Month: August, 2017

God’s Own Country

godocA muddy Yorkshire farm is perhaps not the first place that comes to mind as a backdrop to a burgeoning romance.  Yet in his first feature-length film, writer/director Francis Lee has harkened back to his Yorkshire upbringing to craft a story of love and self-discovery among the mud. Lee’s experience of growing up on his own family’s farm in West Yorkshire has certainly influenced the film’s genuine sense of place, painting a Yorkshire countryside that is raw, earthy, muddy, and wet—a little bit like a New Zealand winter.

An only child, Johnny (Josh O’Connor) struggles with the weight of running a failing sheep farm under the watchful gaze of his ailing father. Stubborn, grumpy, and very much the archetypal Yorkshire farmer, Johnny’s father makes Geoffrey Boycott look like a beacon of positivity. His health is failing and leaving the farm for Johnny to manage appears to be inevitable. However, when a farm-hand arrives in the form of a Romanian immigrant named Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), it awakens amorous sensibilities in Johnny that he hadn’t previously considered and provides a welcome distraction from the farm’s unbearable loneliness.

Through all its muck and grime God’s Own Country is a beautiful film to watch. Cinematographer Joshua James Richards balances a heady mix of environment, framing and lighting to capture the farm’s bleak and organic nature. The film’s visual tendencies and its economy of dialogue give way to superb physical performances from its cast.  Mention must go to Ian Hart as Johnny’s father, who gives a moving portrayal of a stroke victim suffering the frustration of losing both physical and emotional control.

Unsentimental and unflinching in its depiction of gay love, God’s Own Country is raw and explicit in its sexual content and as a result, it is fairly arresting to watch (some might find it too much). However, on the other side of its brutally honest beginnings is a very evocative romantic tale. And although it doesn’t tread far from a typical romantic narrative arc, it remains a touching and poetic depiction of what it means to be a gay man in an isolated community.
 

You can see my published reviews here.

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In Between

inbetween“I haven’t felt my heart in such a long time”— a seemingly throw-away remark common to many films. But in Maysaloun Hamoud’s latest feature, In Between, such sentiments take on a more desperate meaning.  Hungarian born Hamoud both directed and wrote In Between, a title that succinctly sums up the predicament of its three central characters; that is, how they are caught in the middle of the treacherous waters of cultural difference that impact their agency as liberated women.

The film tells the story of three Palestinian flatmates living in Tel Aviv. Leila (Mouna Hawa) and Salma (Sana Jammelieh) are liberal Palestinian women by comparison to most around them. Their struggle to act true to themselves within a framework of a conservative patriarchal society is ever-present in their periphery. When Noor (Shaden Kanboura), a conservative Muslim, moves in it highlights their cultural differences but also their commonality as women. All three women find themselves in separate romantic relationships that challenge issues of sexuality, identity and liberation.

The film wastes no time in stating its stance on gender politics: in the opening scene, Noor waxes her legs as her mother proffers sage advice on how to please her future husband. The film reaches an uncomfortable turning point with a brutal (if there is any other kind) rape scene (viewer discretion advised)—the aftermath being an incredibly raw and emotional sequence of events that cut to the bone. It’s a sequence that highlights Hamoud’s ability as an evocative storyteller, a skill on par with The Salesman’s Asghar Farhadi.

Shot with a social realist sensibility with some very clever but economical camera use, cinematographer Itay Gross has done a wonderful job of setting an evocative mood to compliment Hamoud’s story.

Maysaloun Hamoud has crafted a thought provoking triptych of feminine tales that highlight Israel’s powder-keg of social problems.  Rather than providing answers, In Between tosses them in the “it’s complicated” basket, which may be a cop-out to some, but I like to think of it as provoking a healing discourse on the subject of Women’s Rights.
 

You can see my published reviews here.

The Wall

thewallAfter the bombastic bluster of his previous outings, director Doug Liman (Mr & Mrs Smith, Jumper) has dialled things back to create a svelte psychological war thriller that is surprisingly good. It certainly suggests that Liman should investigate this introspective and minimalist brand of film-making more.

Check out the full review on Witchdoctor here.

Logan Lucky

llFive years ago Hollywood director Steven Soderbergh (Ocean’s 11,12,13, Erin Brockovich) quipped “If I have to get into a van to do another scout, I’m just going to shoot myself.”  Well, saddle up Stevo, because your so-called “retirement” has come to an end with Logan Lucky.

Set in Boone County, West Virginia, Logan Lucky resembles an Ocean film but with all the knee slappin’ swagger of a West Virginian bar brawl. The Logan brothers, Jimmy (Channing Tatum) and Clyde (Adam Driver), cite a family curse for their bad luck.  Jimmy was a promising American football player until his knee blew out and Clyde lost his arm (or hand, as he insists) on tour in Iraq. Determined to change their bad fortune, they hatch a plan to circumvent (quite literally) the local speedway’s cash takings that are being pumped through pneumatic tubes into an underground vault. Unsurprisingly, an explosives expert is required for the heist—the appropriately named Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) along with his two brothers. After a comically small deliberation on the morals of carrying out the felony (to get the film’s audience onside as much as themselves), their tenuous plan kicks off a riotous regimen of shenanigans and tomfoolery.

Soderbergh is never one to shy away from peculiar production practices, and here he has turned to an unknown writer (to us, at least) to pen this screwball caper. Credited as Rebecca Blunt, the film’s writer is rumoured to be a pseudonym for Soderbergh’s wife Jules Asner, comedian John Henson, or even Soderbergh himself.

Having produced the Ocean’s triplets (and with one in the oven), Soderbergh’s experience in working with an ensemble cast is clearly evident; here the main cast offers solid performances that embrace the film’s tone. However, Logan Lucky is not without its faults; a few heavy handed stereotypes, some pedestrian moments, and forced cameos from Seth MacFarlane, Katherine Waterston, and Hilary Swank, unfortunately derail the film’s momentum and continuity.  There is no doubting that Logan Lucky has a big heart and tries its hardest to be endearing, but it falls a couple of rednecks short of a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert.

 

You can see my published reviews here.

A Date for Mad Mary

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A wonderful film.  Link to my four-star review in the NZ Herald here.

Twin Peaks

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Not many took notice of Laura Palmer’s final words in Season Two: “I will see you again in 25 years”, a prophecy that would’ve come true to the exact year, had Lynch not had to wrangle some extra cash from the studio’s bean counters in order to get Season Three done properly. I’m glad he did, and a whole eight more deliciously dreamy episodes than the studio originally envisioned. It stalled proceedings by a year, but hey, at least this time Lynch was able to complete the Twin Peaks story properly.

See the full review at Witchdoctor.

Atomic Blonde

 

abThe name is Blonde, Atomic Blonde. Actually, her name is Lorraine which doesn’t have quite the same zing … but other than that, Charlize Theron’s new role may as well be a female Bond (or perhaps more accurately a female Bourne).

It is 1989 and the Berlin Wall is about to collapse, signifying the end of communism in Europe’s East. However, a rogue list naming covert operatives is in the wild and it threatens to halt the pro-democracy movement.  Enter Lorraine Broughton (Theron), a spy for Britain’s MI6 who is sent to retrieve “the list”. Her point of contact in Berlin is David Percival (James McAvoy) and together the two navigate the cagey and violent world of espionage.

Set against a backdrop of graffiti, punks, physical media, and eighties music (including the obligatory Falco and Nena), Atomic Blonde makes damn sure you know it’s the eighties. Cinematographer Jonathan Sela frames the film with a graphic novel sensibility (from which the story originates) and every opportunity is taken to bathe scenes in neon pinks and baby blues.

In his first feature film as Director, David Leitch has employed his background as a stuntman to great effect. Technically there is little to fault the film’s kinetic flair with impressive set pieces and fight sequences that evoke a genuine physicality.

Although we’ve seen this kind of spy story many times over, the film competently negotiates the pitfalls common to the genre; in particular the delicate balance between over or under explaining its many plot complications.  Atomic Blonde’s flashback narrative structure goes some way to alleviate such problems.

Most notably, Atomic Blonde is a comment on the current gender imbalance in spy thriller films (similar to Wonder Woman’s take on the superhero genre). Casting a woman as your protagonist is one thing, but when she excels in what is traditionally a man’s domain, then it becomes a statement. At one point a character who is sympathetic to the old communist regime utters “Women are always getting in the way of progress”—to which Theron’s sharp retort is clearly a rebuke of such antiquated notions.

However, dig a little deeper beyond the style and gender concerns and (like Wonder Woman) we are met with a bog standard genre flick that, while competently handled by its Director, walks a well-trodden path. For some, this will be enough, but others might consider Atomic Blonde to be a little hollow.
 

You can see my published reviews here.

The Big Sick

Film Review The Big SickGood rom-coms have been a rare commodity of late, so the critical success of The Big Sick at Sundance has been a shot in the arm that the genre sorely needed. Thankfully, its critical success is well founded.

Read the full review on Witchdoctor here.

The Dinner

dinnerI’ve been beamed up to the mothership and am now also reviewing for the New Zealand Herald. So, it’s probably more appropriate that I link to my NZH reviews rather than repost.  Otherwise, business as usual. Here is my take on The Dinner:

Having two previous European big-screen treatments — a Dutch film in 2013 and the Italian version in 2014, this American reworking certainly feels like a vegetable side that hasn’t been procured from the chef’s very own garden.  Read the review here.