Out on Friday March 9
Joaquin Phoenix leads a hitman thriller. Nicolas Cage and Selma Blair front Brian Taylor’s exploitation movie. Warwick Thornton delivers a gripping Aboriginal western.
Yes, here's this week's new releases. Click on for our reviews of You Were Never Really Here, Mom and Dad, Sweet Country, Gook, Plot 35, The Divine Order, and Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story.
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You Were Never Really Here
When Lynne Ramsay’s stark hitman thriller premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, word was the writer/director had been editing until the last second, submitting the print while it was still dripping. Not that you can tell – this deep dive into a fractured psyche is executed with scalpel-sharp precision.
Adapted from Jonathan Ames’ hardboiled novella, it’s the type of film that’s fallen out of fashion in recent years: a no-frills neo-noir that, at a brisk 89 minutes, doesn’t squander a single frame. Joaquin Phoenix stuns as Joe, a veteran who makes a living rescuing young girls kidnapped by sex traffickers, and is notorious for the retribution he wreaks on the men responsible. Dislocated from society at large for reasons personal and professional, Joe always gets the job done. But when he’s tasked with rescuing a senator’s missing daughter, the already-shaky foundations of Joe’s world start to crumble.
YWNRH has been reductively labelled the ‘arthouse Taken’. But it would be more accurate to describe it as a latter-day Taxi Driver, the spectre of Scorsese’s classic looming large over Joe and the grimy underworld he inhabits. Rather than deconstruct the testosterone-fuelled geriaction thrillers of Neeson and his peers, Ramsay simply ignores the last decade of action cinema, presenting Joe as a morally dubious, remorselessly violent, irreparably broken antihero. Tormented by his past, Joe is plagued by disorientating and disturbing visions of the abuse inflicted by his father and the horrors he witnessed as a soldier.
None of this is hammered home, however. Ramsay trusts her audience to piece together Joe’s past as it unfolds. Directed with unwavering vision, YWNRH reaffirms Ramsay as one of our greatest living filmmakers. In one bravura sequence Joe’s assault on a town house plays out almost entirely over black-and-white security camera footage. In another sub-aquatic scene, she conjures pure beauty from Joe’s lowest ebb.
Bulked up and bearded, Phoenix has rarely been better, delivering the kind of traumatically internal performance only a man of his commitment could pull off. Clearly he’s found a kindred spirit in Ramsay. As well as a convincing hardcase capable of dismantling men twice his size, he brings soulful complexity to the film’s jet-black humour.
As you may gather, it’s not the most welcoming world to spend an hour and a half in, and there’s a case to be made that Scorsese covered the same ground 40 years ago. But for any film to invoke the spirit of Travis Bickle, and not suffer irredeemably, is quite the achievement.
THE VERDICT: Lynne Ramsay returns with a scuzzy, stripped-back thriller focused on the man, rather than the mission.
Director: Lynne Ramsay; Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alessandro Nivola, John Doman, Judith Roberts; Theatrical release: March 9, 2018
Mom and Dad
It starts with a day in the suburbs that’s like any other day in the suburbs: dad (Nicolas Cage) clocks in at work, mum (Selma Blair) heads for yoga, teen daughter Carly (Anne Winters) and her little brother Josh (Zackary Arthur) go to school. OK, so dad might have played a little rough in a tickle fight with his son, but no one could predict what happens next.
Namely, that a signal transmitted on TV and computer screens makes every parent in town – and, according to news bulletins, America – hell-bent on killing their kids. Mothers stalk the school gates like lionesses eyeing trapped bison. Fathers glare at the row of newborns laid out in a nursery. Seventeen-stone men rugby tackle their fleeing teenage daughters on the football pitch. And Carly and Josh make it home to lock themselves in the basement, Night of the Living Dead-style, only for their own folks to start hacking at the door…
To some, the mere concept of Mom and Dad will be too much – there’s a reason why adults killing children is the domain of horror films such as Village of the Damned, Who Can Kill a Child? and The Omen, and then only when the sprogs are evil.
To others, raised on exploitation movies and/or possessing a wide streak of mischief, the execution (or rather executions) will disappoint – no doubt fearing the censors, Mom and Dad never goes full-throttle, implying rather than showing when a kamikaze splatterfest would have arguably rendered the laughs more explosive. There’s certainly nothing here as shocking as the blonde girl being gunned down in John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13.
But there is fun to be had, and a fair amount of it. Written and directed by Brian Taylor, who last teamed with Cage on Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance and who previously co-helmed (with Mark Neveldine) the crazed Crank movies, this employs his now-signature style of hurtling camera moves spliced with fish-eyed close-ups. Knives, pick axes and even pointy coat hangers are wielded in the kids’ direction, while Cage unleashes his bug-eyed bonkers act, smashing shit up and screaming “ANAL BEADS!” with lusty gusto.
Under the carnage lurks a blunt-force satire on ageing and the American Dream, with Blair rather touching as the electric saw-wielding mum who gave up her career for a family that no longer appreciates her. Other ideas (equating the inbuilt lifespan of today’s tech to nature’s constant upgrading) are interesting but soon forgotten, and Taylor’s invention, always thrashing against the shackles of a tight budget, runs out of puff before finding a satisfactory climax.
THE VERDICT: An exploitation movie that, paradoxically, exhibits too much good taste. Still, expect “Saws all!” to become a 2018 catchphrase.
Director: Brian Taylor; Starring: Nicolas Cage, Selma Blair, Anne Winters; Theatrical release: March 9, 2018
In Warwick Thornton’s Aboriginal western, indigenous Australian Hamilton Morris stars as Sam Kelly – a farmhand forced on the run when an act of violent self-defence results in the death of a local pastoralist.
As Sam is pursued by a posse of ‘white fellas’ across sun-scorched terrain, the beauty of Alice Springs offers a profound contrast with the ugly acts committed by its inhumane colonists.
Director: Warwick Thornton; Starring: Hamilton Morris, Natassia Gorey-Furber, Sam Neill, Ewen Leslie; Theatrical release: March 9, 2018
Shot in black-and-white and set in and around a rundown shoe store, Justin Chon’s tale of two Korean American brothers struggling to keep their business afloat as LA burns seems almost intentionally indebted to Kevin Smith’s Clerks and early Spike Lee.
With the Rodney King-inspired riots of 1992 as its backdrop, though, Gook still has much to say on America’s racial melting pot that feels pertinent.
Director: Justin Chon; Starring: Simone Baker, Justin Chon, Curtiss Cook Jr.; Theatrical release: March 9, 2018
French actor Éric Caravaca goes in search of the sister he never knew he had in a moving doc about the things we remember and those we choose to forget.
Painstakingly assembling scraps of information about a short-lived infant his mother burned all pictures of, Caravaca unearths a deep seam of familial regret in a film that only overreaches when it tries to draw parallels with France’s shameful colonial past.
Director: Éric Caravaca; Theatrical release: March 9, 2018
The Divine Order
In 1970s Switzerland, housewife Nora (Marie Leuenberger) experiences an awakening as she becomes involved in the campaign for women’s voting rights, much to the chagrin of her conservative village and husband.
If the story beats are familiar, writer/director Petra Biondina Volpe elevates them with an unerring focus on character, while the excellent ensemble deliver a genuine sense of sisterhood.
Director: Petra Volpe; Starring: Marie Leuenberger, Maximilian Simonischek, Rachel Braunschweig; Theatrical release: March 8, 2018
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story
Typecasting made Hedy Lamarr a sultry beauty in films such as Samson and Delilah, but her secret life as an inventor is what drives this doc, rooted in a long-lost interview.
Lamarr discovered technology that would underpin GPS, satellites, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, but would the military let her swap stardom for science? Smart, if indulgent.
Director: Alexandra Dean; Theatrical release: March 9, 2018