Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist

WestwoodPunkIconActivistThis year has now produced two notable documentaries about British fashion designers. But where the recently released McQueen was a straight stare at a life that burnt bright, Westwood dials things back and is a more measured examination of a designer still working.

From the outset, the film makes it clear that Vivienne does not want to tell us her life story. In the film’s only vagary, it’s difficult to discern if she is apologetically embarrassed about boring us with her stories, or unapologetically annoyed about boring herself with them. What is abundantly clear though, is that Westwood is a straight shooter offering some Gordon Ramsey styled moments of non-minced vocabulary.  

The documentary dispenses with her upbringing, beginning instead in the seventies when Westwood was busy confronting society with the self-proclaimed invention of punk. It was when punk became fashionable, rather than a middle finger to the establishment it was supposed to be, that Westwood branched off and seriously honed her skill as a clothes designer.  Unsurprisingly, her punk sensibility (which is still in evidence today) raised the ire of the British fashion fraternity. Her label independently forged on nonetheless and even to this day, it’s rapid expansion clashes with her desire to maintain control of it. 

Westwood is a wonderful sensory experience and its fractured visual approach makes for an engaging experience. Fledgeling Director Lorna Tucker has done a commendable job of harnessing the copious amount of archival footage, presenting it in an imaginative way. A tapestry of overlapping imagery and footage jumps around the screen, building on the film’s larger canvas. 

Although visually rewarding, the documentary lacks the narrative bite to match Westwood’s iconoclastic persona. There are interesting flash-points of drama throughout, but as a whole, the film doesn’t have the punch of contemporaries such as McQueen—obviously, a lot more difficult when the subject of your doco is still alive and kicking.

Even so, Westwood is a worthwhile documentary that demonstrates how an outspoken provocateur, who is pointed in the right direction, can be an effective agent for positive change. And if the film teaches us one thing it is that the world needs punks, icons, and activists.

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

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Beast

beast“You’re wounded. I can fix that.”—it is a seemingly innocuous opening line from Beast, but it speaks volumes about the film’s two central characters. Moll (played by Jessie Buckley), to whom the line is directed, has just met the mysterious Pascal (Johnny Flynn).  His multilayered comment clearly points to more than just the cut on her hand.

In his debut feature, Writer/Director Michael Pearce has created a complex and vividly lush thriller that sits you bolt-upright in your seat.  It is a brooding character study that investigates the hidden monsters within, borrowing from dark thrillers like Lady Macbeth and winking at classics such as Fatal Attraction.

A serial killer is on the loose in the small British island community of Jersey … a bad time for Moll to fall in love with a mysterious stranger.  Moll, a sheltered young woman, is still firmly under her oppressive mother’s thumb (clinically played by Geraldine James), but the allure of Pascal is too great to resist. As the murder-mystery plays out in the periphery, Beast chooses to focus on creating, then untangling, the complex love story of Moll and Pascal. They are two flawed individuals who both wrestle with their own demons and although the machinations of the murder-mystery are ever-present, the film’s real mystery is what motivates their relationship. 

Beast works best in the quieter moments of introspection and interaction between the two lovers.

The underrated Jessie Buckley (Taboo, War and Peace) is superb here. She drips with screen presence and her nuanced performance has Moll teetering on the cusp of sanity. Also of note is cinematographer Benjamin Kracun (Hyena), whose careful attention to every shot is a spellbinding feast of perfection, almost to the point of distraction. 

It is a shame, then, that the film’s finale falls a little flat and an opportunity to finish on a provocatively ambiguous note is disappointingly snuffed out by Pearce’s neat and tidy ending. Nonetheless, Beast remains, for the most part, an excellent film from a talented cast and crew that are worth keeping an eye on.

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

The House with a Clock in Its Walls

8t50_d017_00131rThe House with a Clock in Its Walls is a holiday flick that neatly slides in between Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket on the bookshelf of magic and misfortune; a lengthy title, some brooding special effects, an orphan boy who learns magic, and questionable caregivers. It has become a slightly tired routine, something which I was hoping the effervescent Jack Black and brooding Cate Blanchett would breath new life into—unfortunately not.

Set in the fifties, Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) is sent to live with his uncle Jonathan (Black) after having tragically lost his parents.  Uncle Jonathan is an amiable man who is relentlessly tormented by a mysterious clock that continuously ticks within the recesses of his mansion walls. Lewis soon discovers that all is not as it seems with his uncle and his peculiar neighbour Florence (Blanchett), and that the clock Jonathan seeks holds the key to the future of the universe.

Although the film seemingly has all the accessible ingredients of broad appeal, it is hampered by two factors.  Firstly, the young’uns in the audience will most likely find it way too scary.  There are plenty of jump-scares and moments of genuine creepiness here. Perhaps Eli Roth, who’s helmed such horrors as Hostel and Cabin Fever might not have been the wisest pick to direct a family-friendly holiday flick.  Try as he might, Roth can’t keep his horror sensibilities under the bed, resulting in some fairly dark imagery; animated dolls, drops of sacrificial blood dripping onto spell books, animating the dead … you get the drift. 

Secondly, lest you think the film is pitched at an older audience, the plot seems way too rudimentary. The film gags for more complexity and humour. There are a few chuckles, but not nearly what we’ve become accustomed to from Black. As a platform for Black and Blanchett to strut their stuff, well, this renders them more Bland and Blandchett.

It’s not all bad; technically the film carries off some fairly impressive set pieces and the young talent, Owen Vaccaro, seems destined for greater things. Ultimately though, the timing of The House with a Clock in Its Walls’ is a little confused.

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

RBG

rbgWith the anniversary of women’s suffrage fresh in our minds, a film about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was a giant in the fight for women’s rights, is a timely release.

You might have noticed the meme “Notorious RBG” bandied about recently; a humorous meld of Ginsburg—a diminutive shy Jewish lawyer—and American rap artist Notorious BIG who is anything but. However, as this doco explains, Ginsburg’s dogged drive and determination for shaking up the establishment shows that there is more truth to the meme’s apparent oxymoron than meets the eye. 

The doco begins by telling Ginsberg’s early life. She was a demure woman who had a penchant for the law-books, but her struggle with sexism within the male-dominated fraternity was something her quiet resolve could not ignore. So she set about illuminating many Judges who didn’t think sex-discrimination existed … rather successfully. Her work in the seventies was immensely influential for woman’s rights and the doco takes us through a handful of foundational cases that she brought before the U.S. Supreme Court during this time. As writer/activist Gloria Steinem puts it “Ruth’s work made me feel as if I was protected by the U.S. Constitution for the first time.”

Documentarians Julie Cohen and Betsy West have chosen to not use narration, meaning much of the information is delivered through interviews. But rather than rely solely on talking-heads to elucidate proceedings, RBG is wonderfully brought to life through a wealth of archival footage and an imaginative use of court recordings and imagery.

Touching on a personal note, the doco also examines the inspiring relationship she had with her husband, Martin. It is a tender love-story of a man who championed his wife’s career right up to and including her eventual nomination into the U.S. Supreme Court. 

While Ginsburg herself may not be the most emotively charismatic person to grace the silver screen, the documentary goes to great lengths to breathe life into her achievements.  And deservedly so, because this is an important film that should be seen.

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

Ladies in Black

lIBWho knew that in 1959 Sydney also had a beady-eyed store-mounted Santa sporting a creepy “come hither little child” mechanical finger.  It’s just one of many cultural touch-stones on show in this adaptation of Madeleine St John’s bestselling novel.

Director Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy) has played it safe in his treatment of the source material.  There is little conflict or anguish to be found in here, as Beresford paints a summertime Sydney in full glow. The pallet is bright and breezy, much like the film’s characters all who buoyantly waft on and off the screen with the innocence and exuberance of the period.

Lisa (Angourie Rice), around whom much of the action revolves, is an earnest young summertime recruit of an upmarket Department store. Her doe-eyed innocence is met with curiosity as she is taken under the wing of two seasoned saleswomen, Fay and Patty. At the group’s core is the matriarchal Magda (Julia Ormond), a glamorous Slovenian immigrant who manages the high-fashion floor. Ormond positively shines in a scenery-chewing role as she effortlessly glides around the set, ushering the other three in and out of various social quandaries. The narrative is fairly low-key and occasionally meandering, but what it lacks in plot machinations, it makes up with satisfyingly rich and engaging characters.

Magda’s Eastern European roots allow the film to examine Australia’s elephant in the room; immigration.  Australia’s influx of refugees, or “reffoes” as they are referred to in the film, is as relevant a topic now as it was back in the fifties. However, beholden to the tone of St. John’s novel, Beresford has chosen to gently tiptoe through the sensitive topic, lest he set off alarm bells in Australia’s off-shore detention centres. But despite his very light hand, the film is a multi-faceted portrayal of identity and opportunity, and doesn’t ignore the immigrant influences that found their milieu within post-war Australia.

While the film feels slightly avoidant of the deeper issues at stake, what remains is a delightfully warm-hearted film that turns a topical minefield into an inviting meadow you’ll want to roll around in.  

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

Searching

searchingThe secret world of a teenager’s digital life is explored in this engaging desktop thriller. It is a Hitchcockian Rear Window for the modern generation, with the action taking place entirely within the confines of an electronic screen.

Helming his first feature film, writer/director Aneesh Chaganty has dipped his digital toes into the growing pool of Bekmambetov styled desktop thrillers.  It’s a bold move for the fledgeling director, who almost pulls it off. 

John Cho (Star Trek) plays David, a recent widower who is managing to keep it together as a solo dad.  But when his teenage daughter fails to return home one night, things begin to unravel. Her disappearance is as much a mystery to the case Detective Vick (played by Debra Messing) as it is to David.  His desperate investigations into her whereabouts traverse a dizzying scape of social media and streaming sites which lead him down a warren of false-turns, dead-ends, and red-herrings. The bulk of the film is essentially David getting to know his daughter without actually spending any time with her.

It’s engaging stuff and the format offers fertile ground to garner insights from its characters as it flits between various online services. A momentary mouse pause over an icon or word deleted during a message speak volumes for what is going through David’s mind, and here it is used to full dramatic effect.

Unfortunately, when the action is required further afield, things begin to derail. Beholden to its modus operandi, the enforced confines of the digital screen are stretched to breaking point and when David is required to visit other locations the film can’t quite maintain a sense of plausibility. It begins relying on tropes such as streaming news-casts to elucidate proceedings beyond what they would normally do. And despite director Chaganty’s noble efforts, the action begins to feel awkward and slightly gimmicky.

That said, it is just this gimmick that elevates Searching above what would’ve otherwise been a bog-standard crime thriller. So, “like” to that at least.

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

Wayne

waynePerhaps stymied by the calibre of great documentaries currently showing, Wayne, a film about Australia’s celebrated two-wheeled maestro, doesn’t quite achieve pole position.

The film tells the tale of Aussie racing legend Wayne Gardner, who rose through the ranks from a five-dollar dirt bike rider to World Motorcycle Grand Prix Champion.  He became a household name in the eighties, quite literally—even I’d heard of him, which is saying something. 

The film gets off the grid with a turbo-charged montage of the titular leather-clad Aussie sporting hero; revving bikes, adoring fans, mullets and stubbies in full force, and all to the backdrop of a wailing Jimmy Barnes.  It’s a pulsating and glorious snapshot of eighties Australia in full effect. Unfortunately, the film never manages to maintain that level of energy and backs off the throttle into a more dulcet tone for the remainder of the film.

Brought up by a relatively poor family in the steelwork and mining town of Wollongong, Gardner’s story follows a familiar trajectory common to many sporting heroes; a blinkered passion for the sport, strained relationships, triumph in the face of adversity—it’s all there. But where this doco is most interesting is the effect Gardner had on Australia’s many adoring fans at a time when the big red country was flexing its muscles on the sporting world. 

Considering it’s his first feature documentary, Director Jeremy Sims (Last Cab to Darwin) has done an adequate job. He has, however, been found disappointingly short of archival footage of Gardner’s early life, and his decision to plug the gaps with quasi-anime styled cartoons is an odd one—perhaps a wink to the Japanese bikes on show, but here it feels out of sorts with the rest of the documentary.

Wayne will definitely appeal to past and present enthusiasts of the sport, or the man himself.  Beyond that, it remains frustratingly mild and all too briefly hits top gear.

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

McQueen

mcqueenSome might reserve their benefit pay for vices such as cigarettes or alcohol, but in the early days of British fashion designer Alexander McQueen, his dole money was spent on textiles. His literal rags-to-riches tale is a familiar one; a tortured artist driven by his passion to the point of self-destruction.  Yep, seen it before. But here, documentarians Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui have told McQueen’s tale with the kind of technical virtuosity that is utterly compelling. 

Right from the opening credits this film drips and oozes with rich imagery.  The camera is seldom still as McQueen’s life on the catwalk unfolds like a delicious sensory feast. Bonhôte and Ettedgui structure the film around a handful of foundational runway shows, including the infamous “Highland Rape” collection. McQueen was a reluctant provocateur, but unapologetic for exhibiting on the catwalk his own personal truth. His tenacity and authenticity brought about some of the most vivid fashion shows to date and bore out cathartic events, often expressing a darkly violent and ironic inner beauty—the kind of brutal truth that lies beneath a children’s nursery rhyme. Ultimately, his vivid imagination did not go unnoticed and landed him within the hallowed walls of Givenchy and Gucci. But with a rack of skeletons in the closet and numerous demons to wrestle, his is a fairytale that was never going to end well.

Rather than relying solely on archival footage, this very well sourced documentary is laced with anecdotal stories from friends and family who give an emotional account of the troubled artist. The breadth of candid interviews is worth noting. From larger-than-life personalities such as Isabella Blow who took McQueen under her wing, to his mum, schoolmates, models, industry confidants, friends and family, all flesh out the McQueen story. Add to that, Cinzia Baldessari’s (Almost Heaven) deft editing and Michael Nyman’s (The Piano) heady score and you have a glorious symphony for the senses that runs the gamut of emotions; occasionally amusing, often macabre … but always fascinating. This is bravura filmmaking of the highest order and begs to be seen on the big screen.

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

Spitfire

spitfire“The aura surrounding the Spitfire is more a post-war phenomenon than a war-time thing. It was just an instrument of war then”—a softly spoken sentiment shared by one of the few remaining RAF Spitfire pilots still alive.  As this documentary makes crystal clear, the iconic WW2 fighter, which has since been idolised and romanticised, was a design of practicality made to do a job. But it was a design of such influence that it most likely turned the tide on history. Certainly a sobering thought.

The film traverses the Spitfire’s history from its pre-war design and introduction to its evolution and final retirement.  But rather than roll out a bland history of sequential events, documentarians David Fairhead and Ant Palmer have mixed up the Spitfire’s tale with a plethora of anecdotal stories from the people who made, delivered, and flew the craft.  A lively marriage of archival and modern-day footage spurs proceedings as it covers the Spitfire’s crucial use in the Battle of Britain. Sparsely narrated by the very recognisable voice of Charles Dance (Game of Thrones), his resonant timbre and clipped British accent provide the kind of regal gravitas to match the iconic plane’s Rolls-Royce Merlin engines that growl throughout.

It’s the kind of documentary that doesn’t require an interest in the subject to make it worth your while. Certainly, the intoxicating imagery is both sad and thrilling, but it’s the fascinating personal accounts that resonate most. Worthy of note is its examination into the role that women played; whose skills were not only employed in the manufacture and design of the aircraft, but also their piloting prowess in delivering the 22,000 Spitfires to the airfields. 

Like their subject, Fairhead and Palmer have delivered an elegant documentary. And although the emotive musical score is perhaps a little too fawning, it does soften the film’s British stiff upper lip. Appropriately, Spitfire doesn’t side-step the awful loss, finishing on a personal note that pays homage to those who lost their lives. As one ex-pilot implores “In all conscience, this world needs a change from all this hostility and warfare. The world needs a change.”  Indeed it does.

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

On Chesil Beach

ocbWedding night nuptials have never felt this awkward. Ian McEwan’s (Atonement) adaptation of his own Booker-nominated novella, On Chesil Beach, opens with a sweet young couple walking hand-in-hand along the titular beach. Their honeymoon suite awaits.  What could possibly go wrong?  Well, for starters it is immediately apparent that these two brits—a blushing English bride and a handsome but bumbling groom—have a physical intimacy as fragile as glass. 

Set in 1962, ironically at the dawn of the sexual revolution, On Chesil Beach pits good will against the brutal truth of sexual countenance. Slowly, through flashbacks, we learn about Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward’s (Billy Howle) romance that leads to their engagement which was born on the wings of a burgeoning friendship more than sexual attraction.  Now, in their honeymoon suite, there is something clearly amiss as the couple struggle to consummate their marriage.  Bereft of any physical warmth, their honeymoon quickly becomes stilted, self-conscious (almost comically so) and strained. The sexual subtext occupies the room like a rutting bull-elephant. And despite the clipped “no sex please, we’re English” demeanour the film addresses the topic head-on with the momentum of a freight train. When inevitable derailment eventuates, you wonder how it happened so quickly.

There are, of course, reasons behind their awkward courtship, one particularly pointed event, which McEwan has chosen to only hint at. For the most part, the film concentrates on the immediate break-down of their relationship.  The confidence of a novelist who has adapted his own book is in full effect here and feature director debutant Dominic Cooke has done a commendable job managing McEwan’s material, helped immensely by Ronan and Howle’s vivid performances.

Unfortunately, the film’s final throw, a desperately sad flash-forward, loses itself in inches of poor facial prosthetics. A shame to have the story tarnished by a technical distraction, because otherwise On Chesil Beach delivers solid performances, an intriguing story, and perhaps the most beautifully framed final shot I’ve seen in a while.

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