Rosie

Verdict: An enthralling Irish social realist drama that is painfully relevant here.

It wasn’t that long ago when heartbreaking stories of families living out the back of their cars hit the headlines in New Zealand. Although Rosie is set in Ireland, it’s a story that still picks at the raw nerve on New Zealand’s own housing problem. There are hints of Ken Loach’s or Mike Leigh’s kitchen sink dramas in this moving portrait of a working-class family who have fallen on desperately hard times. But you can replace the kitchen sink with a dash-board as this film focuses on a Dublin family who live out of their car.

Rosie, played with a focussed intensity by Sarah Greene (Normal People), finds herself living from hour to hour, juggling her four children’s needs while looking for a place to stay the night. There is a palpable sense of tension created through Paddy Breathnach’s taut directing as he captures the strain of a family’s good intentions and the situation thrust upon them. Working from a screenplay by writer Roddy Doyle (The Commitments), Breathnach’s pin-sharp drama is never manipulative or preachy, and gives a brutally honest account of their plight.

It’s not all doom and gloom, and like Loach’s Palme d’Or winning I, Daniel Blake, Rosie manages to capture little nuggets of hope and humour within the depths of the family’s desperate situation. But what sets this film apart is that it avoids the tropes common to many stories about poverty. Nowhere is there substance or physical abuse, or mental health issues. Rather, it focuses on the systemic poverty that they fall victim to. In one scene Rosie says that her family are “not homeless, just lost. We have lost our keys.” Her heartbreaking words echo the film’s thesis on dignity and goes a long way in highlighting the negative stigma that poverty often attracts.

Elegant and strikingly simple in its exposition, Rosie is an incredibly restrained film that hits all the right beats and leaves you with one of the more hauntingly powerful final images I’ve seen in cinema.

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

The Trip to Greece

Ah it’s good to be back. Here’s my first review for the NZ Herald since lockdown began. The Trip to Greece:

Verdict: Worth the trip despite having been there and seen that.

Early in The Trip to Greece, Rob Brydon fittingly quotes Aristotle on the virtues of imitation. Although the birthplace of classical western narratives might be a perfect setting for such quotes, it also serves to shield this film against critical flak for doing just that; imitating itself. The critics have a point, The Trip to Greece is fairly much identical to the previous three outings (set in England, Italy, and Spain). But for good reason. The formula works.

A travelogue of sorts, Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan (who play fictionalised version of themselves) saunter from tourist site to restaurant, back to tourist site, while comically casting out quick witticisms and well-read eloquent prose about their surroundings. It’s all rather idyllic and you do wonder at times if it is going anywhere beyond their conversations and observations. The plot, such that it is, is fairly scant and the thinnest of the four Trip movies. But you don’t go to see a movie like this for the plot.

The self-aware Brydon and Coogan know how to laugh at themselves and tease each other about their skewed level of success, occasionally flirting with serious topics such as their own mortality. The result is an insightfully funny and sometimes thought provoking look at their lives. However, if you’ve seen any of the previous Trip films and found their impersonations and pedantic squabbling to be annoying, then this movie won’t convert you.

Michael Winterbottom (A Mighty Heart), who has directed all four Trip movies, injects very little directorial flavour and settles, once again, on an observational approach, letting his two muses verbally run amock with what appears to be a loose script and plenty of ad-libbing. A surprisingly melancholic score does occasionally threaten to steer the film into more serious territory, and Coogan, who is perhaps more sombre than previous, looks to be the man to do it. But no. Brydon, Coogan, and Winterbottom appear to know what side their toast is buttered. Imitation is sometimes strangely comforting.

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

Streaming, streaming, streaming…

From Spike Jonze’s fascinating doco, Beastie Boys Story (pictured above), to Netfilx’s not so good White Lines (described by Gary Steel as “vapid”), and others make up the Witchdoctor’s latest round of streaming reviews here.

Here’s my bit on BBS…

Despite hitting the big time during my impressionable years, Beastie Boys were never my bag—a novelty act, sexist, brash, and, well, shit. But after watching Beastie Boys Story I might have to swallow my words. The two remaining members, Mike Diamond and Adam Horovitz (Adam Yauch died of cancer in 2012) stand in front of a live audience and tell their tale with the aid of a teleprompter, a few props and a giant video screen in the background. If you’ve ever seen an Apple live event, then you’ll recognise the similar setup (curiously, this is also an AppleTV+ release). But this is way more than a “woohoo” Tim Cook event. Long time video collaborator Spike Jones helms this film and injects plenty of his unique flavour, spicing up what is already a fascinating story. But what makes this documentary special is how Diamond and Horovitz reflect on their journey, touching on topics of shame, regret, passion and friendship. As anyone will tell you, a good music doco will have you Googling the act and streaming their music after. Hell, this doco is so good it’s got me trawling the stores for some Beastie vinyl.

Some more TV picks for your perusal.

See the good Witchdoctor’s latest streaming television recommendations and warnings here.

Here’s my input …

Trying (AppleTV+)

Apple is busting its US bubble with their latest original, Trying, an easily digestible feel-good comedy that that traces out the lives of two Londoner thirty-somethings who are, yes, “trying” to have a baby. It’s no spoiler to say that they can’t conceive (you find that out early in episode one) so they embark on a journey of adoption, discovering it’s a long-winded process that is fraught with many pitfalls. Prepare yourself for a predictable mix of likeable comedy and sentimental drama tightly packaged into eight half-hour episodes. There’s not much new ground broken here, but it is undeniably warm and engaging thanks to the leads Rafe Spall and Esther Smith who strike up a decent amount of chemistry and are surrounded by a solid cast that includes the versatile Imelda Staunton. Yes, Trying is whimsical and the couple’s cherry optimism as they flit around Camden and other recognisable London landmarks will have some groaning. It’s no Fleabag, but if you’re getting tired of the misery out there in TV-land then this is the perfect tonic.

Deadwater Fell (TVNZ OnDemand)

Just what I needed in these grim times was a good ol’ fashioned pick-me-up. Deadwater Fell isn’t that series. This four-part mini-series is a grim dirge of a drama as suggested by its rather foreboding title. Writer Daisy Coulam (Grantchester, Death in Paradise) appears to have plumbed the depths of her dark mind to uncover this tale of misery. Set to the backdrop of a dreary Scottish town, this crime drama focusses on a seemingly happy family who meets a firefly demise in their home but for the only survivor, Tom (David Tennant). The town quickly becomes suspicious of the part he might’ve played in the fire leading to dark looks, finger-pointing, and angry villagers with pitch-forks at the ready. Despite the depressing subject matter Coulam and fellow director Lynsey Miller have done a fine job of slowly revealing each character’s back-story, dangling an apparent truth and then suggesting otherwise. It is undeniably well produced and acted, but it is also unbearably bleak. So, for many now may not be the time.

… and in the meantime.

I’m consuming quite a bit on the small screen at the mo (such as the mind contorting Devs, pictured above), so I contributed to the Witchdoctor’s wrap up of some good stuff out there. Have a squiz here.

The Stranger (Netflix)

If there is such a thing as the TV version of a page-turner then this is it. The Stranger is a Netflix original that’s perfect for bingeing on those cold lockdown evenings—a British eight part thriller-drama bursting with familiar faces and packed full of twisty-turny “no way!” moments. The series centres on the Price family, a regular middle-class family, but with a slew of secrets to hide. When Adam, is approached by a mysterious stranger who whistleblows his wife’s fake pregnancy, the story heads down a deep rabbit hole of red herrings, dead ends, and yes, murder! There is a sense of Happy Valley or Broadchurch in its blend of family drama with police procedural, although The Stranger is a lot looser in plausibility—you don’t have to dig far below the surface to find plot holes. Clearly, The Stranger wants to keep you above ground, and it’s at this level where the series operates best, cleverly distracting you with a barrage of intriguing plot twists and character wrinkles. Each episode will have you craving for the next, so take it at face value and get aboard the binge train.

Servant (AppleTV+)

AppleTV+ has cast a wide net in it’s opening salvo of programming. Servant represents the tech giant’s foray into that undefinable category of downbeat chills that M. Night Shyamalan seems to have mastered. It’s a 10-parter that skirts the edges of the Shyamalan’s uncanny brand of creepy drama as it traces the fortunes of the Turner family. Dorothy is suffering a mental breakdown after the mysterious death of her baby, Sean is trying to keep her horrific secret in the dark, and their new nanny is a religous-ultraconservative straight out of Gloriavale. Oh, and Ron Weasley pops is from time to time to drink their wine. A chamber piece of sorts, Servant never ventures too far from the Turner household, instead letting the characters boil in their own caustic malaise. Fans of Shyamalan will get off on this sombre, brooding, spook-fest, and as with any genre piece, focussed film-making is what hold this series together. There’s plenty of inventive camera-work that avoids the “wankometer”, although beware, some cliches are hiding in the shadows and the score is perhaps a little heavy handed. But on the whole Shyamalan and his stable of directors maintain a consistent tone throughout. It’s unclear if this will be back for another round, and I’d like to think not as the series leaves us on a satisfying (albeit rather opaque) note.

Intermission

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Due to Covid-19 we will be taking a (hopefully) short break. Back soon.

Queen & Slim

QUEEN & SLIMVerdict: A well-meaning and beautiful looking disappointment.

As far as first dates go, this one’s a bit of a fizzer. No, I’m not talking about the titular Queen and Slim’s Tinder date from hell, to which this film explores. Rather, I’m referring to my first outing with promising first-time feature directing and writing duo Melina Matsoukas and Lena Waithe, whose woke sensibilities and vibrantly kinetic film-making style held so much promise. Add to the mix, two “it” actors—the eye-catching Jodie Turner-Smith and Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya—and you have a film that by all measures should be overflowing with style, sass and smarts.

The story follows the duo’s aforementioned first date which goes pear-shaped after they are pulled over by a racist white cop. Following some racial injustice, rash responses and a flurry of gunshots, Queen and Slim suddenly find themselves high-tailing it for the border. The film proceeds to make some fairly pointed comments on authoritarian prejudice as the couple’s panicked flight from the authorities garner a Bonnie and Clyde style posse of unsolicited support that usher them towards freedom.

There is plenty to like about Queen & Slim. For one, it’s beautiful to look at, drenched in silky imagery that dovetails nicely into Pete Beaudreau (A Cure for Wellness, Margin Call) well-considered editing patterns. I simply can’t emphasise enough how good this film looks, and for some, this alone will be worth the price of admission. Secondly, Daniel Kaluuya’s screen presence—anyone who’s seen him in Get Out and then Widows will know his significant range.

Unfortunately, all this is put to waste by Waithe’s patchy screenplay that ebbs and flows from moments of sublime enlightenment to cliched dashboard-thumping expletives and woefully signposted character motivations. I could hear the clunky gears turning.

It’s a classic case of style over substance. Shame, because Queen & Slim film does have a noble message, but it gets overexposed by Waithe’s overwrought dialogue. What’s more, Matsoukas shows her lack of feature-length experience, one that hasn’t yet captured the focussed subtlety of contemporaries such as Barry Jenkins (Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk). As for a future second date with Matsoukas’ next flick? Weeell … for now, I’ll just be polite and say “it’s not you, it’s me”.

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

Color Out of Space

coosVerdict: A trippy tale of cosmic horror that occasionally rises above its B-horror roots.

You might think that a loopy Nicholas Cage, a herd of alpacas, and a half-baked woodland hippie might resemble some sort of comedy, but you couldn’t be further from the truth. Color Out of Space, the latest in many adaptions of H.P Lovecraft’s literary work, is a story of cosmic horror that picks at the raw nerve of our deepest existential fears. 

Lovecraft was indeed ahead of his time, his stories inspiring a wave of celluloid horror many years after they were written. Unfortunately, few are any good. Alex Garland’s recent masterpiece, Annihilation, being a notable exception (actually adapted from Jeff VanderMeer’s book, but with remarkable similarities that capture the cosmic horror Lovecraft was aiming for), but most trip and fall into a mad scientist’s vat of cheap B-grade excess. 

Is this any different?  Well … kinda. It is relatively faithful to the source material, narratively speaking. But that’s not saying much as it has a very simple plot: When a strange meteor falls into the Gardner family’s front yard it contaminates the water supply, turning the flora and fauna into a wondrously indescribable hue. Yep, there’s something in the water alright (last week’s reviewed Dark Waters and this would make a terrifying double bill) and things from here begin to get pretty trippy for the Gardner family, giving way to a wild-eyed alpaca blood soaked dad that only Nicholas Cage could pull off. Even Tommy Chong (of dope-smoking duo Cheech and Chong fame) turns up. Again, no, this isn’t a comedy.

There are some exceptionally thrilling moments within Color’s psychedelia and director Richard Stanley (returning after a long hiatus) has wrangled a tsunami of sight and sound into some very experiential and mind-blowing sequences. Beyond that, unfortunately, the film rather predictably surrenders to the genre-revelling schlock of its cinematic forebears and never fully captures Lovecraft’s intended cosmic horror. Color just can’t seem to decide what kind of movie it wants to be; a high-end sci-fi, or B-grade ham. It’s the lovechild of Alex Garland and Ed Wood and a very frustrating experience to boot. I loved it, and I hated it.

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

Dark Waters

dwVerdict: The murky waters of environmental law turn crystal clear in this efficiently told whistleblowing biopic.

How do you spice up the mundane subject of environmental law? Throw in a couple of A-listers, shoot them with provocative mood filters and set your story to the angsty backdrop of our environmentally frail times. Dark Waters is all this and more—a film that through its lid-lifting on the DuPont scandal has tapped directly into the zeitgeist of today’s environmentally savvy public.

Cut from the same cloth as movies like Erin Brockovich, The Insider, and more recently The Report, Dark Waters offers more of the same David vs Goliath whistleblowing narrative that, while not breaking new cinematic ground, is a compelling enough drama to have you questioning the safety of the water we drink.

Robert Bilott (played by a suitably driven, yet affable, Mark Ruffalo) is a corporate lawyer who defends chemical companies, but when a farmer thrusts into his reluctant hands compelling evidence for gross negligence of one of the world’s largest chemical companies, it causes him to sit up and take notice. The ensuing investigation into the chemical giant DuPont, who knowingly released dangerous chemicals into the public’s water supply, snakes its way down a river of shadowy conspiracies and paranoid side-glances.

Is this movie formulaic? You bet. But it’s a formula that works and director Todd Haynes (Carol, I’m Not There) has meticulously worked his craft with a laser-like (but very predictable) precision. From the do-I-turn-the-key-for-fear-of-the-car-exploding cinematic flash-points of tension to the seamless montages of Bilott pouring over legal documents, Dark Waters flows before your eyes ushering us from one complex plot-point to the next with effortless ease. In fact, this film almost feels too efficient and calculated for its own good. Which is why the more organic and messy relationships, such as Robert’s marriage to Sarah (Hathaway), feel disappointingly undercooked.

Despite this, Dark Waters still operates as a compelling and well-told whistleblowing yarn that explains the complex machinations of the DuPont case with aplomb. I will never look at my glass of water the same.

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

Mr. Jones

mjVerdict: A captivating account of truth-seeking journalist Gareth Jones.

Back for its theatrical release following a rather quiet response at last year’s NZIFF, Mr. Jones feels like a timely reminder of today’s unrelenting flow of fake news.

Set in the early 1930s, Mr. Jones is based on the true story of Welsh journalist Gareth Jones (played by Bond candidate, James Norton), who ventured into the maw of Stalin’s genocidal starvation of the people of Ukraine. His eyewitness account of Holodomor (as it is known by) contradicted the dominant narratives flowing out the Soviet Union at the time—stories that the west was willing to accept in favour of burgeoning trade opportunities. Yet despite Jones’ vociferous protests his words continually fell on deaf ears.

Spearheading this tale of injustice is a suitably odious Peter Sarsgaard (An Education) who slithers into the frame as the Pulitzer winning Walter Duranty, New York Times’ patsy to Soviet interests. His decision to favour hedonism over truth represents the sickening number of political players who turned a blind eye to Stalin’s atrocities.

In contrast, a sympathetic George Orwell (played by Joseph Mawle) pops up intermittently to hear Jones’ concerns—burdens that would later be famously reworked into his opus, Animal Farm. These interludes may seem a tad superfluous at times, however this insight into Orwell’s politically driven narratives serve to highlight Jones’ frustration in convincing the political establishment to accept his ground-level reporting as fact.

And it is at ground-level and in Ukraine’s frozen tundra where this film operates best. Oscar-nominated director, Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa, In Darkness) has crafted a bleak and desperately lonely vision of Holodomor that appropriately hits home the horrors of Stalin’s atrocities.

Not without a few flaws, most notably Jones’ “obligatory” love interest with New York Times employee Ada Brookes (Vanessa Kirby) whose character, while softening an otherwise all-male cast, does little to further the film’s cause. Some might also wonder if a trimmer, more focussed, version of Mr. Jones lives inside its slightly bloated 141 mins running time. Small quibbles for what is otherwise a gripping history lesson.

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