From the Vine


Verdict: Very far from a full-bodied drop but still inoffensively quaffable.

Joe Pantoliano has been put out to pasture, quite literally, in this film about finding yourself in rural Italy. Pantoliano, who contorted our minds in Christopher Nolan’s Memento, double-crossed us in The Matrix, and ran with the mob in The Sopranos, is now making wine in the idyllic Italian town of Acerenza. Yep, Pantoliano’s career arc has a familiar ring to it; quality actor hits retirement age and is shoe-horned into a “twilight-years film”. Think Diane Keaton, Bill Nighy, and, well, pretty much the entire cast of Marigold Hotel. But there is something endearing about the “find yourself in retirement” flick that has struck a notable chord with its audience—so much that it’s pretty much become a genre in its own right and From the Vine has set down roots firmly at its centre.

Based on a Kenneth C. Cancellara’s book Finding Marco, the film tells the story of Marco Gentile, a high-flying executive from Toronto who abruptly ups-sticks and moves to Italy to tend to his late grandfather’s derelict vineyard. Spurred on by the nostalgia of his upbringing and the callous nature of his job, Marco’s late-life crisis hits fever pitch where, among the sun-dappled vines, he attempts to atone for the environmentally destructive nature of the company he once worked for by reviving the old vineyard.

With its locale centric plot and testing moral ramifications, I had hoped to be treated to some raw Italian neo-realism (I think some of the film’s marketing even suggests this). But From the Vine couldn’t be further from it, instead opting for an easily digestible feel-good vibe that unapologetically goes down like a bargain-priced red. The treacly cinematography shows off the rural Italian landscape with all the dreaminess of a travel brochure—perhaps not what we need in this non-tourist era, but it’s undeniably beautiful to look at.

Director Sean Cisterna, whose back-catalogue includes other syrupy sentimental films as Kiss and Cry, seems comfortably at home here. And despite never fully exploring its themes and containing more cliches than a cheap wine label, From the Vine does have its heart in the right place. It also provides the perfect chance for Pantoliano (who is easily the best thing about the film) to dip his toes into the acting-retirement-village pool. Come on in Joe, the water is tepid.

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

My favourite 11 films of 2020

Despite the rubbish year, there were still some crackers that hit our screens. Here are my top eleven …

Director Marielle Heller on set with Tom Hanks.

1. A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (not reviewed) – where do I start? Just go see it.

2. Rosie (review) – 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.

3. The Last Black Man in San Francisco (not reviewed) – a warm, yet wickedly satirical look at race, displacement and ownership. Beautiful, entertaining, and a fantastic sound-track.

4. Alone (not reviewed) – a taut edge-of-the-seat survival nail biter. Director, John Hyams takes a simple time-worn premise and reduces it to an almost primal level with pin-sharp film-making.

5. 1917 (not reviewed) – perhaps more of a technical exercise than anything else, but I found this film engrossing all-the-same. Worth seeing for Roger Deakins’ eyeball popping nighttime-flares-over-town sequence. True visual genius.

6. I’m Thinking of Ending Things (not reviewed) – Kaufman films are an acquired taste and this film’s inner monologues can occasionally feel like wading through molasses. Nonetheless, Kaufman’s intriguing characters linger in your mind, calling 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.

7. The Lighthouse (review) – an unnerving and claustrophobic monochrome nightmare at sea. Robert Eggers’ formal brilliance along with two highly committed performances from Pattinson and Dafoe deliver a thrilling gothic vision of madness that may well be an oppressive experience, but is something to be admired.

8. A Hidden Life (review) – a deeply moving Terence Malick mood piece and a welcome return to form. A Hidden Life is a graceful and hauntingly beautiful symphony for the senses that is sympathetic to lives of moral fortitude lost in the white noise of history.

9. For Sama (review) – a powerful document of love and injustice and probably the most courageous documentary you’ll ever see.

10. Calm with Horses (not reviewed) – rural Irish gangsters abound in this surprisingly good thriller. Great performances from Cosmo Jarvis and Barry Keoghan.

11. The Australian Dream (not reviewed) – a powerful and challenging doco, that highlights the racial abuse of AFL player Adam Goodes. The film’s impeccable (if somewhat conventional) structure peels back the layers of his fascinating story to great effect.

A Son


Verdict: A quietly powerful triumph from a fresh voice in Arab cinema.

The idylls of a family holiday are transformed into a screaming nightmare in Tunisian writer/director Mehdi Barsaoui’s debut feature. His delicately crafted but intensely powerful film is as much a family drama as it is a high-pitched primal cry and wastes little time planting you smack-bang in the middle of this heart-rending tale.

Set in Tunisia, a married couple, Fares (Sami Bouajila) and Meriem (Najla Ben Abdallah) along with their eleven-year-old son are part-way through their holiday when they unwittingly stumble into an Islamic-terrorist ambush that leaves their eleven-year-old fighting for his life in hospital and in desperate need of a liver transplant. With time running out the couple desperately look for a donor, but their search leads them down moral cross-roads and uncovers dark secrets that threaten to derail both their marriage and their son’s life.

Belying his lack of experience as director, Barsaoui appears to be in total control of his craft and deftly weaves plenty of subtextual commentary into the fabric of this compelling drama. Most notably, patriarchy within an Arab-world context is explored as the couple’s progressive ideals lock horns with Tunisia’s “archaic” laws. It’s a touchy subject to breach, but Barsaoui skilfully juggles this along with a minefield of other issues with minimal fuss and a pin-sharp tone.

It’s a style that appears to be straight out of the Asghar Farhadi film-book (A Separation, Everybody Knows) and A Son’s wonderfully focussed form is similarly achieved utilising little in the way of flamboyant cinematic embellishments; the musical score is sparse but effective, the cinematography is understated but beautiful, and the screenplay never succumbs to needless histrionics. Barsaoui (who definitely seems to be a talent worth keeping an eye on) appears to know exactly how to use subtlety to his advantage, and is aided by two fantastic leads who offer solid performances. Bouajila, in particular, cuts the pained figure of a man desperately in search for where his loyalties lie. But Barsaoui’s evenhanded script is careful not to lose sight of Meriem, a strong female character, who stands to lose not only her son but a husband as well.

A Son is an exciting and understatedly complex debut from a fresh voice in Arab cinema and is a movie that deserves your attention.

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

I Am Woman


Verdict: A mildly entertaining biopic that hits a few flat notes.

At the beginning of I am Woman, a young fresh-faced Australian, Helen Reddy, exits a New York tube station past an advertisement depicting a young sixties house-wife smiling next to a bottle of tomato sauce with the words “Even I can open it”. Blink and you’ll miss it, but the brief shot is supposed to set the tone of the film. However, although the film is about a woman who’s titular song put a rocket under the women’s rights movement, I Am Woman is, disappointingly, not the feminist film you might imagine. Rather, it focusses on Helen Reddy’s career—a nut-and-bolts portrayal of the Aussi songstress. And if you want to see a film about Helen Reddy the diva, rather than Helen Reddy the feminist, then this is your film.

Portrayed as a mild-mannered but strong-willed woman, Tilda Cobham-Hervey (Hotel Mumbai) gives a determined, if somewhat patchy performance as the doe-eyed Aussie. Alone in the big smoke, a toddler in tow, and only a few dollars to her name, I Am Woman traces the professional arc of Reddy’s career and gives ample time to show off her many hits.

Evan Peters (American Animals) slithers into frame as Helen’s husband—a roguish coke-snorting talent-manager whose self-interest threatens their relationship. It’s a train-wreck you can see a mile off but provides the perfect spring-board for the film to explore Reddy’s relationship with woman’s rights. Or, at least it would have, had writer Emma Jensen‘s clunky screenplay taken the time to explore it with more vigour. It’s a shame, especially given Jensen’s superb feminist-slanted writing in the recent Mary Shelley biopic.

Despite these missteps, the film just manages to hold itself together thanks in part to high production values and some very well-considered cinematography. However, Reddy’s depiction as the flag-bearer of woman’s rights is sadly lost within this safe and formulaic biopic. I Am Woman is a serviceable and mildly entertaining film, yes, but it still feels like an opportunity missed.

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

This week’s releases…

Monsoon – starring the very charismatic Henry Golding, this sleepy and at times ponderous film opens up some interesting views on displacement, memory, and gay love but never explores them fully. Beautifully shot, but otherwise underwhelming.

Alone – a taut edge-of-the-seat survival nail biter. Director, John Hyams takes a simple, time worn, premise and reduces it to an almost primal level with pin sharp film-making. This could be my sleeper hit of the year.

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

It Must Be Heaven

Verdict: A comedic misfire, yet curiously beautiful to watch.

It’ll only take five minutes before It Must Be Heaven will begin to irk you or provide you with a humorous antidote to your lockdown woes. This gentle, quirky, and very plot-thin film follows Palestinian director and writer Elia Suleiman’s (who plays himself) as he travels from Palestine to Paris and then to New York. He sits on porches, park benches, cafes, in office foyers, and quietly observes for long periods the people around him, noting through his bemused expression their peculiarities.

It Must Be Heaven is an oddity—an intensely observational film where for long silent intervals Suleiman stares down the barrel of the camera breaking the fourth wall, shepherding his audience to watch and react with him. His deadpan expressions and silent brand of physical humour evoke a sort of genteel Mr.Bean-on-valium quality and the episodic skits, many of which appear cynically allegorical in nature, oddly flirt with magical realism with mixed results. Synchronised Parisian police on electric unicycles, an angel on the run, and a bothersome sparrow, among other eccentricities all make up Suleiman’s peculiar brand of humour and whether this mould of absurd comedy works for you is subjective. Unfortunately for me, it outstayed its welcome and Suleiman’s constantly bewildered and confused expression became monotonous.

Despite this, there is something visually alluring about the film that allows you to forgive its humorous shortcomings. From the ebbing and flowing of Parisian streets to the heaving gun-toting metropolis of New York and to the quiet citrus-lined streets of Palestine—its visual scope is impressive and special credit must be given to cinematographer Sofian El Fani (who also shot the stunningly good Blue is the Warmest Colour), whose frame finds a visual commonality within the three locations, and with it some of the film’s core themes that Suleiman’s mistimed humour seemed to be searching for.

While the film’s absurdist charms did not work on me, I’ll guarantee It Must Be Heaven will be the uplifting antidote to this year’s drudgery for many. And if nothing else it’s certainly beautiful to watch.

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

This week’s releases …

It Must Be Heaven – This gentle, quirky, and very plot-thin film follows Palestinian director and writer Elia Suleiman’s (who plays himself) as he travels from Palestine to Paris and then to New York. Synchronised Parisian police on electric unicycles, an angel on the run, and a bothersome sparrow, among other eccentricities all make up Suleiman’s peculiar brand of humour and whether this mould of comedy works for you is subjective. While the film’s absurdist charms did not work on me, It Must Be Heaven will most likely be the uplifting antidote to this year’s drudgery for many. And if nothing else it’s certainly beautiful to watch.

Sputnik – This Russian creature flick is a crawling slithering cliche, but that’s not to say it’s bad. Yes, it borrows liberally from the likes of Alien, The Thing, and Solaris, both in plot and creature design, but it’s still well put together and the production values are top-notch.

Amundsen – Unfortunately it bites off too much, cramming in the famed Norwegian’s complicated romantic life, the turbulent relationship with his brother, and his expeditions to both poles. Would’ve benefited from a more focussed examination of his life, but remains interesting viewing, nonetheless.

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

This week’s releases…

Hope Gap – A quiet and intimate film, Hope Gap explores the realities of marriage and what it means to age together. Bill Nighy and Annette Bening deliver reliably strong performances as a couple who face some cold truths about their relationship.

The Secret Garden – It may not have the emotional pull that you’d expect from a story about children undergoing the trauma of parental loss, but what it lacks in dramatic clout it makes up with the quality of its production. Although being cast with the acting talents of Colin Firth and Julie Walters, the film’s biggest star is its art department. Luscious set designs and exquisitely lit forested wallpapered hallways wonderfully flirt with magical realism and blur the lines between interior and exterior, fantasy and the real. The overall effect is one of total visual emersion.

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

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.