The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

It’s not the first time that the “actor-plays-himself” hook has got our attention. Most notably, Being John Malkovich revelled in its self-referential malaise as Malkovich played himself on the big screen to many plaudits. It was darkly humorous, devilishly clever and always had plenty to say. Here, like its ridiculous title, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, is absurdly stupid and has a whole lot less to say. But hoo boy it says a whole lotta nothing in an entertaining way.

Nicholas Cage plays a fictionalised version of himself called, yep, Nick Cage. Having been turned down for his dream acting role and seemingly at the end of his acting career, Cage, still clutching onto his fame accepts a lucrative job to attend a billionaire’s birthday party in Spain. His attendance fee alone will pay off a few bad debts, but what he doesn’t realise is that the party host, Javi (Pedro Pascal), is on the CIA wanted list. Drawing on his self-proclaimed Nouveau shamanic acting technique, Cage reluctantly becomes their man on the inside. Chaos ensues.

Cage, the man, the myth, the legend, has spanned the spectrum of cinema from the sublimely brilliant Adaptation to the woefully bad City of Angels and TUWOMT delights in running through his back-catalogue to comedic effect. The film also reveals Javi to be a Cage fan-boy who, when not gushing over Cage, is also a wannabe film writer and wants Cage to read his script.

The fresh-faced Pascal (Wonder Woman 1984, Game of Thrones) is the surprise package here. His sizeable comic chops riff off Cage’s goofiness and together they passionately walk the tightrope of friend and foe. It is in those moments where this film works best, and although their awkward bromance is laced with the obligatory explosions, car chases, and noisy plot cogs turning, TUWOMT still provides plenty of laugh-out-loud moments and a satisfying finale. As an action-adventure buddy-flick, it’s pretty good. As a vehicle for Cage’s jittery wild-eyed antics its friggiiiiiiiiiiiinnnnnnnWHOA! awesome.

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

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore

Verdict: A fantastically overstuffed head scratcher.

Ask any Potter fan what makes the Potterverse so special and you’ll get a range of replies—but somewhere will be mention of authentic and engaging characters. This is why the previous two Fantastic Beasts prequels felt like a Potter betrayal, with an over-abundance of digital monotony and crispbread-like characters that made all the Potter goodness disappear in a puff of NYC smoke. Gone was the grounded heft that Hogwarts brought. Gone were the appealing characters such as Harry, Hermione, and Ron and their flawed complexities. Instead, we were left with an overly apologetic Eddie Redmayne and his menagerie of insufferably cute beasts and an inanimate Johnny Depp who looked like he had a broomstick stuck up his arse. Secrets of Dumbledore, the third instalment, could only be better, right?

Thankfully, yes. And some of that is due to the reintroduction of screenwriter Steve Kloves. While the previous two Fantastic Beasts films were solely scripted by Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling, here Kloves (who also helped adapt the original Harry Potter books into films) lends a helping hand to breathe new life into the cast.

Rowling, who oddly decided to jump the ditch and shoe-horn period America into the mix of the previous two films, adds even more globe-hopping as we follow Dumbledore (Jude Law) and his team of wizards and witches from England to Germany to Bhutan and beyond. Dumbles, Newt (Redmayne), Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and the gang from the previous films, plus a few new faces, are tasked with stopping the newly exonerated Grindelwald (Depp this time replaced by the superb Mikkelsen) from seizing control of the wizarding world. It’s a simple enough premise that moves through the gears rather swiftly and before you know it, we are thrown into a heady mix of moving parts that operate like a wartime espionage thriller. Bag switching, spies, snitches, and covert surveillance among other tropes render this film a peculiar melange of Potterverse and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

While Secrets of Dumbledore does have more moving parts than it knows what to do with, and may be a little too much to absorb for younger audiences, the cast manages to fumble their way through and deliver a convincing enough tale. It’s unarguably the best Fantastic Beasts prequel so far—but that’s not really saying much.

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

Drive My Car

Verdict: A long and winding road that is worth taking.

Settle in and get comfy because Drive My Car is a long ride. At nearly three hours this film is hardly just popping down the road for bread and milk. Rather, Writer/Director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi has crafted a purposefully protracted journey through grief, regret, and sorrow. But before you think this might be too glum a ride to take, think again. Because while tonally sombre, there is plenty of reward for those who enjoy the cinematic journey rather than the destination alone.

The film focuses on Yûsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a renowned stage actor and director who wrestles with deep-seated sadness after the unexpected death of his wife. Two years later the grief-stricken Kafuku accepts an invitation to direct a multilingual production of Anton Chekhov’s play, Uncle Vanya, at a festival in Hiroshima. Dark clouds gather as the casting process delivers to Kafuku the play’s lead, Kôshi Takatsuki(Masaki Okada), a young screen star who shares an unwelcome connection to Kafuku’s late wife. Forced to confront painful truths, Kafuku strikes up an unlikely friendship with his introverted driver, Misaki (Tôko Miura), who was reluctantly commissioned to drive him around Hiroshima. And it is within the confines of his immaculately kept red Saab 900 Turbo where much of this tale unfolds. Despite their different backgrounds the pair nurture a kinship and desire to unlock the mysteries of each other’s grief.

Hamaguchi’s thoughtful approach to filmmaking is summed up by Takatsuki, who midway through the film comments: “I get the feeling that you both value the finer details that people won’t even notice.” Indeed, Drive My Car wholeheartedly ascribes to this sentiment as it focuses on small details of Chekhov’s play that begin to mirror Kafuku’s life. I’m unfamiliar with the play but feel that this film will offer a deeper understanding for those who are.

Undoubtedly, Drive My Car won’t be to everyone’s taste—the film’s clinically measured pace, its stillness, sparse musical score, and restrained cinematography will be a road too far. But the more persistent will find plenty of beauty in Drive My Car’s tranquil and insightful observations and be rewarded with a cathartic ending that’ll make the journey worthwhile.

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

Cyrano

Verdict: Dinklage rises above the powdered-wigs to deliver a charming performance.

Filmmaker Joe Wright is no mug when it comes to impressive period pieces about unrequited love. Pride and Prejudice, Atonement and Anna Karenina, all excellent films, are cut from the same cloth. Cyrano is more of the same, except this time it’s a musical and has considerably more wigs.

The odd decision to make Cyrano a musical makes more sense when you consider it was adapted for the screen by Erica Schmidt. Her own stage-musical from which this film is based, was in turn inspired by Edmond Rostand’s 19th Century play where the titular wordsmith, Cyrano de Bergerac, a man with a disfigured nose, acts as a go-between for two star-crossed lovers. Here, Schmidt replaces the long schnozz with a short man—a move that might’ve ruffled a few politically correct feathers had her husband not been the film’s star (and most likely the world’s most famous dwarf), Peter Dinklage.

Poking out the top of a suitably ruffled costume Cyrano (Dinklage), with his mournfully wounded-dog eyes and pen in hand, woos Roxanne (Haley Bennett) on behalf of the dim-witted Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). It’s a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, as we learn early in the film that Cyrano harbours a secret love for the same women. Add to the mix a slippery Ben Mendelsohn, who slithers into frame as the villainous De Guiche, and what follows is a wonderfully compelling (and at times comical), dance between the film’s mainstays. Cyrano avoids descending into a male conquest story and Bennett’s take on Roxanne never succumbs to the abject “damsel” trope, rather, her interpretation imbues the character with more autonomy than previous versions.

Such is Joe Wright’s experience as an “actors director”, Cyrano undoubtedly operates better as a drama than a musical. This is in part due to the gloomy tendencies of composers Aaron and Bryce Dessner (from the band The National, who are known for their darker numbers) whose songs are hit-and-miss, and partly because Dinklage makes a far better actor than he does a singer. Thankfully, the diminutive Dinklage climbs out of the Dessner dirge, scales a mountain of ruffles, buckles, and powdered-wigs, and provides a worthwhile reason to see this film.

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

C’mon C’mon

Verdict: An achingly beautiful observation of family life.

As they say in showbiz, “never work with animals or children”. That is, unless you are writer/director Mike Mills and child actor Woody Norman, whose latest film is a gentle embrace of humanity that turns the phrase on its head.

C’mon C’mon lends a compassionate ear to the story of Radio Journalist, Johnny, played by an, expectedly, excellent Joaquin Phoenix. When his sister is called away to attend to a family crisis, he is left to look after her young son, Jesse (Woody Norman). The pair soon fall into a rhythm that bends and twists as Johnny tries to comprehend an energetic young boy confused as to where he fits.

And as their relationship aches and sighs, so does the film. At times director Mills breaks with convention, cutting away to Johnny’s project work where he interviews children on their thoughts about the society they live in. These small documentary-style snippets of heartfelt and desperately honest accounts are where the film finds its nuanced understanding of the world. Mills is no stranger to social realism—his 2016 film, 20th Century Women, likewise brought domestic observations to the big screen with little fuss.

Here, he dials the fuss back even further, opting to shoot the entire film in black-and-white. While this may more often be the territory of modern filmmaker’s wanting to show off their chiaroscuro flair (The Lighthouse or The Tragedy of Macbeth) or to evoke memory (Belfast or Roma), C’mon C’mon instead uses its monochrome palette to scale back visual stimulus, allowing more space for the film’s incredible sound design. It really is a “listening” movie rather than a “watching” movie. At one point Johnny hands his headphones and directional mic over to Jesse—a gesture that allows us inside the head of the young boy as he listens to the world around him. The result is a sublime audible treat that captures a tender moment between the pair.

So much of C’mon C’mon hangs on the chemistry between its two leads and certainly the gamble to couple the experience, fame, and gravity of Phoenix with a young newcomer was a big one. However, Mills’ soft touch behind the camera and faith in his cast has delivered a film that’ll make your heart swell.

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

Licorice Pizza

Verdict: A sweet slice of warm nostalgia.

Unlike the unsettling culinary combination that the title suggests, Licorice Pizza is perhaps one of Writer/Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s mildest films. Gone is the fevered confusion of Inherent Vice, the burning intensity of There Will be Blood, or the ambitious orchestration of Magnolia. Rather, Licorice Pizza is a giant exhale of warm nostalgia.

Relatively plot-lite, Licorice Pizza is a snapshot that marks a breezy stroll through youthful life in seventies Los Angeles. The film focuses on Gary (played by Cooper Hoffman), a likeable sweet-talking entrepreneur-minded teenager who meets Alana (Alana Haim), a woman in her twenties who works for the school photographer. What follows is not a romance, exactly, or a buddy flick, but something deeper, transitory, and difficult to grasp. Their relationship is an odd coupling, warm, interesting, at times hilarious, but peculiar nonetheless.

Cooper Hoffman (son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) wonderfully captures the uncertainty of youth—a starry-eyed teen vacillating at the border of adulthood. Haim (one-third of the indie sister band, Haim) delivers a powder keg performance, one who is ensconced in adulthood but is drawn away by Gary’s boyish charms. Behind the pair of fresh-faced leads is an army of a-listers chiming in with bit parts, most notably Bradley Cooper’s super-charged bearded producer from the Hollywood hills is a lot of fun.

The film meanders in the middle third and is often distracted by its own soundtrack. But while tropes and archetypes of seventies cinema are generously folded into the film’s mix, it never succumbs to unintentional pastiche and at its heart Licorice Pizza is a sweetly affectionate portrait of two people at life’s many crossroads.

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

My top ten of 2021

10.

It’s Nicholas Cage. But the good Nicholas Cage.

9.

Mads Mikkelsen and Director Thomas Vinterberg make a good combination—anyone who’s seen The Hunt will know what I mean. However, unlike The Hunt’s sobriety, Another Round opens up the liquor cabinet as it centres on a bunch of school teachers in the spin of midlife-crisis and trying to connect with their students through a questionable social experiment. It’s a tragicomedy of sorts and gets big thumbs-up for its rapturous ending.

8.

An unconventional tale told in a conventional manner. Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing person in her deaf family but ironically has a passion for singing. This coming-of-age story is wholesome, vivid, often hilarious, and ends with the a sublime rendition of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now. Will bring a joyful tear to your eye.

7.

Carey Mulligan is electric as a young woman traumatised by her past in this vengeance film set the in the milieu of the #metoo movement. Vibrant, colourful and energetic, yet also thematically dark and cynically clever. Should be essential viewing for teenagers.

6.

This first instalment of Herbert’s sci-fi classic is pure cinematic spectacle—a sound and vision masterwork from Villeneuve. Not quite as pin-sharp as BladeRunner 2049, but will still have your eyes and ears popping out of your head. Definitely a big-screen flick. Can’t wait for the second half.

5.

Writer/director Florian Zeller’s debut feature operates like an Escher artwork as it paints an intentionally confusing (and heartbreaking) portrait of dementia. Up there with Anthony Hopkins’ best work.

4.

A Campion masterpiece to rival The Piano. See my review here.

3.

While her parents go about cleaning out the house of her recently deceased grandmother, Nelly explores the surrounding woods. She encounters Marion, a girl exactly Nelly’s age and to whom she bears a striking resemblance. Somehow writer/director Céline Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) has crafted a complete experience in only 72 minutes. Patient, emotional and achingly beautiful.

2.

Slow? Wonderfully so. Also mesmerisingly beautiful and utterly haunting. I’m a bit of a David Lowry fan (Pete’s Dragon, Old Man & the Gun, and Ghost Story). Really looking forward to his next film, Peter Pan & Wendy.

1.

Who’d have thought a story about stealing milk from the only cow in town could be so engrossing. A sweetly tranquil film from Kelly Reichardt (Meek’s Cutoff). Loved it.

Spider-Man: No Way Home

Verdict: Conventional MCU fan service with some nice flourishes.

Occasionally, a new director offers a fresh perspective on the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) franchise (Taika Waititi’s humorous take on Thor, or Bob Persichetti’s brilliantly animated Into the Spider-verse). But when a vanilla director, such as Jon Watts in his third MCU outing, takes the helm you shouldn’t expect a reinvention of the wheel.

Having swung to the lofty heights of commercial success with his previous two Spidey flicks (Homecoming and Far From Home), Watts has, unsurprisingly, played it safe and repeated the dose. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. They weren’t bad films.

Following on from Far From Home, and with his secret identity as Spider-Man now exposed, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) turns to fellow Avenger, Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), to conjure a spell that will restore his secret. But in doing so, he cracks open the multiverse, letting through villains from other Spider-Man universes. Chaos follows as Parker and crew attempt to herd Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock, Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin and Jamie Foxx’s Electro back from whence they came.

As expected, there is a slew of less-than-engaging action sequences, but thankfully No Way Home also presents plenty of more-than-engaging characters to balance things out.

Holland is excellent as the webbed hero, providing the titular character with a youthful innocence and charm that wasn’t fully captured by previous Spideys, Andrew Garfield and Toby Maguire. Zendaya is also good with her reprisal of love interest MJ, and it’s in their moments together, along with their friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) where this film works best.

Where the story comes unstuck is in the convoluted set-up of its multiverse characters. Yes, the multiverse — a concept that has, so far, served to broaden MCU’s narrative scope (and cash haul) but also threatens to be its undoing. Space-time hullabaloo rarely works well in movies and No Way Home invests too much effort wrestling with this web of confusion.

I can already hear the MCU nerds decrying my lack of attention towards the intricacies of MCU lore. No Way Home is, after all, building on the labyrinthine, yet impressive, canon of MCU films and it certainly helps to have a good knowledge of them all. As a stand-alone film, though? No Way Home is a mixed bag of excellent whip-smart flair and average fan serving Spider-Meh.

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

Tick, Tick… Boom!

Verdict: A colourful tale of bohemian anguish.

The age-old mantra “write what you know” echoes throughout the work of musical maestro of stage and screen Lin-Manuel Miranda. Certainly, if his previous outings are anything to go by (Hamilton and more recently In the Heights), Miranda has built a deserved reputation as a vibrant teller of musical tales.

Surprisingly though, this is Miranda’s first feature film as director. And while he clearly knows a clarinet from an oboe, the finer details of directing is a different kind of instrument to play. Thankfully, the connection between Miranda’s creative prowess and this film’s musical subject comes to the screen with organic ease. This, along with the fizzy talents of Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man) and a solid supporting cast, Tick Tick Boom is a spirited journey through one man’s struggle to get his art on the stage.

Set in the nineties and based on the Broadway musical of the same name, Tick Tick Boom is an autobiographical adaptation of the late Jonathan Larson (Garfield). The film centres around his struggles to write the stage musical, Superbia, a work that would never eventuate as intended. Meanwhile, his dancer girlfriend Susan (Alexander Shipp) is cast to the margins as he frets over getting the work completed on time. A New York winter, sweaty shifts at the local diner, coats, scarfs, and the pained anguish of bohemian lower Manhattan provide the backdrop to the film’s many foot-tapping, colourful musical numbers.

As you might expect from a Miranda musical, peeling back the glossy layers of its well-choreographic set-pieces does reveal plenty of predictable tropes and cheesy dialogue. However, the film does a commendable job of disguising its many cliches, in part due to Garfield’s remarkably attuned performance, but mainly because of Miranda’s unflinching ability to distract his audience with kinetically charged and well-balanced storytelling. It’s unashamed heart-on-sleeve stuff and hard not to get swept away by it all.

Halfway through the film, Larson receives some advice from his agent: “Write what you know”. Indeed, it seems Larson, who sadly died in 1996, would have been pleased that the man to tell his story on screen heeded that mantra and appears to have a genuine passion for the subject.

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

The Power of the Dog

Verdict: A meticulously crafted masterpiece.

The rural drama that pits soft sensitivity against stoic masculinity is perhaps one of the more recognisable sub-genres to emerge from cinema’s woke age. Think Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, or more recently, Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country. Although the location is remote, it is the immediacy of their stories that resonate and certainly, The Power of the Dog will likely garner comparisons to such films.

However this isn’t solely another postmodern cowboy movie exploring male sexuality. Rather, Kiwi directing royalty, Jane Campion, has crafted a sinister slow-burn set in 1920s Montana that is (as the title suggests) as much about power as it is about masculinity.

Campion has corralled an impressive cast and crew to create a film that like her magnum opus, The Piano, is both outwardly beautiful and deeply multilayered and complex. At its centre is a committed performance from Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank, a caustic, controlling, yet charismatic cattle farmer. When his brother (Plemons) brings into their fold a widower, Rose (Dunst, equally impressive) and her son (Smit-McPhee) the pot boils over and secrets threaten to spill out. On the surface, this may sound like an innocuous tale of domestic squabbles, but Campion’s impeccably paced screenplay ratchets tension in all the right places as she begins to explore the oppressive side of masculinity.

Cinematographer Ari Vegner (Lady Macbeth) does a remarkable job of transforming New Zealand’s landscape (where this film was shot) into the Montana backdrop. It’s not New Zealand’s first rodeo at being the backdrop to an American western. Notably, the similarly paced Slow West (which also starred Smit-McPhee) was just as visually impressive. But here, Vegner’s slow brooding camera crawls over the rolling hills and skulks around the huge gothic mansion at its centre in a way that evokes Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. It’s spellbinding stuff.

Add to the visually sublime an intoxicating musical score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, and you have a sensory experience that demands big-screen treatment. Some might find Campion’s pace a little slow and her exposition too murky—she’s a film-maker not afraid to let her story rest on its ambiguities and trust her audience to interpret. Indeed, the more patient audience will discover a masterpiece shot among them there hills.

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