Australia and inspired by a true story, “Ride Like a Girl” has an all-white cast of characters from the middle-class and upper-class who are involved in the sport of horse racing.

Culture Clash: Horse-racing jockey Michelle Payne fights sexism, and she clashes with her father over how long she’ll stay in this dangerous sport.

Culture Audience: “Ride Like a Girl” will appeal mostly to people who are interested in formulaic movies about horse racing or women overcoming obstacles in a male-dominated industry.

Teresa Palmer and Sam Neill in “Ride Like a Girl” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

There’s a certain formula that movies follow about women overcoming obstacles in a male-dominated world. The sports drama “Ride Like a Girl” (which is inspired by a true story) follows the formula almost to a fault. Feisty heroine? Check. Sexist villains? Check. An against-all-odds victory? Check.

Under the capable-but-unoriginal direction of Rachel Griffiths (who’s best known as a former co-star of the HBO TV series “Six Feet Under”), “Ride Like a Girl” tells the real-life story of horse-racing jockey Michelle Payne, played by Teresa Palmer in the movie. In 2015, at the age of 30, Payne became the first female jockey to win at the annual Melbourne Cup, Australia’s most prestigious thoroughbred horse race, which has been around since 1861.

Even if you’ve never heard of Michelle Payne and what she accomplished, it’s clear from the first 10 minutes of this movie how the story is going to be presented and how it’s going to end. It has the same sort of tone and pacing like many other “underdog” sports movies that have come before it. That’s not to say that “Ride Like a Girl” is boring or poorly executed. It’s just completely predictable.

The movie begins with a documentary-type voiceover (that doesn’t appear for the rest of the film) telling viewers that Michelle was born into a large family (she’s the youngest of 10 kids), and her mother died in a car accident when Michelle was only 10 months old. Her father, Paddy Payne (played by Sam Neill), is completely immersed in the world of horse racing, since he’s been both a jockey and a trainer. Some of his children have also become jockeys.

As a child, Michelle became an avid follower of horse races. Since it’s her family business, it’s no surprise that when she’s old enough, she wants to become a jockey too, just like some of her older siblings. The movie shows that as a teenager in high school, Michelle was so obsessed with horse racing, that she would excuse herself from class so that she could sit in a bathroom stall and listen to horse races on a portable device. (She gets caught in the act by an inquisitive nun at the Catholic school that Michelle attends.)

Because Michelle has such a large family, director Griffiths and “Ride Like a Girl” screenwriters Andrew Knight and Elise McCredie wisely didn’t try to give all of them a back story. Instead, the two siblings of Michelle who get the most screen time are Stevie Payne (who plays himself), who happens to have Down syndrome, and Cathy Payne (played by Sophia Forrest), who is close to Michelle’s age and is also a jockey. Michelle has the closest bond with Stevie, who’s her most loyal supporter. She promises Stevie that one day they’ll have their own facility to train race horses.

Paddy trains Michelle as a jockey, and she has natural and gifted abilities in the sport. She’s also usually the only female jockey in a race. Because of the overwhelming sexism in the industry, the rare female jockeys who exist are regulated to races in the minor leagues. Michelle has bigger ambitions than that. She wants to race in the Melbourne Cup and win.

But tragedy strikes the family when Michelle’s older sister Brigid (played by Anneliese Apps), who was the second woman to become a professional jockey in Australia, dies from an accidental fall from a horse. It’s the most common way that jockeys die on the job, and the tragedy has long-lasting effects on the Payne family. Paddy immediately discourages Michelle from continuing her dreams of being a jockey, but she defies his wishes and continues without his help or support.

The rest of the movie shows Michelle overcoming a number of obstacles—such as sexist men who don’t want her competing in races, numerous falls from horses, and several broken-bone injuries—that should come as no surprise to viewers. There isn’t one particular person who’s made out to be the chief villain in this story. Rather, the movie portrays several of the horse owners, fellow jockeys and others in horse racing as being part of an overall culture of sexism. Michelle is frequently excluded and treated like a second-class person, compared to the male jockeys who get privileges that she doesn’t.

Not all of the men in horse racing are portrayed as sexist. There’s a horse-racing associate named Darren Weir (played by Sullivan Stapleton), who works with many of the horse owners and who’s quietly supportive of Michelle. While hanging out at the race tracks, Darren seems to show up at the right time to give words of encouragement and advice to Michelle. The way that Darren smirks at Michelle somewhat hints that he might want to date her, but the movie doesn’t veer off in the direction of having a contrived romance.

In fact, Michelle doesn’t have any love life in this movie. For the purposes of this story, it’s entirely believable that she doesn’t show any interest in dating anyone because she’s so focused/obsessed with the sport of horse racing and being the best in her field. It also makes sense that she wouldn’t get romantically involved with anyone in her line of work because it would undermine her efforts to be taken seriously. There’s a telling scene where she’s in a gym hot tub with fellow jockeys, in what appears to be a gathering after a horse race. This scene demonstrates that she’s trying to be “one of the boys,” but her discomfort is clearly shown in her face and other body language, as she stays in a corner of the hot tub and turns away so they won’t stare at her swimsuit-clad body.

The movie also shows some of the other ways that being a woman in a male-dominated sport had an effect on Michelle’s personal life. In one scene, she gets an opportunity to compete in an important race that takes place on the same day as her sister Cathy’s wedding. Cathy has given up being a jockey to get married and start a family, and she encourages Michelle to start thinking about doing the same thing. (Michelle’s not interested.)

In order to compete in this race, the horse owner tells Michelle that she has to weigh 50 kilograms. The race is the next day, and Michelle weighs 53 kilograms. She promises the horse owner that she can lose three kilograms in one day. The movie shows how she goes through extremes to lose the weight (fasting; rigorous exercising wearing heavy clothes so she can sweat off the kilograms; wrapping her body in cellophane), in addition to her race-against-time to make it to the wedding.

Whether or not this happened in real life, it’s used to dramatic effect. What the movie doesn’t really address (and possibly glosses over) is how much pressure the real Michelle Payne and other female jockeys might feel to be a certain weight and if it puts them in danger of getting eating disorders.

A big part of the movie is about how Michelle’s choice to continue as a jockey led her to being estranged from her father, who annoyingly calls her “little girl,” even after Michelle has become a teenager and adult. Viewers can see that Paddy has stopped supporting Michelle’s jockey dreams because he’s afraid of another one of his children dying from horse racing. But it’s also implied in the movie that Paddy wouldn’t have been so adamant about Michelle quitting horse racing if she were one of his sons.

Michelle runs into some other obstacles, such as when she’s suspended for 20 race meets after a judge has blamed her for causing another jockey to fall from his horse during a race. She vehemently protests the decision and claims that she did nothing wrong. Meanwhile, Michelle has bonded with a thoroughbred called Prince of Penzance, who is her favorite horse by far. But the horse’s owner has doubts that Michelle, after coming back from another serious injury, has what it takes to race the horse in the Melbourne Cup.

As Michelle Payne, Palmer does a credible job with her performance, which solidly carries the whole movie. Her scenes with Neill (who’s also very good as Michelle’s father Paddy) have the most emotional resonance. Not many people can relate to being a jockey, but a lot of people can relate to the family dynamics in the movie. “Ride Like a Girl” is absolutely an inspiring film, but compared to 1944’s “National Velvet,” it just won’t be considered a classic.

Saban Films released “Ride Like a Girl” in select New York City and Los Angeles theaters, as well as on digital and VOD, on March 13, 2020. The movie was already released in Australia in 2019.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Mystify: Michael Hutchence’

April 26, 2019

by Carla Hay

Michael Hutchence in “Mystify: Michael Hutchence” (Photo by Steve Pyke)

“Mystify: Michael Hutchence”

Directed by Richard Lowenstein

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 25, 2019.

What more can be revealed about INXS lead singer Michael Hutchence that hasn’t already been revealed? There have been several TV documentaries, books and articles telling the life story of Hutchence, who died in 1997 at the age of 37. The surviving members of INXS released a self-titled memoir in 2005. There was even a 2014 dramatic miniseries “INXS: Never Tear Us Apart,” starring Luke Arnold as Hutchence. But the documentary film “Mystify: Michael Hutchence” stands out from the rest because it has something that the other stories don’t have: the participation of Hutchence’s most high-profile ex-girlfriends. Much of the never-before-seen footage in the documentary comes from these women who arguably knew him best, and it offers an intimate look at Hutchence at home and while traveling. The documentary, which features its new interviews as voiceovers only, also has the expected archival footage of interviews, performances and music videos that Hutchence and INXS did over the years. All are expertly edited to maximum effect.

For those who aren’t familiar with INXS, the documentary breezes through the early years of the Australian band (formerly known as the Farriss Brothers), starting with the group’s origins in 1977 and into the early 1980s. The other members of INXS were Garry Gary Beers (bass), Kirk Pengilly (saxophone and guitar) and brothers Andrew Farriss (keyboards), Tim Farriss (guitar) and Jon Farriss (drums). Through steady touring, INXS grew a fan base and broke through internationally in the mid-1980s. By the end of the 1980s, INXS had racked up several hits, including “What You Need,” “Need You Tonight,” “Never Tear Us Apart” and “New Sensation.” The documentary is named after the INXS song “Mystify,” which was one of the hits on the band’s best-selling 1987 album “Kick.” Hutchence, who was the band’s chief lyricist, was undoubtedly the focus of INXS, and his good looks and swagger made him a major sex symbol in his heyday. The band’s sales declined in the 1990s, but INXS is still considered one of the most influential rock acts from Australia.

Like most lead singers of popular bands, Hutchence had solo projects, but they’re mostly overlooked in this documentary. His commercially disappointing “Max Q” album (from 1989) gets some screen time, but his acting career and his self-titled solo album (released in 1999) aren’t mentioned at all. Leaving out Hutchence’s acting projects is a strange omission from this documentary, considering that “Mystify” film director Richard Lowenstein directed Hutchence’s first movie as an actor:  the 1986 Australian rock-oriented drama “Dogs in Space.” Hutchence had a starring role in the movie, and he had a prominent supporting role in Roger Corman’s 1990 horror film “Frankenstein Unbound.”

The “Mystify” documentary has interviews with many of the same people who’ve given interviews about Michael Hutchence over the years, including the other members of INXS; Hutchence family members Rhett, Tina, Kell and Patricia; former INXS managers Chris Murphy and Martha Troup; music producer Chris Thomas; and Michael’s longtime friend Bono, the lead singer of U2. Because of the interviews with Michael’s ex-girlfriends who had serious relationships with him, “Mystify” probably has the largest participation from his loved ones and business associates of any Michael Hutchence biography so far.

Michael came from a broken home—his parents Kell and Patricia split up when he was 15—and the following year, he, his mother Patricia and his older half-sister Tina moved to Los Angeles so Patricia could pursue a career as a Hollywood makeup artist. (They eventually moved back to Australia after less than a year in Los Angeles.) The move to L.A. has often been described as a turning point for the Hutchence family, because Patricia and Michael had secretly planned the move for months, and when they abruptly left the rest of the family behind, including Michael’s younger brother Rhett, it permanently altered the family dynamic. (Kell died in 2002. Patricia died in 2010.)

When Michael’s parents were together, they lived in Hong Kong, and often traveled. All of this family background—which has been described numerous times in biographies about Hutchence, including the “Mystify” documentary—probably explains why Hutchence had a wandering spirit and was deeply conflicted about fame. He and people close to him often described him as having two different personalities—extroverted and confident in public; introverted and insecure in private.

But most of Michael’s former girlfriends haven’t spoken about him extensively for biographies. “Mystify” is the first Michael Hutchence biography to have the participation of Ananda Braxton-Smith (who dated Michael from 1978 to 1980, before he was famous); Michele Bennett (who dated Michael from 1982 to 1987); pop singer Kylie Minogue (who was with Michael from 1989 to 1991); supermodel Helena Christensen (who was his partner from 1992 to 1995); and a woman only identified as “Erin,” who had a secret affair with Michael for a few years before his death. Photos of Erin that are in the documentary show her to be a pretty brunette who resembles a young Bennett.

All of them talk about the two sides of Michael, and how he opened up to them about his deepest fears and insecurities. Minogue is perhaps the most candid, as she details how they got together, how they broke up, what was right about their relationship and what was wrong. Some of the things shown in the documentary are home videos of them nearly naked while on vacation somewhere, as well as love notes that the couple used to fax to each other. The documentary even reveals the aliases the couple would use when they had to send messages via hotel faxes: Minogue was “Gabby Jones” and Michael was “Swordfish.”

Christensen shares fond memories of living the high life with Michael in the south of France, where they would often spend their days and nights going to different friends’ homes to eat and party. An avid reader, Michael also liked to share and read aloud from poems and books. The “Mystify” documentary includes an audio recording of him reading an excerpt from a novel that fascinated him: “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.”

Michael, who never married, was romantically involved with TV host Paula Yates from 1995 to 1997. Their daughter Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily (also known as Tiger), was born in 1996. Yates died of a heroin overdose in 2000, but when she and Michael were together, she was in a bitter custody battle with ex-husband Bob Geldof over their three daughters. The custody battle was a major source of stress, and it’s often been mentioned as a trigger for the circumstances that led to Michael’s death, which was officially ruled a suicide by hanging. The documentary includes a chilling timeline and testimonials detailing the last 12 hours of his life.

A considerable amount of time is spent in the documentary talking about the devastating brain injury that Michael suffered in Denmark after getting into a fight with a taxi driver in 1992. During the fight, Michael was pushed onto a sidewalk, his skull was fractured, and he lost his sense of smell and taste. Christensen describes in vivid detail about how he refused to get immediate medical treatment for the injury, and was frequently in denial about how bad the injury was.

The documentary has several testimonials from people who reiterate what other biographies have revealed: Michael’s personality drastically changed after the brain injury—he was easily angered, he began to suffer from severe bouts of depression, and he became more dependent on drugs. Toward the end of his life, he was abusing alcohol, cocaine, Xanax and heroin, according to his close confidants. Even though there have been theories that Michael accidentally died of auto-erotic asphyxiation, the “Mystify” documentary comes to the definite conclusion that his death was an impulsive suicide that was triggered by his depression, his brain injury, the stress of the Yates/Geldof custody battle and drug intoxication.

“Mystify” is the first documentary about Michael Hutchence that was made for the big screen. It’s the best way to experience this stellar film, which does justice to a larger-than-life talent that was taken away too soon.

UPDATE: Fathom Events will release “Mystify: Michael Hutchence” for one night only in select U.S. theaters on January 7, 2020.

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