The Farewell
Billi (Awkwafina, Crazy Rich Asians, Oceans 8) is living a hopelessly New York life – getting rejected for arts grants and barely making rent – when she finds out that her beloved Nai Nai (grandmother) is dying in China. She makes the trip with her family to see her Nai Nai one last time, but on the awkward proviso that no-one is to tell the dying woman that she’s ill.

This moral quandary about death and family starts out gently funny and poignant, then grows into something tender, layered and memorable as we explore a culture through the intimacy of family, but still with the distance of a relative outsider (Billi was raised in the US).

Writer-director Lulu Wang has an astute feel for the gentle clashes of family life and mines her own personal stories (the film is based on, to quote the opening caption, an “actual lie”), including her own experience of dual nationality. Billi is happy to see her grandmother, grieving in advance, and possessed of that millennial balance of both ennui and sincerity all at once. Go see this film.

The Farewell is playing at Palace Nova Eastend and Prospect.

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Ad Astra
In the near future, when a series of mysterious cosmic rays from the depths of outer space cause carnage on Earth, top astronaut Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is sent into deep space. He’s on a secret mission to contact his long-lost dad (Tommy Lee Jones), who may be the cause of it all, and slowly loses his mind in the process. Add in space pirates, chase scenes and some good fights and you’ve got the makings of a solid adventure story, but don’t be fooled – this is a film about a clinically depressed astronaut with daddy issues.

Ad Astra comes from a long lineage of smart sci-fi, recalling Interstellar, Solaris and Contact, with a few bits of Gravity and Total Recall for luck, but it’s not merely a derivative sci-fi runaround. Pitt, aged 55 and still possessed with a wounded boy pout, fills the screen with his space loneliness, pining for his father and his estranged wife (Ruth Negga), making mistakes and playing against the macho heroism of sci-fi past. Does anyone remember that sulking photoshoot Pitt did in various American national parks post-divorce? This is that, but in space.

Beyond the brooding, this is a visually beautiful and ultimately hopeful film with some interesting things to say about the human condition and intergenerational mental-health issues. But for a film about exploring the fringes of the unknown, it’s sadly risk-averse. There’s a brilliant, understated epic in here somewhere, perhaps beneath all the overbearing narration.

“I’m alone, in space,” narrates Pitt. Yeah, mate, we can see that.

Ad Astra is playing everywhere.

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Birds of Passage
Guajira Peninsula, Colombia, the early ’70s: hoping to marry above his social standing, Wayuu tribesman Rapayet (José Acosta) gets rich quick selling marijuana to gringos, bringing wealth, power and inevitable tragedy upon his family.

This kind of story has been told many times before, but the potency of Birds of Passage is in the telling. Just about everything in this powerful, compelling drama directed by Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego (Embrace of the Serpent) feels fresh, free of stale gangster movie shorthand. In fact this hardly feels like a crime film at all.

Instead it’s a weighty and unpredictable drama about a way of life in turmoil, set amid a landscape of desert sands and rainforests, of wind and crashing waves punctuated with gunshots. It’s shot with the kind of dream-like fervour that makes seeing it in the cinema essential.

Birds of Passage is playing at Palace Nova Eastend

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Desperate to get away from his stifling life in the rice fields of Cambodia, 14-year-old Chakra (Sarm Heng) leaves his family and sets off to make some money. He’s told he’s headed for a factory job, he ends up a slave aboard a fishing trawler, working round the clock with no escape in sight.

This brutal drama by Australian writer-director Rodd Rathjen doesn’t mess around. It’s based on the real slavery epidemic in the Thai fishing industry, and the atmosphere is nightmarish, from the daily realities of life at sea to the quiet, devastating shots of the rusty trawler in the middle of a vast ocean.

The boys on these boats are submitted to beatings and psychological abuse. Escape is an impossibility. In the capable hands of Rathjen, who researched the topic rigorously, and lead actor Sarm Heng, who gives the film an emotional anchor, this is a thriller with amazing atmosphere and real-world heft.

Buoyancy is playing at Palace Nova Eastend.

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Twin Flower
In the desert hills of Sardinia two teenagers are on the run. Basim (Kallil Kone) is a refugee straight off the boat and headed north to seek asylum. Anna (Anastasiya Bogach) won’t say what she’s running from, but it appears to be following her. The two form a bond based on protection and care.

Twin Flower, one of the gems of the current Lavazza Italian Film Festival, finds its power in the unspoken. We know little of these characters’ backgrounds, and the incidents are few and relatively uneventful. Anna gets a job working for a florist with a shady past, while Basim plays homemaker. A handful of flashbacks unfold with bruising inevitability. But every gesture counts in the two leads’ tightly wound performances.

Kalill Kone in particular is a real talent, perhaps helped further by playing off his own lived experience. Both lead actors arrived in Italy illegally ¬– Bogach when she was a little girl, Kone just a few months before Twin Flower was shot. As topical as the refugee crisis may be, the real heart of the film is the way it bypasses the political to find a powerful emotional centre.

Twin Flower is playing at Palace Nova Eastend and Prospect as part of the Lavazza Italian Film Festival.

Watch a trailer.