Month: September, 2017

Lady Macbeth

Macbeth“I’m thick skinned”—a seemingly innocuous opening statement from Lady Macbeth’s protagonist speaks volumes about the film’s central character, Katherine (played by Florence Pugh) and its exploration of liberation within an oppressive marriage.

Adapted from Nikolai Leskov’s book “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” (1865) by Alice Birch, Lady Macbeth keeps the action in the same period but shifts the story from Russia to northern England. As the title suggests, it is a thematic reworking of the character from Shakespeare’s famous Scottish play, although some might see more similarities with Charlize Theron’s character in Patti Jenkin’s 2003 thriller Monster. This is a black widow story and Katherine is a femme fatale in the truest sense. Its investigation into a corrupt feminine power within an oppressive marital system renders the film dark and brooding, and at times quite brutal … but it’s thrilling to behold.

Katherine is a chattel, bought as her husband says, “along with a piece of land not fit enough for a cow to graze upon.” He, along with his grumpy father (played by the wonderfully earthy Christopher Fairbank), keep her under their strict set of rules.  Indeed, there is very little joy here. When Katherine strikes up an amorous relationship with a farm-hand things don’t go down too well. It is one of those films where everyone is a nasty piece of work … except the poor housemaid, Anna (Naomi Ackie), who finds herself in the middle of the hostilities and acts as the film’s only form of moral compass.

Director William Oldroyd, a relative newcomer to feature film set, has breathed some fresh air to the staid old period drama. He comfortably ratchets mood and tension without any musical score, which is also a testament to the wonderful work of cinematographer Ari Wegner. There is plenty at play in Lady Macbeth’s visual style, not least Katherine’s character who is illustrated with an evocative use of camera and lighting, allowing Pugh to work a commanding performance. Pugh’s slightly unhinged portrayal is the perfect foil for this enthralling piece of psychological period cinema.

Read my reviews on the NZ Herald’s website here.

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Tommy’s Honour

tommyGolf has never been my thing.  The concept is simple but, as many know, in practice it is a very difficult and frustrating game.  Perhaps telling a story about the game is no easier, as Tommy’s Honour returns a mixed scorecard.

Pamela Martin’s first feature screenplay has seen the fledgeling screenwriter transfer her writing talents from the New York offices of Playboy magazine to the windswept greens of St. Andrews. Quite a significant change of scenery, one would think.  Based on the book of the same name by Kevin Cook (Pamela’s husband), Tommy’s Honour tells the true story of Old Tom Morris and his son Tommy—both historical juggernauts of the modern game of golf. 

Young Tommy Morris, played by Scotland’s rising star Jack Lowden (Dunkirk), is a renegade among the golfing fraternity. His desire to see golfing competitors elevate themselves above their role as mere chattels for the “Gentlemen” who wager on their results, proves a difficult task. Thankfully he’s one of the world’s best—a useful skill for a man who champions pay equity and a softening of the class difference within the seemingly impenetrable golfing society.  Tommy is fiercely independent and ruffles plenty of feathers, while his father looks on seemingly helpless to sway his fervent son.  Tommy’s extracurricular activities of drinking, goofing around, and his love for an unfavourable woman named Meg (played by Ophelia Lovibond) derail his golfing ambitions, with the latter having far reaching consequences.

Unfortunately the story seems to cast Tommy’s father, Old Tom Morris (Peter Mullan) into the margins a little too often.  He isn’t really given his due as a course designer, and the film clearly opts to tell the more dramatic (and sellable) story of his son. Shame, because Old Tom Morris’ story deserved a more thorough exploration. 

Tommy’s Honour works well as an entertaining yarn but falls short of the historical document that it purports to be. Unlike my golf game, Tommy’s Honour just makes par, but like my golf game, it remains an exercise in frustration that something more could’ve been made of it.

Read my reviews on the NZ Herald’s website here.

Darren Aronofsky

darono

“Director Darren Aronofsky appears to make a conscious effort to bring the spectator towards the sensory experience of the protagonist, specifically so that the spectator experiences the physicality of his cinema. The underlying purpose of his construction and deployment of such cinema is not merely entertainment. Instead, it is an existential statement, or enquiry into our place in the world — a place where understanding and meaning are brought about through the spectator’s examination of “self” prompted by the physicality of the cinema.”

It’s good to see that much of my thesis still holds true for Aronofsky’s latest film mother!  So, why not celebrate … here’s my thesis in its glorious entirety.   Now you can wade your way though Vivian Sobchack’s phenomenological framework, or douse yourself in Don Ihde’s five operational hermeneutic rules and then set yourself alight with Martin Heidegger’s existential rantings.  All to the backdrop of Aronofsky’s filmography. It will feel like swimming in molasses. Wonderful stuff!

The Cinema of Darren Aronofsky – A Phenomenological Case Study*

*Usual academic rules apply–please don’t reproduce, quote etc. without acknowledgement.

I Am Not Your Negro

ianyn“The future of the negro in this country, is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country”—this provocative statement by black activist James Baldwin may on the surface sound reductive but his stance is unflinching and he unapologetically uses black lives as the benchmark of America’s success as a nation … and in Baldwin’s words “it is not a pretty story.”

In 1979 Baldwin penned the beginnings of a manuscript that was to be his next project, called “Remember this House”. Director Raoul Peck has taken these pages and created a documentary that is a stimulating rendition of Baldwin’s seminal work.

I Am Not Your Negro is an important film, not just as a document of America’s checkered racial history but also as a warning to the world about the fragility of cultural difference. It shrewdly illustrates the historical treatment of America’s black community in order to access deeper fundamental problems within America, and indeed the Western civilisation. Just as Al Gore has used climate change to illustrate our problems with materialism, similarly Baldwin through the lens of Peck uses a racist America to illustrate our fundamental inability to embrace cultural difference and commonality. Baldwin posits “It’s not a question of what happens to the negro here, to the black man here … but the real question is what’s going to happen with this country.”

Peck’s aesthetic scope tells Baldwin’s story with a chaptered structure and an evocative use of imagery.  He seamlessly traverses decades of footage, splicing in recent events to remind you that this is still a current problem.

The film unfortunately stops short of a comprehensive solution, but argues that America’s problems that created “the nigger” still exist today and is a “formula for a nation or kingdom decline”.  With a finger firmly pointed at Western civilisation (although it is difficult to think of any civilisation, past or present, where cultural difference has been harmoniously embraced) the film at its core seems to wrestle with the age old conundrum of humanity’s inability to grasp power.  Whatever the case I Am Not Your Negro is an intoxicating and provocative film that certainly gets you thinking.

Read my reviews on the NZ Herald’s website here.

mother!

mumDirector Darren Aronofsky is very comfortable with making sensory arresting films that divide opinion and court controversy.  With many of his films garnering critical appreciation long after release (Pi, The Fountain), some argue that the director is ahead of his time. After the divided response to his latest film, perhaps this will be the case with mother!

Jennifer Lawrence’s character is only known as “mother” (all but one character are named with lowercase initials). She lives in an idyllic country house that she and her husband, Him (uppercase “H”), played by Javier Bardem, are restoring.  It is their personal paradise, of sorts, until one day a man appears at the door and is allowed to stay. The man’s wife arrives soon after—the couple pushing the boundaries of the offered hospitality until they are caught tampering with a forbidden ornament in Him’s out-of-bounds study.  Sound familiar yet? It was to me, but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why. I’ve written a thesis on the director, in theory I should know his game backwards, but here the master of the allegorical parable dangled me like a puppet clueless as to why the film’s opening felt so very familiar. It was only after the two arguing sons arrived on the doorstep, that it finally struck me.  This is the Christian story; God, Adam, Eve, Kane, Abel, Jesus, they’re all there. But what of Jennifer Lawrence’s character? Mother Nature is an obvious fit, although there is a suggestion that she is also part of the holy trinity. At one point someone yells “there she is, Inspiration!”—again, an expression of Mother Nature, or as many Christians will tell you, the Holy Spirit.

The film’s final chapter is a head-scratcher. It descends into anarchic chaos and delivers a sensory onslaught that will test the most thick-skinned cinephile. As throngs of people arrive at their house, the claustrophobic camera-work clings to mother, following her everywhere, rarely leaving her porcelain face. The lack of musical score enhances Aronofsky’s brutal vision of humanities ugly side. Thankfully, Aronofsky’s intention appears to be for his audience to read mother! as an allegorical telling of humanity’s failures rather than a literal reading (which would otherwise render it a sick and sadistic torture story).

Towards the end mother pleads with Him, “Please … make them go away!”  And in light of the worlds current political and environmental climate, I can understand her anguish. The film does offer a release valve, an out, an ending that goes beyond its Biblical roots … but I won’t spoil it for you.

mother! may not be for everyone—it requires a great deal of tolerance and a willingness to embrace the unconventional. But put in the effort and you’ll be rewarded with a stunning film that is both an illuminating and damning criticism of the human race.
 

You can see my published reviews here.

A Ghost Story

agsWe’ve all been there in our younger years: cut eye holes out of a sheet, throw it over yourself and roam the hall pretending to be a ghost. But despite Casey Affleck’s character looking the quintessential trick-or-treater, A Ghost Story delivers a haunting and ephemeral existential tale rather than cheap jump-scares.

Early in the film, Affleck’s character, C (the protagonists being named by a single initial), dies and returns as the aforementioned sheet-clad ghost. Still and solitary, he haunts every frame of the film, sadly observing his grief-stricken lover, M (played by Rooney Mara), move out of the house he loved so dearly.   Years pass and C’s ghost remains stubbornly fixed to the land, silently observing the house’s various occupants come and go. Thematically, A Ghost Story traverses many topics but its core is rooted in a solid sense of place and examines what it means to be attached (both physically and emotionally) to a piece of land. It is little surprise then, that the story was born out of an argument Director David Lowry had with his wife about moving house. 

Lowry elides time beautifully as he succinctly shows years of tenancy compressed into minutes. Meanwhile, C’s quest to retrieve a mysterious note that M slipped into a crack in the wall soon after his death remains tantalisingly just out of reach—the note being the film’s central plot device and providing the only semblance of conventional narrative structure in a story that is otherwise very meditative in its intention.

Certainly a far cry from his previous directorial outing, Pete’s Dragon, Lowery has delivered a slow burn that is painstakingly meticulous, indulgent and patient. There is a palpable sense of David Lynch or Terrence Malick in Lowry’s aesthetic scope; the long takes, the camera’s limited but very deliberate movement.  The culmination of which projects an almost unbearable dreamlike sense of loneliness. A five-minute continuous take of Rooney Mara’s character alone in her kitchen eating an entire pie sums up the film’s approach. Mara delivers a tour de force of non-verbal acting in this scene that is simultaneously rewarding and frustrating. It will have you scratching your head along with the film’s other elusive messages about relationships, grief, mortality and the ruthlessness of time … but, boy, it’s wonderful to watch.

A Ghost Story may not be for everyone—it requires a great deal of patience and a willingness to embrace the unconventional but put in the effort and you’ll be rewarded with a film that is both original and sublime.

See my reviews here at Witchdoctor.

Wind River

windTaylor Sheridan’s proclivity for scripting stories that shrewdly observe troubling American social issues has provided an interesting mix of genres. Wind River is no different, offering a heady blend of modern western, thriller, and neo-noir sensibilities.  Having previously penned Hell or High Water and Sicario, the talented scriptwriter has turned his attentions to the Director’s chair for Wind River—the fledgling Director wisely scaling things back with a simple murder-mystery set among the windswept snowscape of a Wyoming Indian Reserve.

Inspired by true events, the film centres on the rape and murder of a teenage girl found in the snowy wilds by professional game hunter Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner).  The mystery proves too great for local tribal Police with their meagre resources, and the Feds are clearly disinterested, offering a sole FBI agent to help on the case. Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is a slight and seemingly inexperienced young agent, who conspicuously doesn’t belong among Lambert and his wind-beaten companions. Unfortunately, her character never conquers this imbalance, much to the detriment of the story’s gender concerns.  Although, as Lambert explains, the landscape is harshly indifferent to all that go before it, reducing everything down to survival. And it appears that Banner cannot survive without the help of her male companion.  Banner represents a missed opportunity that contemporaries such as Silence of the Lambs’ Clarice Starling (to which Wind River owes a great deal) comfortably navigates. Its racial ideals fare no better, with Lambert again being the great white saviour applying the mop to an impotent cultural minority unable to deal with their own problems.

Despite the race and gender misfire, the cinematography and score elevate the film beyond mediocrity, evoking a palpable sense of isolation. Sheridan’s script maintains a robust structure throughout, keeping the plot humming along and offering some genuinely thrilling moments; even occasionally stepping aside to offer some poignant insights on grief and loss.  Sheridan’s Directorial strength clearly lies in ratcheting tension, but he makes a good fist of the more nuanced moments by getting excellent performances out of his cast. 

Read my reviews on the NZ Herald’s website here.