Lady Bird

ladybirdGreta Gerwig is no stranger to mixing a celluloid cocktail of angsty humour with a twist of social realism. In her sophomore years, the fledgling writer/director/actor was understudy to Noah Baumbach, both bringing about delightful films such as Francis Ha and Mistress America.  With Lady Bird, Gerwig has spread her wings, gone solo, and showed us what a genuine talent she is.

Loosely autobiographical of Gerwig’s youth, Lady Bird is a hilarious yet powerful study of mother/daughter relations.  The film takes great delight in telling this coming-of-age tale in all its nit-picky detail. Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is a fiercely head-strong student in her final year of high school. She is desperate to attend a College on the East Coast because that’s where “culture is … and writers live in the woods”.  Her naive ideals unsurprisingly lock horns with her mother Marion, who thinks she should go to an affordable College in California. Tender moments are laced with comic hostility as the two belligerent personalities are perpetually wrought with tension.

Despite this strain, the film avoids getting bogged down in gloomy sentiments, keeping things buoyant and playful, and yet it never loses touch with the realities of an average family and their enduring flaws.   As such, Lady Bird is an ode to the ground-swell of “normality”—a film about middle America, but could just as easily translate to middle New Zealand.

Although Lady Bird is predominantly Christine’s story, the film really belongs to both her and her mother. Laurie Metcalf delivers a standout performance as Christine’s mum. She runs a tight ship but when things begin to unravel at home the weight of her responsibilities as a mother, wife, and breadwinner come to bear.

It is a superb solo directorial debut from Gerwig, who has managed to get the balance just right—it is smart yet doesn’t feel preachy, is tender yet bristles with humour, and above all feels new and fresh.  Greta, Greta, fly away home … and make another film this good. Please.
 

You can see my published reviews here.

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Phantom Thread

phantomthreadPaul Thomas Anderson doesn’t seem capable of putting a foot wrong.  He is one of the most malleable auteurs currently working with a filmography that spans genres, periods and subject matter, each time garnering critical praise.  The American director’s latest feature, Phantom Thread reunites him with Daniel Day-Lewis, whom he directed to Oscar-winning plaudits in There Will be Blood.

Phantom Thread tells the story of Reynolds Woodcock, a couture dress designer in 1950s London.  Daniel Day-Lewis, in what reportedly will be his last role before hanging up his coat, plays the troubled designer.  It is a perfect role for the method actor, who has completely encompassed the physicality of the part. Cold, calculating, and insular to a fault, Woodcock is only bested by his sister, Cyril (played by a deliciously curt Lesley Manville). She runs the design house and keeps a contriving hand on comings and goings, dismissing people who derail Reynolds delicate routine—this extends to any love interests.

Enter Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress at a seaside hotel.  Their chance meeting has a reciprocal effect on their lives. Her doe-eyed innocence is met with an equal measure of stubborn resolve and she seems to melt his heart as quickly as he hardens hers. The two become entwined in a seemingly impossible relationship, the consequences of which become so wrought with tension that the film has to shift into Hitchcock gear to resolve itself.

Like Woodcock’s designs, Anderson has delivered a visually measured result.  A stunning amount of attention appears to have been spent on the film’s look, pace, and sound.  Everything is in place, and like a designer about to send a dress onto the runway, Anderson has made sure every edit is tucked, every pan and tracking shot is folded in nicely, and the sound design ruffled appropriately.  The result is beautiful.

With pitch-perfect performances and an intriguing narrative, this film had me from beginning to end.  Phantom Thread might be a touch too slow and emotionally cold for some, and I suspect the slightly peculiar and unexpected ending could leave a sour taste for those wanting things more conventional.  But for myself, I found the film to be an absorbing battle of wills wrapped up sublimely in a gothic love story.

You can see my published reviews here.

The Wound

thewoundThando Mgqolozana’s controversial novel, ‘A Man Who Is Not a Man’ has already ruffled plenty of feathers within South Africa’s Xhosa community. His work explored the contentious issue of traditional circumcision and the dubious conditions with which the rite is undertaken. Now, South African writer/director, John Trengove, has made the bold (or foolhardy, depending on your opinion) move to stir the pot further.  His latest film, The Wound, is a reworking of Mgqolozana’s book (Mgqolozana also co-wrote the screenplay) and examines homosexuality against the traditional backdrop of the Xhosa ritual.

I’m sure some may take umbrage at Trengove, a white South African director, telling a Xhosa story. Certainly, my lack of knowledge of Xhosa culture and customs means this reviewer, a white New Zealander, must take this film at face value alone.

The Wound is a provocative tale that nervously sits at the intersection where tradition and sexuality collide. Set in the remote hills of the South African outback, The Wound operates almost entirely within the confines of a Xhosa initiation camp.  Adolescent males are brought before the elders and through a rather brutal rite-of-passage are ceremonially circumcised.  There, the “initiates” stay for weeks engaging only with their caretaker until the healing process, and their journey into manhood is complete.

The film centres primarily on Xolani (Nakhane Touré), a caretaker and his initiate, Kwanda (Niza Jay). Charged with the task of “ushering” Kwanda from boyhood to manhood, Xolani also harbours an ulterior motive for his annual pilgrimage to the remote camp.  Xolani sees the job as an opportunity to intimately reconnect with another caretaker, Vija (Bongile Mantsai). The two men have been doing this for years, using ritual as cover for their trysts. However, when Kwanda suspects of the affair, his confusion around what “manhood” means, and his disillusionment with the Xhosa establishment, swiftly becomes a quiet rebellion against what he believes to be a hollow and pointless ritual.

The Wound makes for uneasy viewing and soon becomes a smouldering powder keg that threatens to explode into violence.  Tender moments are laced with hostility and the three contrasting personalities are perpetually wrought with tension.

Shot almost entirely with a hand-held camera and with no musical score, the film bristles with a social realist sensibility. Through all its dust and grime The Wound is a beautiful film to watch. Cinematographer Paul Ozgur balances a heady mix of environment, framing and lighting to capture a rural South Africa that feels genuine and earthy. The film’s visual tendencies and its economy of dialogue give way to superb physical performances from its cast, in particular, Nakhane Touré who shows an acting maturity beyond his experience.

Obvious comparisons will be made to God’s Own Country, and like Francis Lee’s brutally honest film, The Wound is unsentimental and unflinching in its depiction of gay love and remains an affecting depiction of what it means to be a gay man within a traditionally heterosexual community. 

Loving Vincent

lvThe process of animating over the top of pre-shot footage (rotoscoping) is a procedure that has existed since the dawn of cinema, most notably applied recently by Richard Linklater (A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life). Loving Vincent pushes the envelope further, with Directors Hugh Welchman and Dorota Kobiela (and an army of artists) making the technically ambitious decision to turn their film into a Van Gogh oil painting through the arduous process of hand painting each frame.

While some might find this a painstaking exercise in gimmickry, there is little doubt that the result is an immersive experience, nudging you ever closer to the work of the famous Dutch painter. Certainly, Loving Vincent is a film where you could hang any one of its overwhelming 65,000 frames on your wall—although, at twelve frames per second, the resulting animation takes a little adjustment.

Read the full review for the NZ Herald here.

Molly’s Game

mollysgame“The humiliation and depression had given way to blinding anger at my powerlessness over the unfair whims of men.”—it is a line that succinctly expresses one of Molly’s Game’s many concerns with male power and while the film is not explicitly feminist, its sentiments feel very apt in Hollywood’s current #metoo climate.

With the exception of a few early flourishes, Molly’s Game is a visually conservative, yet sumptuously scripted affair. Its sharp and snappy dialogue is paced just fast enough to have you reaching,  but just slow enough to give you a sense of catharsis.

Read the full review for the NZ Herald here.

I, Tonya

itonyaIt seems the perfect time for Tonya Harding’s story to finally surface onto the big screen.  In the current age of relativism, this personal truth of Harding’s life is to be taken at face value. Right from the opening credits I, Tonya makes clear its intentions as an “irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true” account of Tonya’s story. In fact, the truth may never be known, not by us at least. But in Tonya’s own words “there’s no such thing as truth. I mean it’s bullshit. Everyone has their own truth and life just does whatever the f*ck it wants.” … which perfectly sums up this film’s sassy tone.

Read the full review for the NZ Herald here.

Downsizing

DOWNSIZINGWhat if you could be shrunken to a miniature version of yourself? It’s not the first time the concept has graced the silver screen and as you might expect, Downsizing ends up asking more questions than it answers. Nonetheless, in an interesting take on human reduction, Director Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants) has taken this well-used idea and wrung out a surprisingly bleak look at the possibilities.

Matt Damon plays the disgruntled Paul Safranek, an Occupational Therapist who along with his wife (Kristen Wiig), are finding it increasingly difficult to get ahead financially. After much deliberation, they decide to undergo the irreversible procedure of “downsizing”—a new technology invented by Norwegian scientists in the hope of turning the tide of human consumption.

Interestingly, the film is more concerned with exploring the environmental and humanitarian impact of downsizing rather than having fun with the shrinking concept itself.  And although it has its playful moments, this is far less Honey I Shrunk the Kids and more High-Rise … well, ok maybe not that aggressively grim.  But it paints a nihilistic world where human society inexorably gravitates towards a life of pleasure to the detriment of the planet’s health—the new invention simply providing people with a further reason to live a life of hedonistic excess rather than using it as an opportunity to reverse the damage done.

Despite the film’s mildly depressing outlook, Safranek’s tale does ultimately deliver a positive message—one that encourages us to focus on individuals in need rather than the world’s forlorn situation. It is a noble message which unfortunately is muddied by Downsizing’s rather loose and disjointed delivery.  A mishmash of different genres renders the film an unsatisfying experience as it struggles to settle on a single tone.  It swings from romcom to sci-fi drama and then shifts gear into a soft disaster flick, creating a tonal disparity that separates rather than coalesces the film’s themes. It’s an interesting attempt at one of the more unique takes on the subject, but it simply tries to cram too much in.  Perhaps the film could have done with a bit of downsizing itself.

  

You can see my published reviews here.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

jumanjiThe body-swap gag has graced the silver screen many times over the years. The Hot Chick, The Change-Up, Freaky Friday, 13 going on 30—the list goes on and what is common to most are their tendency to be b-grade comedies.  Here, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle attempts a slightly different angle as it blends the body-swap trope with the 1996 Jumanji original.

Jumanji tells the tale of four high-school students and one fateful afternoon on school detention.  The four students occupy various extremes in their school’s social pecking order; the football jock, the “selfie” valley girl, the nerd, and the loner. The premise is ripe for some Breakfast Club styled soul searching and frat-boy high-jinx. Although that’s as far as Jumanji has in common with any John Hughes film, as here the four become entwined by the fickle finger of fate and a magical video game. Unwillingly sucked into game’s world, they come to terms with each occupying a fictional avatar quite different to their real self.  They must also work together to save Jumanji from the evil villain, Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale). Plot, for the lack of a better word, is not this film’s strength as it navigates a very linear narrative in search of the next comedic moment … of which there are, thankfully, enough giggles to maintain a mild semblance of interest.

Kevin Hart offers his usual “go to” brand of loud and brash humour which has become a tired cliche since the days of Eddie Murphy.  Likewise, Jack Black and Dwayne Johnson operate well within their comfort zone and offer little more than their norm.  The big surprise being Karen Gillen (Guardians of the Galaxy), who steals the show. Externally she’s a kick-ass Lara Croft styled martial arts vixen. Internally, she’s a painfully shy loner who has to come to terms with what’s required of her—hilarious scenes involving Jack Black teaching her how to flirt are the film’s high point.

Putting the humour aside, Jumanji briefly touches on issues of adolescent identity, however, director Jake Kasdan (Bad Teacher) seems uninterested in exploring the topic with any depth. Alas, Jumanji does feel a little lightweight and while my expectations for this film were fairly low, it somehow still managed to mildly disappoint.  If all you’re after is average adventure thinly draped over a collection of chuckles, then Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle will be a perfectly serviceable holiday block-bluster … but beyond that, it will fall out of your brain soon after you leave the theatre.

You can see my published reviews here.

The Post

thepostAnyone who lambasts the role of the media should see this film.  Sure, the media isn’t entirely squeaky clean, but there’s no denying its role in providing a level of accountability to organisations and crucial in the defence against corruption. As free press advocate and America’s first female newspaper publisher, Kay Graham, agonises “We have to be the check on their power. If we don’t hold them accountable, my God, who will?” The Post’s retelling of a time when the free press and the U.S. government clashed couldn’t be more topical in today’s media climate of fake news and media commodification.

Read the full review for the NZ Herald here.

The Greatest Showman

GSOE_D32_013117_9584.cr2The very likeable Australian, Hugh Jackman, and that other very likeable Australian, Michelle Williams, join an ensemble cast including Zac Efron (who reprises his High School Musical years and proves he’s still got the moves) to bring us the latest big screen musical.

The Greatest Showman is based very loosely on the real P.T. Barnum (Jackman) who grows up a pauper and marries his childhood sweetheart Charity (Williams). The film tells his rags to riches story as an entrepreneur and entertainer who gathers a bunch of “freaks” and forms a lucrative entertainment show. Soon, Barnum with the help of Carlyle (Efron) is mixing in the same circles as the famous Opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson). Lind becomes a distraction he cannot afford and that is when cracks appear in his entertainment empire.

It’s important to know that this retelling of Barnum’s life is certainly not a good history lesson.  This tale of empowerment is completely at odds the real Barnum who was, if the history books are to be believed, more exploitative and self-promoting than the warm and affable Hugh Jackman version would suggest. The film quickly becomes a fantasy that distorts the truth so much it makes you wonder why they bothered to “base” it on a historical character in the first place. In short, The Greatest Showman is peddling the age-old Hollywood lie. But hey, that’s ok when the musical numbers are this heartfelt, right? Certainly, The Greatest Showman doesn’t seem to make any apologies.

There is no denying the film’s enthusiasm and emotive sway.  It’s musical numbers drum up the kind of feel-good vibes that would put the likes of Gordon Ramsay in a good mood.  Musicians Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, seem to be at the peak of their powers right now; they wrote songs for last year’s La La Land and here they’ve penned the kind of songs that become household anthems, playing in your head for weeks. Before you know it you’ll be dusting your daughter’s copy of Frozen just to change the channel.

Outside of the music numbers (eleven in all), the film methodically moves from plot juncture to plot juncture in search of the next foot tapping number.  Narratively, The Greatest Showman doesn’t break any new ground, nor does it seem to want to.  Instead, it appears content to plod an increasingly well-trodden path and trade in narrative complexities for the evocative cheer of its musical numbers. No doubt its well choreographed and sentimentally catchy tunes will have you leaving the theatre basking in its warm glow but unfortunately its lack of narrative depth makes the glow fade fast… but you’ll be humming those songs for months.

   

You can see my published reviews here.