Mary Magdalene


The history of the Christian church is one fraught with systemic fault-lines, brought about by a long line of fallible decision-makers pushing male-centric agendas of the age. One particular victim of the church’s patriarchal institutional flaws has been Mary Magdalene. In his latest movie, Director Garth Davis (Lion) has set about straightening some historical distortions of a woman who, only recently, has been recognised by the Catholic Church as an “Apostle to the Apostles”.

Most notably, the film does not depict Mary as a former prostitute—a tenuous claim introduced by Pope Gregory in 591, that Davis was keen to dispel. Instead, Davis’s Mary appears to be a corrective to many previous depictions, aided by the quiet potency of Rooney Mara who plays her. She is shown here to be a woman whose strength and agency becomes an affront to many men around her.

The film begins in Mary’s family home and recounts her journey from elopement to a life of discipleship. Following Jesus (played by a very measured Joaquin Phoenix) up to the time of his death and resurrection, she learns that some of his teachings may be at odds with the interpretations of the disciples around her.  In particular, Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who voices his discomfort at her understanding of selflessness and her brash claims that revolution and change comes from within, rather than, as another disciple declares, a physical revolution of “fire and blood”.

Mary Magdalene does not push the artifice of film in any groundbreaking direction, Davis opting to keep his sophomore outing aesthetically safe. However, this conservative approach only serves to highlight the film’s introspective calling, ensuring that one doesn’t get caught up in a sensory light-show, but rather, inwardly contemplate the gravity of what the film is revealing.  It seems appropriate, in this current age of feminine resurgence, that this film has been made and while Mary Magdalene might not be everyone’s cup of tea, it remains a thought-provoking and timely story.
See more of my NZME reviews here.




“It is the beginning of the end!”—nope, it’s not a quote from writer/director Alex Garland’s latest cerebral sci-fi, but me, crying in frustration as to the reasons why this sensory extravaganza wasn’t released on the big screen outside of North America and China.  Paramount, in all their “we’ve got cold feet” wisdom has handed the release over to Netflix, thus signalling the beginning of the silver-screen apocalypse and the inexorable transition of new releases to an exclusive small screen market. Garland will be screaming blue murder when he sees bus bound hoards watching his work of art on five-inch phones and a pair of junky earbuds.  Shame on you Paramount.

Ok, now I’ve got that off my chest, I can turn my attention to the film at hand, because it’s really good.  Garland’s first film, Ex Machina, was the kind of debut that made many critics sit up and pay attention.  In that film, Garland (who also wrote the original screenplay) explored the sinister side of artificial intelligence and proceeded to gouge out the male gaze with a white-hot poker of female vengeance … an oddly liberating experience. Here, in his sophomore outing, Garland continues to keep things female-centric, with a predominantly female cast.

Searching for reasons surrounding her husband’s disappearance, Lena (Natalie Portman) decides to join a team of scientists embarking on a research mission into a newly discovered anomaly called “the shimmer”—an unexplained malignant cancerous growth that is spreading throughout the coastal bayous of a sleepy American coastline, rendering all the flora and fauna within its bubble an unpredictable and potentially hostile mutation. As the team ventures deeper into the shimmer, the film reveals it’s secrets through a series of flashbacks that recount her husband, Kane’s (Oscar Isaac) fate.

It is a brooding, haunting, and at times quite scary sci-fi brain-burner about many things, not least a painful allegory of the ruthless ambivalence of cancer.  Its fractured structure also mirrors the film’s prismatic themes about identity and the brutally unsentimental march of genetic diversity.

Throughout, Garland gives a few knowing nods many other films of its ilk, in particular, Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, and like that masterpiece, Annihilation is a beautifully rendered head-scratcher that will have you pensively juggling theories long after leaving the cinema, I mean, logging out of your Netflix account … *sigh* please, for the love of all that’s good, just don’t watch it on your phone.
See more of my NZME reviews here.

The Death of Stalin

deathofstalinScottish writer/director Armando Iannucci (Veep, The Thick of It) has taken his politically-charged brand of comedy to the big screen and adapted Fabien Nury’s absurdist satirical comic, which parodies events surrounding the demise of one of the world’s most ruthless dictators.

In what feels like a blend of Guy Ritchie’s gangster caper Snatch and Christopher Morris’s topically awkward black comedy about incompetent British jihadists (Four Lions), The Death of Stalin depicts the tyrant’s final days and the ensuing political scramble to fill the power vacuum. In the best traditions of British farcical humour, the film follows a Soviet committee of bumbling buffoons with knives drawn and ready to plunge into the back of their respective comrades … all for the betterment of the Soviet Union, of course.

Read the full review for the NZ Herald here.


KOBIDespite a small stint working in a craft gallery, my knowledge of Kobi Bosshard, New Zealand’s grandfather of contemporary jewellery, is shamefully patchy at best. Thankfully, his daughter Andrea Bosshard (who also happens to be the film’s co-Director along with Shane Loader), knows a thing or two about filmmaking and has created a documentary that is as informative as it is insightful.

Andrea’s very personal account of her father tells the story of the Swiss goldsmith (third generation in a line of goldsmiths), who arrived here in 1961 and proceeded to transform New Zealand’s contemporary jewellery landscape. The film offers a thoughtfully edited array of interviews and archival footage interspersed with some stunning cinematography that indulges in the surrounds of Kobi’s tranquil home studio in Central Otago, observing the craftsman at work and at times glimpsing the fruits of his labour.

Read the full review for the NZ Herald here.

The Square

thesquare“The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations” — such is the provocative statement written at the foot of an art exhibition at the centre of Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s (Force Majeure) film, The Square.

It is a film that drags you into its contemporary art landscape of self-indulgence and self-importance with a tour de force of satirical film-making that spits and fizzes with sardonic humour and ethical insight.

Stockholm’s newest art exhibition provides a space to observe and participate in its ideals, offering a further tableau of ethical exhibits that focus on human social behaviour.  All the while the film deftly shows the exhibition as a shining beacon of hypocrisy through the contrasting behaviour of its creators.  Christian, a hapless contemporary art curator played by Claes Bang is one such hypocrite, idealistic in rhetoric and yet cynical in his actions, he has a likeable earnest nature that belies the ignorance of his own self-importance.

The Square follows Christian as he makes a progression of poor choices. His verbal jousting with an American reporter, Anne, played superbly by the ever-reliable Elisabeth Moss offers some wonderfully crafted scenes of cringeworthy brilliance.  The two serve and volley semantics before giving way to an awkward physical exchange that unsurprisingly leads to Anne, Christian, and the exhibition unravelling.

Wonderfully dextrous humour gives way to some very probing investigations of human nature as lines are blurred between “art” and reality. The Square becomes at times almost unbearable to watch with some moments of squirm-inducing boundary pushing. An episode involving a human imitating an ape at a black-tie event is as intriguing as it is disturbing.

The film covers a lot of ethical ground being about sexual power, stereotypes, middle-class guilt and moral values.  But it handles these touchy subjects with the perfect balance of satire, insight and entertainment.  Deserved winner of the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Ruben Östlund appears to be at the peak of his powers and has directed a film that is hilarious, fiercely intelligent, and encourages a healthy amount of self-examination.

See my reviews for Witchdoctor here.

Game Night

gamenightNow here’s a film that goes down like a churro dunked in chocolate sauce. And like that alluring sugar-coated doughy Spanish treat, Game Night is a film with zero nutritional benefits but sooo easy to consume. No subtexts, no heavy messages, it keeps its mood light and its subject matter dark—it’s a cheerful black comedy, if you will.

The film centres around a married couple, Max and Annie, whose weekly game nights provide a release for their unbridled competitiveness. Their failure to conceive a much wanted child provides the nexus around which the film explores their relationship. Max’s sperm mobility is lacking, which only adds to the inferiority complex he has in relation to his brother, Brooks. Played by Kyle Chandler (Argo, Manchester by the Sea), Brooks is a highly successful entrepreneur, a winning risk-taker, and is everything Max isn’t. When Brooks invites Max’s friends over, offering “a game night to remember”, the film shifts gear and begins to take great delight in blurring the lines between what is “the game” and what is real.

Max is played by the affable Jason Bateman (Office Christmas Party). I’ve always considered Bateman to be a male Jennifer Anniston, average, likeable, and very much the “everyman”. Bateman’s typecast roles often deliver a feel-good comedy schtick that, for all its “sameness”, is surprisingly funny. Rachel McAdams (The Notebook, Spotlight), who often seems to fly under the radar, gives a pitch-perfect performance as Annie, offering comedic moments that highlight what an underrated talent McAdams is.

But the surprise performance is Jesse Plemons (Black Mass) as Gary, the creepy serial killer-esque neighbour, who wants in on game night. His socially awkward pauses and off centre comments are a delight to watch and provide the film’s high watermark.

Game Night brings some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments and thankfully stops just shy of being outrageously silly (although it gets fairly close at times). It doesn’t elevate itself to the comedy classics … it would need to be less churro and more creme brûlée for that, but it still packs enough comedic entertainment to get you well aboard the chuckle train.

You can see my published reviews here.

The Party

thepartryWeighing in at a very modest seventy-one minutes, what The Party lacks in screen time it makes up for in detail. Writer/director Sally Potter has delivered a punchy dramedy that boldly fizzes with black humour and satire. While it doesn’t entirely avoid the oft-maligned staginess of a chamber-piece (a curse that’s not necessarily a bad thing if the writing is up to snuff), Potter has kept things visually as silver-tongued as her script, and it works … most of the time.

Read the full review for the NZ Herald here.

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.

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.