Lion

Sometimes a real life story is so incredible that the urge to translate an epic against-the-odds tale into a film is impossible to resist. Unfortunately, not every such story lends itself to a big screen rendering, lacking the necessary ingredients to deliver a cinematic vision that is as captivating as the premise. Such is the case with Lion, a truly remarkable story about an Indian man adopted by an Australian couple as a young boy who sets out to reconnect with his birth mother some 20+ years later. It sounds like the perfect set-up for an action-packed movie; our protagonist scouring the length and breadth of India in a desperate search for his family. The problem is that most of the search takes place from the confines of an apartment in Melbourne, rather than on the bustling streets of Mumbai or the villages of rural India. It is an amazing tale, unbelievable almost, but the most engaging segment of the film is the opening section when five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar), having fallen asleep on a railway station bench while waiting for his older brother, wakes up and stumbles into a decommissioned train that takes him all the way to Calcutta. All alone and unable to speak bengali, Saroo finds himself lost and alone in Calcutta, thousands of miles from home. Eking out a pitiful existence on the streets, Saroo ultimately finds himself in an orphanage from where he is adopted by Australian couple Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham) Brierley.

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This opening 45 minutes or so are thoroughly engrossing as young Saroo struggles to understand just how lost he is and, with the potential for harm so prevalent, there is plenty of tension in this part of the story. In fact, it is very reminiscent of Slumdog Millionaire in that regard. It is when the narrative jumps forward to Australia that the momentum slows, sometimes to a glacial pace. Despite having experienced a happy, middle-class Australian childhood, an adult Saroo (Dev Patel) still yearns for a return to India and a reunion with his family, even though he has no real recollection of where he lived as a child. Encouraged by his university friends, which includes girlfriend-to-be Lucy (Rooney Mara), Saroo sets out on a quest to try and work it all out; basically just using the internet to gather information that may, or may not, assist him in his mission. Looking at Google Earth on a cinema screen is no more interesting than looking at it on a smart phone though, so it doesn’t make for particularly riveting viewing. When he eventually makes the vital breakthrough, it comes almost by accident, resulting in a somewhat anti-climactic conclusion to his search.

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To the credit of first-time feature director Garth Davis, working from a script by Luke Davies which was adapted from Saroo Brierley’s novel A Long Way Home, the film never becomes overly sentimental or melodramatic, but that may just be because the result of Saroo’s search is already known by those going to see the film, eliminating much of the suspense that would typically be embedded in such a story.  We see Saroo struggle with the conflict of cultures; the privilege of his life in Australia at odds with the poverty of his youth and he gets emotional support from Lucy, whose presence seems to be either an afterthought tacked into the story to add a layer of emotional heft, or a much larger role that has been whittled away to almost nothing in editing. It’s hard to tell which but, either way, Rooney’s considerable talents are wasted on a character that has very little to do.

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It is no secret that both Kidman and Patel (seemingly the go-to man for any role requiring an Indian male under 30) have secured Academy Award nominations for their roles and one can’t help but feel that maybe that is more to do with the lobbying efforts of executive producer Harvey Weinstein as much as anything else. Sure, both deliver fine performances, but the real standout is Pawar, the first-time performer plucked from the slums of Mumbai to play the young Saroo. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with Lion; the cinematography from Greig Fraser (Rogue One) is gorgeous and the music score from Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran is a sonic delight, but I just can’t help but feel that there was a more cinematic story to be told here, perhaps the search for Saroo from the perspective of his mother.

The Edge of Seventeen

If you grew up in the 1980s, John Hughes probably played a significant role in both your film viewing experiences and in the development of your personal sense of self. Like nobody else before him, Hughes created teenage characters that seemed real and with whom the target audience could relate. His films (Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) were so effective at capturing the realities of the youth experience for so many people that he remains a revered figure today. I mean, I find it hard to remember things that happened last week, but I still vividly recall every moment from the The Breakfast Club, which is something I can’t say about many other films. Since then, too many teen films have simply been an orgy of sex, booze and debauchery; provocative rather than personal and lacking insight into the emotional and psychological maelstrom that comes with being a teenager.

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With a mix of biting humour and angst-filled moments, The Edge of Seventeen emerges as a teen dramedy very much in the Hughes mould, with myriad moments that are relatable to anybody struggling to forge their own identity and find their place in the ruthless, pressure-cooker world that is high school. Written and directed by Kelly Fremon, The Edge of Seventeen is a smart, sassy exploration of a particular type of teenage experience, that of somebody who struggles to find their place within the established social order. Of course, not every teenager is an outsider with few friends, but there are certainly plenty who will be able to relate to Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) and her feeling of disconnection. Despite being smart and attractive (if not necessarily mature), most days are miserable for Nadine, a social outcast who spends more time with her teacher than she does with anybody else during the course of her school day. At home, her brother Darian (Blake Jenner) is the golden child in the eyes of her frazzled widowed mother (Kyra Sedgwick) and when her bestie Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) embarks on romantic relationship with Darian, Nadine is apoplectic and cast asides the lifelong friendship, sending her into a spiral of self-loathing.

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There is so much to like about this film. From Steinfeld’s performance, to the inclusion of an Asian love interest whilst avoiding any of the cultural clichés that usually abound in such instances, to the positive portrayal of the teaching profession through Woody Harrelson’s Mr Bruner. Even Hughes was guilty of demonising teachers with Paul Gleason’s somewhat despicable Richard Vernon in Breakfast Club, and there hasn’t been much improvement since (Bad Teacher, Election), but Bruner is everything a teacher should be; he doesn’t take himself too seriously and he takes an interest in the lives of his students beyond the delivery of curriculum. After all, how can you teach them if you don’t know them? Whilst Bruner is sympathetic to Nadine’s struggle to fit in, he does not pander to her melodramatic histrionics. He treats her with respect and advice proffered is served with a good dollop of sardonic wit. Needless to say, Bruner is exactly the type of teacher we need more of and exactly the type of teacher that education authorities (here in Queensland at least) would deem unsuitable.

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Steinfeld is marvellous as a young woman who is a mass of contradictions. She is intelligent and confident yet deeply insecure, cynical yet hopelessly romantic and well-spoken yet prone to outbursts of swearing. In essence, she is a typical teenager whose mood can fluctuate from happy-go-lucky to miserable in the merest of moments. Her feeling of betrayal is understandable given that Darian is already revered by all and sundry and Krista is her only friend and has been since they were very young. As such, the blossoming relationship between Darian and Krista only serves as a daily reminder of just how isolated Nadine is from the world around her. Feeling a sense of abandonment and betrayal, she turns to the laid-back Bruner as a sounding board for her myriad insecurities and the interplay between these two is terrific. An insightfully scripted coming-of-age comedy, The Edge of Seventeen is a remarkably assured directorial debut that delivers a fresh, incisive, powerful, poignant and amusingly precise depiction of the emotional rollercoaster that is life as a teenager.

Passengers

A holiday release schedule makes perfect sense for Passengers because this is a foray into science fiction that, whilst lacking logic, doesn’t seem to expect to be taken too seriously. It is a film that is visually impressive and entertaining enough while you are watching it, but pretty appalling in its message even with the most rudimentary analysis of what transpires. Set aboard the Avalon, a spaceship transporting 5000 hibernating passengers to the colony planet Homestead 2, the marketing material for Passengers posits the film firmly as a romance (which it most definitely is) without revealing exactly how our two protagonists come to be the only conscious inhabitants of the ship, and this is the most (perhaps only) interesting part. Certainly, it adds an extra dimension to the relationship that develops between Jim Preston (Christopher Pratt) and Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), raising moral and ethical questions that are never really explored with the depth that could have made this a much more engaging experience.

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When the Avalon goes through a meteor shower and is struck, a malfunction of increasing magnitude is set into motion, the first consequence of which is that Jim’s hibernation pod opens and he finds himself awakened after just 30 years in space, with the Avalon not scheduled to reach Homestead 2 for another 90 years. He spends the first few months exploring the ship and unsuccessfully looking for ways to reactivate his pod but, with only an android bartender named Arthur (Michael Sheen) to keep him company, Jim finds himself lonely and bored after a year, despite having access to all of the services, equipment and facilities (to cater to the ship’s inhabitants during a four-month period of acclimatisation prior to arrival at Homestead 2) that the ship has to offer. Whilst the real motivation for what Jim does next seems to be the fact that he is horny as hell, director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) and screenwriter John Spaihts expect us to believe that his actions spurn from something far less unsavoury. Able to access passenger information, Jim delves into the life of Aurora, a writer and fellow émigré who remains safely ensconced in her pod until Jim decides to wake her up. The fact that he doesn’t choose somebody who might be of more practical use in identifying what went wrong with the ship and rectifying it tells us all we need to know about why he chooses Aurora. Needless to say, it isn’t too long before the pair are frantically fucking and falling in love; and it is somewhat troubling that Lawrence – one of the few actresses who seem to possess some genuine clout in Hollywood – would take on a character that is such a sexist construct.

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Tensions flair when Aurora finds out that it was Jim, and not a fault with the ship, that brought her out of hibernation, but apparently somebody (an attractive white male specifically) can prove themselves worthy of love and forgiveness despite such an act of extreme selfishness. The fact that Aurora, when faced with the opportunity to return to hibernation, chooses to remain and live out the rest of her life on the ship with Jim, defies belief. I mean, sure the ship offers the best of everything – state-of-the-art basketball court, dance floor, cinema, restaurants with robot waiters, luxury suites, limitless booze and an infinity pool that provides some of the more impressive visual moments – but it is hard to imagine how Jim could possibly redeem himself in light of his despicable actions and we certainly don’t see anything that helps us understand exactly why she would sacrifice a future on Homestead 2 or back on Earth to remain with him.

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For two performers who typically exude considerable charisma, there is a distinct lack of chemistry here between Pratt and Lawrence and when Laurence Fishburne makes an appearance as a member of the crew who is also roused from hibernation by the system meltdown, you can’t help but feel as though his terminal medical diagnosis comes as a relief when the alternative would be a lifetime with these two. Those prepared to overlook the inherent sexism of the piece will probably find Passengers quite enjoyable and there is enormous potential for something really interesting here, but unfortunately the end result is something quite contrived that fails to fully realise the potential of the premise.

Jackie

If Natalie Portman doesn’t win the Best Actress gong at the Academy Awards this year for her performance as former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, then the system by which such awards are decided is very clearly broken. It is Portman’s performance that makes this film such a spellbinding work of art. Yes, the costumes are fabulous and the digital trickery used to place Portman’ Kennedy in various historical moments – such as a televised tour of the White House that the real Jackie Kennedy hosted two years before her husband’s assassination in Dallas – is impressive and the attention to detail (from blood stains and bruises to the set design and the historical recreations) is splendid, but everything and everybody pales in comparison to Portman’s remarkable turn as an intensely reserved woman who is pushed to the limits as she juggles her responsibilities to her husband, her family and her country.

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Much like the real-life figure she is portraying, Portman possesses an overpowering beauty that Chilean director Pablo Larrain uses to great effect in illustrating the galvanising effect Kennedy had on those around her. She could be charming and chilling in equal measure, and refused to let anybody tell her what she should do when it came to organising a public farewell for her husband. Yes, she took advice from the likes of brother-in-law and friend Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), but ultimately it would be her decision, despite security concerns, to deliver a spectacle the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the death of Abraham Lincoln almost 100 years earlier. Portman nails the breathy voice, meticulous posture and steely determination with such precision that any absence of a physical resemblance between the actress and Kennedy is easily forgiven (although it must be said that Portman does bear a resemblance to Kennedy that is far greater than we have seen in other celluloid portrayals of real-life figures). In a meticulously nuanced performance, Portman never presents as somebody simply trying to imitate another.

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By focussing his film (from a screenplay by Noah Oppenheim) on a very particular period in Kennedy’s life, Larrain avoids the biopic quandary of deciding how much to leave out. This is not an examination of Kennedy’s life, it is an exploration of grief and personal tragedy being played out under intense public scrutiny and Larrain is able to deliver a much fuller picture of this specific period than any standard biographical drama ever could. Yes, we do see the tragedy in Texas unfold, but much of what we learn about Jackie is via conversations with various individuals, the most significant of which is an interview with a journalist (Billy Crudup) that sees Jackie portrayed as calculating and controlling in her desire to protect her own legacy and that of her husband. Jackie knows that her husband was far from perfect, but she will not have his reputation sullied. Conducted just a week or so after JFK’s death, Jackie taunts Crudup’s unnamed interviewer (widely accepted to be Theodore White of Life magazine who was summoned by Jackie to the Kennedy compound) with snippets of her true self, only to declare immediately afterwards that she will never let him publish anything remotely compromising.

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More intimate conversations ensue between Jackie and a Catholic priest (John Hurt), while a very fine Greta Gerwig provides both emotional and practical support as social secretary Nancy Tuckerman. But, are the fleeting, wrenching displays of grief simply a cynical con job? It is Portman’s meticulous, provocative and unsentimental embodiment of this iconic character from the annals of American political history that make it impossible to know for sure. Gifted a great screenplay from Oppenheim and an uncompromising vision from a director renowned for his ability to present a feature as though it is a documentary, Portman delivers a performance that trumps her Oscar-winning turn in Black Swan and might just – if there is any justice in this world – result in her second gold statuette.

 

Allied

Despite its WW2 setting, Allied is first and foremost a romance in which two beautiful people in beautiful costumes kill some Nazis and fall in love. Directed by Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump), this old-fashioned spy caper is well made and looks lovely, yet it somehow fails to resonate. The problem is that the romantic drama, in which our two lovebirds find themselves caught in an impossible situation, dilutes the effectiveness of the film as a spy thriller and it is perhaps the lack of chemistry between the two leads that is to blame. Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard are both polished performers and Cotillard, in particular, has proven herself to be an actor with remarkable range, but given how much this couple are supposed to love each other, there is a distinct lack of passion beyond a somewhat comical sex scene in a car amid a sand storm in the Moroccan desert.

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It is in Morocco where Canadian paratrooper Max Vatan (Pitt) joins forces with Marianne Beauséjour (Cotillard), a member of the French Resistance, with a mission to assassinate the German Ambassador in Casablanca. To infiltrate the inner circle of the German social and military establishment in Casablanca, Max and Marianne pose as a married couple in a bid to secure an invitation to an event at which the ambassador will be appearing. At the completion of their mission which, of course, doesn’t go exactly to plan, Max suggests that Marianne join him in London as his wife. A year later, the couple are living happily in London with Marianne heavily pregnant. In another hackneyed scene, Marianne is evacuated from the hospital and forced to give birth outside as air raids bombard the city. Soon after, Max is summoned to a meeting in which he learns that Marianne is suspected of being a German spy. Max is ordered to set a trap for Marianne with explicit instructions to kill her should the suspicions be confirmed. With heavy clouds of distrust hovering over the relationship, Max finds himself torn between his love for Marianne and the obligations of his position.

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In a scenario that should generate plenty of tension, there is surprisingly very little. Sure, Marianne is very likeable and the thought of her being executed just because she maybe hasn’t been entirely honest with husband (just like every other wife who has ever walked the earth) might be a little unsettling for some, but ultimately you never really become invested enough in either character to really care too much what the truth may be. Even if she is a spy, why is Max the one who has to terminate her? What about a trial? Nope, that doesn’t make for riveting cinema apparently. This isn’t a terrible film, but nor is it particularly memorable in any way. It is very easy to get caught up in the glamour of it all and forget that there is something potentially tragic playing out. Regardless of how it ends, the seeds of suspicion have been planted and the relationship between Max and Marianne will never be the same.

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The movie looks great and the opening scene of Max parachuting into Morocco is hypnotically beautiful, while Cotillard is coiffured as a stylized studio-era starlet with access to a seemingly endless array of frocks, hats, coats and suits. Zemeckis has made more ambitious films and has helmed some of the most ground breaking productions to come out of Hollywood, such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit and The Polar Express. As such, Allied might be his most conventional film yet, drawing on the traditions of the past to make something that is instantly recognisable but doesn’t, unfortunately, have anything new to say. The strong supporting cast includes Matthew Goode, Simon McBurney and Jared Harris, with Lizzy Caplan criminally underused as Max’s sister. A pleasant enough way to spend a couple of hours, but don’t expect Allied to linger long after the credits have rolled.

Paterson

With a title that is both the name of the central character and the New Jersey city in which he lives, this latest offering from indie darling Jim Jarmusch is about a man who wakes at the same time every morning, walks to work, spends his day driving a bus, returns home to his wife before taking the dog for a walk each evening, making a stopover at a local bar along the way. That is literally what happens in Paterson over and over again as we follow Paterson (Adam Driver) of Paterson, New Jersey as he undertakes the same routine each day over the course of a week, accompanied by a voice-over of Paterson reciting the poems he drafts in the notebook that he is rarely without. You see, Paterson is a quiet guy and his poetry presents him with an opportunity to express emotions and observations of the world around him. It seems very simple, or simplistic perhaps, but Driver delivers such a subtly charismatic performance as the idiosyncratic Paterson that there is something quite delightful in watching him go about his day. A devotee of modernist poet William Carlos Williams, Paterson draws upon the unlikeliest inspirations for his writing, from a box of matches to the inane conversations heard on the bus each day.

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Jarmusch has an eclectic body of work behind him (Night on Earth, Dead Man, Broken Flowers and the recent Only Lovers Left Alive amongst them) and has established a solid fan base for his unconventional characters and the worlds in which they live. Esteemed film critic Roger Ebert once declared that ‘there is a deep embedding of comedy, nostalgia, shabby sadness and visual beauty’ in Jarmusch’s films and that is very much the case with Paterson. There is both comedy and sadness embedded within the monotony of Paterson’s daily routine, usually at the exact same time; from the awkward, stilted conversations between Paterson and his supervisor Donny (Rizwan Manji), to the braggadocio of two bus passengers or Paterson’s quiet submission to the latest idea from his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) that will inevitably cost him money. There is no doubt that Paterson is very much in love with his wife, yet he still feels the need to escape her high energy, eminently optimistic outlook on life with his nightly visits to the bar where he has one beer and where conversation with bartender Doc (Barry Henley) invariably revolves around the Wall of Fame (featuring Lou Costello and other local luminaries) that adorns a wall behind the bar.

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Farahani, the daughter of Iranian filmmaker Behzad Farahani, is terrific as Laura, a vivacious, somewhat whimsical but utterly devoted wife who spends her days baking cupcakes, decorating the house with black and white patterns or embarking on her latest flight of fancy to be a country and music star. Having been banned from leaving Iran at one stage after starring in Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies, Farahani has since featured in several films in Europe and America, including Rosewater and Exodus: Gods and Kings. Here, she takes a character that could very easily be annoying and insufferable and makes her into somebody who is simultaneously sweet and sexy.

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The cinematography from Frederick Elmes presents the city of Paterson as a quiet, contemplative place and every frame is beautifully rendered. It is fantastic to see characters living in a house that actually reflects the reality of their social status. Too often, characters supposedly entrenched in the working class reside in residences that suggest an altogether different reality, but in Paterson everything looks exactly as you might expect for the couple at the centre of the story. The poems were written by Ron Padgett, a poet influenced by Williams and others such as Allen Ginsberg and whilst the voice-over and accompanying on-screen text seems a little pretentious at first, you soon find yourself desperate to discover more of Paterson’s writing. There is nothing special about Paterson the person or Paterson the city, but Paterson the movie is a sheer delight. Beautifully articulated by those on both sides of the camera, Paterson is a quiet, contemplative, moving piece of cinema.

Top Ten Time Again

Now that 2016 is over, it is time to look back at the movies of the last 12 months and identify the most memorable big screen releases.  Of course, lists such as this flood the internet, newspapers and magazines, although many of these cannot be taken seriously because they are published well before the end of the year. My last cinema visit in 2016 came on the last day of the year, so to have already published a ‘Best of’ list before that would be disingenuous.

I realise that many such lists are meaningless and often put together by people who are servants to personal preferences, a particular political/social ideology or industry influences, so a list such as mine should come as welcome relief because it is devoid of influence from any individual, organisation or ideological framework. It is derived purely from the truth of the viewing experience and the quality of the product that has been presented on screen.

Like every other person who compiles such lists, I haven’t seen every film released this year so this list is drawn from the movies that I have seen in cinemas in 2016 (regardless of when they were initially released). New releases, festival screenings, re-releases, previews or retrospectives; if I saw it in a cinema in 2016, it is eligible for inclusion in this list. Films viewed on DVD, television or via streaming or online platforms are most definitely not considered.

This list is compiled using the reviews and ratings that I posted on Letterboxd in the days following each screening. Given that there will be many movies with the same or similar ratings, I also take into account the way in which a film has continued to resonate with me long after I saw it, which always suggests that there is something particularly prescient or powerful about a particular production.

Ultimately, my list cannot be any more or less ‘correct’ than anybody else’s, but it is probably more genuine than most. However, the reality is that there are some movies that are just so good that they simply cannot be overlooked or ignored.

The films are not ranked in any particular order as all of the films listed in this group of ten are outstanding and attempting to narrow the order into some kind of sequential evaluation of merit seems a little pointless. They are all excellent and they all deserve to be celebrated and admired.

Only films viewed in a cinema by me in 2016 have been considered. Release dates are irrelevant and should never be considered for such lists. This is about the best movies I saw in a cinema in the last 12 months. It also, obviously, precludes any films released in 2016 that I am yet to see.

So, my Top Ten movies of 2016 (in no particular order) are:

Victoria

I Smile Back

Mustang

I, Daniel Blake

The Neon Demon

La La Land

The Revenant

Room

Spotlight

Nocturnal Animals

Of course, these are not the only great movies released this year and there are plenty more for which justification for inclusion could easily be mounted. The compilation of such a list necessitates the absence of some very good films to arrive at a final ten.  Therefore, here are a few others worthy of mention that could quite easily have been included as one of the final ten given their all-round quality:

The Hateful Eight

Midnight Special

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Hail Caesar

Arrival

Paterson

Everybody Wants Some

A Perfect Day

With the good comes the bad and, as was the case last year, there is a standout candidate for the worst movie of the year.  Alex Proyas’ Gods of Egypt was awful in almost every way imaginable and was easily my most unpleasant movie viewing experience of the last 12 months . Other particularly distasteful cinema visits last year included Suicide Squad, Now You See Me 2 and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates.

Overall though, it was another good year for movie viewing in 2016 (or maybe I just made the right choices) and with new cinemas popping up and existing complexes being expanded, there is obviously plenty of confidence in the longevity of the motion picture industry.  The number of films not securing a cinematic release in Brisbane, or being confined to festival screenings only, remains a frustration but there is plenty of variety on offer most weeks on local screens for those willing to seek it out.