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Shot Caller

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Jacob Harlon (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) goes into prison – a successful family man convicted for a DUI killing, terrified of what life behind bars might hold. A decade later, “Money” is paroled – a cold-eyed, tattooed, prison-hard, high-ranking member of white supremacist prison gang, PEN-1. They’re the same guy. How did we get here from there? And is there anything of Jacob left inside Money?

For his fourth fiction feature (he also directed That Which I Love Destroys Me, a documentary on PTSD in returned service personnel) as director, Ric Roman Waugh returns to the territory he previously visited in Felon and Snitch: American prison culture. Approaching his material with an eye for authentic detail, ushering us into a tribal world segregated along racial lines and forcing us to measure our own principles against the awful, pragmatic realities of the yard, where skin tone dictates allegiance. Would you rather die than get an SS flash tattoo? Would you rather be raped? These are incredibly uncomfortable questions.

Early on in the piece we are shown which way Jacob flips, of course,  but it’s a fascinating journey as we watch him gradually carve out a place for himself in the PEN-1 hierarchy, under the tutelage of gang boss – or “shot caller” Bottles (Jeffrey Donovan) and hard case Shotgun (the increasingly ubiquitous Jon Bernthal, who can do this kind of role in his sleep these days). The film is sympathetic to Jacob/Money – he’s our POV character, after all – but unsentimental. Still, while his skin gradually fills up with racist slogans, we never see him really engage with the inherent bigotry of his prison allegiance, which is either a character note – he’s just paying lip service to survive or a failure to fully commit to the premise on the film’s part, depending on which you want to look at it. Perhaps its for the best – even an actor of Coster-Waldau’s charisma might struggle to make a virulently racist protagonist compelling (although, let’s face it, Russell Crowe launched a career off his ability to do so).

Coster-Waldau is clearly relishing his chance to show some range here, and his transformation from Jacob to Money is never less than completely convincing; this is, at base, a smart man who can see the options available to him and take the path that seems most correct to him, no matter how distasteful or violent. What really impresses, both in terms of his performance and Waugh’s script, is how the character’s core motivations remain intact; he has a wife (Lake Bell) and a son, and protecting them from both the pain of his incarceration and the fallout from his gang affiliation is paramount.

It’s this that drives the post-prison half of the narrative, which sees Money still deeply embedded in the gang. Membership is for life, a rather terrifying senior figure known as The Beast (veteran character actor Holt McCallany, recently seen in Mindhunters), informs Money, and any attempt not to live up to the debt he owes his “brothers” will see dire consequences visited upon his blood family. Inevitably there’s a hard choice to be made, with bloody consequences no matter which way our man jumps. OF course, we’ve already seen that he’s good in a corner, and can do the most horrifying things when boxed in…

“Solid” is the word that comes most readily to mind when contemplating Shot Caller. This is a small scale, self-contained and rigorous drama, and its sudden, almost unheralded appearance on the theatrical release calendar serves to remind us how rare such films have become on the big screen. This is not a film that’s going to re-wire anybody’s worldview or dazzle us with its visual pyrotechnics, but it’s by any measure a respectable workhorse, committed to its ethos, ruggedly constructed, and well acted. It shouldn’t be special – we should get a dozen of these a year. I really wish we did.

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Goodbye Christopher Robin

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How is life affected by art? How is art affected by life? Should they be affected by each other and what could happen if they do? These are the questions at the forefront of My Week With Marilyn director Simon Curtis’ latest, Goodbye Christopher Robin.

As we see young Christopher Robin and his father playing in the woods, made into whimsical gold through Curtis and cinematographer Ben Smithard’s lens and Domhnall Gleeson and Will Tilston’s warm presences on screen, the audience is shown a world in a pit of despair. A world already ravaged by what was declared “The War To End All Wars”, and with its successor on the horizon, it needs levity. It needs hope. It needs to reconnect with that childhood sense of innocence, and through A. A. Milne’s writings about a young boy named Christopher Robin and his animal friends at play, the world gets exactly that. Those earlier questions are asked, rejected and brought back to show that while the adventures of Winnie The Pooh gave the world something special, it also took something even more precious from the people who made it possible.

The film is in a similar vein as 2013’s Saving Mr. Banks, in that this is also about the wrenching real-world inspiration for what would become one of Disney’s most beloved stories. That balancing act between the crushing harshness of reality and the pleasantries of fiction to help people come to terms with that reality is a key component of this type of story. We see Milne struggle against his own memories of being on the front line, and we see the effect that being a child celebrity had on young C. R., but the film never feels too comfortable in facing that which is uncomfortable. Any time it feels like the film is cutting too close to the bone, it ends up pulling itself out of that spot through either jarring coldness (channelled through Margot Robbie, taking the phrase ‘stiff upper lip’ to a rather grating extreme) or moments where it’s honestly hard to tell whether it’s meant to be taken as funny.

In a film that juggles postpartum depression and shell shock, especially one aimed at familial audiences, precision of tone is critical and it’s too all-over-the-place for that to apply here.

But even through the tonal problems, the film’s main conceit rings true: appreciate the little things in life while you still have them. It sends the audience back into a younger mindset, where the world was less cold and even when it was, it was because we wanted it to be. Hard to throw snowballs in the summer, right? It may fumble in highlighting the story behind the story in all its unpleasantness, but as a tribute to a man and his son who gave the world joy, they are fumbles worth sitting through. In a time where it feels like we could also be on the brink of more conflict, we may desire to return to that sense of childlike wonder.

Click here for nationwide movie times for Goodbye Christopher Robin

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Adapted from Hillary Jordan’s novel of the same name by director Dee Rees (Pariah), Mudbound tells the tale of two families in post-WWII rural Mississippi, divided by race but tied together by the hard, hostile land that the title alludes to.

There’s Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke), who has brought his refined, city-bred wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan) into this hardscrabble world where he plans to work the land like his father, racist patriarch “Pappy” (Jonathan Banks). And there’s the black tenant farmers who live on the McAllans’ land, the god-fearing Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan), his wife Florence (Mary J. Blige), and their passel of children. The power dynamics are clearly defined along racial lines: this is the Jim Crow south, after all, and black men use the back door and don’t raise their eyes to their alleged betters.

The situation changes when to veterans return from their World War II service: Hap’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), who served in the tank corps, and Henry’s brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), who flew bomber missions over Europe. Both are struggling with PTSD and their place in the world, and their wartime experiences bond them in friendship. Such a relationship, however, cannot be countenanced by the locals, and violence is inevitable.

Mudbound is handsomely shot, well acted and possessed of a rare and mournful lyricism, but it feels off by degrees. It’s issues are common to literary adaptations: a hesitancy when it comes to understanding what to keep and what to cut, where to focus the cinematic narrative. The friendship between Jamie and Ronsel is the obvious crux here, but director Rees and her co-writer, Virgil Williams, do their best to encompass as many voices and viewpoints from the source novel as they can, and in doing so muddy the waters somewhat, if you’ll pardon the expression.

What that gives us is an arresting portrait of a place, people, and time, but a weaker story than one might hope for, which leaves us with a very good movie instead of a great one. Still, there’s much to admire and enjoy here: uniformly strong performances (Blige is a quiet miracle, and let’s acknowledge that Hedlund is doing much better as a character actor than a leading man), a pinpoint sense of specificity and detail, a restrained, downbeat visual style that gives the characters room to live and the incidents we witness their full emotional weight. Still, while Mudbound is a very worthy film, that odd and nagging lack of coherence stops it from being the masterpiece it so very nearly is.


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Call of Duty: WWII

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I’m not sure when I stopped caring about Call of Duty. Sometime in the last five or so years the annual shooty series just dropped off my radar. This was never a deliberate or conscious uncoupling, and I remember enjoying some CoDs back in the day, but there were simply more interesting shooters out there. Call of Duty: WWII, however, managed to grab my attention. The WWII setting, the Nazi zombies mode and the overall change of pace seemed appealing. So does the result live up to the hype? Eh… mostly.

COD: WWII is an attempt by the series to get back to its roots. That means WWII and that means you’ll be storming the beaches of Normandy. Again. See the thing about WWII’s campaign is that it’s beautiful, bombastic, exciting… and yet utterly predictable. If you’ve played earlier WWII iterations of CoD, watched Saving Private Ryan or the excellent TV series, Band of Brothers you’ll know what you’re in for. Almost exactly what you’re in for.

You play the part of Ronald “Red” Daniels who is a generic farm boy stereotype who needs to finish fighting this gol’ dang war and get back to his pregnant missus. It’s a tofu bland character and fairly uninteresting, as are most of the supporting cast, save Zussman (Jonathan Tucker) who manages to breathe life into a stodgy script, playing Red’s smart arse Jewish mate. The tale follows the usual beats you’d expect, with occasional diversions like playing as a resistance member (which is fantastic) and air support (which is okay). The whole campaign lasts about six hours – which is long for CoD – and manages to occasionally eke out some pathos from the cliches. It’s not terrible, it’s not great – it’s fine.

Backing up the campaign is the multiplayer which, for many players, is where the game shines. The usual modes like variations on CTF and deathmatch play like business as usual, but the War mode is a highlight – striking a more narrative-based balance, similarly to last year’s Battlefield 1. Having more objective based modes is definitely a step forward for CoD, although playing with dead-eyed teenagers who only care about their KD ratio can be… grueling.

Finally the Nazi Zombies mode is four-player fun, where you and three chums battle waves of the goose-stepping dead, solving mild puzzles and upgrading weapons. Featuring voice acting from the likes of David Tennant and Ving Rhames this mode is a hoot, managing to be gory and even moderately scary. Although I missed the ability to craft barricades this was probably the highlight of the whole package.

Ultimately Call of Duty: WWII is solid but unextraordinary. The campaign is fine, the multiplayer enjoyable and the zombies pretty fun – but none of it feels as deep and interesting as Battlefield 1. With a few friends you regularly play with there’s a lot to enjoy here, just don’t go expecting a complete overhaul of CoD’s aging engine.

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Starting school is a tough enough time for everyone, but it’s all the more tougher for young Auggie (Jacob Tremblay), who has been home-schooled until grade five because he has a severe facial difference as a result of a genetic disorder. Now, his parents (Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson), having decided to enrol him in a private school for the sake of socialisation, Auggie, a bright kid who likes science, Star Wars, and Halloween, must negotiate life outside the protective bubble of his family for the first time ever.

Adapted from R.J. Palacio’s novel by director Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallfower), Wonder traces a year in the life of not just the precocious and eminently likable Auggie, but also the people around him – we get separate threads from the point of view of his 15 year old sister Via (Izabela Vidovic), who feels like she’s always coming second to her special needs brother; his new best friend Jack Will (Noah Jupe), who likes Auggie but bends to the pressure of schoolyard bullying; his mother, who put her life plans on hold to care for him, and more.

But it’s Auggie who is the centre of the film, a smart, charming kid bearing up the weight of being visibly and permanently outside of the norm as best he can. He is, of course, not unaware of how other people see him; “Why do I have to be so ugly?” he wails at one point, and it’d take a particularly hard heart not to be moved by the poor kid’s plight.

Indeed, Wonder expertly aims for the heart at every turn. It’s openly manipulative stuff, but nonetheless effective, even if it occasionally strays past the point of plausibility or taste (there’s a bit of business with the family dog seemingly inserted because it’s been a good 15 minutes since we’ve had a bit of a cry). The whole thing is buoyed by a great cast, a wonderfully warm tone,  and a generally optimistic attitude; yes, there are bullies and anxieties and life can deal you a stunningly unfair hand, but Wonder takes place in a world where underdogs are championed and goodness of heart trumps social advantage – there’s value in spending time in a world like that, even if it’s just for a couple of hours.

Click here for nationwide movie times for Wonder


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Justice League

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If Justice League had come out in the late ’90s, we’d still be hailing it as one of the best superhero films ever made. As it stands, in this post-Marvel Studios world where it seems like every second tentpole feature is packed with posturing power-people, it’s merely pretty good. Given DC’s track record since Man of Steel, however, “pretty good” is pretty good.

It feels like such a ’90s flick, though. Some of that is down to Danny Elfman, Tim Burton’s former composer of choice, taking on scoring duties, and weaving both the ’89 Batman motif and John Williams’ ’78 Superman riff into the fabric. Part of it is the breathless, disjointed pacing, with the film barreling from setpiece to setpiece, barely taking any time to explain why anything is happening, or how all this wonderful weirdness fits together. Part of it are the slightly ropey effects, which would have really blown our hair back at the dawn of the CGI age (there was a big budget Lost in Space movie – it was a weird time).

In  reality it’s an effect of DC/Warners’ efforts to roll back the self-serious tone that Man of Steel and Batman V Superman were mired in, and the end result is that original director Zack Snyder’s Wagnerian vibe sits rather awkwardly next to substitute (and uncredited) helmer Joss Whedon’s poppier, self-effacing material (you will pick Whedon’s stuff a mile away – there’s a gag with Wonder Woman’s magic lasso that is one for the ages). The whole thing feels like it’s been studio-noted to within an inch of its life, and trimmed down to just the right side of narrative coherence.

And you know what? It’s still a good time.

Justice League is a film that works moment by moment and tends to crumble when you step back and look at the wider picture – probably not a useful trait in a movie designed to set up an ongoing franchise, but no cardinal sin in one meant to fill two hours with spectacle and bombast, which this one does quite satisfactorily. Following on from the events of Batman V Superman and the death of the latter, the threat of invasion from alien conqueror Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds, rather wasted in a role more or less indistinguishable from whatever that thing was in Suicide Squad) sees Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) recruit a team to meet the menace: speedster The Flash/Barry Allen (MVP Ezra Miller), Atlantean Aquaman/Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa in bro-mode) and cyborg, er, Cyborg/Vic Stone (Ray Fisher), whose technological powers stem from the “Mother Boxes” – three ancient MacGuffins that Steppenwolf plans to use to Do The Thing. Of course, a peril of this scale really needs someone who looks spiffy in a red cape (Henry Cavill, and you already knew he was coming back, so shush) but he is, unfortunately, dead. Or is he…?

In terms of plot that’s your lot, and it’s a good thing, too; Justice League needs to get a lot of pieces on the board fairly quickly, and to its credit it takes the same tack as the comics do, sketching powers and backstory only as much as is necessary to get things moving. Luckily these characters are all fairly iconic (bar Cyborg), and so the audience is pretty au fait with the broad parameters of who they are and what they can do. And so we’re left with forward momentum and superheroes doing awesome-looking stuff – which is, at the end of the day, our mission statement here.

It does all feel a bit generic, though. Steppenwolf is a non-event of a villain, and his army of winged, insectile drones just exist to give our good guys a horde to slaughter without feeling guilty. The whole enterprise is still standing in the shadow of 2012’s The Avengers, and while Justice League is a fun movie and has plenty of iconic ripped-from-the-pages moments, there’s nothing here that gets within a parsec of that shot from the Marvel movie’s climax. Consistency of characterisation is also sacrificed in favour of lightening the tone; Superman’s death aside, it’s hard to imagine what else happened to transform the grim, criminal-torturing vigilante Batman of BvS into JL‘s assured and quippy team leader, but it surely must have involved a shedload of therapy.

Ultimately, Justice League is an enjoyable throwback that is more concerned with showing you cool characters doing cool things than getting too bent out of shape over the underlying narrative and world-building mechanics that go into getting those scenes into our eyeballs. Fans of the Snyder-inflected preceding films may well balk at how far away this latest offering has swung from their adolescent dourness, while dyed-in-the-wool Marvel Zombies may scoff at this somewhat awkward but desperate-to-please dog and pony show. If you’re on the spectrum between those two, though, Justice League is an 80 Page Giant worth dropping some coin on.

Click here for nationwide movie times for Justice League


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Star Trek: Discovery S1E9: Into the Forest I Go

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The peaceful inhabitants of the planet Pahva have sent a signal to both the Federation and the Klingon Empire to come to their world and negotiate peace. Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) knows that the Klingons are on their way and will decimate the Pahvans when they arrive. Against Starfleet orders he commands the USS Discovery to stay and face the Klingons head-on.

With this ninth episode Star Trek: Discovery concludes its initial run, referred to by CBS as “Chapter One”. Another six episodes will be released in early 2018 to properly conclude the first season, but for now it is mid-point climax time for Lorca, Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and the rest of the Discovery crew. It has been a maddening and frustrating ride, with numerous outstanding elements in the series constantly over-shadowed by inconsistent characterisation, poor plotting, and an attitude to Star Trek continuity that is most politely described as ‘dismissive’.

That in mind, it is a genuine relief to find the plot of “Into the Forest I Go” to be straight-forward, dramatic and pretty much the most Star Trek-like narrative so far. The Discovery is under orders to retreat, leaving the Pahvans defenceless, but Lorca disobeys orders and stays behind to fight. The bulk of the episode, in which an attempt is made to detect a cloaked Klingon starship using a combination of ship-to-ship espionage and the Discovery’s spore drive, is a wonderfully suspenseful exercise in action, character development, and the finest Star Trek technobabble. It also all leads into a great end-of-chapter cliff-hanger that suggests more than one of the current fan theories circling the Internet might be true.

The episode takes time for its characters as well. The most impactful scenes involve Lieutenant Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif), who was held captive by the Klingons and tortured for seven months by L’Rell (Mary Chieffo). Their relationship was in part sexual, and the profoundly traumatised Tyler confides in Burnham about his experience. This is, to be honest, the sort of thing I was expecting from a 21st century Star Trek series: genuinely progressive subject matter that earlier versions were too conservative to address. Could the episode have handled Tyler’s sexual assault and PTSD more sensitively? Very probably, but in the context of an action-packed mid-season finale it seemed impressive as it was.

Of course, there are still the silly bits. The sensors Burnham and Tyler must place in secret around the Klingon ‘ship of the dead’ are comically large with bright lights and a loud voice recording. The episode begins with Discovery remaining to protect Pahva, because if they leave the Klingons will destroy the whole planet, and ends with the Discovery flying away with multiple Klingon ships on approach – and Pahva presumably abandoned to destruction anyway. Star Trek continuity obsessives like me will be left wondering why Spock and McCoy had to retro-fit a photon torpedo to detect a cloaked Klingon ship when the Discovery solved that problem 40 years earlier. To be honest it’s all minor; this episode is genuinely great where it counts.

The potential in Discovery has been there from the start, but these first nine episodes have offered one hell of a rough ride. “Into the Forest I Go” brings the promise of a much-improved series as it goes on. If the production team can stick to the core of what makes its characters work, and shave off the elements that have been dragging the series back – poor plots, inconsistent characterisation, and a quite frankly insulting attitude to the franchise as a whole – it could become something quite special.

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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Anyone familiar with the work of writer/director Martin McDonagh – in particular, his movies In Bruges (2008) and Seven Psychopaths (2012) – will be aware of his signature style of dark humour, bleak storylines and use of profane language paired with ultra-violence.

The British/Irish screenwriter and film director is also renowned as a playwright, especially for The Beauty Queen of Leenane (1996), The Cripple of Inishmaan (1997), and The Lieutenant of Inishmore (2001). His plays have been produced all over the world, including Australia.

His newest Hollywood film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, offers everything you might expect and more. It delves deeper into the darkest recesses of the human psyche than most storytellers dare to go, and the result is uproariously funny as well as disturbing and utterly harrowing.

Frances McDormand is superb as the central protagonist within an equally all-star ensemble that includes Woody Harrelson, John Hawkes, and Peter Dinklage. Also, McDonagh has cast three of the fine actors he used for Seven Psychopaths – Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, and Abbie Cornish. Caleb Landry Jones is remarkable as a key supporting character Red, the savvy salesman who arranges the rental of the titular billboards.

McDormand plays Mildred Hayes. We learn that several months earlier her daughter was raped and murdered in an especially gruesome way. McDonagh does not spare us any of the details. Frustrated by the lack of police action, she sets out to provoke a response from the town officials and from the townspeople themselves. She wants justice at any cost. But her incensed activism does have a cost – on everyone, including herself and her high schooler son Robbie played by Lucas Hedges (known for Moonrise Kingdom and Manchester by the Sea). Despite her escalating extreme behaviour, McDonagh ensures we are in step with Mildred’s fury throughout.

Exquisitely crafted, McDonagh’s story is set in a US Midwest town small enough that everyone knows each other’s business, yet large enough that not everyone knows each other by sight – a device that allows for McDonagh to maximise his drama at every opportunity.

The film is populated by authentic and well-rounded characters, from the sympathetic police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) – the main subject of her ire – to his dunderheaded colleague, the clearly incompetent and openly racist police officer Jason Dixon, played perfectly with on-point character detail by Sam Rockwell.

Around the one-hour mark – the midpoint – the movie plummets off a cliff into far darker territory than anticipated. Everything that follows is far from predictable, and therefore has you squirming uncomfortably in your seat with each new outrage.

This is a movie that illuminates the multifarious despicable ways that humans treat each other, and yet there are occasional flashes of decency offered by way of contrast or respite. The accusatory speech Mildred fires at the local priest forms a gratifying and triumphant moment – her “Crips and the Bloods” speech. The “orange juice” scene in the hospital may render you gutted thanks to its unexpected grace within a series of horrendous episodes. There’s a lot to admire about this film; not just its unflinching stance, but also its crumbs of redemption.

Click here for nationwide movie times for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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Inseparables (Cine Latino)

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French film The Intouchables was a major hit both in its home country and abroad back in 2011. So much so, it probably comes as no surprise that it’s been booked in for an American remake, which should surface next year in the shape of The Upside. Meanwhile, over in Argentina, the film has already been reinterpreted as Inseparables and the result is a mixed bag.

Felipe (Oscar Martínez) is a wealthy quadriplegic who requires around the clock support. Tired of being babied by the people hired by his PA, Felipe decides to give duty of care to his fiery-tempered gardener, Tito (Rodrigo de la Serna). Tito lives a hand to mouth existence and his rough and ready approach to life is in sharp contrast to Felipe’s.

Even if you’ve never seen the original, or simply know about the true story upon which it’s based, you’ll already be fully aware of where this all going; with Felipe discovering, through Tito’s abrasive care, that there’s still so much more to enjoy in life.

There’s no denying that Inseparables wears a large heart on its sleeve. It’s a sweet natured film and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Both leads have a strong chemistry that ensures you’re more than happy to stay in their company for the remainder of the film. De la Serna is particularly strong as the boisterous but fragile Tito.

And yet, what truly lets the film down, is director Marcos Carnevale seemingly not wanting to deviate too much from the source material. We’re not talking Gus Van Sant’s Psycho in terms of mimicry, but if you’re not going to put your personal stamp on it, and with so much brought over wholesale from the original, it’s a wonder why you would remake it all.

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That’s Not Cheating (Cine Latino)

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Sometimes, in relationships, we promise our partners things that we will never follow through on. Whether that be getting a pet, cutting down on fatty foods, or allowing them to sleep with a celebrity should the opportunity arise. It’s the latter of these options that makes up the premise of Argentine comedy, That’s Not Cheating.

Nerdy Mateo (Martin Piroyanksky) has an undisguised crush on actor Zoe del Rio (Liz Solari), which his girlfriend Camila (Lali Esposito) gently mocks by offering him a ‘free pass’ in the unlikely event of him ever getting to meet her. Unfortunately for Camila, Mateo does indeed cross paths with Zoe and the two end up getting on like a house on fire.

Directed by Ariel Winograd, That’s Not Cheating initially mines its humour from Mateo’s decision to hide this initial encounter from his loved one. However, it manages to avoid being a bro-ey celebration of his infidelity by quickly ensuring his plans go awry. From there on out, the film follows both sides in the relationship as they try to deal with the aftershock. It’s a smart move and allows Esposito to be something more than the cliched nagging girlfriend who just doesn’t understand what it’s like to be a ruddy bloke. Refreshingly, she makes just as many mistakes as Mateo, particularly when it comes to her own celebrity crush in the shape of hipster celebrity, Antonio (Guillermo Argeno).

Genuinely funny in parts, with solid performances from its leads, That’s Not Cheating runs aground due to its predictability and rather stale approach to vacuous celebrity culture. Additionally, for a film that chastises its male lead for objectifying women, it certainly goes out of its way to objectify Solari, whilst suggesting that anyone who doesn’t meet her body measurements is liable to be mentally unstable.