Becky


What happens when a petulant teen unloads a rage-filled can of kick-ass on some baddies? Becky happens. That’s the kind of feel-good revenge-swagger that director’s Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion (Bushwick) want you to feel in their latest action-thriller. Unfortunately, aside from the occasional chunk of slasher thrills and a notable performance from its lead, Becky isn’t going to be the cult film they want it to be.

Kevin James (Paul Blart: Mall Cop) heads up a quartet of swastika tattooed prison escapees hell-bent on retrieving a mysterious key that will unlock their master plan (a macguffin that never fully reveals itself). Unfortunately for them, the key has fallen into the unsuspecting hands of thirteen-year-old Becky—a resourceful little viper who luckily is out of the house when the crims arrive. The film moves swiftly through the gears of sub-genres; hostage thriller, slasher, revenge, even a hint of body horror makes an eyeball-amputating appearance as Becky proceeds to go all Rambo on her assailants. There is an uneasy mix of Stallone and Macauley Culkin as she unloads a blood-curdling tirade of cobbled-together weapons made from household items. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t satisfying seeing neo-nazis get their comeuppance. Unfortunately, it should’ve been more so, as Kevin James is woefully miscast here. His many roles as the cuddly comic may have tarnished his chances to play a bad guy and I struggled to remove the mall-cop from the neo-nazi.

Becky does, however, contain plenty of nice formal flourishes with some clever cross-cuts that deliver flash-points of tension, but it unfortunately loses steam over the course of the film. Racial undertones are never fully explored and the script begins to show cracks. And while Lulu Wilson (Annabelle: Creation) brings plenty sass to her role as Becky, its not enough to rescue what is otherwise a run-of-the-mill gore-fest that will satisfy only fans of the genre.

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

This week’s releases …

Tenet – A Christopher Nolan brain-bender that incorporates his signature blockbusting clout and a heady blend of time, physics, and action. While this is far from Nolan’s best, it manages to carry you along with some astonishing set pieces. And if you can unshackle yourself from the mind-contorting plot, Tenet becomes quite an exhilarating two hours.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things – Director Charlie Kaufman appears to relish peering into the psyche of loners (Adaptation., Being John Malkovich etc.) often with alluring results. Captured from the novella by Iain Reid, I’m Thinking of Ending Things reveals the inner workings of a very private life and is dripping with Kaufman’s typically wordy style as he tells the story of Jake (Jesse Plemons) and the strained relationship with his girlfriend (played by Jessie Buckley). Indeed the film’s inner monologues can occasionally feel like wading through molasses, but the intriguing characters linger in your mind long after you’ve put the Netflix remote down, calling you to piece together the film’s many clues and ponder its allegories. As expected all is not what it seems and I’m Thinking of Ending Things begs for a deep post-view reading. Doing so delivers a wonderfully rewarding experience and if nothing else it’s worth seeing for the brilliant Jessie Buckley.

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

This week’s releases

Here are some flicks I’ve seen that are due out in cinemas this week …

The Australian Dream – A powerful and challenging film that documents the racial abuse of AFL player Adam Goodes. The film brilliantly peels back the layers of his story as he stares straight down the barrel of the camera lens, implicating and provoking a reaction from its audience. A well-structured documentary that found me effortlessly floating in the invisibility of its filmmaking and thinking only of the man at its centre. Would make a great (but arduous) double-bill with Sweet Country.

The Quarry – A man on the run assumes a new identity in this searing slow burn that’s been left in the frying pan too long. It makes a reasonable attempt at exploring the theme of forgiveness, but it’s far too strained and elongated to effectively get the message through. Michael Shannon does what Shannon does best but Shea Whigham is painfully wooden.

Fatima – Based on true events this swooning period piece tells the story of three children and their miraculous visions of Mary that lead to unrest in their small Portuguese town. It’s patchy but honest story telling that longs for a Malickian touch but doesn’t quite get there.

New streaming titles…

Here are latest streaming capsule reviews from the good Witchdoctor. I give Lovecraft Country a favourable writeup after having seen the first episode. Gotta say I was slightly less enamoured with episode two which aired last night. I guess after such a great start the only way was going to be down. You can read the reviews here.

Irresistible

Verdict: Easy to resist.

Written and directed by American political commentator and satirist Jon Stewart (of The Daily Show fame) Irresistible, examines the crazy circus that is the US election system. It’s only Stewart’s second time in the director’s chair after his critically well-received debut, Rosewater. Unfortunately, lightning hasn’t struck twice, and what begins as a whip-smart political commentary descends into smugness and unapologetically spans a rather contrived narrative arc.

The film follows Democratic electioneering strategist, Gary (Steve Carell), who heads into small-town-America on a recruitment drive after seeing an inspirational speech from town-hall upstart Jack (played by Chris Cooper). Much to Gary’s glee, Jack’s rural brand of rhetoric is surprisingly sympathetic to the Democrat cause and Gary is eager to convince him to run for local Mayor, thereby giving the Democrats an unsuspecting voice deep inside the Republican camp… a Trojan Donkey, if you will.

It’s meaty political subject matter and something I would’ve expected Stewart, with his political savvy and witty repartee, to be all over a like Trump tanning booth. Yet, given the opportunities for satirical complexities, Irresistible is disappointingly plain. Carell is typically Carellesque in his humorous delivery, and the ever-reliable Chris Cooper competently negotiates some fairly straight-forward dialogue. But none of the film’s cast (Rose Byrne and MacKenzie Davis included) are stretched to anywhere near their talented boundaries, which speaks volumes to Stewart’s limited experience as director.

Yes, there are some highlights, most notably the film’s final subversive comment on financial involvement in the US election process, but digging beneath the film’s satirical surface reveals an unsavoury whiff of questionable virtues—from the creepy romantic undertones between the Gary and Jack’s daughter (who is half his age), to the tired city-slicker routine which comes across as condescending to small-town-America and whose inhabitants are depicted as simple but warm-hearted people. Shame, because despite Irresistible’s clumsy handling there is a well-meaning film that has some valid points to make on the financially warped US electoral system.

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

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.