Month: May, 2018

20th Century Women

txwAfter a well-received run at last year’s NZIFF, 20th Century Women finally gets some more big screen love. Brimming with warmth and wit, this enlightening if slightly meandering tale provides plenty of post-viewing conjecture to unpack.

Written and directed by Mike Mills (Beginners), one might ask how is it that a male is telling women’s stories—as the title suggests, this a film about 20th Century Women, right?  Well, not exclusively; it has a soft-natured feminist slant which develops further to show how female stories are often inextricably connected with male stories. 20th Century Women is loosely a biopic based on the real-life women who influenced Mills and is, in a sense, an ode to these women written by the man they helped shape.

Set in 1979, the film centres around a quintuplet of characters who all live in the same house. At the coalface of motherhood is Annette Bening who plays Dorothea; landlord, single mother, and compassionate matriarch who is struggling with what it means to bring up a son in a society bristling with cultural change. Likewise, her teenage son Jamie (played by Lucas Jade Zumann) has to endure the conflicting and bewildering world of advice and desires.

Dorothea’s large multi-story house is a do-up; boarder William (Billy Crudup) earns his keep by assisting with renovations. The other boarder is Abbie, played by the likeable Greta Gerwig whose free-spirited nature is pitted against her struggle with cancer.  And then there’s Julie (Elle Fanning), who doesn’t technically live in the house but comes and goes at her whim and sneaks in at night to sleep with Jamie. They don’t have sex, their relationship being purely platonic … at least according to her.

Despite being overly invested in life’s quandaries beyond its due, this earnest tale is liberally littered with enough existential insight and astute observations to be an enlightening and rewarding experience. And although it leans heavily on the performance of its superb ensemble cast there’s enough meat on its bones to be well-worth seeing on the big screen.
 

See my reviews for Witchdoctor here.

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Kodachrome

3Digital giant Netflix’s bankrolling of a film that champions all things analogue is an anachronism that some might smirk at. Others will nostalgically nod at Netflix whose roots lay in the twilight of physical media.  But when Ed Harris says “We’re strictly analogue here” Kodachrome not only makes clear its belligerent stance on the world’s love-affair with all things digital but also underlines the 35mm celluloid that it was shot on—a rarity these days.

Directed by Mark Raso (Copenhagen) and based upon a New York Times article written by A.G. Sulzberger, Kodachrome explores father-son relations against the backdrop of the titular film stock’s death knell.  

It is a pleasantly predictable film that centres on Matt (Jason Sudeikis), a grumpy record exec, who is reluctantly coerced into joining his estranged father to drive cross-state.  His father, Ben (played by the superb Ed Harris), is a renowned photographer who has to reach Kansas before the doors shut for good on the last Kodachrome processing facility in the world.  What adds to the trip’s urgency is that Ben is terminally ill with only weeks to live. His last few cherished roles of undeveloped Kodachrome film provide narrative direction but at its heart, Kodachrome is more concerned with exploring the frail emotional bonds between Ben and Matt.  The always-engaging Elizabeth Olsen (Wind River) plays Zoe who comes along for the ride as Ben’s nurse, and for all the father-son bickering she becomes more a mediator than Ben’s medical attendant.

Ed Harris’s performance can best be described as “nuanced”.  Oh how I cringe at the overused word, but in this instance, it so aptly describes a masterful portrayal that is brimming with subtle shades of expression. Harris sublimely encapsulates Ben’s bitterly cynical demeanour that is fleetingly betrayed by moments of existential joy.

Kodachrome is a warm and beautiful film—Cinematographer, Alan Poon, having made the most of the media it was filmed on. And although it is a touch predictable at times Kodachrome remains an Ed Harris masterclass and worth seeing for his performance alone.
 

See my reviews for Witchdoctor here.

The Bookshop

tbsOn my way to work, I saw a young student walking along the footpath, open book in one hand, a half-eaten apple in the other, lost in what must’ve been a good read.  It was a nostalgic moment and a sight so seldom seen nowadays. Perhaps it is no surprise then, that The Bookshop gave me that same feeling; it is, after all a film that celebrates bibliophilia and deals in the currency of nostalgia.

Based on the novel of the same name by Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop is set in 1959 and tells the tale of Florence Green (Emily Mortimer). She is an earnest but plucky young widower whose decision to open a bookstore in the English township of Hardborough ruffles a few feathers—most notably, the town’s toffee-nosed aristocrat Violet Garmart (a role that is deliciously rendered by the wonderful Patricia Clarkson).  Her plans to scupper Florence’s venture supplies the film its narrative focus. It’s not a particularly complex story, but the devil is in the detail and Florence’s belligerence in the face of a town’s rejection personifies the film’s investigation of courage in the face of classism.  

Bill Nighy turns in a typically screen-steeling performance as Florence’s confidant and ally, Edmund Brundish. But even his quirky style as the knight in shining grey-hair provides little relief from the film’s surprisingly bleak tone. Yes, The Bookshop is slightly more sombre than expected, but thankfully it avoids the temptation to pander to today’s voracious appetite for feel-good twee and whimsy.

Isobel Coixet, who both directed and adapted Fitzgerald’s book, has done and good job of creating a great deal of atmosphere and drawn out some wonderful performances from her top-draw cast. 

The film does, however, have a few minor problems; the editing is particularly loose in parts, and some of the supporting roles feel very stilted. But what it lacks in one chapter it makes up for in another—specifically with some beautiful sound design and notable cinematography.  The Bookshop is certainly no page-turner, but it remains engaging enough to be worth seeing.
 

See my reviews for the NZ Herald and NZME here.

Swagger of Thieves

swaggerIt seems ironic that such an agile and articulate documentary can be born from the burnt out husk of a drug-addled rock band. But that is exactly what first-time documentarian Julian Boshier has produced. The aptly titled Swagger of Thieves chronicles the fortunes of the “almost” iconic kiwi hard rock band, Head Like a Hole (HLAH). Their misspent potential is a schtick that is perhaps a well-trodden path of many bands, yet Boshier has managed to show an exceptionally candid side to HLAH’s story.

Disagreements, fall-outs, hedonism, poor management and finances that went up in smoke (or more accurately, intravenously up the two founding member’s arms) are all laid bare here—it’s classic stuff of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll and Swagger of Thieves expounds on a band who, at the time, unapologetically claimed it as their rite of passage. 

The film joins the reforming band after a ten-year hiatus and recounts their formative years that held so much promise.  As frontman Nigel “Booga” Beazley admits “There was a lack of respect. We were poohing in our own nest.” His slightly unhinged charismatic charm provides this doco with some genuinely hilarious moments, but it is the band’s other founding member, Nigel Regan, whose sombre tones capture the beating heart of HLAH’s darker side and the crippling effect that drugs had on the band. 

Whether their legacy is a lost cause is still up for conjecture, but Swagger’s final words, “thank my cock, let’s go get wasted”, hint at an ongoing problem. And because the film is so ruthlessly uncompromising in its honesty, it is difficult to feel much admiration for a band that naively let so much talent go to waste. Nonetheless, their story operates as a valuable piece of NZ social history and Swagger of Thieves is a tragically engrossing doco to watch. It’s kind of like watching lemmings jump to their death—you just can’t look away.

Moreover, without HLAH’s story we wouldn’t have the burgeoning talents of Boshier, who has delivered a shining example of vivid filmmaking. That Boshier shot, produced and directed Swagger of Thieves suggests he’s one to keep an eye on … let’s hope he doesn’t go the way of his subject matter.
 

See my reviews for the NZ Herald and NZME here.

Crooked House

crookedhouseThat this murder mystery is pleasingly old-school only serves to bed in well with its source material. Agatha Christie’s sordid tales of murder and mayhem have long been a rich source of cinematic intrigue since the age of silent cinema, often with mixed results. But here, director Gilles Paquet-Brenner has done an admirable job with a conservative but well-considered adaptation of arguably Christie’s most twisted tale.

Set in the fifties, spy-turned-private-detective Charles Hayward (Max Irons) reluctantly takes a job from an old flame, Sophie (Stefanie Martini).  Her grandfather was murdered with a fatal barbiturate injection … or so it seems. The film’s cold palette and haunting score lend an appropriately ominous mood as Hayward, against his better judgement, visits the sprawling estate where Sophie’s aristocratic family live together in complete opulence.

The mansion’s labyrinthine layout is full of plausible suspects; among them, the bombastic matriarch Edith (Glenn Close), two problematic sons Philip (Julian Sands) and Roger (Christian McKay), a pretentious actress Magda (Gillian Anderson) and the late Mr. Leonides’ second wife and widow Brenda (Christina Hendricks) who stands to inherit it all.

The film plays out as you’d expect from a Christie story that’s been infused with screenwriter Julian Fellowes’ immutable clipped English period treatment. It is the kind of style he achieved with so much bravura in Gosford Park, but unfortunately this film never quite reaches the same lofty heights. 

The acting is typically heavy-handed with plenty of theatrical bluster, but far from being on-the-nose, Paquet-Brenner has worked Fellowes’ water-tight script with the kind of Directorial timing that’ll have you feeling like the solution is tantalisingly close—exactly what you want from a whodunnit.

Not without its faults, the film drags its heels in the middle stanza and the handsomely mild Max Irons lacks the charisma (ironically unlike his father, Jeremy) required of the role as the central sleuth. Nonetheless, Crooked House’s murderous riddle is mercifully accessible in its exposition, yet intriguingly clever, and its courageous ending will leave a bitter but satisfying taste.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald and NZME here.

Mr. Stein Goes Online

MrSteinFrench writer/director Stéphane Robelin (All Together) appears to have developed a penchant for warm-palleted comedies; the kind of light-hearted crowd pleasers that go down well with dinner out and a glass of red.  On first impressions, his latest film—a comical French tale of seduction where old meets new—will have you brushing off your best bottle of Bourgogne Pinot Noir. 

French acting stalwart Pierre Richard (The Fugitives, A Chef in Love) lends his considerable talents to the titular role as Pierre Stein, an elderly widower pining for his late wife within the confines of his central Parisian home.  His slide into loneliness and depression is curbed by his daughter, who hires an internet tutor to help him get online.  His new tutor Alex (Yaniss Lespert), a naive doe-eyed lad, finds himself unwittingly complicit in Pierre’s experimental dabbling in dating sites.  Sure enough, Pierre falls for an attractive young woman, Flora (Fanny Valette), who is none-the-wiser of Pierre’s real age. Alex and Pierre end up comically in the deep-end as Alex is persuaded to physically stand in for Pierre’s organised rendezvouses.

As is common to many farcical comedies, the film plays up the disparity between old-age and technology, which is perhaps a little assumptive at times but nonetheless offers some rib-tickling comedy. The film’s strength lies in these moments of situational humour and the complex web of lies and misdemeanours that play out to some wonderfully awkward situations.  However, the film’s lack of attention to character’s other than Pierre and Alex, make this a very male-centric story.  In particular, Flora, who is so poorly drawn that the film begins to feel uncomfortably fetishistic.  

The result is a burgeoning romance that feels emotionally hollow and is further let down by its clumsy ending.  Shame, because the intriguing setup had so much promise. Mr. Stein Goes Online is still worth your night out, but I’d advise you leave the Bourgogne Pinot Noir at home.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald and NZME here.

Chappaquiddick

ChappaquiddickA very Marlon Brando-esque Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) takes the lead as the last surviving son of Joseph Kennedy’s flagging dynasty in this tale of political intrigue and moral soul-searching.  

Famously, Ted Kennedy, one of nine siblings, was being groomed to follow in the political footsteps of his successful brothers when misfortune, fitting of the accursed Kennedy family, struck.  Ted’s night of misadventure resulted in a car accident that claimed the life of a young campaign strategist, Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) and Chappaquiddick recounts the story of the ensuing political damage control, and the moral quandary that Ted found himself in.

Ted’s oppressively patriarchal father, Joseph (played by Bruce Dern with a ruthless dedication to the Kennedy name) operates as the film’s pseudo antagonist as it begins to explore father/son relationships. A sort of Vader/Skywalker dynamic develops as Ted is tempted to give in to his dark ambitions in order to feel accepted by his father, moreover have a successful political career. 

The moral impasse of political opportunity versus honest integrity comes to a head in the film’s final moments—does he come clean about what happened that fateful night, or spin a web of untruths? Those who remember Ted Kennedy’s nation-wide televised statement might not feel the tension of Chappaquiddick’s climax as much as the rest of us, but it should still make for an interesting exposé on what happened behind the public exterior.

The film tries hard to coax mood out of its audience. Director, John Curran’s (The Painted Veil) expressive framing laps up a very broody script—you can almost see the cogs turning, and the film’s manipulative machinations are perhaps a little too obvious in their ironic intent to mirror the Kennedy PR engine.  That said, Chappaquiddick does look delicious.  Cinematographer, Maryse Alberti (The Wrestler) has done a fine job of capturing the feel of the late sixties, colour grading the final product with the golden smokey haze of the time.

Despite leaving little space to flesh out Ted’s backstory, or to lament over Kopechne’s death, the film stays its course.  And far from feeling undercooked, Chappaquiddick’s laser like focus succinctly reveals a slice of American history that is quite enthralling and will make you feel glad you weren’t a Kennedy …  queue Shona Lang.

See my reviews for Witchdoctor here.

Kedi

kediMost have experienced the mesmerising quality of cats and their unique personalities. In his first feature-length film, Turkish director Ceyda Torun has created an urban wildlife documentary that gives a snapshot of a city’s fascination with its homeless feline population.

Kedi (Turkish for “cat”) is a charming film that traverses the urban landscape of Istanbul, telling stories of its large semi-domesticated cat population and the people who care for them.  The film operates loosely as a social anthropology doco and a portrait of mankind’s relationship with their feline counterparts. One thing’s for sure, LOL cats this isn’t.

Much of the footage is taken from the cats’ eye view, with Torun’s camera getting down and dirty among the nooks and crannies of Istanbul’s back streets. Torun uses drones, radio control cars, and hand-held cameras to evoke a pseudo guerrilla style of film-making that gets right in amongst the cats’ lives. Despite the film’s lo-fi attitude, it delivers some stunning cinematography and if cats aren’t your bag then the film still offers a wonderful look at the colourful street-life of Istanbul.

Throughout, various cat “owners” pontificate philosophies and life lessons learnt from their moggies. One says “A cat meowing at your feet, looking up at you is life smiling at you.”  It might be life smiling at you or just a hungry cat—either way, many cat owners will relate to the film’s sentiments.

At Kedi’s heart is a subtext that offers an insightful comparison with human homelessness.  Many of the film’s stories operate as a parable of the less fortunate and should remind many of us that we are only an adverse turn from similar circumstances.  As one “owner” ponders: “the troubles that street cats or other street animals face are not independent of the troubles that we all face.”

Despite this, Kedi remains a little too upbeat in its scope and seems to ignore the many realities of a city overrun (as some would consider) by cats. For some Kedi will be a fascinating look at a city’s homeless population, for others this will be a Gareth Morgan nightmare. 

See my Witchdoctor reviews here.

Avengers: Infinity War

avengersinfinityI’m unapologetically lukewarm about the superhero genre having long suffered the much-maligned superhero fatigue.  And while many fans will bemoan such critics and explain how the superhero genre differs little (in quantity) from other celebrated genres, I must highlight one notable difference; the dreaded word “universe”.  Attach that word to a large grouping of open-ended narrative arcs and it’s a recipe for trouble.

Rather than the episodic nature of other genres, the superhero genre has, for some reason, decided to create giant cross-pollinated mythologies of characters who share the same “universe”—every so often tying them up in one big tentpole movie.

Beholden to Marvel’s “universe” Avengers: Infinity War tries its hardest to corral its many denizens into narrative alignment. You can almost hear the cogs turning as each hero is conveyer-belted onto the screen and plugged back into the Marvel “universe” system.  Despite such difficulties, directors Joe and Anthony Russo have done an admirable job of wrangling it all together.

Understandably, the plot is fairly shallow in order to fit in the numerous heroes and villains. The infighting of previous Marvel films is largely forgotten as the Avengers are all forced to contend with a larger, outside threat: Thanos (Josh Brolin), an enormous, galaxy-trotting warlord who believes the universe would be better off if half of the population was exterminated. His genocidal plans depend on obtaining all six Infinity Stones, their combined power would allow him to reduce life in the universe by half with the literal snap of his fingers.

The action is predictable, with plenty of the usual punchsplosions, collapsing walls, and CGI overload that we’ve become accustomed to. But thankfully the fight sequences aren’t too long … there simply isn’t time for them.  Curiously, a by-product of accommodating an enormous cast seems to be the reduction of tedious fight sequences. However, character development also takes a back seat—a mere luxury squeezed as small as Antman’s undies (who ironically isn’t in this film).  What’s left, however, is Marvel’s intoxicatingly funny brand of humour which keeps pace with the film’s sheer kinetic momentum and culminates in a bold and risky ending (of which my lips are sealed).

Fair to say, I was not expecting much and had to muster all my super-reviewing powers of critical impartiality.  And although Avengers: Infinity War is far from perfect, the result was better than I had anticipated and should satisfy even lukewarm superhero fans.


See more of my NZME reviews here.