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I Wanna Dance with Somebody, Banshees of Inisherin, Triangle of Sadness

There’s no bigger date on the Australian movie calendar than Boxing Day and, as always, there’s a rash of new releases on December 26 promising something for everyone. Well, for almost everyone: with every other distributor seemingly running scared in the face of Disney’s Avatar: The Way of Water, there’s a surprising lack of blockbuster action this year.

The end of the year is typically when the big Hollywood studios release what they hope will be their awards contenders. So it is that The Banshees of Inisherin, Triangle of Sadness (which won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival in May) and The Lost King make their bows, with another big contender – Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans – to follow on January 5.

But if this is a great time of year for lovers of serious cinema, it’s also a treat for families, with an animated Puss in Boots adventure, the live-action/animated hybrid musical Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile and Netflix’s film of Matilda the Musical all arriving. And for fans of music divas, there’s a must-see biopic of Whitney Houston.

There’ll be plenty more over summer, too, and our team of film writers and critics will be covering all the big new releases, so stay tuned. But for now, here’s our guide to the Boxing Day movies. Enjoy.

Find out the next TV, streaming series and movies to add to your must-sees. Get The Watchlist delivered every Thursday.

The Banshees of Inisherin ★★★½
(M) 108 minutes

Barring a prediction or two from a local soothsayer, The Banshees of Inisherin contains no element of fantasy as such. But this latest bucolic tragicomedy from writer-director Martin McDonagh (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) has a quaint otherworldly flavour that suggests the chronicle of a squabble between hobbits.

Though born and raised in London, McDonagh has made his Irish heritage go a long way. The action takes place in 1923, just off Ireland’s west coast; the fictional Inisherin is “played” by the real-life island of Inishmore, pictured as a jigsaw puzzle of lush green fields encircled by low-lying dry stone walls, much as it was in 1934 when Robert Flaherty arrived to shoot his pioneering docudrama Man of Aran.

Famously, Flaherty was engaged in the kind of quest for authenticity that paid little heed to the truth – portraying his islanders as engaged in a constant battle for brute survival, even when not taking to the open sea for their allegedly traditional shark hunts.

By contrast, McDonagh makes no claim to even the loosest kind of realism. His Inisherin is less a functioning community than an unlikely haven for slow-witted, middle-aged celibates dedicated to taking it easy.

This viewer never quite managed to fathom how the gormless Padraic (Colin Farrell), a nominal cattle farmer sharing a two-room cottage with his sensible sister (Kerry Condon), manages to afford his nightly pints of Guinness and his pricey-looking knitwear.

Colin Farrell’s pleading, puppyish features convey every shade of hurt and bafflement in The Banshees of Inisherin.

Colin Farrell’s pleading, puppyish features convey every shade of hurt and bafflement in The Banshees of Inisherin.Credit:Searchlight Pictures

Whatever his duties entail, he has all the time in the world for what he calls “normal chats” with his best friend Colm (Brendan Gleeson) – until Colm, who wants more time for playing the fiddle, loses patience with his mate’s ramblings and warns Padraic never to speak to him again.

“What are you, 12?” a neighbour says incredulously. That, if anything, is over-generous; as so often with McDonagh, the characters are basically overgrown pre-schoolers, whose impulsive choices have all too permanent consequences.

A similar childish quality is evident in McDonagh’s own undimmed zest for cheap shock effects: anyone familiar with his past work will not be surprised to hear that the action turns increasingly gruesome, nor that there’s a subplot involving sexual abuse. No less standardised are the musical repetitions of the dialogue, which relies heavily on having the characters say “feck” whenever the pace starts to lag.

In all these respects McDonagh isn’t too far from his American counterparts such as Quentin Tarantino or the Coen brothers – trafficking, as they do, in a menacing absurdism that can be traced back to the plays of Harold Pinter.

As a comedy duo, Brendan Gleeson and Farrell are money in the bank.

As a comedy duo, Brendan Gleeson and Farrell are money in the bank.Credit:Searchlight Pictures

But as an entertainer he doesn’t quite have the agility of his transatlantic cousins. The fanciful material of Banshees calls for a more visually stylised approach than anything he can muster. Without that, it’s hard to swallow the plot contrivances and tonal shifts of the film’s third act, let alone the vague hints of an allegory for the Irish Civil War.

Still, the core subject here – the pain of rejection – is so close to universal that few viewers will fail to respond. Farrell’s pleading, puppyish features seem made to convey every shade of hurt and bafflement, and McDonagh puts them to work in close-up, as Padraic moves through the stages of grief in a manner both funny and heartbreaking.

As a comedy duo, Farrell and Gleeson are money in the bank, just as they were in McDonagh’s first feature In Bruges. As a pairing of actor and filmmaker, Farrell and McDonagh are no less in sync – to the point where it seems nearly inconceivable that Farrell, here so buffoonish, once played Alexander the Great. Jake Wilson

The Banshees of Inisherin is in wide release in cinemas.

The Lost King ★★★
(M) 108 minutes

Is truth really the daughter of time? Josephine Tey’s celebrated 1951 novel based on that proverb has a Scotland Yard inspector, in hospital with a broken leg, trying to resolve the question of Richard III.

I read The Daughter of Time in high school in an earlier century. I dimly remember its conclusions: that the popular vision of Richard as a hunchback who murdered the princes in the Tower was a lie planted by the Tudors and promoted by their pet playwright. Richard was nothing like the horseless psycho in Shakespeare’s play.

Legions of readers have agreed with Tey. Some even banded together as the Richard III Society to clear his name.

Philippa Langley was one of these so-called Ricardians. When we meet her character in Stephen Frears’ patchy and polemical film, she is a tiny, sickly Edinburgh woman with two boys and an ex-husband, played by Steve Coogan. Coogan also co-wrote the script with Jeff Pope, reuniting the team that made Philomena.

Sally Hawkins, an elfin treasure of the British screen, has never given a bad performance. Nor is this one, but she is ill-served by the team. In effect, the movie manipulates Langley’s story for its own ends, while accusing others of doing the same thing to Richard.

The real Langley is a screenwriter, who began investigating Richard for a film project. No mention of that here. She was one of the initiators of The Richard Project, not a sole eccentric voice. She did wander into a council car park in Leicester and come over all funny when she saw the letter R on the asphalt. She has said repeatedly that she “felt” Richard was there, buried below. The movie ignores the fact that a historian suggested in 1975 that he was there. The church in which he was buried in 1485 had been demolished centuries earlier.

Sally Hawkins as Philippa Langley and Steve Coogan as John Langley in The Lost King.

Sally Hawkins as Philippa Langley and Steve Coogan as John Langley in The Lost King.Credit:Transmission Films

Langley was pivotal in getting the agreement to dig. The Richard Project raised the money to pay an archaeological company, based at Leicester University, who thought the project would fail. When they did find Richard, the university bigwigs claimed the credit, shuffling Langley and the Ricardians aside. That part at least appears to have some truth.

Frears and Coogan were outraged by this, so they construct a film about a battler winning against all odds. Langley has chronic fatigue syndrome. She identifies with the way Richard has been demonised for his condition – an easy metaphor. Hawkins quivers with indignation throughout, reaching a point where I thought she might break. Her performance does not lack commitment, just someone to guide it.

Frears has made many great films. This is not one of them. It’s too slippery with the facts to have any standing when it comes to the truth, too ready to find villainy as it proclaims that Richard was no villain. The whole point of digging him up was to get to the truth, but you can’t treat the truth like a buffet. “An honest tale speeds best being plainly told”. Richard III, Act IV, scene IV. Paul Byrnes

The Lost King is in wide release in cinemas.

Triangle of Sadness ★★★★
(M) 147 minutes

How much human degradation and depravity is too much? Like the waiter in the Monty Python sketch about the overweight man in a restaurant, Swedish iconoclast Ruben Ostlund keeps offering us “just a wafer-thin slice” to take us over the edge, where discomfort becomes the point. He wants to make a movie that is worth leaving the house for. It’s basically a (longish) vomit-comet of cinematic bile and guile.

For Ostlund, subtlety is overrated. Triangle of Sadness shows us why he has a point. It’s a spectacular demolition of modern life, a disruptor movie full of ideas and nuance, as violent in its way as a Pieter Bruegel painting.

Ostlund grew up on a Swedish island, and his mother was a teacher and a communist. He has no difficulty in identifying the enemy. The surprise is how sympathetic he is once he has them up against the wall, squirming like an insect on a pin.

A brief introduction throws us into the gorgeous lives of two models. Yaya (South African actress Charlbi Dean Kriek) earns four times as much as Carl (Harris Dickinson), but still expects him to pay for dinner. After a spectacular argument brings them closer, they board a super yacht as invited guests. Yaya is an influencer, accustomed to her beauty opening all doors. It’s her currency.

The location is unclear, but it feels like the Mediterranean, somewhere near Greece. Ostlund assembles a basket of deplorables, most of whom are only there because they’re rich. An impeccably mannered English duo, cutely named Winston and Clementine (Oliver Ford Davies and Amanda Walker), enjoy a family fortune built on land mines and hand grenades. Fat Russian billionaire Dimitry (Zlatko Buric) declares proudly that “I sell shit”. His wife Vera (Sunnyi Melles), pickled in champagne, gives outlandish orders to the exquisitely polite crew: money buys obeisance.

In his cabin, the alcoholic Marxist captain (Woody Harrelson) refuses to come out. When a storm hits the ship, the Marxist and the Russian capitalist get so trolleyed they take turns reading the Communist Manifesto over the PA. Meanwhile, most of the passengers are hurling the contents of the seven-course captain’s dinner. Then the sewage tanks overflow.

Charlbi Dean Kriek (left) and Harris Dickinson in Triangle of Sadness.

Charlbi Dean Kriek (left) and Harris Dickinson in Triangle of Sadness.Credit:Neon

Ostlund does not hold back: this is one of the most revolting (and hilarious) sequences in the history of movies, a brilliantly satirical square-up as nature overturns privilege. The survivors wash up on a deserted island. Neither beauty nor money means anything now. Abigail (Dolly De Leon), a Filipina who cleaned toilets on the ship, finds a new role. She knows how to fish. It’s like Gilligan’s Island meets The Hunger Games.

Ostlund made some waves with Force Majeure and The Square. Triangle of Sadness bolts onto those as the grand finale of a trilogy about masculinity in trouble in a world without pity or moral compass.

Force Majeure was about a family falling apart. Ostlund indicted the art world and its patrons in The Square. He dissects multiple forms of privilege here, from beauty to heredity to sheer dumb luck, but he does it with compassion. He loves the characters he tortures. There’s an emotionally powerful shot here, with one character crying over the body of another. Until this, both had seemed like empty shells, the victims of their own misbegotten fortune. Death and grief make them human again.

If Ostlund goes too far, he does it with purpose rather than ego. He never draws attention to his own (considerable) skills. He wants us to be helplessly under the spell of the story, drowning in ideas and meaning, struggling for comprehension and relief, even as he makes us laugh and cry. That’s some combination of effects. PB

Triangle of Sadness is in wide release in cinemas.

Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody ★★★½
(M) 144 minutes

What more is there to say about Whitney Houston, whose brilliant career, drug-taking and premature death has been hashed over exhaustively on screen and in the tabloids?

I Wanna Dance with Somebody tackles that question by taking her story back to the music. It’s written by New Zealander Anthony McCarten, whose screenplay for Bohemian Rhapsody didn’t dilute the tragedies in Freddie Mercury’s short life while still managing to evoke the exhilaration to be had from Queen’s greatest concerts.

It took a delicate touch and other rock stars haven’t been as fortunate. While Rocketman was just as exuberant in doing justice to Elton John as a performer, the Aretha Franklin biopic Respect (2021) became more depressing as it went on. The United States vs. Billie Holiday, also released last year, was the same. It was powerful but it was no celebration. Then there was Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, which was more glitz than heart, clouded by the decision to tell the tale from the venal viewpoint of Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker.

Members of Houston’s family were interviewed at length for a documentary four years ago. But for this film, also produced with the family’s co-operation, director Kasi Lemmons made extensive use of the singer’s original recordings, including those laid down en route to the final versions. It allowed star Naomi Ackie to take Houston’s false starts, double takes and spontaneous comments as prompts in shaping her performance. Although she was filmed singing, her voice was replaced by Houston’s.

Naomi Ackie in Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody.

Naomi Ackie in Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody.Credit:Emily Aragones/Sony Pictures

She does well, catching the contradictions in Houston’s character – the naivete, the fear of failure, the rebellious streak and its effect on her religious convictions. But physically, Ackie bears only a superficial resemblance to the singer. With Houston’s image still so fresh in the memory, this is a distraction.

The script is impressionistic in style, covering a lot of ground by being selective and using Houston’s songs to drive the narrative. Much is made of her relationship with the record company chief Clive Davis (one of the film’s producers), who discovered Houston and helped her choose songs for her albums. He’s played by a wryly urbane Stanley Tucci, giving us a character whose iron fist is well covered in velvet. Appalled when Houston takes up smoking, he looks sadly at her as she lights up, remarking that it’s like watching a Stradivarius being left out in the rain.

The film falls a little short of its claim to be warts-and-all, condensing the low points in Houston’s turbulent marriage to Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders), but it doesn’t hold back in dealing with her father’s financial mismanagement. Nor does it underplay the importance of her enduring friendship with her former lover, Robyn Crawford – played with a lot of verve by Nafessa Williams.

And while it leaves her death off-screen, preferring to go out with the show-stopping medley she delivered at the 1994 American Music Awards, I’m not complaining. Sandra Hall

Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody is in wide release in cinemas.

For the family

Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical ★★★★
(PG) 117 minutes

Roald Dahl was not the first storyteller to acknowledge many children’s taste for the macabre – the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen got there before him. But nobody has ever extracted as much fun from this discovery as Dahl has.

Matilda Wormwood (Alisha Weir) is one of Dahl’s most popular creations – a small girl forced to survive as best she can in a world governed by some of the most malevolent grown-ups in children’s literature. Her parents (Andrea Riseborough and Stephen Graham) are bad enough – crass, venal and spiteful, with voices piercing enough to shatter glass – but Miss Trunchbull, headmistress of Crunchem Hall, the gothic house of horrors that is Matilda’s school, is worse. She’s a monster.

Trunchbull was played by a man when Matilda: The Musical began its triumphal march across the world’s stages. When the screen adaptation was announced, it seemed the role would go to Ralph Fiennes. Instead, Trunchbull is brought hideously to life by an unrecognisable Emma Thompson. Her face looks as if it has been moulded out of concrete, while she stamps around her domain in a get-up with an unsettling resemblance to a stormtrooper uniform. Thompson abandoned her vanity long ago, but this creation goes quite a few grotesque steps further than her Nanny McPhee of the single bucktooth and hairy mole.

Matilda is sent to Crunchem Hall because her parents don’t like having her around. She does her best to keep out of their way, having adopted the local mobile library as her second home. Librarian Mrs Phelps (Sindhu Vee) has become a substitute mother, as well as being a receptive audience for the stories spun by Matilda’s fertile imagination.

Emma Thompson and Alisha Weir in Roald Dahl’s Matilda: The Musical.

Emma Thompson and Alisha Weir in Roald Dahl’s Matilda: The Musical.Credit:Dan Smith/Netflix

The film is directed by Matthew Warchus, who is the artistic director of the Old Vic in London and worked on the original stage production. He has done a wonderful job transferring the musical’s energy to the screen.

Two hundred children were recruited to portray Matilda’s schoolmates – or Crunchem’s “maggots”, as their headmistress refers to them – and their chorus work brings great vitality to Tim Minchin’s music and lyrics, which are crucial in advancing the plot and crystallising the mood of the film. They’re also gifted comedians adept at the slapstick that gives the choreography such charge.

Eventually, the “maggots” all learn how to stand up to the execrable Trunchbull, as does her sweet-natured underling Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch). Despite his love of the sardonic, Dahl did believe in happy endings and Dennis Kelly’s script keeps the story’s dark and light sides in perfect balance.

Twelve-year-old Weir does the same. It’s a performance in which innocence and intelligence are bound up with bravery and righteous anger. You cheer her all the way as she takes on the seemingly impossible.

The ferocious Trunchbull may be too much for young children, but those who relish being scared in the belief that things will eventually come right will have a ball. SH

Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical is streaming on Netflix.

Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile ★★
(G) 106 minutes

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish ★★
(PG) 102 minutes

Apparently a classic in the US, the children’s book Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile wasn’t part of my childhood. But Will Speck and Josh Gordon’s new adaptation, a hybrid of live action and animation, felt almost familiar – starting out as a homage to the great Warner Brothers cartoon One Froggy Evening, then morphing into a bid to recreate the success of the genuinely charming Paddington films.

Canadian singer Shawn Mendes supplies the voice of Lyle, a shy but musically gifted young crocodile who is discovered hiding out in the attic of a New York brownstone by the family that has just moved in.

This is supposed to be an “elevated” children’s film, meaning we get Javier Bardem as a flamboyant magician, a suite of unmemorable songs from the team who worked on The Greatest Showman, and Adult Swim comic Brett Gelman playing a nosy neighbour named Mr Grumps with hipster irony.

Less ironised is the core message, which appears to be the same one sometime Pixar songwriter Randy Newman satirised long ago in his novelty hit Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear: even rank outsiders can be accepted anywhere, provided they know how to sing and dance.

Joel Crawford’s fully animated Puss in Boots: The Last Wish has a few more things going for it, at least for viewers like me who are easily won over by the notion of an intrepid marmalade cat who’s voiced by Antonio Banderas and can buckle a swash with the best of them.

True, I can’t say I yearned to see this feline Zorro undergo a midlife crisis and face his own mortality. But given the character made his debut in Shrek 2 in 2004, it’s understandable that weariness would start to set in.

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Having used up all but one of his nine lives, Puss in Boots can only regain his mojo by embarking on a shamanistic spiritual quest through a psychedelic landscape where his fears manifest in physical form (the painterly style, influenced by anime, makes a change from the usual “photorealistic” approach).

Hot on his tail is a parade of villains, including the menacing Jack Horner (John Mulaney) and a Cockney version of Goldilocks (Florence Pugh) who has turned the three bears into her criminal sidekicks but still yearns for the day when everything will be “just right”.

There are a fair number of amusing moments along the way, but also a few scenes that may alarm younger viewers. (One of these, involving carnivorous flowers, I found pretty creepy myself.)

Both films leave the same uncanny aftertaste, common to much current Hollywood family entertainment: a sense that wit, personality and emotional insight have been more or less skilfully simulated. JW

Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile and Puss in Boots: The Last Wish are in wide release in cinemas.

Find out the next TV, streaming series and movies to add to your must-sees. Get The Watchlist delivered every Thursday.

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