Pain and Glory

P and G Leonardo Sbaraglia and Antonio BanderasMaking an autobiographical film about a director’s life can be a tricky task.  Get it wrong and it comes across as a self-absorbed exercise in navel-gazing. But get it right and you have something wonderful, like Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory. 

Set in Spain, this film centres on the “fictional” life of Salvador Mello. Through a series of flash-backs, Almodóvar (for whom this film operates as a thinly veiled semi-autobiographical drama) fleshes out Salvador’s formative years at the hands of his impoverished mother (played by Penelope Cruz), his absent father, and the sexual awakenings of the house help.  Fast forward to the present and Salvador is now a successful but creatively stifled film-maker, who suffers from numerous ailments and is struggling to unite his past with the present. But through a series of coincidental reconnections, his past is thrust upon him.  There is a hint of Fellini’s 8 1/2, or even Cuarón’s more recent Roma in the self-confessional nature of Almodóvar’s sideways glance at his own life and the people who influenced him.

Almodóvar collaborator Antonio Banderas gives an exceptionally soul-searching performance as Salvador, one of intensely focussed restraint as an internalised individual who ruminates on his past life.  He is a picture of contradictions, with mournful eyes that betray his smooth image of studied unkemptness. At one point Salvador exclaims to a colleague “The one who cries is not a better actor than the one who struggles to hold back tears”— advice that Banderas takes on board in one heart-wrenching scene that sums up the pain and glory of Salvador’s life. Indeed, Banderas’ remarkably nuanced performance does plenty of this film’s heavy-lifting and elevates it into something quite sublime.

But far from solely a Banderas masterclass, Almodóvar’s distinctive flavour is evident throughout.  Although at the restrained end of his oeuvre, Pain and Glory is still a visually compelling work with a rich colour palette and some subtle formal flourishes that are wall-hangingly beautiful. Certainly, Pain and Glory’s thought-provoking final shot will have your post-viewing tongues wagging while you sip on your Tempranillo.

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

Brittany Runs a Marathon

britAs Brittany Runs a Marathon’s spoilerific title hints, this movie quite literally does what it says on the tin. Yes, Brittany does actually run a marathon. But this indie dramedy also packs plenty of soul-searching smarts that go beyond the accessibly cheerful packaging. Think Francis Ha with sneakers.

In her late twenties and unhealthily overweight, Brittany drinks heavy and parties hard. She’s happy on the exterior but sad on the inside, so much so that together with a wakeup-call from her doctor, it leads her to question her hollow lifestyle. As she embarks on a journey of reinvention, she is forced to contend with the inherent messiness of body positivity, the awkward push-and-pull of being happy with the body you’re in, and recognising that losing weight is important for your longevity. Not easy when your best friend is an online influencer who can’t run because “it makes me too skinny”.  Despite this, Brittany laces up her running shoes, thanks in part to her burgeoning new-found support group; the sporty woman upstairs, her understanding black brother-in-law, her gay running partner, and the unlikely Indian love-interest.  Yes, representation is woke-fully present in this film, a good thing if perhaps a little intentional.

But contrasting this refreshing blend of new-world characters is Brittany’s more traditional narrative arc.  It is, when pared down, a predictable crowd-pleaser. However, the feel-good vibes are elevated by some delightful directing, thoughtful writing, and heartfelt performances from the cast. Written and directed by Paul Downs Colaizzo (his first feature), Brittany was inspired by his real-life flatmate.  His screenplay is consistently honest in its conversations about weight, wellness, and self-worth. But the pairing of his screenplay to actor Jillian Bell (Rough Night) is the film’s master-stroke.  Bell’s pitch-perfect performance really makes this film hum as she takes the self-deprecating Brittany along a path of physical and emotional change.

Although Brittany runs through a lot of familiar territory, there is a sense of authenticity to Colaizzo’s film. Joyful, funny, and inspirational in a totally unsentimental way, this film crosses the finish line with its head held high.

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

The Dead Don’t Die

tdddIt’s hardly surprising that Jim Jarmusch has finally made a zombie flick. It is a sub-genre that many filmmakers have dabbled in and Jarmusch is certainly not shy of turning his pensively paced films into genre movies (eg. Dead Man as a Western). Certainly, this isn’t his first film about the undead. Notably, he sent two love-struck vampires, Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, into a poetic haze in Only Lovers Left Alive. But where that film wallowed in its dreamy melancholic fervour, The Dead Don’t Die is a different beast, opting to reside in the comical and schlocky spirit of yesteryear’s zombie flicks. It’s kooky, mildly amusing … and unfortunately, a complete misfire.

Hosting a zombie hoard of Jarmusch regulars, this film’s rotting belly is bursting with talent. Police officers Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and Chloë Sevigny are the mainstays at the sleepy town of Centerville, while Tilda Swinton, Tom Waits, Steve Buscemi and others (too many to name) fill out the bit parts. It appears that Jarmusch gathered his regulars and asked them what their most typecast role might be—and boom, that’s your role. Swinton, for example, occupies the etherial witch-like samurai-sword wielding mortician (Doctor Strange, Suspiria, etc.), while Buscemi is yet another cap-wearing wise-cracking redneck (Fargo, Lean on Pete, etc.). So purposeful are the archetypes, it leaves little left to be interested in. I guess that might be Jarmusch’s point, as he painstakingly paints each character with a one-dimensional brush to highlight our insatiable appetite for cookie-cutter characterisation.

But because of this, I found myself caring less and less about the fate of anyone in the small town of Centerville. The fourth wall breaking and events that “go off script” smacked of desperation to solicit my attention. At times it did feel like a deeper subtext might’ve been at play beyond riffing on the usual zombies-equal-consumerism metaphor. When Adam Driver says “This isn’t gonna end well”, I think I know what he meant.

I love Jarmusch’s films, and I will be first in line at his next one. But this zom-com represents Jarmusch’s first genuine dud. The Dead Don’t Die is life Jim, but not as we know it.

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

Ride Like a Girl

RLaG1The Melbourne Cup is one of the more glamorous events on the world’s sporting calendar. A sport of small margins, jockeying specifically, requiring a delicate balance of weight management, knowledge, skill, and perhaps most importantly determination—something Michelle Payne, Melbourne Cup’s first female jockey winner, had in spades. However, prior to her win in 2015, she couldn’t seem to catch the eye of the male-dominated horse-racing fraternity. Considering it’s a job that seemingly suits gender parity (arguably even favouring a female’s slighter frame), it’s a travesty that female jockeys had been cast into the margins for so long.

Saddling up in her first feature as director, Rachel Griffiths tells Michelle’s true story of frustration and success. Since playing the tumultuous Rhonda Epinstalk in Muriel’s Wedding, Griffiths has had an exhaustive number of roles, suggesting directing to be the next logical step, and with Ride Like a Girl, the fledgling director has quite understandably held the reins rather tightly. The music swells at all the right moments, telling you how you should feel, and the dialogue is, well, safe. The result is a movie that hits you with a good dollop of feel-good vibes but occasionally feels a little by-the-numbers.

Teresa Palmer (Hacksaw Ridge) gives a dedicated performance as Michelle, and our very own grandad of cinema, Sam Neill, chips in with a solid turn as Michelle’s beleaguered father (he had ten children!). He even gives our 1982 winner, Kiwi, a mention and, yes, Phar Lap … no mention of pavlovas, though.

Despite some deficiencies (loose editing and questionable scripting), this is far from McLeods Daughter’s on horseback, with Griffiths exhibiting a few nice formal flourishes demonstrating her potential as director. Ride Like a Girl is a satisfying crowd-pleaser that does what it says on the tin and if you bridle your expectations before the cinema lights dim, you’ll be off and racing.

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

Photograph

photogIndia’s movie industry isn’t really known for subtlety, Bollywood, in particular, has yet to come to grips with the “less is more” method of filmmaking. Thankfully, there are a number of Indian filmmakers who balk at Bollywood’s gaudy style, overuse of archetypes and cookie-cutter stories. Ritesh Batra is one of those directors, his breakout hit The Lunchbox (2013) wooing crowds with a bittersweet romance sensitively draped over a portrait of Mumbai city. However, in his latest feature, Photograph, Batra may have overcooked his response to Bollywood’s bombastic cliches by giving us a film so contemplative and agonisingly restrained that it will try your patience.

Set in Mumbai, this tale of forbidden love focusses on Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a struggling street photographer whose comically overbearing grandmother is pressuring him to get married. After taking a photo of Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), a painfully shy student, he convinces her to pose as his fiancée to appease his grandmother. Predictably, the two develop a romance that is met with the usual roadblocks of social status and other various pitfalls. It’s a somewhat gimmicky premise from which Batra (who also wrote the screenplay) builds his love story, but elevated by the couples very different backgrounds which gives Batra the opportunity to comment on India’s classism. However, Rafi and Miloni’s relationship is so painfully reserved and devoid of charisma it made me want to leap through the screen and slap some life into their doleful expressions. Photograph fast becomes an emotional desert, disengaging to a point where I felt, dare I say it … bored.

By contrast, this romantic yawn is a sensory delight. Cinematographers Tim Gillis and Ben Kutchins (Ozark) have pepped up this dreamy tale, capturing Mumbai’s rich textures and drizzling each well-considered frame with treacly golden hues that make the most of a Batra’s solid production design.

However, pretty as it is, the lush visuals can’t overcome Photograph’s impenetrable wall of wistfulness. Moreover, its final act is an abrupt misfire. Batra seems more concerned with showing us how his love story ends differently from others. That, or he simply ran out of ideas on how to finish.

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

Animals

Animals - Still 1
“God forbid our reality should ruin the big jazzy fantasy”…such are the many shrewd exclamations of Animals, a film that explores the existential optimism of two young women. It is everything you’d expect from a plucky Irish-Aussie co-production—a spirited, punchy tale that sparkles with a heady mix of confident youthful enthusiasm and dark sardonic humour.

A sassy wise-cracking American, Tyler (played by Alia Shawkat), and local wannabe writer, Laura (Holliday Grainger), are two heavy-drinking Dublin besties and the world is their oyster. Their effervescent friendship sniffs out poetic reckoning and drug-addled hedonism at every turn, but when Laura starts to question their lifestyle, cracks begin to appear in their friendship. Surrounding herself with an awkward mix of Dublin pub dwellers, artistic intelligentsia and her conventional family, Laura’s life is caught in the push-and-pull between partying, bohemian fervour, and traditional life choices. Imagine the relational messiness of A Date for Mad Mary meets the feminist smarts of Jane Campion’s Bright Star and you’ll get an idea of where Animals sits both tonally and topically.

Adapting the script from her own novel, and in her first feature, Emma Jane Unsworth has penned a screenplay that spits with sharp wit, adroitly balancing a love story with one of existential crisis and smothering friendship. The devil is in the detail and Unsworth seems to have plenty of devils to talk about, lacing her script with snappy repartee, which while plentiful, does occasionally border on being overbearing and suffers at the hands of its own cleverness. Nonetheless, Unsworth’s screenplay shows enough agility to suggest her’s is a talent worth keeping an eye on.

Her pairing with Sophie Hyde (52 Tuesdays), a director with clear feminist leanings, make Laura and Tyler’s relationship all the more potent with Laura defining herself as “blazing a new way through old traditions”. Yet, surprisingly the film doesn’t let feminism become a distraction, rather allowing the two women forge out their own destinies through a more conventional narrative arc. Ultimately, Animals is an admirable take on self-discovery and reminds us that change is inevitable.

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

Joker

jkWhat a luxury to have Joaquin Phoenix, an actor of such immense scope, to hang your film on. Especially when that film is about one of the most iconic (and dare I say it, celebrated) fictional villains in history. His turn as the Clown Prince of Crime will most likely draw comparisons to those who have gone before (Ledger, Nicholson, et al). But it needn’t. This film is a different beast and Phoenix occupies quite a different period in the Joker story.

Set within the bowels of Gotham City (stylised as an all-but-in-name early eighties New York City), Joker introduces Arthur Fleck; a heavily medicated clown-for-hire with a neurological compulsive laughing disorder. Living with his mother (Frances Conroy), with whom he spends evenings watching the Late Night show with Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), Arthur cuts a desperately lonely figure. Bullied, alienated, and fast becoming bitter towards the people around him, Arthur succumbs to his darker leanings.

It’s easy to forget that this is yet another film set within the DC universe. Instead of the usual bombastic bluster, Joker gives us an introspective character study that belies its comic-book origins. Dark, gritty and full of rage, this deep-dive into Fleck’s psychological descent is undeniably an eye-opener. But, as absorbing as it is, the pained misunderstood anti-hero shtick does have a very familiar ring to it, with Fleck’s character clearly cribbing from roles such as Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle (De Niro providing yet further connective tissue). Even Phoenix’s role in last year’s You Were Never Really Here—as Joe, another sociopathic loner on whom we were encouraged to cast our sympathies—could easily be considered a “Fleck practice run”. Certainly, the similarities are there.

Joker’s director/co-writer Todd Phillips’ (The Hangover trilogy) pathos-filled characterisation of Fleck is considerably unsettling—a dark vision that walks a tenuous tightrope between empathy towards Fleck’s brokenness and revulsion at the Joker’s psychopathic tendencies. It’s a wobbly moral compass that occasionally leaves you unsure of who you should root for. Despite this, Joker still elevates itself from the pack, thanks in main to Phoenix’s remarkably embodied performance.

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

Midsommar

minsommarThere is an uneasy tension in the air with Ari Aster’s latest horror.  In his follow up to last year’s harrowing and unsettling Hereditary, the brooding filmmaker has extended his cold touch into the warm reaches of a Scandinavian summer.

Midsommar follows a group of American students into the rural Swedish hinterland where a closed-off druidic community has lived for hundreds of years. The community provides Anthropology student Christian (Jack Reynor), the opportunity to study their pagan rites and rituals. But when one ritual turns from an innocuous flower-clad-romp into an insidiously horrific death, the group start to doubt the community’s principles.  

Far from a diet of schlocky jump-scares and giggles, Midsommar is a slow burn, a ruminating and sinister film that ratchets tension with a vice-like grip. Aster maintains Hereditary’s grief-stricken psychological brilliance but dispenses with the disappointingly supernatural literalness that plagued its ending.  Instead, Midsommar, while flirting with the uncanny, roots itself in the real … and feels more creepy for it.

Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth) plays the film’s mainstay, Dani.  Suffering from a tragic loss in her family she cuts a needy figure desperate for stability and security, something she hopes a trip to Sweden with her boyfriend, Christian, might provide. Pugh’s skill, once again, proves why she is one of the most impressive actors working today, with a nuanced performance that masterfully distills the suffocating effects of anxiety.

It’s an odd but refreshing experience to have horror in the sunshine. Rather than skulking around in the darkness offering opportunities for lazy production design, Aster has quite astutely put Sweden’s perennial summer sunlight to good use. With a prowling camera that keeps the cast at arm’s length, he has employed a bright canvas and ironically daubed darker themes of grief and shame with striking results.

Horror films should never outstay their welcome and if I had one reservation, it would concern the film’s length which becomes one pagan ceremony too many. Yet again, Aster can’t quite nail an ending down and almost overcooks what is otherwise a superbly crafted film.

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

High Life

hlMovies from the enigmatic French director, Claire Denis (Beau Travail), are often described as elliptical in nature—a cinematic version of those three provocative dots at the end of a sentence prompting an “and?” response, where more is denoted by what isn’t said. High Life is one of those films—a smouldering question mark that casts a giant shadow over the film’s other concerns.

Set in an undefined future, Monte (played by a detached but oddly warm Robert Pattinson) is one of eight prisoners in a ship hurtling through space towards a black hole, all of whom have elected to give their lives to science rather than undergo an earth-bound sentence.  The ship’s resident scientist, a prisoner herself, is a femme-fatale styled matriarch (played by Juliet Binoche) whose motherly gaze cautiously watches over the crew with one eye and keeps tabs on her reproductive experiments with the other.

The film takes pleasure in showing us a cocktail of bodily fluids pumping through the film’s industrial retro-chic production design. Aesthetically, High Life owes much to films that have gone before; the plastic-wrapped grime of Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, the damp biological machinations of Scott’s original Alien (along with Mother’s built-in DOS prompt), the syrupy darkness of Glazer’s Under the Skin and finally the the organic hope of Boyle’s Sunshine.  And while Denis doesn’t inject much originality into her production design, High Life is still an evocative sensory feast for the senses.

Although the dark and foreboding palette may not be to everyone’s taste, it’s the perfect companion to Denis’ angry take on humanity’s self-destructive nature. Make no mistake, High Life is cold, bitter, perverse and very violent in parts—unsurprising, I suppose, for a film about a bunch of violent criminals cooped up in a shoe-box.

However, my biggest reservation rests with High Life‘s seemingly impenetrable wall of final ambiguities. It leaves you floating in a seething broth of questions, tasking you to fill in the gaps—a rewarding process for some, but I suspect many will balk at the film’s final vagaries. Simply put, Denis’ deliberately obtuse and elliptical style keeps you at arm’s length for too long and offers an ending that feels about as complete as this senten…

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

Girls of the Sun

gotsBased on true events, Girls of the Sun is set during the volatile period of Isis expansion into Kurdish territory in northern Iraq. It follows Mathilde, a French war journalist (played by Emmanuelle Bercot) as she documents a group of Kurdish women anti-Isis fighters and their struggle to reclaim their town and the children captive within.  A far cry from the warmth of her role in Jarmusch’s Paterson, Golshifteh Farahani plays the battalion’s leader, Bahar, whose own horrific back-story is revealed to us through flashbacks.  Her capture was just one of the many stories of women and children killed or captured and sold (along with 7000 others) as sex-slaves. They are important stories to tell for many reasons, and Girls of the Sun pays special attention to the battalion’s uncompromising female spirit in the face of a ruthless misogynistic regime.

French director Eva Husson (Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story)) handles plenty of tricky material with conviction, bringing about a movie that juggles the brutality of war with accessibility to a wider audience. In particular, Husson injects some edge-of-the-seat set pieces; a tense tunnel scene to match Sicario and a nerve-frying birthing scene reminiscent of Children of Men, are just a couple worthy of note. And while none of it is original movie-making, the sum of its parts is a bruising assault on the nerves.

Not without its faults, the film does occasionally lose focus, suffering from the (enviable) problem of having too many stories to tell; the displaced Kurdish people, the treatment of women and children, the plight of western journalists, and the personal stories of each participant all struggle for attention in a film that tries its best to narrow its scope. 

As a result, Husson’s film does become a little uneven in parts—its style bouncing between a taut gritty war tale and melodrama. Nonetheless, Husson’s confident approach, if occasionally overbearing, built enough suspense and sympathy to get me swept up in the film’s cause.

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