Month: February, 2018

The Party


Weighing in at a very modest seventy-one minutes, what The Party lacks in screen time it makes up for in detail. Writer/director Sally Potter has delivered a punchy dramedy that boldly fizzes with black humour and satire. While it doesn’t entirely avoid the oft-maligned staginess of a chamber-piece (a curse that’s not necessarily a bad thing if the writing is up to snuff), Potter has kept things visually as silver-tongued as her script, and it works … most of the time. 

Kristin Scott Thomas plays the political matriarch Janet, who fresh off a promotion, puts together a small soirée to celebrate. The wonderful ensemble cast makes up the collection of invitees, each one giving this dark comedy plenty of meat and drink to dine on.  There is Janet’s liberal-idealist friend April (Patricia Clarkson) with her hippy boyfriend Gottfried (Bruno Ganz) in tow; there’s the academic Martha (Cherry Jones) and her pregnant partner Jinny (Emily Mortimer)—they’re a gay couple who both argue over the correct level of radical feminism to assume; and finally the outsider, a cocaine-snorting suit (Cillian Murphy). 

Janet’s husband Bill, played by an overly forlorn Timothy Spall, sits sullenly as this dynamite-laden bandolier of guests file in and proceed to bristle with thorny exchanges and barbed retorts.  It doesn’t take long before everyone begins lobbing bombshell announcements into the champaign and canapés. 

With very little plot, the film risks becoming too script centric and while Potter’s screenplay weaves some spell-binding wit, it does occasionally become knowingly smug. Thankfully, Potter doesn’t let things get too stuffy and counters with some nice visual flourishes that utilise the limited set size to good effect. Shot entirely in black-and-white and utilising some lively camera and lighting choices, The Party is clearly giving a knowing wink to the screwball comedies of yesteryear.

The Party will likely split its audience into two camps.  Some will find it bright, buoyant, playful, and sharp-witted.  The cynical among us will most likely find it smarmy, morose, and irritating.  Suffice to say, if you enter the theatre with the correct attitude you’ll probably have a lot of fun with this film. 

Read the full review for the NZ Herald here.


Lady Bird

ladybirdGreta Gerwig is no stranger to mixing a celluloid cocktail of angsty humour with a twist of social realism. In her sophomore years, the fledgling writer/director/actor was understudy to Noah Baumbach, both bringing about delightful films such as Francis Ha and Mistress America.  With Lady Bird, Gerwig has spread her wings, gone solo, and showed us what a genuine talent she is.

Loosely autobiographical of Gerwig’s youth, Lady Bird is a hilarious yet powerful study of mother/daughter relations.  The film takes great delight in telling this coming-of-age tale in all its nit-picky detail. Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is a fiercely head-strong student in her final year of high school. She is desperate to attend a College on the East Coast because that’s where “culture is … and writers live in the woods”.  Her naive ideals unsurprisingly lock horns with her mother Marion, who thinks she should go to an affordable College in California. Tender moments are laced with comic hostility as the two belligerent personalities are perpetually wrought with tension.

Despite this strain, the film avoids getting bogged down in gloomy sentiments, keeping things buoyant and playful, and yet it never loses touch with the realities of an average family and their enduring flaws.   As such, Lady Bird is an ode to the ground-swell of “normality”—a film about middle America, but could just as easily translate to middle New Zealand.

Although Lady Bird is predominantly Christine’s story, the film really belongs to both her and her mother. Laurie Metcalf delivers a standout performance as Christine’s mum. She runs a tight ship but when things begin to unravel at home the weight of her responsibilities as a mother, wife, and breadwinner come to bear.

It is 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.  Greta, Greta, fly away home … and make another film this good. Please.

You can see my published reviews here.

Phantom Thread

phantomthreadPaul Thomas Anderson doesn’t seem capable of putting a foot wrong.  He is one of the most malleable auteurs currently working with a filmography that spans genres, periods and subject matter, each time garnering critical praise.  The American director’s latest feature, Phantom Thread reunites him with Daniel Day-Lewis, whom he directed to Oscar-winning plaudits in There Will be Blood.

Phantom Thread tells the story of Reynolds Woodcock, a couture dress designer in 1950s London.  Daniel Day-Lewis, in what reportedly will be his last role before hanging up his coat, plays the troubled designer.  It is a perfect role for the method actor, who has completely encompassed the physicality of the part. Cold, calculating, and insular to a fault, Woodcock is only bested by his sister, Cyril (played by a deliciously curt Lesley Manville). She runs the design house and keeps a contriving hand on comings and goings, dismissing people who derail Reynolds delicate routine—this extends to any love interests.

Enter Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress at a seaside hotel.  Their chance meeting has a reciprocal effect on their lives. Her doe-eyed innocence is met with an equal measure of stubborn resolve and she seems to melt his heart as quickly as he hardens hers. The two become entwined in a seemingly impossible relationship, the consequences of which become so wrought with tension that the film has to shift into Hitchcock gear to resolve itself.

Like Woodcock’s designs, Anderson has delivered a visually measured result.  A stunning amount of attention appears to have been spent on the film’s look, pace, and sound.  Everything is in place, and like a designer about to send a dress onto the runway, Anderson has made sure every edit is tucked, every pan and tracking shot is folded in nicely, and the sound design ruffled appropriately.  The result is beautiful.

With pitch-perfect performances and an intriguing narrative, this film had me from beginning to end.  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.

You can see my published reviews here.

The Wound

thewoundThando Mgqolozana’s controversial novel, ‘A Man Who Is Not a Man’ has already ruffled plenty of feathers within South Africa’s Xhosa community. His work explored the contentious issue of traditional circumcision and the dubious conditions with which the rite is undertaken. Now, South African writer/director, John Trengove, has made the bold (or foolhardy, depending on your opinion) move to stir the pot further.  His latest film, The Wound, is a reworking of Mgqolozana’s book (Mgqolozana also co-wrote the screenplay) and examines homosexuality against the traditional backdrop of the Xhosa ritual.

I’m sure some may take umbrage at Trengove, a white South African director, telling a Xhosa story. Certainly, my lack of knowledge of Xhosa culture and customs means this reviewer, a white New Zealander, must take this film at face value alone.

The Wound is a provocative tale that nervously sits at the intersection where tradition and sexuality collide. Set in the remote hills of the South African outback, The Wound operates almost entirely within the confines of a Xhosa initiation camp.  Adolescent males are brought before the elders and through a rather brutal rite-of-passage are ceremonially circumcised.  There, the “initiates” stay for weeks engaging only with their caretaker until the healing process, and their journey into manhood is complete.

The film centres primarily on Xolani (Nakhane Touré), a caretaker and his initiate, Kwanda (Niza Jay). Charged with the task of “ushering” Kwanda from boyhood to manhood, Xolani also harbours an ulterior motive for his annual pilgrimage to the remote camp.  Xolani sees the job as an opportunity to intimately reconnect with another caretaker, Vija (Bongile Mantsai). The two men have been doing this for years, using ritual as cover for their trysts. However, when Kwanda suspects of the affair, his confusion around what “manhood” means, and his disillusionment with the Xhosa establishment, swiftly becomes a quiet rebellion against what he believes to be a hollow and pointless ritual.

The Wound makes for uneasy viewing and soon becomes a smouldering powder keg that threatens to explode into violence.  Tender moments are laced with hostility and the three contrasting personalities are perpetually wrought with tension.

Shot almost entirely with a hand-held camera and with no musical score, the film bristles with a social realist sensibility. Through all its dust and grime The Wound is a beautiful film to watch. Cinematographer Paul Ozgur balances a heady mix of environment, framing and lighting to capture a rural South Africa that feels genuine and earthy. The film’s visual tendencies and its economy of dialogue give way to superb physical performances from its cast, in particular, Nakhane Touré who shows an acting maturity beyond his experience.

Obvious comparisons will be made to God’s Own Country, and like Francis Lee’s brutally honest film, The Wound is unsentimental and unflinching in its depiction of gay love and remains an affecting depiction of what it means to be a gay man within a traditionally heterosexual community. 

Loving Vincent

lvThe process of animating over the top of pre-shot footage (rotoscoping) is a procedure that has existed since the dawn of cinema, most notably applied recently by Richard Linklater (A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life). Loving Vincent pushes the envelope further, with Directors Hugh Welchman and Dorota Kobiela (and an army of artists) making the technically ambitious decision to turn their film into a Van Gogh oil painting through the arduous process of hand painting each frame. While some might find this a painstaking exercise in gimmickry, there is little doubt that the result is an immersive experience, nudging you ever closer to the work of the famous Dutch painter. Certainly, Loving Vincent is a film where you could hang any one of its overwhelming 65,000 frames on your wall—although at twelve frames per second, the resulting animation takes a little adjustment.

The film investigates the months leading up to Vincent Van Gogh’s death. Postmaster’s son Roulin (Douglas Booth) has been charged with the task of delivering Vincent Van Gogh’s posthumous letter to his now late brother, Theo.  Upon arriving in the Parisian suburb of Auvers-sur-Oise, home to a close companion of Vincent, Roulin discovers that the locals have conflicting accounts of Vincent’s apparent “suicide”.  The mysterious events surrounding Vincent’s death become a fascination for Roulin as he sleuths his way around the town looking very much like a gumshoe wanting to crack a murder case.

Van Gogh aficionados will be quick to point out that each character is inspired by, or in some cases is the actual subject of, Van Gogh’s paintings—and although this bolsters the authenticity of the film, it is somewhat jarring to see very recognisable actors playing these parts. An unmistakable Jerome Flynn (Bron, from Game of Thrones) in oil on canvas feels a little odd at first, but you soon get used to it.

It is evident that writing is not Welchman and Kobiela’s strength and the beautiful visuals, unfortunately, can’t hide a screenplay which feels at times trite and stagey.  Nonetheless, Loving Vincent remains a visually unique film that piques enough narrative intrigue to be worth watching.

Read the full review for the NZ Herald here.

Molly’s Game

mollysgame“The humiliation and depression had given way to blinding anger at my powerlessness over the unfair whims of men.”—it is a line that succinctly expresses one of Molly’s Game’s many concerns with male power and while the film is not explicitly feminist, its sentiments feel very apt in Hollywood’s current #metoo climate.

This remarkable true story of entrepreneur Molly Bloom follows her rise from the ashes of a former emotionally abusive workplace into the shady world of men as she spends a decade running the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game. It was a hush hush man-cave for rich celebrities, and Molly, a self-confessed “anti-wife”, used her drive and wits to develop a successful business model, all the while plugging holes in its legality.

Biopics often take liberties with the truth for dramatic ends, but thankfully Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation has kept surprisingly faithful to Bloom’s memoir.  The film employs a flashback structure often returning to her upbringing, and makes it clear that her drive was born from her relationship with her father (played by a very stern Kevin Costner). But when the inevitable cracks begin to appear in her burgeoning business, she feels compelled to put her moral conscience under the microscope and finds that all is not well with the industry she has encouraged.

The ever-reliable Jessica Chastain (A Most Violent Year) is no stranger to portraying head-strong women. An affirmed feminist, Chastain appears to have embraced this role of empowerment. Molly seems to take great delight in standing her ground on questionable legal advice, with her lawyer (played by Idris Elba) frustrated by the moral code she sticks to.

It’s no surprise that Molly’s Game leans heavily on its screenplay. Wordsmith Aaron Sorkin has, in his directorial debut, wisely let his strength do most of the heavy lifting. And with the exception of a few early flourishes, Molly’s Game is a visually conservative, yet sumptuously scripted affair. Its sharp and snappy dialogue is paced just fast enough to have you reaching,  but just slow enough to give you a sense of catharsis.

Read the full review for the NZ Herald here.