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Jim Schembri’s new release movie reviews and Miranda Nation interview. 12 Mar, 2020

Jim Schembri
Article image for Jim Schembri’s new release movie reviews and Miranda Nation interview. 12 Mar, 2020

MILITARY WIVES *** (112 minutes) M

Here’s a pretty strong example of how the end can justify the means – or in other words, that a sensational finale can absolve the cinematic sins that lead to it.

Inspired by a real story, Military Wives is a spirited flag-waving comedy-drama about a choir that was formed by the spouses of British soldiers while they were away are on tour – that is, fighting – in Afghanistan.

Two wives, Kate (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Lisa (Sharon Horgan, in an especially strong turn), lead the charge to lift the morale of the othwer women in their army base suburb and get the choir off the ground.

In a film unapologetically dedicated to the celebration of good old British pluck there’s not a cliche or easy appeal for emotion that isn’t tapped by a story that is so predictable you could set your watch by it.

But you know what? It all works. Director Peter Cattaneo, best known for the classic British comedy The Full Monty, proves here how cliches can work wonderfully, so long as they’re honed, polished, properly arranged and delivered with sincerity.

The film certainly has no shortage of that, given its salute to those who serve and sacrifice in wars both popular and otherwise.

It is, of course, easy to fault the film for not being more daring or original, yet for all its predictable pit stops, the film ultimately comes through with a final choir performance composed of lines lifted from letters written by the women to their husbands.

It’s quite a moment, and it’s difficult to imagine even the hardest of hearts not responding to this beautifully staged scene with either a tear or a tingle up the back of the neck.

The true story that inspired the film ignited scores of similar choirs within the British military community, forming a charity that focuses on the needs of those in service. The film certainly serves as a fitting tribute, though it must be stressed that Military Wives is not a docudrama as its colourful tale sports but a hazy resemblance to the actual formation of the original choir.

As a straight-up piece of entertainment, Military Wives would be a strong recommendation in normal times – but these are not normal times we are living in, thanks to the ever-ballooning spectre of the coronavirus.

Thus, in the present environment where panic over pandemics and tussles over toilet paper seem to be dominating daily life and mainstream media attention, Military Wives is especially welcome, brandishing an uplifting, reassuring vibe and a story of people giving their all for the sake of other people.

Ahh, unselfishness. Remember when that was a thing all those weeks ago?

Indeed, Military Wives could turn out to be the right film at the right time – provided, of course, that people aren’t paranoid about catching something when they go to the cinema.

 

QUEEN & SLIM * (132 minutes) MA

Every once in a great while comes a righteous film so fuelled by passion and racial politics and bearing such a searing social message that you feel the pain of its story with such poignancy it makes you angry. Damned angry.

Well, buckle up, folks. Queen & Slim is a film that is bound to make you very, very angry. Not so much because of its jagged story about racism, violence and prejudice but because it’ll take from you two hours of precious life you’ll never get back.

There is a genuine problem with police violence in the United States with poorly trained, well-armed officers tending to shoot first and worry about proper procedure later. Their victims have often been black people who, as a community, have understandably protested. It’s a great topic for a film, no risk.

So along comes Queen & Slim, a supposedly hot-to-the-touch, middle-finger-to-authority film that is intended to give voice to the communal rage against police shootings.

Now, there have been many great examples where filmmakers have used cinema to stick it to the man – but this ain’t one of them.

Contrived to the point of caricature and arguably guilty of committing the very sins of misrepresentation and racial stereotyping it supposedly condemns, the film is one unholy mess of a message movie, sounding like a shrill appeal to white guilt and unspooling like a cheap blaxploitation version of Natural Born Killers.

The film begins sedately enough one evening in a diner where two Tinder daters, Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) and Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith), are not quite hitting it off. They decide to cut their losses and Slim offers to drive Queen home, which she accepts.

So there’s your inciting incident right there. Queen and Slim, two black people, minding their own business, in a car at night. What could possibly go wrong?

As the fickle finger of fate would have it, just about everything.

Their car gets pulled over by a cop. Not just any ordinary cop, mind, but by the most racist cop in movie history. First he gives Slim a hard time, then when Queen starts to pipe up in protest, he starts giving her a hard time.

Things go from bad to worse to ridiculous and pretty soon the cop is on the ground bleeding out from a gunshot wound while Queen and Slim are in the car with his gun.

That’s right. They flee the scene and are now on the run. No motive is provided. They just vamoose. Reminder note: Queen is supposed to be an attorney, a job that requires a fully functioning brain and an understanding of the law.

They are now fugitives from the law. But what law? And whose law? Not a law that protects them from racist, trigger-happy patrol cops looking for black people to harass, that’s for sure.

As word quickly spreads of the incident via TV and social media Queen and Slim become instant heroes of the people. Ordinary citizens, fed up with oppression, watch out for them, helping them out and covering their tracks as the couple head to Florida.

As far as road movies go, Queen & Slim is a vehicle with four flat tyres and no sat nav.

Directed by first-timer Melina Matsoukas and written by Lena Waithe (from a story by her and controversial author James Frey – check out his Wikipedia page) the film has no narrative rhyme or reason. It tries to champion the plight of the oppressed but succeeds only in presenting a garbled, often dull tract about racial tension.

There are obvious parallels with Thelma & Louise but the film has much more in common with 2013’s Fruitvale Station, a terrible film that also made the pretense of examining issues of race while merely promoting the “them vs us” mantra.

Somewhere in its core Queen & Slim does – if you look hard enough – carry a cautionary message about violence, so it shouldn’t be denied credit for that.

Still, the film is rife with lame histrionics and implausibilities. The scenarios Queen and Slim find themselves in are so poorly directed, the dialogue they spout is so hard on the ear and their big finale is so downright silly that the film’s sense of self-importance makes it all too hard to swallow.

One imagines what terrific, believable films passionate, issue-driven directors such as Spike Lee, the late John Singleton or Oliver Stone might have fashioned from this material. Who knows? This dreck might have worked better as a comedy.

As it stands, however, Queen & Slim stands as a prime example of a film that wants so desperately to be taken seriously it is blinded to all those basic things needed to make a good movie.

 

UNDERTOW **1/2 (95 minutes) MA

A woman traumatized by the tragedy of a still birth becomes obsessed with a young pregnant woman in Miranda Nation’s beautiful looking, intermittently impressive debut feature.

Set in Geelong in what appears to be the depths of the gloomiest winter, Claire (Laura Gordon), a news photographer, is recoiling from the double hit of losing a child and being told that her prospects of having another are slim.

Her football-manager husband Dan (Rob Collins) appears supportive, though happenstance puts Claire opposite a hotel where he appears to be having a tryst with a young woman, Angie (Olivia DeJonge).

Given her disoriented state of mind, Claire follows Angie to a pub where they make contact and begin a friendship of sorts. Her discovery of Angie’s pregnancy takes a firm grip on her psyche, which was already drifting into dangerous territory.

Is this child the product of her husband’s infidelity? Or is it the result of misbehaving footballer Brett (Josh Hellman, memorable as Jeb in Jack Reacher), who is embroiled in a sex scandal over Angie? And how far will Claire’s concern for this unwanted pregnancy take her?

Tantalizing questions, these, and Nation teases them out for much of the film through a suite of strong performances and lots of evocative cinematography.

As Claire, Gordon grounds the film with her portrait of a woman dealing with a largely unspoken torment, her jagged psychological state reflected in images that are often arresting.

Yet while Nation builds a foreboding atmosphere full of tension and anxiety, the film’s preoccupation with mood overwhelms the need for pace and a killer finale.

There are a lot of terrific genre elements in Undertow, particularly the themes about obsession and men behaving badly, so it’s a pity these weren’t dialled up to deliver a more satisfying third act.

Undertow began life as a 2013 short film called Perception. Nation filmed it in 2017 and completed it in 2018.

So, why has it taken so long for Undertow to hit the screen? And what shall become of it? Will it take one breath at the cinema before disappearing into the ether, like so many other Australian films?

Now living in Melbourne, Miranda Nation was kind enough to take questions about her film, her feminism and what the point was of having a female-dominated film crew.

Please enjoy.

Jim Schembri
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