Sweet Country

sweetcountry“What chance has this country got?” So asks Sam Neill in the Sweet Country’s final moments.  Such is the film’s central theme as it examines Australia’s sordid racial past and brings its concerns into the present with a film that is as tragic as it is strikingly beautiful.

Set in the Northern Territory frontier in the 1920s, Sweet Country tells the story of an aboriginal farm-hand, Sam Kelly.  Working for a kind-hearted farmer Fred Smith (Sam Neill), he is “lent” to a neighbouring farmer who is new to the area and in need of an extra hand. Unfortunately, the neighbourly gesture goes sour when the new farmer proves to be an unhinged war veteran and Sam finds himself unwittingly complicit in a provoked act of deadly violence. As the local authority, Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) and his posse, set about hunting Sam down, Sweet Country takes the opportunity to play cute with a few western genre tropes; however it never loses sight of its charged racial commentary.

Director and cinematographer Warwick Thornton (Samson & Delilah) confidently struts a visual approach that avoids the temptation to use an emotive musical score.  Stylistically informed by the likes of Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James) and John Maclean (Slow West), Thornton’s camera slowly, but intently, prowls the landscape with a quiet tension that heightens a sense of dread. Thornton has done a stunning job at capturing Australia’s picturesque outback and pitted its beauty against the ugliness of the denizens who run amok within.  Such is the fine line Thornton treads, that it is perhaps inevitable a few missteps have been made where aesthetics have obstructed narrative concerns; a minor quibble.

Down-under stalwarts Bryan Brown and Sam Neill are typically good, and although they provide the film’s star pulling power, the real heavy lifting is provided by its aboriginal cast, specifically Hamilton Morris who superbly encapsulates Sam Kelly’s heart-breaking anguish, fear and frustration.

Sweet Country provides little in the way of relief to its oppressive tone, but this cautionary tale is skilfully told with a brutal eloquence and should really be considered mandatory viewing. 
See more of my NZME reviews here.

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Lost in Paris

 

lostinparisDominique Abel and Fiona Gordon team up once again, opening a kitbag of acting, writing and directing talents that can best be described as an “acquired taste”. Their films feel like an unwieldy blend of Mr Bean and Wes Anderson minus the comic timing or genius, and Lost in Paris is no different, with a gratuitously quirky style that renders it insufferably twee. Despite wanting to be, The Grand Budapest Hotel this is not.

Fiona (Gordon), a librarian in a sleepy Canadian town, receives a distress letter from her elderly Parisian aunt (played by the great Emmanuelle Riva … really, what were you thinking?!). Fearful of being carted off to a retirement village, Aunt Martha does a runner moments prior to Fiona arriving. Much hilarity ensues. New to Paris, Fiona stumbles upon Dom (Abel), a vagrant who falls in love and pursues her, endlessly. Much hilarity continues.  The two continue to look for Aunt Martha and stumble their way through Parisian streets, graveyards, the Eiffel Tower etc; more hilarity etc.

If you can detect a slight hint of sarcasm in my commentary, you’d be right—there is no hilarity to be had here, that is, unless your taste in humour sits within the bounds of the farcically banal. If that’s your bag then fair enough, you’ll be all over this film like a cheap suit. Because here, the inane gags line up like lemmings.

In the film’s most questionable scene, Dom’s predatory behaviour finally abates and they find common ground that leads to possibly the most unintentionally awkward sex scene in cinematic history (ok, perhaps Tommy Wiseau’s The Room takes that honour … but this is close).  The scene appears to want its audience to gush over its deft use of the filmic artifice, and giggle at its alluring charm.  Nope, not even close.

Try as I might to find some redeeming quality to Lost in Paris, a noble allegory or subtext perhaps, all I found was an impenetrable wall of whimsy too difficult to pierce. So I gave up the fight and just drifted along for the ride—that didn’t help either.
 
See more of my NZME reviews here.

Peter Rabbit

peterrabbitIn a modern-day take on Beatrix Potter’s beloved leporine tale of the same name, director Will Gluck has drummed up a warren of talent that would be the envy of any studio. James Cordon, Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Daisy Ridley and Elizabeth Debicki, among others, all chip in to flesh out this story about a cheeky (and very cute) anthropomorphised rabbit and his battle for a vegetable patch.

Confident to a fault, Peter (Cordon) observes Old Mr McGregor’s (Sam Neill) vegetable patch with envious eyes until his rebellious nature gets the better of him.  It doesn’t take long for the rascally rabbit to persuade his friends and siblings to join his march on foreign soil, but when Old Mr McGregor is replaced by the even more ruthless Thomas (Gleeson), the stakes are raised.  Add a love interest to the mix (the very affable Rose Byrne) and you have a complex cocktail of romance, ownership, and vengeance which becomes as cute and charming as it is volatile.

There’s plenty of slapstick action to keep the young ones giggling (and some good gags for the oldies as well) but the carrots are planted rather shallow here and any semblance of plot-depth cough and splutter with mixed results.  Quite charming in parts and yet annoyingly episodic, the film attempts addressing issues such as “ownership”—the vegetable patch providing the film with a weak allegory about “living together” and “sharing” to which recent contemporaries, such as the superb Paddington, handled with far more heart. Instead, Peter Rabbit becomes surprisingly spiteful in parts, to the point where you’re not too sure who you’re supposed to be rooting for and I suspect some of the young‘uns might find the film’s complex moral compass a little disorientating.

Peter Rabbit’s attempt to appeal to the widest possible audience is understandable when you consider the generational appeal of the source material. However, it can’t quite contain all it surveys and the result is a rollercoaster ride of good and bad, making the whole experience rather flat. Call me a vegetable patch fence-sitter but the dust is still settling on this one.
See more of my NZME reviews
 
See more of my NZME reviews here.

Mary Magdalene

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The history of the Christian church is one fraught with systemic fault-lines, brought about by a long line of fallible decision-makers pushing male-centric agendas of the age. One particular victim of the church’s patriarchal institutional flaws has been Mary Magdalene. In his latest movie, Director Garth Davis (Lion) has set about straightening some historical distortions of a woman who, only recently, has been recognised by the Catholic Church as an “Apostle to the Apostles”.

Most notably, the film does not depict Mary as a former prostitute—a tenuous claim introduced by Pope Gregory in 591, that Davis was keen to dispel. Instead, Davis’s Mary appears to be a corrective to many previous depictions, aided by the quiet potency of Rooney Mara who plays her. She is shown here to be a woman whose strength and agency becomes an affront to many men around her.

The film begins in Mary’s family home and recounts her journey from elopement to a life of discipleship. Following Jesus (played by a very measured Joaquin Phoenix) up to the time of his death and resurrection, she learns that some of his teachings may be at odds with the interpretations of the disciples around her.  In particular, Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who voices his discomfort at her understanding of selflessness and her brash claims that revolution and change comes from within, rather than, as another disciple declares, a physical revolution of “fire and blood”.

Mary Magdalene does not push the artifice of film in any groundbreaking direction, Davis opting to keep his sophomore outing aesthetically safe. However, this conservative approach only serves to highlight the film’s introspective calling, ensuring that one doesn’t get caught up in a sensory light-show, but rather, inwardly contemplate the gravity of what the film is revealing.  It seems appropriate, in this current age of feminine resurgence, that this film has been made and while Mary Magdalene might not be everyone’s cup of tea, it remains a thought-provoking and timely story.
  
See more of my NZME reviews here.

Annihilation

Annihilation

“It is the beginning of the end!”—nope, it’s not a quote from writer/director Alex Garland’s latest cerebral sci-fi, but me, crying in frustration as to the reasons why this sensory extravaganza wasn’t released on the big screen outside of North America and China.  Paramount, in all their “we’ve got cold feet” wisdom has handed the release over to Netflix, thus signalling the beginning of the silver-screen apocalypse and the inexorable transition of new releases to an exclusive small screen market. Garland will be screaming blue murder when he sees bus bound hoards watching his work of art on five-inch phones and a pair of junky earbuds.  Shame on you Paramount.

Ok, now I’ve got that off my chest, I can turn my attention to the film at hand, because it’s really good.  Garland’s first film, Ex Machina, was the kind of debut that made many critics sit up and pay attention.  In that film, Garland (who also wrote the original screenplay) explored the sinister side of artificial intelligence and proceeded to gouge out the male gaze with a white-hot poker of female vengeance … an oddly liberating experience. Here, in his sophomore outing, Garland continues to keep things female-centric, with a predominantly female cast.

Searching for reasons surrounding her husband’s disappearance, Lena (Natalie Portman) decides to join a team of scientists embarking on a research mission into a newly discovered anomaly called “the shimmer”—an unexplained malignant cancerous growth that is spreading throughout the coastal bayous of a sleepy American coastline, rendering all the flora and fauna within its bubble an unpredictable and potentially hostile mutation. As the team ventures deeper into the shimmer, the film reveals it’s secrets through a series of flashbacks that recount her husband, Kane’s (Oscar Isaac) fate.

It is a brooding, haunting, and at times quite scary sci-fi brain-burner about many things, not least a painful allegory of the ruthless ambivalence of cancer.  Its fractured structure also mirrors the film’s prismatic themes about identity and the brutally unsentimental march of genetic diversity.

Throughout, Garland gives a few knowing nods many other films of its ilk, in particular, Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, and like that masterpiece, Annihilation is a beautifully rendered head-scratcher that will have you pensively juggling theories long after leaving the cinema, I mean, logging out of your Netflix account … *sigh* please, for the love of all that’s good, just don’t watch it on your phone.
  
See more of my NZME reviews here.

The Death of Stalin

deathofstalinScottish writer/director Armando Iannucci (Veep, The Thick of It) has taken his politically-charged brand of comedy to the big screen and adapted Fabien Nury’s absurdist satirical comic, which parodies events surrounding the demise of one of the world’s most ruthless dictators.

In what feels like a blend of Guy Ritchie’s gangster caper Snatch and Christopher Morris’s topically awkward black comedy about incompetent British jihadists (Four Lions), The Death of Stalin depicts the tyrant’s final days and the ensuing political scramble to fill the power vacuum. In the best traditions of British farcical humour, the film follows a Soviet committee of bumbling buffoons with knives drawn and ready to plunge into the back of their respective comrades … all for the betterment of the Soviet Union, of course.

Read the full review for the NZ Herald here.

Kobi

KOBIDespite a small stint working in a craft gallery, my knowledge of Kobi Bosshard, New Zealand’s grandfather of contemporary jewellery, is shamefully patchy at best. Thankfully, his daughter Andrea Bosshard (who also happens to be the film’s co-Director along with Shane Loader), knows a thing or two about filmmaking and has created a documentary that is as informative as it is insightful.

Andrea’s very personal account of her father tells the story of the Swiss goldsmith (third generation in a line of goldsmiths), who arrived here in 1961 and proceeded to transform New Zealand’s contemporary jewellery landscape. The film offers a thoughtfully edited array of interviews and archival footage interspersed with some stunning cinematography that indulges in the surrounds of Kobi’s tranquil home studio in Central Otago, observing the craftsman at work and at times glimpsing the fruits of his labour.

Read the full review for the NZ Herald here.

The Square

thesquare“The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations” — such is the provocative statement written at the foot of an art exhibition at the centre of Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s (Force Majeure) film, The Square.

It is a film that drags you into its contemporary art landscape of self-indulgence and self-importance with a tour de force of satirical film-making that spits and fizzes with sardonic humour and ethical insight.

Stockholm’s newest art exhibition provides a space to observe and participate in its ideals, offering a further tableau of ethical exhibits that focus on human social behaviour.  All the while the film deftly shows the exhibition as a shining beacon of hypocrisy through the contrasting behaviour of its creators.  Christian, a hapless contemporary art curator played by Claes Bang is one such hypocrite, idealistic in rhetoric and yet cynical in his actions, he has a likeable earnest nature that belies the ignorance of his own self-importance.

The Square follows Christian as he makes a progression of poor choices. His verbal jousting with an American reporter, Anne, played superbly by the ever-reliable Elisabeth Moss offers some wonderfully crafted scenes of cringeworthy brilliance.  The two serve and volley semantics before giving way to an awkward physical exchange that unsurprisingly leads to Anne, Christian, and the exhibition unravelling.

Wonderfully dextrous humour gives way to some very probing investigations of human nature as lines are blurred between “art” and reality. The Square becomes at times almost unbearable to watch with some moments of squirm-inducing boundary pushing. An episode involving a human imitating an ape at a black-tie event is as intriguing as it is disturbing.

The film covers a lot of ethical ground being about sexual power, stereotypes, middle-class guilt and moral values.  But it handles these touchy subjects with the perfect balance of satire, insight and entertainment.  Deserved winner of the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Ruben Östlund appears to be at the peak of his powers and has directed a film that is hilarious, fiercely intelligent, and encourages a healthy amount of self-examination.

See my reviews for Witchdoctor here.

Game Night

gamenightNow here’s a film that goes down like a churro dunked in chocolate sauce. And like that alluring sugar-coated doughy Spanish treat, Game Night is a film with zero nutritional benefits but sooo easy to consume. No subtexts, no heavy messages, it keeps its mood light and its subject matter dark—it’s a cheerful black comedy, if you will.

The film centres around a married couple, Max and Annie, whose weekly game nights provide a release for their unbridled competitiveness. Their failure to conceive a much wanted child provides the nexus around which the film explores their relationship. Max’s sperm mobility is lacking, which only adds to the inferiority complex he has in relation to his brother, Brooks. Played by Kyle Chandler (Argo, Manchester by the Sea), Brooks is a highly successful entrepreneur, a winning risk-taker, and is everything Max isn’t. When Brooks invites Max’s friends over, offering “a game night to remember”, the film shifts gear and begins to take great delight in blurring the lines between what is “the game” and what is real.

Max is played by the affable Jason Bateman (Office Christmas Party). I’ve always considered Bateman to be a male Jennifer Anniston, average, likeable, and very much the “everyman”. Bateman’s typecast roles often deliver a feel-good comedy schtick that, for all its “sameness”, is surprisingly funny. Rachel McAdams (The Notebook, Spotlight), who often seems to fly under the radar, gives a pitch-perfect performance as Annie, offering comedic moments that highlight what an underrated talent McAdams is.

But the surprise performance is Jesse Plemons (Black Mass) as Gary, the creepy serial killer-esque neighbour, who wants in on game night. His socially awkward pauses and off centre comments are a delight to watch and provide the film’s high watermark.

Game Night brings some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments and thankfully stops just shy of being outrageously silly (although it gets fairly close at times). It doesn’t elevate itself to the comedy classics … it would need to be less churro and more creme brûlée for that, but it still packs enough comedic entertainment to get you well aboard the chuckle train.

  
You can see my published reviews here.

The Party

thepartryWeighing in at a very modest seventy-one minutes, what The Party lacks in screen time it makes up for in detail. Writer/director Sally Potter has delivered a punchy dramedy that boldly fizzes with black humour and satire. While it doesn’t entirely avoid the oft-maligned staginess of a chamber-piece (a curse that’s not necessarily a bad thing if the writing is up to snuff), Potter has kept things visually as silver-tongued as her script, and it works … most of the time.

Read the full review for the NZ Herald here.