NZ Herald’s top ten of 2019 so far

No review this week.  Instead, have a gander at NZ Herald’s top ten of 2019 so far.  It’s been slim pickings for the first half of the year and there was much gnashing of teeth at TimeOut’s golden towers as we settled on this list.  But at least I managed to convince my fellow compadres of Beale Street and Destroyer.  If I was supreme overlord of editorial decision-making then I’d have also swapped out a couple for Everybody Knows and Colette … but hey, I’m not complaining or anything. Check out our write-ups on the Herald website here.

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Sometimes Always Never

Sam Riley (left) and Bill Nighy (right) star in Sometimes Always NeverIn his debut feature, director Carl Hunter has embraced a very British vibe with this low-key dramedy about a missing person, a mourning father, and, umm, Scrabble. And what better person to play its mainstay—an unconventional Scrabble-obsessed tailor—than the inimitable Bill Nighy. Like him or not (and for the record, I like him), he plays these kinds of roles with aplomb.

Alan (Nighy) pines for his missing son who walked out after a heated game of scrabble, mysteriously never to be seen again. Although the film doesn’t clarify when the disappearance occurred, it’s still fresh enough for Alan to clutch onto unrealistic hopes of his return—much to the chagrin of his other son Peter (Sam Riley from Control) who wishes he’d just move on with his life.  However, some fresh evidence leads to a road trip that forces the two to reflect on their own relationship.

Although the “prodigal son” trope is a well-worn one, it does provide this tale with a solid bounding-board from which to launch its character study. And as the father/son dynamics play out, the two find themselves in some very comical situations— most notably, Alan, who hustles another grieving dad (wonderfully played by Tim McInnerny) out of 200 pounds over a game of (yes) Scrabble.

The camera-work is wall-hangingly beautiful, each shot being carefully framed with a lush pallet that sings loudly the film’s whimsical sensibilities.  However, cinematographer Richard Stoddard might’ve pushed the boat out too far with a style that doesn’t quite match the substance.  Pretty to look at, yes, but Frank Cottrell Boyce’s comparatively pallid screenplay is worse off for the distraction. That said, the usually sombre Boyce, who penned the surprisingly dark AA Milne biopic, Goodbye Christopher Robin, has thankfully lightened up and laced this film with some fairly quick-witted comedy—it’s a perfect fit for Nighy whose dry delivery seems to delight in soaking up Boyce’s more gloomy tendencies. 

Sometimes Always Never is a quintessentially British film; a damp slice of seaside village life, often ponderous and offbeat (perhaps to a fault, depending on your tolerance) but curiously endearing.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

Never Look Away

nlaThe regally named Writer/Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (who hit a career-high with the Oscar-winning The Lives of Others), has helmed an ambitious project that examines the opaque world that lies between art and its creation. Such is an artist’s modus operandi, this film follows suit by placing meaning tantalisingly just beyond reach and invites you to plum the depths of an artist’s life to find it.  Yes, watching this movie is as much a frustrating experience as it is a cathartic one.

The three-hour-plus running time gives Von Donnersmarck plenty of wriggle room for a deep dive into this lengthy tale. It begins with Kurt Barnert (wistfully played in his later years by Tom Schilling) as a wide-eyed impressionable boy staring in awe at an art exhibition in pre-war Nazi Germany. His deep connection with what the Nazis considered “degenerate” art frustrate his vocation as an artist, especially later on when his home falls under the equally stifling Stalinist Communist regime. Finally escaping to the liberal freedom of Germany’s West, Kurt’s artistic sensibilities are thrown into further disarray as he comes to terms with an immense cultural shift.  As the film slowly unfolds, it suggests that only by reconciling his past with his present can Kurt discover his own artistic voice. 

Never Look Away is an alluring film that blends exquisitely framed visuals with Max Richter’s (Shutter Island) haunting score. However, if you’re looking for the clipped precision of Von Donnersmarck’s Oscar-winning effort, you won’t find it here. The German Director has undone his top button and gone for a looser, more contemplative approach that encourages you to rummage around the tapestries of its oblique ideas and provocative ambiguities for meaning.

Those wanting clean lines of exposition might find this film a frustrating watch. It does occasionally riff heavily on the pained artist routine and is hampered by some moments of pretentiousness and trite sentimentality.  But if you check your cynicism at the door and stick with it, you will be rewarded by a film that is ultimately a sublime experience. 

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

Asterix: The Secret of the Magic Potion

asterix1If you’ve been into any local library recently you’d most likely have seen an empty section on the shelf where the Asterix books normally sit. Such is the popularity of the moustachioed hero and his oafy side-kick that they’ve been flying off the shelves since the sixties.

Animated versions of the French comic are nothing new, having spawned multiple efforts with varying quality (including the awful, but oddly popular Gérard Depardieu live-action renditions). Here, writer/director Alexandre Astier is ably assisted by Louis Clichy who boasts animation credits on Wall-E and Up. It’s a second time around for the duo who commanded Asterix’s first foray into the world of CG-animation with 2014’s Asterix: Mansion of the Gods. The results are, unsurprisingly, similar here.

This film sees an injured Druid Getafix deciding it is time to search for a worthy replacement—someone he can entrust with the recipe of his magic potion that keeps the village safe. The future security of their village hangs in the balance as Asterix and Obelix head-up the search. It’s a simple story that works as a parable of our times; read deeply and you might find it emblematic of Brexit, Trumpism, climate change or other current miseries that threaten our “global” village. But most likely its a simple nod to the recent retirement of Uderzo (Asterix’s co-creator) and the successful search for his successor. Indeed, replacements Ferri and Conrad have rekindled the original magic that this film represents.

The animation is surprisingly agile and while not Pixar grade it visually captures the warmth and feel of the comics. There are faults though; the dubbed voices do take some adjusting to—American accents never quite match my mind’s ear of how residents of a little Gaulish village should sound (dedicated fans will do well to hunt out a subtitled showing wherever possible); and the film trips over an overly fanciful final act that departs from the feel of its source material. Nonetheless, there are still plenty of village brawls, confused Romans, roast boar and an off-tune bard. It’s all fairly lightweight fun, full of nostalgia for the older fans and plenty of slapstick giggles for the young’uns.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

tmwkdqIt’s been three decades in the making but Terry Gilliam has finally done it! For so long, the spectre of cinematic death has loomed large over his project but the fact that The Man Who Killed Don Quixote has been released at all represents a marvel of Directorial tenacity. It certainly was an ambitious assignment, made more so by some spectacular bad luck; illness, floods, financial difficulties and a number of other studio ailments. But finally it’s here and it’s wonderful to see Gilliam having the last laugh…. even if his film isn’t very good.

Quixote is unmistakably a Gilliam film, popping and fizzing with the ex-Python’s eccentric grandeur. A testament to its lengthy gestation, the film runs the stylistic gamut of his back-catalogue; breathing the leathery pungency of Time Bandits, the derailed loopiness of Brazil and the woozy nausea of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

The story (confused as it is), operates as a fevered auto-biopic of a Director’s arm-wrestle with his art. Adam Driver plays Toby, an aspiring feature Director who has been put out to pasture on a diet of advertising work. Cynical of his vocation and struggling for motivation, he relives his past through a chance job located in rural Spain where his career began. The film blurs the lines between reality and fantasy as he reconnects with a village cobbler who thinks he is the famed Don Quixote de la Mancha (played by the wonderful Jonathan Pryce). Toby’s flirtation with Quixote’s delusions leads them both down a comical path of madness and redemption.

Quixote’s grand visual style is undoubtedly mesmerising, but unfortunately the writing bloats a production already struggling to support the weight of its troubled past, unduly hampering it with swathes of incoherence too bothersome to wade through. Indeed, when Driver exclaims midway through the film “This is insane!”, I think he might’ve mistaken his line for a margin note. Alas, Gilliam has clearly suffered from his lengthy stare down this production’s endless rabbit hole. And despite periods of biting comedy and some delightful old-school production heft, this is a project that would’ve been better to have died on the vine.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

Poms

poms
If her recent roles are any indication, Diane Keaton (Bookclub, 5 Flights Up) is mining a comfy retirement plan by seemingly accepting any “senior-age-dependent” parts offered. She’s a busy woman and now you can add Poms to the list. It’s a Retirement Village comedy that pits an elderly group against the youthful sport of cheerleading. Think The Full Monty, or the more recent Swimming with Men for the aged. However, before you dismiss this as dreary sentimental dross laced with cheap incontinence gags you might want to put down your knitting and push up your bifocals—Poms is better than that.

Sure, Poms does lean into a fair amount of cheap humour and sentimental cringe; it doesn’t hold back on body humour or avoid revelling in its many silly situations. But it’s far from the cream pie face-splat that the trailer might lead you to believe. It is at times disarmingly delightful.

Essentially a buddy flick, the film centres on Martha (Keaton), who has terminal cancer and wants to see out her final years in the tranquility of Sun Springs Retirement Village. However, her serenity is rocked by the effervescent Sheryl (Jacki Weaver) whose boundless energy sparks an awakening in Martha. And so, against all odds, the Sun Springs Retirement Community Cheerleading Squad is born.

Branching out from her documentarian roots, Writer/Director Zara Hayes has played it safe, employing a very formulaic approach to this fist-pumping triumph-over-adversity tale. Her effort at corralling an ensemble cast and navigating them through a minefield of banal comedy and saccharin vibes produces mixed results. But high water-marks are provided by Celia Weston as the overbearing village President and Charlie Tahan as the endearing teen who lives with his grandmother.

To reiterate; there are many corny moments that some will find irksome and it certainly won’t make you dust off the ol’ cheerleading kit. But on the whole, one can’t deny Poms has a life-affirming quality and an emotionally charged finish that’ll have you leaving the theatre on a high.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir

tejotfGiven the world’s recent refugee crisis, it is surprising how few films on the topic have hit the big screen.  Journey goes some way to rectify this with a lighthearted story about an Indian tourist who, through the fickle finger of fate, is mistaken for a refugee. 

Built on a series of flashbacks, Aja (played by Dhanush) recounts his tale of woe and misfortune to three young delinquents. Guided by Dhanush’s warm-hearted voiceover, Aja rises from the Mumbai slums in search of his estranged father, making his way to Paris only to be swept away by love and an ill-fated nap in the wrong place.  As the title suggests, it becomes an extraordinary adventure that takes him via planes, trucks, ships and hot air balloons across Europe and Northern Africa.

Liberally drizzled with glugs of whimsy and twee, Journey mixes magical realism with deadpan comedy to give a visually lush film that unashamedly borrows heavily from (among others) Slumdog Millionaire. However, it never achieves the same level of depth and polish, operating instead in fits and starts and frenetically shifting gears through an array of emotions.

At a modest ninety-two minutes, it’s almost impossible to do Aja’s many encounters justice. Beholden to Romain Puértolas’ best selling book, the screenwriters felt it necessary to not leave anything out. The shoe-horning in of its many parts is a gamble that doesn’t quite pay-off, resulting in a retelling potholed with more tonal disparity than Dominion Road during roadwork season. Ben Miller (Paddington 2) for instance, appears in a bizarre cabaret styled cameo, and Bérénice Bejo’s (The Artist) odd love triangle feels like a head-scratching after-thought. 

And yet, there is a radiant warmth emanating from Journey‘s lead performance. Dhanush adds a sense of restorative sincerity to a production that often feels too overstuffed for its own good. This, coupled with a well-meaning subtext about the displacement and dehumanisation of refugees, and you have a movie that does eventually deliver its parcel by the final act—even if it is tenuously wrapped.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

Where Hands Touch

whtWhen a film opens with a quote from James Baldwin you know you’re in for a racially charged examination of life. It’s a shame then, that this tale of extreme prejudice gets neutered by a Director who appears to have tripped on her own artifice.

English Writer/Director Amma Asante, who warmed us with the interracial story of A United Kingdom and explored to great effect similar themes in the sweeping period drama Belle, keeps things safely within her wheelhouse here. As is Asante’s inclination, Where Hands Touch examines again how a dominant group reacts to a minority presence. And again, to the backdrop of a budding romance. And (yes, again) tells a story that is “inspired” by historical events—an adjective that allows Asante to play fast and loose with the truth.

Thankfully, the “inspired” bones that this tale is built on make for an intriguing premise. Leyna (the excellent Amandla Stenberg from The Hate You Give) is a bi-racial teenager living in Nazi-ruled-Germany at a time when Hitler’s Aryan regime is in full swing. Her mother, played by Abbie Cornish (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri), is painfully aware of how Leyna’s African features stand out, and is determined to hide her away from the brutal Nazi regime. But when Leyna falls for a German soldier, Lutz (George MacKay from Captain Fantastic), the courtship puts both their lives at risk.

The two leads make an earnest but engaging love-struck pair and their performances quietly resonate the frustrations of forbidden love.  However, they are contrasted by a supporting cast that feel jarringly stilted by comparison.  Patchy acting, questionable accents and a clunky screenplay that tamely wends its way down a lazy-river of fawning predictability further hamper a film that screams for the authenticity and inventiveness of Asante’s previous Directorial outings.

Credit to Asante for reminding us that there are still plenty of stories from this era that have yet to be told … they just need to be told better than this.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

Shazam!

shazamTry as it might, DC’s cinematic universe has always struggled to escape the orbit of its own sobriety. Aquaman tried but his watery gags floated like unflushable turds. Wonder Woman gave a sideways glance at levity but got bogged down in its own cause, and the rest have all fallen cringe-fully flat. Shazam! at least goes some way to rectify matters with an origins story that has an eighties blockbuster charm, bringing welcome relief from The Joker’s ironic DC catch-cry “why so serious?”

Drawing heavily on the “who were my parents” superhero trope, fourteen-year-old Billy (played by newcomer Asher Angel) is on his third foster home. When he is mysteriously swept into another realm, he reluctantly takes on the mantle as the world’s guardian against the seven deadly sins—whereby he can transform in and out of a fully grown muscle-bound superhero (played by Zachary Levi) simply by uttering the name “Shazam”. Unsurprisingly, the film develops rather quickly into a “with great power comes great responsibility” tale; a well-worn shtick that you could hang any superhero story on. 

But things get interesting in the dynamic between Billy and his foster-brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). The two go on a rampage of hilarious hijinks as they goofily skylark about town, discovering Billy’s newfound powers. Again, not the most original idea, but here it is presented with the unbridled joy of two teens who have just found the keys to their parent’s liquor cabinet.

Mark Strong brings his usual clipped vocal gravitas to the obligatory power-hungry villain. He has a warped version of Billy’s parentless upbringing, but beyond that tiny nugget of character depth Strong’s role is fairly undemanding, the kind of role that any actor with a semblance of screen-presence could phone in. Indeed, he does just that.

Throw in plenty of punchsplosions along with an effects-laden finale and you have a DC flick that’s more enjoyable than most of its predecessors. Shazam!, like the ridiculousness of its name, never takes itself too seriously. It’s a sugar rush of a film, great while it lasts but has you plummeting off the high soon afterwards.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

Dumbo

DumboThe circus has long been a home for stories about the downtrodden and marginalised who find commonality under one canvas roof. Here Director Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands) has put his own spin on the well-worn trope and remade a fresh version of Disney’s beloved animated classic.

That said, there is plenty to recognise Dumbo as a typical circus tale. The main character is a one-armed war-vet-come-circus-hand (an eyebrow-slanting Colin Farrell), who along with his two children care for an impossibly cute baby elephant with unfeasibly large ears.  So large in fact, that Dumbo’s airborne antics (yes, he learns to fly) catch the eye of a rival entrepreneur whose nefarious plans threaten to permanently separate Dumbo from his mother.

Perfectly cast, Dumbo reunites its Director with Batman stalwarts Michael Keaton (Beetlejuice), who plays a deliciously silver-tongued theme-park owner and Danny DeVito (Batman Returns), a spherically shaped ring-master. Also from the Burton alumni is Eva Green (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children), a trapeze artist sympathetic to Dumbo’s cause. It’s a wonderful ensemble cast that look perfectly at home in this lavish production.

But at the film’s heart is the flapping pachyderm himself. Burton effortlessly ushers us across the digital divide and turns a synthetic soul into something real, thanks in part to an effects team who have done a stunning job at creating Dumbo’s complex array of expression. “Find the eyes and you’ll see the soul” as the saying goes and the result here is an enchanting character that bleeds pathos with every blink.

Although anthropomorphised animals mightn’t be everyone’s cup of tea, Burton’s version of Dumbo is ultimately a human story that speaks across generations. Young and old will find tears and laughter here—certainly, this reviewer and three twelve-year-olds in tow seemed to run the gamut of emotions. And despite a few underdeveloped characters and a score that occasionally gushes like a broken mains pipe, Dumbo is a tissue factory worth of sadness dried by a big-top of colourful delights.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.