Although the roads leading in and out of the remote town of Neverest are largely empty, three strangers happen to converge dramatically on one barren stretch in Swerve's opening minutes, kicking off a twist-laden plot that pivots on a briefcase full of cash. Craig Lahiff's first film in a decade has shades of Jim Thompson or perhaps the Coen brothers, with its cynical portrait of selfish, backstabbing characters trying to outsmart each other in the pursuit of money. But such comparisons may suggest a dark wit underpinning the narrative, which is something Swerve distinctly lacks. All we have here are a collection of archetypal characters – an honest drifter, a corrupt cop, a femme fatale – and a story that relies heavily on sudden reversals. It feels very familiar.
Still, maybe we shouldn't demand too much of a thriller that runs for less than 90 minutes, and for most of its skimpy running time, Swerve holds the attention with its snappy pacing and good performances. In particular, Jason Clarke shines as the cop with a hair-trigger temper and murky past, while Emma Booth is as seductive and duplicitous as she needs to be in the film's only female part. Hanging around on the fringes of the narrative, Travis McMahon appears as an implacable killer determined to track down the loot, but his attempt to create a Chigurh-like figure founders on the actor's complete lack of menace. Swerve does deliver jolts of excitement around the film's key set-pieces, most of which Lahiff handles well, but things go awry during a laboured and contrived detour to an abandoned silver mine and the picture never really recovers from this deflating sequence. Ultimately, in a film that values plot over characterisation, we're never given a reason to care which members of this underdeveloped crew will eventually end up with their hands on the prize, and which of them will end up dead.
Elspeth Dickens (Laura Michelle Kelly) is the goddess of the title, and she gets a suitably grand entrance, with the camera sweeping towards her in a parody of The Sound of Music's opening shot. However, just as Elspeth is about to break into song, she has to run off and stop her hyperactive twin toddlers from getting into mischief. Thus, the conflicting aspects of Elspeth's life are presented to us immediately – on the one hand, she's a singer and artist desperate to share her voice with the world, but on the other hand she's a permanently harried and stressed mother of two, with a husband who's often absent. That husband is played by Ronan Keating, handling his acting debut with plenty of confidence and humour, but the standout turn here comes from Kelly. In fact, it's hard to imagine the film working as well with anyone else in the central role.
Kelly is empathetic, funny and charming both as the frustrated housewife and as the all-singing, all-dancing "goddess" she transforms into when the decision to broadcast her songs on a webcam turns her into an internet sensation. Director Mark Lamprell handles the frequent shifts between Elspeth's domestic travails and her musical fantasies in a fluid manner, developing an infectiously enjoyable rhythm, and the songs themselves are nicely varied. There's a Busby Berkley-esque number; a couple of slinky, Fosse-style productions; a neatly choreographed dance down the riverbank; and a big, inclusive number at the end. The different styles and tones Lamprell brings to these sequences keep the film feeling fresh throughout, and it makes it easy to forgive some of its minor flaws. The broad comedy doesn't always work – a frying pan to the face here, an accidental clash of heads there – and the film starts to drag a little towards the close as Elspeth and James' mundane marital crisis comes into focus. But for the most part, Goddess is a smart and entertaining picture that clicks together satisfyingly, and it's worth seeking out for Kelly's potentially star-making performance alone.
Any Questions for Ben?
Rob Sitch has written and directed two of the most beloved entries in the recent history of Australian film, The Castle and The Dish, but after a twelve-year absence from cinemas, his new film Any Questions for Ben? is a very different proposition. Gone is the smalltown charm of the earlier pictures, with this one taking place in Sydney and following the high-flying life of re-branding executive Ben (Josh Lawson). This is one of those pictures that gives us a guy who seems to have it all – Ben is young, handsome, wealthy, and he enjoys a spectacular social life, both with his group of firm friends and the conveyer belt of supermodels who share his bed – before it tries to convince us that such a life isn't all it's cracked up to be. Poor old Ben is starting to feel rather dissatisfied with his shallow, rootless existence, and he realises what's missing from his life when old school friend Alex (Rachael Taylor) comes back to town.
The rest of this absurdly bloated film basically consists of Ben foolishly procrastinating over telling Alex how he feels, with his dithering growing increasingly tiresome to watch. Sitch tries to liven proceedings up with an interminable series of rapidly edited montages set to an unimaginatively chosen soundtrack, but this fast and furious style doesn't really suit him, and these sequences only serve to pad out his underwritten narrative. Thankfully, the director's strengths are evident in other areas, most notably when the film settles down and allows the fine ensemble of character actors Sitch has assembled to step into the spotlight. Any Questions for Ben? is saved by some funny lines and a handful of exceptional supporting performances, with David James (Ben's awkwardly jovial boss), Felicity Ward (his straight-talking friend) and Lachy Hulme (his self-appointed mentor) taking the acting honours. There's also an appearance from Daniel Henshall, who is here playing the nicest guy in the world, and anyone who saw him last in the terrifying Snowtown may be as unnerved by his appearance as I was. No matter how jolly he seemed to be on screen, I kept expecting Henshall to reveal his dark side and start murdering his friends. To be fair, if he had ended up strangling Ben, I would have understood.
Following the recent Samson & Delilah, Toomelah is another film exploring the plight of Aboriginal communities in contemporary Australia, but Ivan Sen's film is something else entirely. There is no attempt made to smooth out the rough edges of this picture: the locations are real, the lighting is natural and the cast is made up of non-professionals playing roles not too far removed from their own experiences. Inevitably, this casting decision leads to some awkwardness and stiffness in the performances, with their evident discomfort (they often look directly at the camera) occasionally distracting from the story Sen is trying to tell. Nevertheless, as the film progresses we are gradually drawn into the world that Sen is showing us through the eyes of Daniel (Daniel Connors), a ferocious 10 year-old.
Daniel likes to act tough, beat up his fellow pupils at school and hang out with the local drug dealers, who treat him as an errand boy. His language (heavily accented and subtitled) is littered with "fucks" and "cunts", but that's just what he hears from every single person around him, and we are encouraged to wonder what kind of future lies ahead for Daniel when these adults are the only role models he has. Toomelah is a bleak and authentic portrait of a society where drugs, violence and crushing poverty dominate the lives of its inhabitants, but the director finds some beautifully human moments amid the wreckage, when Daniel stops playing gangster and briefly reverts to being a child. In Connors, he has found a young lead with a natural charisma and attitude that gives the film a fiery presence at its centre, and we do grow attached to him even as we watch him engage in such destructive behaviour. Ultimately, I have to say I admire Toomelah more for what it is attempting to do than I enjoyed the experience of watching it, but it is a commendable and thought-provoking piece of work.