Escape Room

ERMany of us have experienced the tension of being locked in a confined space with only an hour to escape. No, I’m not referring to tackling Auckland’s traffic, but rather the current fad of escape rooms that seem to be everywhere at the moment.  Such is their ubiquity it’s little wonder Hollywood has mined the craze for some big screen treatment. All the prerequisites are baked right in for a thriller such as this to grab and run … and in this instance fall flat on its face at the final exit.

Escape Room takes its cue from (but falls well short of) cult-classics such as The Game, Cube, and Saw. It’s a lightweight tale of implausible horror that pits six escape room players against the ingenuity of an unknown puppet-master.  The stakes are simple, $10,000 or death—although none are privy to the latter upon entry, of course. If only they’d read the fine print. 

There are the usual bunch of archetypes who receive an invitation to play; the shy student, the smarmy stockbroker, a shelf-stacking slacker, the long-distance trucker, the Iraqi war vet and an escape room fanatic whose only seeming purpose is to explain the ins-and-outs of escape rooms just in case we aren’t aware of how they work. None are particularly well-sketched characters, but that’s to be expected when life expectancy is this limited.

It quickly becomes apparent that Escape Room is standard check-your-brain-at-the-door fare. No tricky plot points to trip over or clever culture subverting subtexts here. In fact, the only head-scratching moment comes in the film’s finale which offers one of the more illogical, bizarre and poorly rendered WTF endings I think I’ve ever seen. Clearly, Director Adam Robitel (Insidious: The Last Key) hadn’t a clue on how, or when, to end this film.

There are some solid flash-points of tension early on, but as the ever-dwindling team shift from room to room it all becomes rather episodic and dull. For the record, it took me exactly 99 mins to escape the theatre, others might get out sooner.

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

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Colette

colettePart way through Colette, our lead says to her husband “I can read you like the top line of an optician’s chart.” It is an amusing but biting line signaling the refreshing winds of change that sweep through this proto-feminist period drama.  Don’t be fooled into dismissing Colette as yet another stuffy costume snore starring a type-cast Keira Knightley. No, this quick-witted and feisty feature crackles with energy and humour as it pits the forces of traditional marital dynamics against a lop-sided distribution of talent.

Set in Paris during the turn of the twentieth century, this is the true story of novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Knightley) and her marriage to Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West). Willy, as he was affectionately known to his adoring public but latterly referred to by Colette as a “fat, smug, lazy, selfish bastard” was a patron of hedonistic excess and an “author” whom Colette dutifully ghostwrote for. Willy became a celebrated rock-star of the Parisian literary field despite his fragile empire being built on the duplicitous foundations of Colette’s writing talent. It is a familiar tale of sexist and professional treachery that will no doubt garner comparisons to the recent film The Wife (starring Glen Close). However, this is more than The Wife’s “behind every great man” story, as Colette dives head first into the sexual politics of a woman coming to terms with her autonomy and gender identity.

It is a simple story but with wonderfully complex characters that you can really sink your teeth into, and thankfully screenwriter Richard Glatzer (Still Alice) takes plenty of time to explore them.  The two leads offer vibrant performances that bristle with a pin-sharp wit as they boil in their volatile chemistry.  Knightly’s take on a blossoming woman in a society that demands feminine submission encapsulates a heady mixture of humility and rage as she bounces off West’s quite brilliant balance of bombastic bluster and faux naivety. 

Although the film’s somewhat rigid visual style doesn’t quite match the lively milieu of its characters, this thoroughly entertaining biopic is worth seeing for the two outstanding performances alone.

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

On the Basis of Sex

You might have noticed the meme “Notorious RBG” bandied about recently; a humorous meld of Ruth Bader Ginsburg—a demure Jewish lawyer—and American rap artist Notorious BIG who is anything but. As this film neatly illustrates, Ginsburg’s dogged drive and determination for shaking up the establishment show that there is more truth to the meme’s apparent oxymoron than meets the eye. She’s diminutive in stature but a giant in the fight for gender equality.

On the Basis of Sex begins in the sixties with Ruth as a bright-eyed Harvard law school entrant with a gifting for the books and a firm belief in the power of change. It’s a volatile combination and her struggle with sexism within the male-dominated law fraternity was something her quiet resolve could not ignore. So she set about illuminating the lecturers, Judges and pundits who didn’t think sex-discrimination existed … rather successfully.

Spanning her life through to the seventies, the film settles down into a procedural court-room drama examining the Wiesenfeld case—a foundational case that Ginsburg used to bring about constitutional change to womens rights.

Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything) walks a fine line between an authentic portrayal of the real Ginsburg—whose reserved and mild nature was never going to set the silver screen alight—and breathing new life into her persona for the purposes of engaging cinema. Thankfully, she finds common ground and delivers a performance that leans well enough on emotional drama while never losing sight of Ginsburg’s stoney temperament.

For the most part On the Basis of Sex adequately handles its material. Yet, conventionality is a sticking-point for a film that struggles to avoid riffing on some well-trodden clichés. Director Mimi Leder (Deep Impact) certainly doesn’t bring anything fresh to the cinematic bar despite having a seemingly solid screenplay to work with. Although Jones works hard to spice up the dry world of constitutional law, On the Basis of Sex remains superficially inspiring and lacks the venom of Notorious RBG’s reputation.

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

Green Book

gbOne half of the Farrelly directing duo, Peter Farrelly, has departed from the couple’s proclivity for comedy to deliver a heartfelt account of an unlikely friendship in the face of racial adversity. 

Taking its title from a guidebook designed for blacks travelling through America’s racist south, Green Book is set in the sixties and focusses on two New York men. Tony “the lip” Vallelonga is a sloven working-class family man played by Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic), and Dr. Don Shirley is an educated classical pianist with impeccable social manners and a clipped sense of decorum, played by Mahershala Ali (Moonlight). Both are socially, racially and ideologically worlds apart, however, they are forced together through a mutual work arrangement that pits Tony as the driver and hired muscle to guide Don though the more unsavoury (racially speaking) parts of the southern states.  

The pair’s racially charged trek through America’s hotbed of entrenched prejudice threatens to be a volatile powder keg ready to blow.  However, as the film progresses the diatribe that is ever-present on the periphery never eventuates. Rather, the film amicably traces its road-movie sensibilities through a more peaceful narrative path, keeping non-violence at its moral heart, narrowing the focus instead onto their burgeoning friendship. 

Some commentators have suggested that Green Book lacks the conviction of current contemporaries (such as If Beale Street Could Talk, Sorry to Bother you, BlacKkKlansman etc), instead opting for a sentimentality that is avoidant of the greater issues at stake. And sure, it’s not without its faults; the film stumbles over a few inconsistent character motivations and its well-telegraphed statements on racism err on the obvious, lending the film a slightly glib tone. But don’t let that put you off this otherwise well-intentioned crowd pleaser. Green Book makes the most of two superb actors at the peak of their powers and lives comfortably within its self-appointed mandate to herald the power of passive resistance and friendship. It’s charming, frequently funny and if you let your guard down it will melt your heart.

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

Eighth Grade

American writer/director Bo Burnham brings his indie sensibilities to a coming of age tale that feels both wonderfully charming and fiercely honest. His ode to teenage angst has somehow avoided Hollywood’s habit of cleansing and repackaging the prickly topics in our lives for easy consumption. Instead, Burnham’s astute observations of a thirteen-year-old’s anguish captures that limbo period; a time in life when you’re trapped for a few tortuous years between the joy of childhood and the reality of being an adult.

Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is a naturally shy but determined girl finishing up her eighth-grade year. Her introspective nature, which she projects onto social media, supplies the film some of its most soul-searching moments and highlights the disparity between middle-school (intermediate for us Kiwis) and high-school. Her well-intentioned, but perhaps overly earnest father (Josh Hamilton) burdens Kayla with a further minefield of generational difference to deal with.

Eighth Grade courageously and unapologetically marches through some uncomfortable topics and threatens to go into some fairly dark places. Watching with my daughter (who is a year shy of Kayla) we hit on a couple of awkward moments but thankfully Burnham not only recognises the necessary to explore such topics but also when to back off before the pot boils over. It’s light on plot but heavily laden with observational insights that weave the very present scape of social media seamlessly into Kayla’s milieu without undue attention or hysteria. Burnham shrewdly captures the painful absurdities of adolescence with a wonderful balance of sharp-edged wit and sensitive understanding that Is both powerful and yet modestly delightful.

However, where this film really shines is in newcomer Elsie Fisher performance, whose role as someone on the brink of change is delivered with a rare authenticity. From her strained and awkward self-help youtube videos to her courageous efforts at putting herself out there at a poolside party for the “cool kids”, Fisher naively exudes screen-presence and a good dose of comic timing. Wait for Hollywood to sink its teeth into this rare talent.

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

Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse

smitsvThe well-trodden Marvel universe gets some further Spiderman love with a film that packs more superhero fun than all the other Spiderman films put together. Here you get not just one but seven web-slinging Spideys … and they’re all from different universes.

I’m sure the superhero fatigued will be rolling their eyes about now. But stay with me here, because this Spidey universe flick is the perfect tonic for the Marvel weary.  Take it from me—an ardent eye-roller of the spandex clad—this movie is brilliant!

An origins story of sorts, this animated tale introduces a new Spider-man, teenage Brooklyn graffiti artist Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), who is (yes) bitten by a radioactive spider, endowing him with special powers.  New to the webbed gig, Miles struggles with his new-found powers but when a crack opens in the space-time-continuum, five other Spidey iterations from wildly different parallel universes pour in to help. Among them a female version, Spider Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), and her male counterpart, Peter Parker, both offer their assistance.  One problem; this version of Peter Parker has gone to seed and is a burger scoffing, sweat pant slob who’s given up on hero-ing (Jake Johnson is perfectly cast here).  Reluctantly though Peter helps Miles harness his powers as the posse of arachnid heroes battle to get back to their own parallel universes.

Plot-wise, its fairly standard procedure, but where this tale excels is in its delivery. Drawing on its comic book roots, the same producers who brought us The Lego Movie have gone with an animation style that fizzes and crackles with explosive energy, creating the genuine feeling of a comic book leaping onto the screen. The banging soundtrack will have you buzzing and writer Phil Lord (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) brings a level of quick-witted irreverence and humour that manages to ground this preposterous tale. The result is an unconventional, vibrantly fresh and laugh-a-minute loving ode to the comics.  It’s really something special.

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

The Favourite

tfThe darling of deadpan, Yorgos Lanthimos has once again worked his enigmatic style to deliver a film that is part period piece and part anachronistic satire. Anyone who has experienced the quirkiness of The Lobster or the uneasiness of The Killing of a Sacred Deer will know that the writer/director has a cynical view of humanity. His unique style, often touted as a humorous Kubrick, twangs on the raw nerves of his audience as much as his dark humour tickles their funny bone. The Favourite is no different and tonally this film snuggles comfortably in between his two previous outings.

Rabbit rearing, peculiar dance sequences, duck racing, opulent sets, outlandish costumes and more wigs than a drag queen’s wardrobe flesh out the Lanthimos world. The Favourite straddles that surreal space between spoof and serious period drama and is a satirical glance at a warring nation as well as a direct stare at the human condition.

The story takes place in 18th Century England and focusses on three deeply flawed characters; Olivia Colman (Broadchurch) as the incompetent, needy and childlike monarch Queen Anne, Rachel Weisz (My Cousin Rachel) as her ruthless but trusted adviser Lady Sarah, and Emma Stone (Birdman) as the interloping, scheming social climber, Abigail. 

Refreshingly, men for the most part are cast to the margins, sent to war, or form impotent chattels which Abigail and Sarah use in their contest for Queen Anne’s affection. 

It is a delightfully venomous pair of performances from Weisz and Stone who serve and volley salvos of shrewd deceitfulness at each other.  But it is Colman’s portrayal of Queen Anne that steals the show with a pained but often hilarious performance that packs equal measures of giddy glee and pathos.  Lanthimos’s cinematic flourishes further enhance proceedings, with intentional camerawork that manages to reduce giant sets into cloying and claustrophobic spaces. 

The absurdist dark humour won’t appeal to everyone—depending on your level of cynicism, you will either witness a masterful work of profundity or an overcooked piece of silliness. I loved it.

The Favourite opens Boxing day.

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

My top 11 films of 2018

ok here goes …

11. The Breadwinner. (not reviewed) An animated tale about female empowerment in a patriarchal society. Vivid, honest and brutally beautiful.

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The Breadwinner

10. Paddington 2. (not reviewed) A delight from start to finish.

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Brendan Gleeson and co. in Paddington 2.

9. Hereditary (not reviewed). A powerful examination of grief and anxiety and easily the best horror of the year. Let down slightly by its ending, but I still shat my pants. Collette is superb.

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Toni Collette in Hereditary

8. 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.

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Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps Phantom Thread

7. Roma (not reviewed). Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men, Gravity) heads back to his Mexican roots delivering an artful love letter to the women who raised him.

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Roma

6. McQueen. A glorious symphony for the senses that runs the gamut of emotions; occasionally amusing, often macabre … but always fascinating. This is bravura filmmaking of the highest order and begs to be seen on the big screen.

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McQueen

5. Lady Bird. 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.

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Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird

4. The Square. 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.

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Elizabeth Moss and Claes Bang in The Square

3. American Animals. Have you ever daydreamed how to engineer the perfect heist? Just a harmless fantasy for most, but American Animals considers what happens when such reverie flirts with reality.

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Evan Peters and Barry Keoghan in American Animals

2. Annihilation. A beautifully rendered sci-fi head-scratcher that will have you pensively juggling theories long after leaving the cinema.

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Natalie Portman in Annihilation

1. First Reformed (not reviewed). Paul Schrader (writer of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull) has delivered a thought-provoking film about minister grappling with despair. Ethan Hawke’s career best to date.

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Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfried in First Reformed

Aquaman – a brief review

aquaman3An aquatic Steven Adams lookalike suits up to quell infighting among the H2O breathables in a film that has more eye-rolling moments than a conversation with a petulant teenage valley-girl.

As far as superhero flicks go Aquaman is everything the excellent, but thematically similar, Black Panther isn’t; disjointed, bloated and boring. Jason Momoa, while plenty of screen presence and handy with a smarmy snark, doesn’t have the acting chops to draw you into his plight.

There’s too much world building and not enough character building. Waaaaay too much posturing and, again, not enough character building. To be clear … there’s not enough character building.

Aquaman floats like an unflushable turd.

Go see Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse instead.

At Eternity’s Gate

aegThe Diving Bell and the Butterfly director Julian Schnabel’s take on Van Gogh’s life places us deep inside the disquieting mind of the Dutch genius in this film which is part biopic, part fever dream, part expressionist cinema.  It’s mesmerising, if somewhat nauseating stuff; a rich tapestry of movement and colour that feels as painterly as cinema gets.  Attempts to capture Van Gogh’s work through cinema is nothing new, most notably the recent effort, Loving Vincent, which literally painted each frame of his story. But where that film seemed gimmicky (albeit painstaking) here Schnabel’s vision feels authentic and true to Van Gogh’s pursuit to capture light on canvas. 

A word of warning, though, to those who suffer the uneasy effects of a shaky handheld camera; this film is constantly on the move, and following Vincent’s crazed exploits through the rural French town of Arles might be a bit much for some. I was both wowed and sweating with motion sickness; a strangely uncomfortable but rewarding experience.

The film traces Van Gogh’s most prolific period but tends to gloss over many of his more infamous exploits, focussing instead on his relationship to his art. Rather than ply us with a forensic understanding of the Dutch master, the film concerns itself more with the world of experience. 

Willem Dafoe’s turn as Vincent is spell-binding. His face, itself a richly creased canvas, delightfully communes with the world around him capturing Van Gogh’s’ array of anguish and wonderment with an impassioned depth. The excellent supporting cast are worth noting too with Oscar Isaac (as Paul Gauguin) and Mads Mikkelsen (as a consulting priest) bringing two memorable performances.

Ultimately though, the main star is Benoit Delhomme’s (The Theory of Everything) deeply rich cinematography. Undoubtedly, some will find his bold camera work a distracting annoyance and might consider At Eternity’s Gate to be a victim of its own style. Depending on your tolerance, At Eternity’s Gate will linger in your mind or uneasily in your tummy long after viewing.

At Eternity’s Gate opens in theatres 20th December.

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