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Penguin Bloom review – Naomi Watts saved by a magpie in charming drama | Toronto film festival 2020

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Naomi Watts, an adept and at times electrifying actor, has found herself adrift in recent years. The star who shone bright in Mulholland Drive and King Kong has dimmed with each rotten project, from the disastrous schmaltz of The Book of Henry (a film so bad it was rumoured to have cost director Colin Trevorrow a Star Wars gig), to Gus Van Sant’s maudlin suicide mystery The Sea of Trees (a film that was met with a chorus of boos at Cannes) to clumsy, barely released trans drama 3 Generations. Even her small-screen projects have underwhelmed, whether it be the swiftly cancelled Netflix thriller Gypsy or her role as Gretchen Carlson in the buzz-free Fox News drama The Loudest Voice that was quickly overshadowed by Bombshell (her Game of Thrones prequel was cancelled after a poorly received pilot). It’s frustrating to watch, given what we know she’s capable of, and so with each new performance, fingers remain cautiously crossed.

Penguin Bloom, a modest Australian drama premiering at this year’s semi-virtual Toronto film festival, is by no means a slam-dunk – it’s slight and has notable flaws – but it’s a minor, much-needed victory for Watts, a charming crowd-pleaser that at a normal at-capacity premiere would have led to hearty applause. Based on a true story and the book it inspired, it’s the tale of a family recovering from tragedy. While on vacation in Thailand, Sam (Watts) suffers a devastating fall, one that leaves her mostly paralysed from a spinal cord injury and after arriving back home, she struggles to acclimate to an intimidatingly unknowable new normal. How can she be a functioning and reactive mother to her three young children when she has to rely on her husband (Andrew Lincoln) to help her out of bed? How can she remain hopeful for a future when her options seem so limited? As Sam falls deeper into despair, there’s an unlikely new addition to the family.

When one of her sons brings home an injured magpie on the beach, naming her Penguin, Sam bristles at the disruption but she slowly develops a strange attachment to the bird and realises that if Penguin can recover then in some way, maybe she can too.

Like the symbolism at its centre, it’s not a particularly subtle film but on its own simple terms, it’s one that mostly works. Sam’s tentative connection to Penguin is believably choreographed, echoing her desire to care for her children, to look after a creature even more vulnerable than she is and through some slick wrangling, we can sense a growing chemistry between them. The bird itself is hard to resist, tottering around as if slightly inebriated, winning us over at the same time as the Bloom family, sneakily stealing innumerable scenes from the human cast. That’s also partly because they’re a little too thinly etched to read as real, messy, fully fleshed-out people and at times the characters could just as easily be named Mum, Dad and Sons 1-3. The film leaps almost straight into tragedy so the director, Glendyn Ivin, relies heavily on voiceover to tell us about pre-accident times and instead of showing us a lot of the relationships, we’re told about them instead.

The marriage in particular lacks genuine specificity and Irvin, along with Snowtown screenwriter Shaun Grant, shies away from some of the more interesting nuances that are briefly hinted at with regards to an impossible balance of power. Lincoln has little to do other than tighten his jaw and quietly weep but Watts serves an impressive and, given recent history, important reminder of just how effortlessly she’s able to eschew the trappings of movie stardom to embody a believable everywoman. As mentioned, the characterisation might be thin but she works hard to fill in the gaps and we’re refreshingly spared any predictable histrionics, a far subtler performance than the film often deserves.

The broad strokes are also made more forgivable by Sam Chiplin’s gorgeous cinematography, which carries us all the way to the coast in New South Wales, a swift, sun-drenched vacation coming at an opportune time. It’s a handsomely made and sturdy little movie, mercifully devoid of cloying sentimentality, an old-fashioned throwback for families in search of something safe and superhero-free that might not sing quite as loud as it could have but flies just about high enough nonetheless.


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Cordelia review – reality-bending drama of creepy neighbours | Film

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There’s a really interesting pairing of two really interesting screen presences – Antonia Campbell-Hughes and Johnny Flynn – in this flawed but potent psychological chiller. It’s a claustrophobic chamber drama about emotional breakdown co-written for the screen by Campbell-Hughes with the film’s director Adrian Shergold. In some ways, it’s a riff on Polanski’s Repulsion, with the story of a lonely young woman beginning to get unmoored from unreality.

Campbell-Hughes plays Cordelia, a troubled, damaged soul who is only just recovering after some unnamed trauma; she is an actor rehearsing a play and comes to stay in a creepy London mansion flat occupied by her twin sister Caroline (also played by Campbell-Hughes) and Caroline’s boyfriend Matt (Joel Fry); they leave her alone there. Cordelia strikes up a friendship with Frank (Flynn) the charming, but strange and unreliable young man they can hear practising his cello in the upstairs flat – a relationship which quickly becomes very disturbing.

Shergold and Campbell-Hughes orchestrate some very disquieting dream sequences, and scenes in which ostensible reality bleeds into a hallucinatory dream state. And they have some excellent moments down in the London Underground, whose potential for horror is often mishandled by film-makers but works well here, especially at the very beginning. And there’s a genuinely unsettling moment where Cordelia leaves London for an interlude at her stepmother’s house in East Anglia, a journey which proceeds as weightlessly as a dream – and perhaps it is a dream.

Cordelia contains cameos from Alun Armstrong and also Michael Gambon, as the scatterbrained elderly neighbour who starts a highly unwelcome conversation about whether or not having mice in your flat means you won’t have rats. Perhaps this film doesn’t entirely work all the way through, but it is a shard of malevolence that jabs into your skin.

• Released on 23 October in cinemas.


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Max Winslow and the House of Secrets review – lightweight Wonka-esque movie puzzle | Film

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Targeting the demographic intersection between geeky YA fiction readers, folks interested in psychology that doesn’t go much deeper than an internet quiz, and supermarket puzzle magazine fans, this sci-fi-inflected thriller is moderately satisfying as long as you don’t think about it too much.

In a bland Arkansas suburb that happens to have been the home town of tech billionaire inventor Atticus Virtue (Chad Michael Murray), five very different high-school kids are invited to take part in an exclusive competition at his secluded mansion. The prize is a lifetime supply of chocolate … oh, sorry, no … the prize is the mansion itself – but the Willy Wonka parallels are about as blatant as the nominative determinism of the mysterious benefactor’s surname. Only this time, given Mr Virtue has been detained, the role of maybe-malevolent host-guide is taken by the disembodied voice of the house’s sentient computer, Haven (voiced by Star Trek alumna Marina Sirtis), who sets the kids a series of problems to solve that may be more dangerous than just counting jelly beans.

The title character Max (Sydne Mikelle) is a shy-but-pretty-under-her-flannel-shirts coding champ with daddy issues; she pals up with Connor (Tanner Buchanan), the school star lacrosse player, who turns out to be a more sensitive soul than his jock reputation would suggest. A popular girl obsessed with her online image (Jade Chynoweth), a bully (Emery Kelly) and a gaming addict (Jason Genao) fill out the quintet. Before the night is over, all of them must confront their darkest fears, generated with simple effects and the magic wand that is a screenwriter’s “because tech” justification.

This is hardly profound stuff, although the most creepy and resonant aspect is arguably the plotline revolving around the popular girl who gets stuck in a bathroom staring into a mirror version of herself that’s much nastier than the real thing, a simple cinematic sleight-of-hand that depends entirely on Chynoweth’s skill in projecting bitchy malevolence. A darker, hipper version of this movie might have made her the protagonist and proved more amusing to watch than the simpering leads we have here.


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The Climb review – hilarious true-to-life bromance | Film

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I laughed hysterically during the first scene of The Climb, Michael Angelo Covino’s brilliantly original indie bromance. The setting is France, where two Americans – best friends since childhood – are on a cycling holiday. Mike (played by Covino) is head-to-toe in Lycra, obnoxiously spouting cycling terminology. His out-of-shape friend Kyle (co-writer Kyle Marvin), is trailing behind, puffing and panting. Mike waits for the start of a particularly tough climb to confess he’s been sleeping with Kyle’s fiancee. Kyle: “You’re like a real-life Judas!” Mike: “On the plus side, that makes you Jesus.” At one point, Kyle gets off his bike and carries it, running up the hill in pursuit of Mike. Tragedy and slapstick run through the film and it is very funny.

The Climb charts the ups and downs of Kyle and Mike’s toxic friendship over a dozen years or so – and I can’t think of a film about male friends told with such microscopic attention to detail.

It’s structured in seven chapters. Chapter two takes place at a funeral a few years later – the first time the men have clapped eyes on each other since the bike ride. The tables have turned. Mike is going to seed, drinking too much, disappointed by life – and it becomes apparent that he is a rampant narcissist. Meanwhile, nice-guy Kyle has lost weight and achieved minor success writing advert jingles. If he feels a flush of schadenfreude at seeing how ropey Mike looks, he’s disguising it. The chapter ends with a hilarious graveside altercation involving a shovel.

Co-writers Covino and Rankin are friends and observe their characters beautifully. They don’t ignore the female roles, either. Gayle Rankin is just as memorable as Kyle’s partner, Marissa – like everyone here, she feels like someone you might know. My only disappointment was that I had to watch it at home: I wanted to be in a cinema laughing at the inappropriately funny bits with other people.

The Climb is in cinemas from 23 October.


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