The Australian outback has never looked as sweltering as it does in Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country. With the director’s latest, he gives an intimate but brutal tale of racism the grand epic western it deserves.
It’s 1920s Northern Australia, where Indigenous Australians are borderline slaves, treated horrendously by the “whitefellas” with degrading punches of casual racism. The hostility towards the Aboriginals are downright uncomfortable, but necessary in confronting its audience with harsh truths, as well as illuminating a time in history that has long been ignored in film. A cruel war veteran named Harry March (Ewen Leslie) moves into the area and requires the help of Sam (Hamilton Morris) to renovate his property. With his baseless prejudices, Harry returns Sam’s selflessness with vicious insults and attacks to not only him but his family. When Harry threatens to kill Sam, Sam is forced to shoot his attacker in self defence. However, this being a time of aggressive colonialism, he runs away to avoid the risk of being hanged for killing a “whitefella”.
Rarely have films ever made me cry for two hours straight, but Lean on Pete arrives like a stampede to join that very short list. I saw Lean on Pete last year at London Film Festival and director Andrew Haigh was at the screening for a Q&A. The very first question (or statement rather) was from a woman who did nothing but berate the film for its representation of America. I was seething — did we even watch the same film? Lean on Pete is devastating. It’s a sensitive portrayal of lower-class America with a heartbreaking performance from Charlie Plummer. Andrew Haigh’s films always destroy me, and this one is no different.
Lean on Pete is the horse in question, a racehorse long past its prime and destined to be sold for slaughter. The only thing standing in the way however is 16-year-old Charley (Charlie Plummer) who refuses to let this horse die. Charley is working for Del (Steve Buscemi), also past his prime and exasperated with the world of horses, he passes on his wisdom to naive little Charley while providing odd jobs. Pete’s rider is Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), a cynical jockey on the verge of giving it up altogether. “There are only so many times you can fall off a horse and get up,” she says. Her reminders that Lean on Pete is just a horse, not a pet, fall on deaf ears — in a world where Charley has no one (his mother abandoned him and his father is largely absent, much preferring to jump from girlfriend to girlfriend) Pete is his one loyal friend.
Life can be stifling when it feels like you have nowhere to go, and it’s even more stifling when you’re trapped on an island. Moll (Jessie Buckley) lives with her parents in Jersey, held on a tight leash by her mother after an incident in her childhood permanently put a strain on their relationship. She’s the “wild one” according to her sister, but her timid personality suggests otherwise. She’s almost treated like a child with the wardrobe to match, unable to grow up like her siblings have. In comes Pascal (Johnny Flynn) like a knight in hunting gear to save her from an unsavoury date. Their intriguing love story is the foundation of a thriller that sacrifices a fascinating character study for genre-juggling.
Much of the film is dedicated to solving a murder mystery — a serial killer is targeting young girls and terrorising Jersey — and Pascal’s dark past puts him at the top of the suspect list. Moll is forced to face a difficult dilemma: stand by the man she loves or leave a potentially dangerous man? The hunt for the killer is made particularly intense by a tight screenplay but it eventually grows tiresome as it drowns in boring procedural cliches. The murders aren’t even the most interesting part of Beast (MOLL IS!) but writer-director Michael Pearce doesn’t seem to understand that.
Who needs empathy when you have privilege? That’s the question Cory Finley’s razor-sharp debut raises and answers with admirable confidence and wicked style. Thoroughbreds presents the moral degradation of those who face no barriers to get what they want. Empathy may hinder ambition, but a lack of empathy is a fatal human flaw with devastating consequences.
Childhood friends Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke) are forced to reconnect after Amanda kills her prized horse out of mercy. The thing is Amanda is a borderline sociopath — she has no feelings, she explains, and though she has cycled through diagnoses, she concedes that it’s just the way she’s programmed. She’s become a master imitator: perfecting “the technique” of fake crying, and practicing her empty smiles in the mirror. Someone with no emotions may ring warning bells for a dull character, but Olivia Cooke pulls it off with her hilarious deadpan delivery. Lily is the complete opposite — a prim and proper rich girl, she lies and lies to hide how unhappy she is with her life, with her cruel stepdad being the source of most of her frustrations. Lily is being paid an extortionate amount of money to hang out with Amanda, so their conversations are cold and awkward at first. But Amanda’s candour eventually melts Lily’s tough exterior, allowing her to be as open with her — ultimately revealing that she wants to kill her stepdad.
If you ask a Scottish person what the best Scottish film is, the answer you’re most likely to receive is Trainspotting. One iconic scene involves the group of heroin addicts walking in the countryside, to which Tommy asks, doesn’t the beautiful landscape make you proud to be Scottish? Ewan McGregor then delivers a monologue that has lived on as the thesis of our great country:
“It’s shite being Scottish. We’re the lowest of the low. The scum of the fucking Earth. The most wretched, miserable, servile, pathetic trash that was ever shat into civilisation. Some people hate the English — I don’t, they’re just wankers. We, on the other hand, are colonised by wankers. Can’t even find a decent culture to be colonised by. We’re ruled by effete arseholes. It’s a shite state of affairs to be in, Tommy, and all the fresh air in the world won’t make any fucking difference.”
Despite being one of the greatest cultural artifacts of our country, Trainspotting doesn’t exactly show Scotland in a great light. It’s dark, dirty and uncomfortable to watch; no one outside of Scotland can understand what the characters are saying; it features Ewan McGregor climbing into ‘The Worst Toilet in Scotland’. British culture, but even more so Scottish culture, is built on self-deprecation. We take pride in taking the piss out of ourselves. Scotland is a great country — I love living here — but we can’t get too carried away. Scottish cinema operates in much the same way. In other countries, films tend to make their locations look enviable — I’ve seen too many love letters to New York to count — but you’re unlikely to see that with a Scottish film (unless you’re Mel Gibson, who isn’t even Scottish.) Scottish cinema explores the unfortunate reality that plagues many: poverty, drug addiction, alcoholism, mental illness. Karen Gillan’s first feature as a director, The Party’s Just Beginning, follows its predecessors in confronting its audiences with gritty realism, but Gillan showcases the artistic flair that makes her a talent to watch.
“you say isle of dogs we hear i love dogs” reads a tweet from the official Isle of Dogs account. Naturally, I repeated it over and over again — Isle of Dogs, I love dogs, Isle of Dogs, I love dogs. Wes Anderson’s latest is a touching love letter to our canine companions. It’s replete with the signature touches we know and love (or hate), a style that has been parodied a countless number of times. The delectable animation on display here is no gimmick though — Anderson imbues his film with a warmth and sincerity that affirms that his style can coexist with substance, with the breezy confidence of an auteur in full command of his craft.
In the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki, mayor Kobayashi has banished every dog to Trash Island — the titular Isle — to curb the spread of “dog flu” and “canine fever”. One of these dogs is Spots, the former bodyguard dog of the mayor’s orphaned nephew Atari, and the subject of a desperate search that is the heart of this story. Back in Megasaki, a group of teenage activists attempt to rise against the corrupt government and find a cure for the dog flu. Isle of Dogs is thrilling and charming in equal measure — I even found myself tearing up a few times, but if the sight of a dog crying doesn’t make you feel anything then you definitely don’t have a heart.