Month: December, 2017

The Greatest Showman

GSOE_D32_013117_9584.cr2The very likeable Australian, Hugh Jackman, and that other very likeable Australian, Michelle Williams, join an ensemble cast including Zac Efron (who reprises his High School Musical years and proves he’s still got the moves) to bring us the latest big screen musical.

The Greatest Showman is based very loosely on the real P.T. Barnum (Jackman) who grows up a pauper and marries his childhood sweetheart Charity (Williams). The film tells his rags to riches story as an entrepreneur and entertainer who gathers a bunch of “freaks” and forms a lucrative entertainment show. Soon, Barnum with the help of Carlyle (Efron) is mixing in the same circles as the famous Opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson). Lind becomes a distraction he cannot afford and that is when cracks appear in his entertainment empire.

It’s important to know that this retelling of Barnum’s life is certainly not a good history lesson.  This tale of empowerment is completely at odds the real Barnum who was, if the history books are to be believed, more exploitative and self-promoting than the warm and affable Hugh Jackman version would suggest. The film quickly becomes a fantasy that distorts the truth so much it makes you wonder why they bothered to “base” it on a historical character in the first place. In short, The Greatest Showman is peddling the age-old Hollywood lie. But hey, that’s ok when the musical numbers are this heartfelt, right? Certainly, The Greatest Showman doesn’t seem to make any apologies.

There is no denying the film’s enthusiasm and emotive sway.  It’s musical numbers drum up the kind of feel-good vibes that would put the likes of Gordon Ramsay in a good mood.  Musicians Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, seem to be at the peak of their powers right now; they wrote songs for last year’s La La Land and here they’ve penned the kind of songs that become household anthems, playing in your head for weeks. Before you know it you’ll be dusting your daughter’s copy of Frozen just to change the channel.

Outside of the music numbers (eleven in all), the film methodically moves from plot juncture to plot juncture in search of the next foot tapping number.  Narratively, The Greatest Showman doesn’t break any new ground, nor does it seem to want to.  Instead, it appears content to plod an increasingly well-trodden path and trade in narrative complexities for the evocative cheer of its musical numbers. No doubt its well choreographed and sentimentally catchy tunes will have you leaving the theatre basking in its warm glow but unfortunately its lack of narrative depth makes the glow fade fast… but you’ll be humming those songs for months.

   

You can see my published reviews here.

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My top 11 for 2017

Couldn’t narrow it to 10, so you’ve got an extra for free:

11. Menashe

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10. In Between

inbetween

 

9. I Am Not Your Negro

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8. Dunkirk

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7. Blade Runner 2049

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6. Lost City of Z 

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5. Lady Macbeth

Macbeth

 

4. Manchester by the Sea

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3. mother!

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2. Moonlight (yes, I’m including it dammit – it was a late release in NZ)

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1. A Ghost Story

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Breathe

breatheThere is a palpable sense of the familiar with Breathe, which tells the true story of polio victim Robin Cavendish.  Comparisons will be made with other films, most obvious being Julian Schnabel’s very depressing (but utterly brilliant) The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, but Breathe differs from its ilk, most notably with its cheerful attitude towards life—no small feat for a film that deals in the currency of disease, paralysis, and death. 

Andrew Garfield plays Englishman Robin Cavendish, an amiable chap of the “stiff upper lip” variety, with whom life’s promise has been cruelly snuffed out through contracting polio while working in Africa in the late fifties.  Paralysed from the neck down, Robin is put on a respirator and given months to live. But for the encouragement and support of his long-suffering wife, Diana (played by Claire Foy), and the ingenuity of his friend Teddy (Hugh Bonneville), Robin’s life would’ve come to a literal standstill. Instead, his life becomes one of reinvention and a symbol of endeavour and triumph as he historically pioneers a mobile treatment allowing paralysis patients to live their lives outside the hospital walls.

In his directorial debut, Andy Serkis has shown enough chops to suggest that he’s one to keep an eye on in the future. His attention to the film’s more technical minutia elevates it beyond a mere actorly drama.  That said, he also appears to have got the most out of his quality cast, specifically Garfield who has climbed wholeheartedly into the role of Robin and delivers a convincing performance despite ostensibly only having his face to act with.

Not entirely without fault, the film’s playful moments risk being overly twee. And yes, the provocative “Oscar bait” timing of its release coinciding with a “real-life drama of triumph over adversity” might alert the cynically aware. But for those less pessimistically challenged, Breathe’s unbridled optimism and celebration of life is presented with full conviction and dares you to enter the cinema without a box of tissues.

Read the full review for the NZ Herald here.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

nullThe Star Wars franchise has had its fair share of ups and downs over the years, with The Empire Strikes Back being lauded by many of its vociferous fans as the critical pinnacle.  Well, The Last Jedi comes pretty close, only missing out for this reviewer because along with an extra three decades of age comes the unavoidable onset of cynicalitus (the medical term for being a cynical old film critic).  Shame I couldn’t quite muster up my starry-eyed younger self from the eighties for this viewing.  But for the less cynically challenged, The Last Jedi provides everything to lose yourself in; engaging characters, intriguing atmosphere, action sequences that aren’t overdrawn… and it’s better than most of its predecessors.

Arguably the “middle” film does have the luxury of avoiding plot setups and tying up loose ends.  In short, it’s allowed to immediately hit the ground running and have fun—and The Last Jedi does just this.

It’s difficult to cover the salient plot points without slipping on a few spoiler shaped banana skins along the way.  So, treading carefully, all you really need to know is that Rey (Daisy Ridley) continues to develop her Jedi skills that she discovered in Episode 7, with the help of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). This covers a significant portion of the film and operates ostensibly as the Luke/Yoda sequence from The Empire Strikes Back.  Meanwhile, the Resistance continues to … well, resist.  Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and his First Order cronies give chase in pursuit of Leia, Finn, Poe and their eclectic bunch of Resistance fighters. All the while, Kylo Ren comes to terms with his own identity issues. The film traverses across the stars and salty planets (quite literally) climaxing in a satisfying if somewhat open-ended finish. Indeed, it packs a lot into its 160+ mins, but thankfully never feels forced.

The film appears to know its audience and despite its target market being as wide as the grand canyon, it still manages to pack in a healthy mix of racial and gender empowered characters and have time to promote its life-affirming philosophy.

A few continuity hiccups aside, the film runs a fairly fluid telling of some reasonably complex ideas. It avoids getting bogged down in its mythology, whilst still paying homage to everything that is “Star Wars”.  In short, there’s more Star Wars here than you’ll know what to do with.  Even Yoda pays a small visit, to which I’m sure his advice for the cranky cynics would be: this not the film you are looking for, no. For others … go see this film you must, yes.

    

You can see my published reviews here.

The Hero

theheroHave you ever laboured your way through the retelling of someone else’s dream?  Boring to many, gold to others perhaps, but as The Hero tells us, “Movies are other peoples dreams.”  and your level of appreciation for this film may well rest on the amount you empathise with its retelling of another man’s story. Here, The Hero’s quiet nature implores us to be patient and listen to Lee  Hayden’s story.

Lee (Sam Elliott) is a washed-up actor, aged 71 and well past the twilight of his career. A star of multiple westerns in the sixties and seventies, he now resides in his Californian bungalow and quietly smokes weed with the drug dealer next door while wallowing in his self-pity at the broken relationships with his daughter and ex-wife.  It’s not until he receives news of a potentially terminal cancer is he woken from his apathetic slumber and seeks to right a few wrongs.

By chance, he strikes up a romantic relationship with Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a woman almost half his age. The ensuing sex scene will, no doubt, challenge some viewer’s preconceived ideas about mixed age relationships—its irksome nature being a social construct that’s come about through desperate old men and gold diggers taking reciprocal advantage of each other.  But here, theirs is a tender and honest relationship reluctantly accepted by Lee, who is well aware of how it looks.

The thematic similarities to Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler are worth mentioning. Only, this is a gentler version… minus the lycra, razor blades, and strippers.  But both films have at their core an exploration into mortality, the coming to terms with a failing body, and the desire to mend broken relationships.  The cinematic treatments of both films are very personal tales from directors who’ve elected to dial back the filmic flourishes to allow breathing space for their star to deliver a stellar performance.

Actor Sam Elliott’s familiar persona parallels his onscreen character, his smokey voice (which makes Johnny Cash sound like a chipmunk) resonates more powerfully than his face—it’s a masterstroke of casting. Despite the film being very much a vehicle for Elliott’s mesmerising performance, it is still worth mentioning director Brett Haley’s intentionally subtle hand.  He is a director who knows when to observe and listen, making The Hero a notable example of directorial restraint. 

The Hero is perhaps too earnest is its middle stanza but rights itself with a powerful ending.

Few films finish this well.  If you’ve seen Nocturnal Animals and cried inwardly at Amy Adam’s tour de force of acting in the film’s final scene, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Elliott delivers his final few lines with devastating effect. Lines that echo the film’s opening act and speaks volumes about how far his character has developed. Lee’s story is a dream worth watching.

See my reviews here on the Witchdoctor website.

Menashe

menasheFor most, the unfamiliar backdrop of Brooklyn’s ultra-orthodox Jewish community might not be the first place you’d look for a universally affective father and son tale. In his first narrative feature, director Joshua Z Weinstein has thoughtfully married together culture, religion, and the universal themes of parenthood in this gently observational and heartfelt film.

Newcomer, Menashe Lustig plays the titular Menashe, a widower who works for a merciless boss at the local grocery store. Striving for independence, Menashe struggles to hold down a full-time job whilst caring for his nine-year-old son (played by Ruben Niborski), much to the umbrage of his late wife’s brother. Resentful, and desperate to prove his independence and capabilities as a father, he eschews the increasing pressure from his community to remarry. Much of the film’s nexus revolves around preparations for his wife’s memorial and Menashe’s defiant efforts to put his best foot forward for both his son’s and his own sake. 

Given his penchant for making documentaries, it is no surprise that Weinstein has settled on a social realist approach, opting to present a side of Brooklyn’s Hasidic community that feels honest and authentic. The film, for the most part, is spoken in Yiddish—a curious decision given that Weinstein doesn’t speak the language himself. Instead, he employed a translator on set thus positioning himself in similar circumstances to the majority of his audience—a masterstroke that has helped facilitate the oft-awkward subtitle conundrum.  That Weinstein is also a gifted cinematographer is a testament to the film’s wonderful visual texture. Bathing scenes in a deliciously golden light, Weinstein’s lens beautifully paints the rich flavours of a Jewish Brooklyn, and like its protagonist seeks out warmth and happiness.

Menashe credits its audience with enough tenacity and intelligence to dig beneath its gentle nature and ascribe meaning to the film’s subtle gestures.  And dig you should, because underneath its amiable surface is a film that packs plenty of hutzpah.

Read the full review for the NZ Herald here.

Sex, Lies & Gaffer Tape

MacbethIn my previous Witchdoctor article, I examined some of the year’s films that have told stories of a racist America and postulated that perhaps 2017 has signalled a shift in whose stories are being told in cinema. Here, I will expand on that to examine sexuality and gender, a touchy topic fraught with pitfalls and a multitude of differing opinions. Thankfully, we have cinema to place us in unimaginable situations and align us with people we never thought we’d have so much empathy for.

Take a look at some of the protagonists that have graced our screens this year: a black youth in the gang-lands of Florida (Moonlight), a young farmer in the mud and filth of a Yorkshire farm (God’s Own Country), three Palestinian flatmates in Tel Aviv (In Between), and a 19-century woman stifled by her loveless marriage (Lady Macbeth) – all protagonists from vastly different settings who struggle to come to terms with their sexuality and gendered roles. The ability of cinema to open up our ‘empathetic glands’ is a testament to its persuasive power and consciously or not, every film displays a stance on sexuality through the very representation of their characters.

What follows is a brief examination of two of the above releases that have willfully examined women’s agency within a male-dominated society.

While I was at a screener for the superb Lady Macbeth, one small throw-away line stood out. “I’m thick skinned”—a seemingly innocuous opening statement from Lady Macbeth’s protagonist spoke volumes about the film’s central character, Katherine (played by Florence Pugh) and its exploration of liberation within an oppressive marriage.

As the title suggests, Lady Macbeth 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. I certainly did. 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 for 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.

The film unquestionably casts a shadow over femininity with a film noir sensibility that suggests a male fear of the non-subservient woman. But what the film also appears to be telling us, is that oppression corrupts and that the actions of Katherine are brought about indirectly by a regime of male oppression.

Thematically similar to Lady Macbeth was a small Palestinian film that was released in September called In Between. Again, the film had a line that spoke volumes about its central concern. When Leila (played by Mouna Hawa) finds herself in a romantic relationship, she can’t contain herself exclaiming “I haven’t felt my heart in such a long time”. Here, such sentiments take on a more desperate meaning than if it were said by Jennifer Aniston in a Peyton Reed romcom.  

Hungarian born director Maysaloun 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.

In Between’s meta concerns also highlight how the representation of women and their agency onscreen is something to be cherished and nurtured. Its impact on Cinema’s worldview is something that demands well-considered attention rather than the apathy of your average Hollywood flick.

Compare In Between to Taylor Sheridan’s latest release, Wind River, which is a perfectly serviceable thriller in its own right, but somewhat misses the mark with the gender representation of its main protagonist. Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is a slight and seemingly inexperienced young FBI agent, who conspicuously doesn’t belong among her male counterparts, Lambert and his wind-beaten companions. Despite Banner’s senior position, her character too easily falls into the clichéd role of the abject female and it appears that she cannot survive without the help of her male companion.  Unfortunately, her character never conquers this imbalance, much to the detriment of the story’s gender concerns. 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.

Unfortunately, films such as Lady Macbeth and In Between (and other fine examples from this year, such as the aforementioned Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country and Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight) are not heavily patronised by the cinema-going public. The perception might be that these are agenda based films, with the masses instead opting for the easy entertainment value of the latest blockbuster. Despite this, there is some nutritional value to be had from your average Hollywood blockbuster if you know how to see past the marketing hype. The glossy sci-fi blockbuster Blade Runner 2049 had more meat on it than its marketing department suggested and you had to see the film to understand that it wasn’t just an impressive sensory experience but also a well-considered story about an oppressed group’s struggle for agency.  The Planet of the Apes trilogy and Wonder Woman also fall into this category, and there are plenty more if you dig deep enough.

So, if you feel like you’ve been drowning in superheroes and popcorn this year, then all is not lost. 2017 has brought its movie-going public some fine films on topics that are important to us all as a society. Hopefully, cinema will continue to fight the good fight and eternally bang its head against the brick wall of ignorance, lest we let the rot of complacency and apathy set in. 

See my reviews here on the Witchdoctor website.

The Secret Scripture

tssIn this Irish production, director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot), has cobbled together a curious mix of romance and intrigue in an adaptation from Sebastian Barry’s book of the same name.  A Secret Scripture leaps out of the gates with a very promising start and from the outset appears to have everything going for it; romance, engaging characters, an alluring mystery, and intriguing themes, but unfortunately, like a soufflé with one too many kids running through the kitchen, the middle can’t sustain the weight of its mixture.

Dusting off her shoes from a very similar role in Atonement, Vanessa Redgrave plays an elderly Rose McNulty recounting her wartime story. Now living in a mental institution, Rose refuses to vacate the soon-to-be-demolished hospital. Psychiatrist, Dr. William Grene (Eric Bana), is called in to assess her condition and learns about her younger years and the tragic account of her baby’s departure.  Rooney Mara plays the younger Rose in a role that is well cast and suits her wistful looks. Secrets are revealed in her rudimentary memoir that is scrawled down in the margins of the biblical book of Job. The book of Job offers a powerful metaphor for loss and enduring faithfulness that unfortunately the film doesn’t take the time to explore further and would’ve otherwise encouraged a deeper emotional texture to the film.

Biblical accounts aside, the film has a familiar feel to it. Its narrative structure and tone owe a lot to Joe Wright’s superb Atonement, and thematically there is a hint of Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table. However, it never quite amasses the gravity of either film and suffers from hurried character motivations that lead to some events that could only be described as perplexing.

Visually, however, the film is sumptuous with Russian cinematographer Mikhail Krichman employing the skills that made his previous work on Leviathan such an arresting experience—his visual punch framing the characters centre of screen among the lush Irish backdrop.

Although The Secret Scripture misses opportunities to elevate itself from the masses, it engages more than it confounds and remains an entertaining enough tale to mask the fact that it really is a poor cousin of many films that have gone before it.
   

You can see my published reviews here.

Borg vs. McEnroe

bvmSeldom do sports dramas work. They tend to be clunky efforts at condensing hours of sporting action into a few minutes whilst explaining the rules of engagement for those unfamiliar … oh, and leaving enough room to tell an engaging story.   Although Borg vs. McEnroe suffers from these problems, it packs just enough narrative punch to elevate itself from the pack.

Swedish Director Janus Mets has a background in documentaries, so it’s little wonder that he has gravitated towards telling a story “inspired by true events”. The intense rivalry between the two tennis greats, Björn Borg and John McEnroe, is no secret, nor is the result of the Wimbledon final around which the film focusses. But where the film covers new ground is in telling the background of the two.

The film examines two wildly different sporting philosophies—the brash expressive American versus the cool focussed Swede. However, it was interesting to learn that both had similar temperaments in their adolescent years, often succumbing to wild outbursts and unsavoury on-court antics. Although, Borg was taught at a young age by his coach, Lennart Bergelin (played by the evergreen Stellan Skarsgård) to channel his anger through his stroke play. McEnroe, as many know, did quite the opposite, emptying his anger all over the court, the crowd, and the umpire. Part of the film’s success is due to the casting of Shia LaBeouf in the role of McEnroe.  His brattish off-screen persona bleeds so well into the on-screen tennis rascal and when he famously berates the umpire’s “seriousness”, it’s a genuine pleasure to watch. By contrast, the very Hiddlestonesque looking Sverrir Gudnason plays an ice cool Borg holding it all in.

Unfortunately, the complexities of serving up a sports drama proves one rally too many and the film overcooks its own melodramatic remedies; lots of contemplative stares into mirrors, anguish on the training run, torment in the post-run shower, and other yearning moments become a tad overbearing. Like a number one player, this tennis film is better than the rest but still doesn’t feel good enough.

   

You can see my published reviews here.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

tkoasd“Our children are dying, but yes, I can make you mashed potatoes.”—it is a line that typifies the strange world of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos. His films are clinically measured without an ounce of extra fat and feel like they sit somewhere on the autistic spectrum of film-making, if there was such a thing. His previous outing, The Lobster, with its blunt and robotic dialogue, was as peculiar as it was amusing and The Killing of a Sacred Deer is tonally much the same, if perhaps a little more disturbing.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a seemingly emotionless film, detached and devoid of any warmth. You’d think it has little to offer, but its world of odd characters and absurd situations offer a rewarding mix of dark comedy and painful catharsis.  Steven (Colin Farrell), a renowned cardiovascular surgeon, and his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), an ophthalmologist, are happily married with two children. When a patient dies on Steven’s operating table he feels duty-bound to take the dead patient’s son, Martin (Barry Keoghan), under his wing. However, when Steven’s own children begin suffering a clinically unexplainable condition things begin to unravel. Steven’s relationship with Martin takes a peculiar and sinister turn when Martin offers Steven a horrific solution to their problem.

Farrell and Kidman offer typically measured performances, but the real surprise is Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk), whose portrayal as Martin feels like watching a toddler with his hand on the proverbial nuclear button. It is a tour de force of uneasy acting that delivers the perfect balance of ambivalence and malevolent intention—his character taking on an almost biblical role (suggestive of the binding of Isaac) that is central to the film’s exploration of what it means to atone for our transgressions.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer will no doubt divide its audience. The awkward mix of unconventional storytelling and inaccessible characters might be too impenetrable for some. For others (myself included), The Killing of a Sacred Deer remains a macabre psychological satire told in a very unique and refreshing way.
   

You can see my published reviews here.