Chocolat

choccy“Your success is an insult to white people. Negroes must know their place.” — It’s a blunt statement from the film Chocolat, but a brutally honest account of the entrenched racism of nineteenth century France which acts as a warning to the viewer that Chocolat isn’t just about the whimsically joyful world of clowns from yesteryear.

Chocolat tells the true story of Rafael Padilla (played by Omar Sy from The Intouchables), a former slave who is employed by a small-time circus in provincial France.  The year is 1897 and his role as the wild eyed “cannibal” baring his teeth scares, delights, and indulges the audience’s prejudices of the time. But when he is discovered by George Footit (actor James Thierrée – grandson of Charlie Chaplin), a struggling clown in desperate need of upping his game, the comedy duo Chocolat and Footit is born. Soon after, the prestigious Parisian Nouveau Cirque gets wind of their act and sends them slap-sticking their way to fame and fortune.

As the saying goes, ignorance is bliss and Rafael appears unconcerned about the broader racial implications of a black man being physically abused for laughs.  The crowd is adoring and he is paid handsomely, even if his white partner, Footit, is paid more. However, during a short stint in jail he meets Victor, a black activist, who enlightens Rafael to the fact that he is only playing someone else’s whipping boy, rather than the artist he sees himself to be.

Meanwhile, the consummate professional, Footit appears to be more colour-blind than those around him, perhaps due to recognising similar struggles of bigotry. The film alludes to his homosexuality but is never explicit about it, suggesting that this film is as much about sexual identity as it is about race.

Nonetheless, the film wears its racial concerns boldly on its sleeve and forces us, the movie going audience, to observe another audience laugh and holler at the racist antics within the circus ring. However, it’s not long before you realise that you’re stifling a few laughs of your own at Chocolat and Footit’s down-right hilarious hijinks. The irony is palpable and you start to question whether you are complicit in your laughter, or whether it is testament to two very funny men whose performance transcends racial boundaries.

Roschdy Zem does an adequate job at directing this solid biopic, but its lavish production values just can’t match the two wonderfully charismatic and convincing performances of Sy and Thierrée. A film worth seeing for their performances alone.

You can see my published reviews here.

This Beautiful Fantastic

 

tbfWith the darkness of winter imminent and New Zealand gardens well into lock-down, it seems an odd time to release an optimistically colourful film about an English garden.  Perhaps it was a scheduling decision by the studio to make Lions supporters feel more at home.  However, all is not well in an English garden.

Written and directed by Simon Aboud, This Beautiful Fantastic is a light-hearted fable about two warring neighbours: Alfie, an obstinate old-man played by the wonderfully earthy Tom Wilkinson (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), and the other an obsessive-compulsive young woman named Bella played by Jessica Brown Findlay (Sybil Crawley in Downton Abbey). Bella’s “criminal neglect” of her back garden is met with Alfie’s ire when he snitches on her landlord. With a month to tidy up her garden, Bella must find some way of growing green fingers. Predictably, walls (both  metaphorical and literal) are broken down as the two learn to gain more understanding of each other.  Alfie’s cook, Vernon (Andrew Scott), acts as the conduit between the two to smooth over their relationship.  Meanwhile, the painfully adorable Billy (Jeremy Irvine) frequents the library where Bella works and waits in the wings to sweep her off her feet.

The film’s whimsically twee style is possibly something of an acquired taste that might be irksome to some but inspiring to others. Its form is reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie and offers a similar palette that is pleasing on the eyes. Cinematographer Mike Eley (who also shot My Cousin Rachel which is in current release) is given plenty of scope to play with colour and focus. Eley’s camera does a wonderful job of eliciting the film’s modus operandi as a modern day fairytale, and as the film’s title suggests, occasionally ventures into magical realism.

However, like most fairytales the damsel in distress remains a tad too passive and reactive and This Beautiful Fantastic does little to break out of this mould. Here, Bella seems a lost cause without the help of the men around her, and life lessons learnt through the use of garden metaphors seem at times a laboured attempt to disguise her lack of agency.  Nonetheless, This Beautiful Fantastic is an enjoyable, if predictable film of familiar faces, tropes, and environs. Its gentle and warm comedy will go some way to break down the cynics in the audience.

 

You can see the published review here.

The Mummy

tmmyIt looks like Universal Pictures want some of that lucrative franchise action. In the opening credits to The Mummy we are introduced to the “Dark Universe” logo — a series that is being spearheaded by The Mummy in what appears to be a new world of characters born out of classic horror; The Hunchback, Dr. Jekyll, Frankenstein, and Dracula, to name a few.  Although, if The Mummy is any indication, they’re going to make a monstrous mess of the whole lot.

In The Mummy we get Tom Cruise in all his blockbuster glory. From his quizzical expressions to his dramatic running style, everything here is so familiar, even down to the cookie-cutter template that this action blockbuster has been styled on. Cruise plays Nick Morton, a military recognisance scallywag who likes to steal antiquities and sell them on the black market.  One amorous night he steals a map from Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) which leads him (and her eventually) to the resting place of a 5000-year-old mummified Egyptian princess named Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella). Ahmanet was fairly miffed over a family spat back in the day … but I wont bore you with the details. Suffice to say that she comes back to life to set things straight and wreaks havoc over old Blighty.

Where do I start with what is wrong with The Mummy? Well, if you are sensitive to gender representation then you will most likely realise it contains a bunch of a negative stereotypes.  Ahmanet being the monstrous feminine seductress that toys with the male mind might’ve been an interesting angle to explore further, but instead we are dialled back to the old-fashioned conventions of a self-centred hero with his abject love interest in tow. And don’t get me started on the age gap between Cruise and Wallis.

But, at the end of the day the film is meant to be taken as a light hearted romp, so I’ll dispense with further heavy-handed complaints.  Even as a light hearted romp though, it’s still a disjointed mishmash. There are some nice set pieces but none of these coalesce into a coherent film. Character development is poor, leaving any vested interest in their cause waning.  Perhaps the most intriguing character is Dr. Henry Jekyll played by Russell Crowe.  The small glimpse of his struggle to contain the monstrous Mr. Hyde looked like a movie I’d want to see.  Or, if we’re lucky we might see Mr. Hyde run on for Crowe’s beloved South Sydney NRL side — certainly would be a more fun than The Mummy.  In the meantime, buckle your seat-belts, because this looks like only the first of many more monstrous turds flung our way.

You can see the published review here.

Adult Life Skills

“Am I still a twin if my twin is dead?” — a question posed by the protagonist of Rachel Tunnard’s debut feature, Adult Life Skills.  The question succinctly sums up the film’s central thesis into what makes us whole; specifically when someone we love so dearly feels like they are a part of our being.  Thankfully, such heavy questions are complimented with large dollops of humour, thanks to Tunnard’s witty script which is infused with as much playfulness as it is with existential insight.

Anna, played by Jodie Whittaker (Broadchurch), is struggling to come to terms with the death of her twin brother. Nearing thirty and withdrawing into her shell, Anna lives in her mum’s garden shed and contents herself with making humorous adventure videos using her thumbs as central characters. Her insular life is at odds with most people around her; her mother is constantly trying to push her out of the nest, and her best friend has a vivacious personality that bubbles and froths against the grain. The exception is Clint (Ozzy Myers), an eight-year-old whose mum is terminally ill. His character provides the metaphorical mirror in which Anna sees herself.

Tunnard’s screenplay manages the difficult task of balancing humour with domestic anguish and provides Jodie Whittaker with ample opportunity to show her acting chops … of which she has plenty. Cinematographer Bet Rourich has done a commendable job of visually contrasting a rich array of personalities against the wonderfully earthy and damp backdrop of northern England. It’s a contrast that provides the perfect visual companion to its sometimes touching and sometimes hilarious moments.

Adult Life Skills maintains its independent flavour but rescues itself from becoming excessively twee by drawing on allegories and metaphors that stop short of unnecessarily explaining themselves. Clint presents Anna with a conundrum, unaware that it perfectly illustrates her own life. Anna asks “So what’s the answer?” to which Clint responds “There isn’t one. It’s one of them questions, but you have to think about [it]”. The film leaves you with Clint’s vague response and moves on. As such, Adult Life Skills is a surprisingly deep film that endorses journeys and processes rather than destinations and answers.


You can see the published review here.
 

Wonder Woman

Diana (Gal Gadot) and Charlie (Ewen Bremner)The fact that I remain grumpily unsentimental towards the superhero genre I think is a good thing. If anything, it allows me to offer an unflinching opinion of the film on its own merits. And the merits of DC’s cinematic universe has been fairly uninspiring to date. I was genuinely hoping Wonder Woman might be the exception.

As a kid, I never read the comics, my only memory of Wonder Woman being Linda Carter on the old family black and white box waaaay back in the seventies. Well, this is quite the different beast. Wonder Woman is directed by Patty Jenkins who debuted with the similarly female centric (but different in every other way) Monster.  In that film Charlize Theron played the femme fatale who wielded power over men. It was a dark, gritty, brooding, brutal revenge film and in most respects everything Wonder Woman isn’t.  However, an investigation into the theme of feminine power (albeit corrupt in Monster) is present in both films and it’s a credit to Jenkins’ ability as director to handle common themes across two wildly different films.

In Wonder Woman, Diana is princess of the Amazons, a trained warrior, and destined to protect mankind from the misguided god of war, Ares.  After seeing a plane plunge into the waters of her homeland, Diana (played by Israeli, Gal Gadot) investigates and finds Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a WWI spy for the British cause.  His story of a world at war incites Diana to help end the bloodshed.

Part of the film’s appeal is Jenkins’ attempt to keep things simple and clean. Working with screen writer Allan Heinberg, the film explains the origins of Diana’s character, but unfortunately it doesn’t avoid getting bogged down in the semantics of law and mythology. Abandoning DC’s typically dark and grim style, we are presented with a more lighthearted take on a heroic story in a setting that feels relatively new to DC’s universe. However, the setting is at odds with its fanciful story and the film never feels grounded. A scantily clad woman running through the muddy trenches of war-torn Belgium brandishing a sword and shield borders on the silly (yes, even for a superhero film) and weak attempts at humour only go some way to relieving the absurdity of it all.

Lest we forget that Wonder Woman is still one of the many superhero films that are flooding the market — it is a genre that this decade will be cinematically defined by. I really wanted to report that Jenkins had escaped the gravitational pull of DC’s disappointing back-catalogue and headed into orbit with a superhero film that can be celebrated. I wanted to find an iconic film from the genre that we will fondly look back on in years to come. The search continues.

You can see the published review here.

The Shack

 

shackHaving sold over ten million copies, William P. Young’s best-selling novel, The Shack, has a reader fanbase that unsurprisingly, has now been tapped into by the movie industry. It is an interesting story of one man’s very personal journey through great loss, depression and redemption.  But does the film handle this story with the gravity it deserves?

Mack (Sam Worthington) and Nan Phillips (Radha Mitchell) have three children.  They are the quintessential all American mid-west God loving family; but when their youngest daughter is murdered, Mack spirals into depression. Then one day a mysterious note is delivered, inviting him to the place of his daughter’s death.  There he meets the personification of the Christian Holy Trinity (God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit).

For the most part God is played by Octavia Spencer (The Help, Hidden Figures), a homely African-American woman speaking soft social wisdoms as she bakes. Such representations of mystery incarnate have become a cliche since The Matrix presented the disarming Oracle (played by Gloria Foster).  Her motherly (rather than fatherly) portrayal might ruffle some feathers in the Christian fraternity, but given that her persona is someone Mack knows from earlier in his life, it seems that in this instance the personification of God is personal to Mack rather than a middle finger to theology.

At times Mack’s conversations with God raise more questions than they answer. Frustratingly, it had me wanting to dive through the screen and throttle Mack for not asking some obvious ones.  However, the film settles for a curiously satisfying Christian philosophy rather than a Bible-bashing theology. And, it’s important to note that one doesn’t have to be a Christian to understand and benefit from its message.

The very American setting eschews its international production which offers talent from around the globe — the only clue being Sam Worthington (Avatar). Try as he might, he still hasn’t nailed an American accent and his smokey voice sounded at times like he was auditioning for an Australian version of Batman. English director Stuart Hazeldine (Exam) plays it very safe and perhaps misses opportunities to explore the book’s darker themes. The resulting tone constantly errs on surreal beauty (a visual style reminiscent of Vincent Ward’s What Dreams May Come) and its lush backdrops have all the synthetic beauty of a stock wallpaper for an Apple device. So yes, it’s a little smarmy in parts, trite, and laden heavily with saccharin, but The Shack’s emotive qualities caught me off guard and the result was very affecting.  Certainly worth seeing if you’d like a good cry.

You can see the published review here.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

 

unspecified-1Nothing stirs me less than a film about King Arthur. In the current scape of entertainment the legend plants itself firmly within the fantasy fraternity of Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings and the like.  It’s a well trodden path that offers a bland and dreamy world of kings, wizards, and swords.  And the title “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” really doesn’t do the film any favours. On the flip-side nothing gets me more excited than a film by Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch).  He successfully breathed life into the Sherlock Holmes franchise with Robert Downey Jr. So, just maybe, Ritchie could do the same here with Charlie Hunnam who plays the titular Arthur.

I’ll dispense with the plot details as I’m sure most will know the broad strokes of the Arthurian tale. Suffice to say that the film begins with Arthur as a young boy, robbed of his birthright by his power-hungry uncle Vortigern (Jude Law). Cast adrift down the river Thames, Arthur is taken in at a brothel and is brought up the hard way on the dirty back streets of Londinium. It is at this point that Guy Ritchie’s signature style and visual swagger comes to the fore as we are treated to a superb montage that illustrates Arthur’s street-wise life from boyhood through to adulthood. It is a stunning piece of cinema and the visuals that accompany the intoxicating musical score are a pure joy to experience.

There are a few other tweaks (ok, a lot) along the way to accomodate Ritchie’s interpretation of the Arthurian legend. Merlin is replaced by a feisty young woman known only as The Mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), and there are a number of additions that come in the form of Arthur’s band of east-end geezers that lend the film a certain gritty Lock Stock quality;  Back Lack, Wet Stick, Goose-fat Bill, Flat-nose Mike and antagonist Mischief John all make up a vibrant spectrum of wisecracking gutter dwellers. Such characters go a long way to preventing the film from taking the Arthurian legend too seriously, lubricating a healthy dose of humour throughout.

Unfortunately the sum of all its excellent parts doesn’t quite make the film a coherent whole and it gets somewhat bogged down in the mechanics of the Arthurian story. Excalibur is held aloft (yes, any mention of the Arthurian sword must include the word “aloft”) and the film does the opposite. Shame, I would’ve simply enjoyed the telling of Arthur’s life on the street alone.

You can see the published review here.

The Case for Christ

 

tcfcMy reticence towards films that champion fundamental Christianity in contemporary society is that they tend to be preachy and often err on the side of sentimentality and over simplification.  I’m sure there are exceptions but I’ve yet to see any.  The Case for Christ, thankfully, is not one of those films … at least not entirely.

Directed by Jon Gunn (My Date with Drew) with a screenplay written by Brian Bird (Captive) and based on the autobiography of the same name by Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ tells the story of its author’s journey from atheism to a faith based belief in Christ.

It’s 1980 and Lee Strobel, played by a very moustachioed Mike Vogel (Cloverfield, The Help), is an award winning investigative journalist for the Chicago Tribune, and a devout atheist. After his wife Leslie (Erika Christensen) converts to Christianity (the fundamental type), Lee attempts to debunk her beliefs by undertaking an investigation into the crux of the religion — the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Meanwhile their marriage teeters on the brink of breakdown.

I have read Strobel’s best-selling book and as someone who examined faith through a similar lens I found his investigation a fascinating one. However, here the detailed arguments in the source material have been somewhat glossed over by Bird to allow for its packing down into a two hour film. The unfortunate (but perhaps unavoidable) result leaves its meaty arguments vague at best. However, it does allow the film to explore Lee’s relationship with Leslie. Unfortunately,  the depiction of Lee’s marriage as well as his investigation into Christianity presents two plot lines that feel disparate and neither appear fully realised. Furthermore, the film’s delivery is not without its fair share of mis-steps, cliches and awkward moments. Despite this, Vogel and Christensen do a convincing job of a married couple in torment, but its investigative concerns fall well short of contemporaries like Spotlight or Zodiac.

The Case for Christ does however prove a little more engrossing than most films of its denomination and raises some intriguing questions. One might posit that the more Strobel investigated the Christian world the more he succumbed to its rhetoric — a sort of Stockholm Syndrome for journalists. Or perhaps Strobel dug up some genuine truths. Thankfully, it focuses more on the story than the pulpit.

You can see the published review here.

Get Out

 

getoutSo, what’s your “thang”, Chris? — a question posed to the black protagonist of Get Out.  The seemingly innocuous question by his girlfriend’s white dad highlights the reductive stereotypes tackled in Get Out.  Jordan Peele has boldly stepped into the director’s chair for the first time and delivered a scathing social critique that is dressed up as a horror film.  It’s nothing new for the horror genre to be a vehicle for social commentary — Zombies as metaphor for consumerism, misogyny equating to pathological fear of feminism, yada yada yada.  However, it is rare for horror to comment so vehemently on race, as is the case in Get Out. It’s a subtext that the film wears proudly on it sleeve for all to see, in fact it’s barely a subtext at all.  It’s so assertive about racism, in comparison it makes American History X feel like a film about cheese making.  Forget about your clichéd southern hillbilly racism, this is the benevolent but sinister brand of racism that is firmly ensconced in the underbelly of liberal America.

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a young Brooklyn photographer, is about to meet the parents of his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams).  He is understandably nervous — he’s black and she’s white. Their trip out of the city to her family’s secluded mansion makes him more uncomfortable when he meets their peculiar black servants. Rose’s mum (Catherine Keener) is hellbent on hypnotising him to cure his smoking habit and her dad (Bradley Whitford) overcooks his efforts to let Chris know he’s not racist.  Clearly, all is not as it seems.

Right from the start Get Out turns the typical horror tropes on their head and establishes a different set of rules for what is a “safe place” and who are “safe people”. The opening sequence sees a black male accosted on the streets of a white suburban neighbourhood. Such locations are typically familiar and safe territory in horror, but here they are presented as dark and hostile.  By contrast the introduction of Chris’s homely Brooklyn flat is adorned with his photographs of black life within a housing project — these are Chris’s “safe” places, and as he is the central character that we are supposed to identify with, it throws up some interesting and fresh perspectives.

Get Out excels when it’s developing mood rather than jump scares — its undertones being far more vocal and interesting than the plot which unfortunately gets a little carried away with itself towards the end. Despite this Get Out is well worth seeing and is a genuinely fresh take on the genre.

You can see the published review here.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

gotgv2“I have famously huge turds!” is a line that you might find irksome rather than funny, but when it’s delivered with the understated clarity and bombastic bluster of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, you’ll be all aboard that laughing gig.

The first Guardians film was a hilarious thrill-ride, and going into the cinema I was hoping for more of the same from its sequel. It is largely produced by the same bunch that gave us the surprisingly entertaining original. I say “surprisingly entertaining” because the recent deluge of comic book adaptations has left me with a severe case of hero fatigue, but Vol.1 felt like a genuine breath of fresh air. It also did a wonderful job of paying homage to many of the classic adventure comedies of the eighties. Helmed again by James Gun who directed what will most likely be a career defining original, Vol. 2 only took as long as its opening sequence to plant me firmly back in its exciting and absurdly hilarious universe.

Having been found by his long-lost father in the outer reaches of the cosmos, Peter Quill, AKA Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), comes to terms with the immortality his father bestows on him, versus the mortality of what he considers his real family — the rag-tag bunch that make up the Guardians of the Galaxy.  His Guardian buddies, in particular love interest Gamora (Zoe Saldana), are suspicious of Peter’s father, Ego (played by Kurt Russell), and set about uncovering the truth. The plot mainly serves to flesh out each character rather than much else and veritably takes a back seat to the film’s sassy style and swagger. Yes, Vol. 2 won me over entirely with its adept repartee coupled with incredibly stylistic set pieces all set to the back-drop of some pretty cool music. What’s not to like?

But most importantly, like its predecessor, this film is fully aware of itself and its objectives — take you on a jaunty adventure and make you laugh in the process.  It is Indiana Jones, Romancing the Stone, and Back to the Future all bundled together in a cassette tape and shot into space, although unlike Messrs Jones, Colton and McFly, it hasn’t followed up its iconic original with a rubbish sequel.  If Vol. 1 gave us that heady mix of comedy and adventure that the eighties got so right, then Vol. 2 has given us the sequel that the eighties never managed to deliver … just watch other studios turn this formula into a cliche. Hopefully Waititi’s Thor gets in before the stampede.

You can see the published review here.