The Screen Critic: A hit teen musical, a gripping wrestling saga and a drug-fuelled Aussie crime drama

Jan 19, 2024
Source: Angourie Rice in Mean Girls (Paramount); Zac Efron in The Iron Claw (A24); Alex Cameron in Boy Swallows Universe (Netflix).

With a spring in its step and a timely message to impart, Mean Girls is the bouncy, boisterous rebirth of the classic 2004 teen comedy that took the blowtorch to high-school cliques.

Based on the hit Broadway musical comedy, the film – already a huge hit – sees Australian actress Angourie Rice in the Lindsay Lohan role as Cady Heron, the awkward newcomer to a hip high school ruled by a trio of popular girls called The Plastics, lead by Regina George (Reneé Rapp).

Tasked by two outliers to infiltrate the group and make a fool of Regina, Cady succeeds too well, taking Regina’s place and running the danger of becoming the obnoxious prat she was trying to take down.

Along with all the energetically staged musical numbers, many of which are filmed in impressive continuous takes, writer Tina Fey (30 Rock) has done a swell job updating the setting for the social media age while preserving gags that have become legendary. Yes, “fetch” is still a thing.

What really makes the film click is its theme about the perils of making nasty, summary judgements about others, a valuable message that has landed at a time when making nasty, summary judgements about others appears to be the chief preoccupation of most people.

Fans of Zac Efron might take a few minutes before they recognize the former teen heartthrob in the excellent fact-based period sports drama The Iron Claw.

To play Kevin Von Erich, part of the legendary family of professional wrestlers, Efron trained for months to build his physique – and the transformation is truly remarkable, especially in the film’s many wrestling bouts. Most impressive, though, is his performance outside the ring as his family struggles for success while dealing with a series of tragedies that came to be known as The Von Erich Curse.

Both brutal and touching, the story keeps focus on the values that keep the family from crumbling. The ensemble includes Jeremy Allen White, so good in The Bear.

Chalk it up as a top-notch sports saga.

For kids, The Jungle Bunch 2: World Tour, is a snappy, fun-filled adventure from the colourful Jungle Bunch gang of critters who made their movie debut in 2017 with The Jungle Bunch, a film critics loathed but the public loved. (When will people learn?)

This sprightly sequel sees the gang embark on a mission to save their jungle home from being denuded of trees by an air-dropped chemical that disintegrates whatever it has landed on upon contact with water.

The purpose of the dastardly scheme is so the villain of the piece can get rich by selling the homeless animals portable pop-up shelters. The capitalist baddie is naturally played by a rodent. Pleasantly silly, the film moves briskly and keeps the gags coming at just the right pace to keep kids from getting too listless.

The much-ballyhooed, Brisbane-based seven- part Netflix mini-series Boy Swallows Universe has its moments, but it does ramble on and is spoiled somewhat by a dreadful final episode. Set in the early 1980s and based on the best- selling coming-of-age 2018 novel by Trent Dalton, Boy Swallows Universe follows the adventures of Eli Bell, a pre-pubescent teen boy who has to balance school with the challenges of a home life steeped in the drug trade.

His mum is a former smack addict, his dad is long-absent, and mum’s new partner is a cheery drug pusher. The elderly mentor to Eli is a gent called Slim (Bryan Brown), an ex-con. There is murder, kidnapping and plenty of swearing, along with scenes of domestic violence and torture. This is not family entertainment.

Boy Swallows Universe is really not all that entertaining, with Eli worried his mum will get back on the gear and keen to find out what happened to her mum’s boyfriend after he was taken away in the boot of a car.

The strong lead performance by Felix Cameron is the show’s main asset; he admirably carries the first five episodes. Opposite him for most of the time is the equally impressive Lee Tiger Halley, who plays his enigmatic brother Gus. Overall, however, Boy Swallows Universe is a meandering tale that is too long by at least two episodes.

And while episode six is dramatically the strongest, episode seven is just straight-out terrible as the story succumbs to a host of B- grade clichés.

It’s a pity, really. So many people were looking forward to this.

For more visit and @jimschembri on X for updates.

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