Month: June, 2018


edieFrodo’s jaunt to Mount Doom meets The Leisure Seeker meets Scottish promotional video in this cinematically beautiful crowd-pleaser about an ageing woman’s desire to climb Scotland’s prominent Mount Suilven—she’s woefully prepared but equally determined to knock the bastard off. 

Having lived in the clutches of a controlling husband, the recently widowed Edie (Sheila Hancock) now finds herself at one of life’s big crossroads. Does she pursue the adventure she always wanted or resign herself to seeing out her days in a retirement home? It’s no secret what she chooses and her ill-advised decision to climb one of Scotland’s most iconic mountains is met with amusement, surprise, and then concern from the people around her.

Packing her bags with equipment circa 1970, she heads off to Scotland naively in pursuit of fulfilling a lifelong dream. On arrival, she fortuitously strikes up a friendship with a local guide, Jonny (Kevin Guthrie), who lays out some quick-fix guidelines and goals. He offers her a loch-side pebble, a sort of sentimental talisman with which she is to carry up the mountain. Similarities to Frodo’s journey abound as she attempts her ascent (minus the special effects, of course). But rather than casting her pebble it into the fiery furnace of Mount Doom, Edie must set it atop Mount Suilven and bask in her own sense of achievement … that’s if she makes it.

The scenery is jaw dropping, almost to the detriment of the film; the result eliciting a slightly dreamy quality. One does wonder if the Scottish Tourism Board slipped cinematographer August Jakobsson a fiver to show off their beautiful countryside.

Shelia Hancock does a commendable job of playing an ageing woman whose steely resolve shuns the predetermined life laid out before her. However, the chemistry between her and nice-guy-guide Jonny is unconvincingly patchy and their relationship oscillates between feeling authentically believable to cloyingly forced with exaggerated moments of lighthearted whimsy.

But despite its pitfalls, Edie still provides a satisfying sense of catharsis and is at times quite sublime, and although the sweeping landscapes are quite fawning, it still makes you want to sign up for a trip to Scotland.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald and NZME here.



adriftWell versed in the art of intrepid cinema, Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur (Everest) has helmed an absorbing film that recounts the true story of a free-spirited couple, who in 1983 sailed directly into tragedy.

Shailene Woodley (The Fault in Our Stars) offers a heartfelt performance as Tami, a free-wheeling Californian whose jaunt across the Pacific sees her land in the open arms of an earnest but charming Englishman. Sam Claflin offers a deliciously syrupy performance as Richard, one he’s perfected since his roles in Me Before You and Their Finest.  Tami and Richard’s discussions on whether the sunset’s colour is “beet-infused tamarind”, or simply “red” wonderfully paints a blossoming relationship of artistic opposites.  Together the love-struck couple take a job to sail a 44-foot yacht from Tahiti to San Francisco—a journey that would unfortunately see them sail directly into one of the most catastrophic hurricanes in recorded history, leaving them hopelessly adrift in the Pacific with no help in sight.

I went into this film knowing very little of the true events surrounding Tami and Richard and certainly, the film would be to the detriment of spoilers, so avoid them if you can. That said, it is fairly heavy-handed on foreshadowing certain crucial events.  Dare I say it, the story might’ve benefited from indulging in some cinematic embellishments. I know, have me drawn-and-quartered and bludgeoned with the film-critics code of conduct for suggesting such things—but Adrift sets sail on some very interesting ideas and then, unfortunately, weighs anchor. Beholden to the duty of telling a true story, it becomes quite literal rather than delighting in the coddling arms of cinematic ambiguity.  Shame, but I guess if you tell a true story, then the truth you must tell.

Ultimately though, it is to Adrift’s credit, that it does stay its course. It competently recounts Tami Ashcraft’s memoirs and certainly, the sanctity and the spirit of her words are intact. Missed opportunities aside, it remains an engaging and haunting tale.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald and NZME here.

Top of the Lake: China Girl DVD review

topIt is the first question on everyone’s lips when enquiring about season two of any TV production; How does it compare to the first?  The exceptionally good True Detective, (which tonally shares a lot with the Top of the Lake) suffered the dreaded fate of the season-two-blues. Its initial overwhelming success seeming to shackle writer/director Nic Pizzolatto with unreasonable expectations and crippling time constraints for a follow-up of equal quality. 

Unfortunately, expectations tend to grow legs over time—as they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder. Well, I’ve become very fond of Top of the Lake’s first season so was bound for disappointment.

Thankfully, my pessimism was unfounded because despite it lacking the narrative purpose and visual poetry of season one, Top of the Lake: China Girl is, for the most part, a solid production. This season is a lot more introspective in scope than the former and elects to explore the seedier internal wilderness of urban life and the devils within. Comprising of six episodes, it picks up five years after the devastating events that took place in New Zealand.

Having returned to Sydney where her estranged daughter lives, Detective Robin Griffen (Elizabeth Moss) uncovers a dark connection between the murder of a prostitute and her own troubled past. She reconnects with her daughter whom she had previously given up for adoption (the result of a teenage pregnancy—information we were privy to in season one).  In a wicked twist of fate, Robin begins to discover that her personal life and the case she is working on are intertwined. 

China Girl’s tenuous plot is tethered together through some deft writing that distracts you from the implausibility of it all. Writer/Director Jane Campion has a penchant for telling women-centric stories and here she successfully mixes an intimate personal drama with a wider story arch. Like a leaky sewer pipe China Girl drips with male sexual oppression and counterbalances this with a level of female rage appropriate to our current age of feminine resurgence. It is a white-hot example of Campion’s modus operandi, and is wonderful to behold her feminist approach to filmmaking. 

Visually, series two isn’t quite as indulgent as its predecessor and lacks its graceful purpose.  This is partly due to the location, but also a change in cinematographer, from Adam Arkapaw’s (who, coincidentally worked on True Detective season one) fawning New Zealand landscapes to Germain McMicking’s grittier urban Sydney.  The change in visual style is the first thing you’ll notice and China Girl feels a lot more cop-procedural than season one.

The DVD offers six short bonus features that explore behind the camera, its locations, interviews with Campion and her cohorts and other ephemera. Although they are interesting, they are too short to offer much depth.  The DVD set contains two discs with three episodes on each (optional subtitles included).  Each episode is encoded in Dolby Digital 5.1 and uses a 1.78:1 screen ratio.

DVD hits shelves Thursday 27th June. 

See my reviews for Witchdoctor here.

The Leisure Seeker

tlseeker“I love it when you come back to me.”—it is a seemingly innocuous line but speaks volumes about The Leisure Seeker’s exploration into an elderly couple’s wrestle with dementia.

Based on the book by Michael Zadoorian, Italian director Paolo Virzì has helmed a film that is both playful and poignant and illustrates the importance that memories have on life-long relationships.

An ageing couple, John and Ella, head out on an ill-advised road trip aboard their old Winnebago, or “The Leisure Seeker” as it is affectionately nicknamed.  John (played by a delightfully polite Donald Sutherland) suffers from dementia. The debilitating memory loss that comes with it sees his day continually break down with moments of total confusion. His long-suffering wife Ella (Helen Mirren) is hiding some of her own medical conditions and sees the road-trip as their last opportunity to drive cross-state and knock a few destinations off their bucket list.

Tonally, The Leisure Seeker is a bit of a conundrum.  On the surface, it is a life-affirming road movie bursting with positivity and a lust for life, but this veneer seems to belie the underbelly of some fairly dark material and a couple who are just holding it together. The result is an uneasy tension between buoyant and sombre and its wavering tone renders the film aimless and meandering at times.  And although this mimics John’s wayward mental condition, it is awkward to watch. A conscious decision to shoot much of the film in the fading light of day—while appropriate to the protagonist’s predicament—also makes it no easier to digest.

Thankfully Sutherland and Mirren prop up the film despite its tonal disparity. Mirren’s turn as John’s plucky wife is a pleasure to watch and the two stalwarts of the acting fraternity turn in wonderful performances that exude humour, pathos and a genuine sense of chemistry.

But the couple’s spirited performance can’t rise above a film that covers some fairly depressing material. And although The Leisure Seeker wants to celebrate life, the weight if its subject material creates uncertainty about its convictions. 

See my reviews for the NZ Herald and NZME here.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Jurassic4After the gargantuan box-office success of 2015’s Jurassic World, it is unsurprising that Universal Pictures would be clambering to repeat the dose with its successor.  Although Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is pretty much locked on a wash-rinse-repeat cycle, it isn’t entirely a mirror image of its predecessor.  Yes, it is silly, predictable, and trite—the kind of blockbuster hokum that quickly falls out of your brain soon after you leave the cinema.  But it also has some top-notch moments of chair clutching thrills.

Monsters lurking in corridors is a cinematic trope that has always given me the heebee geebees, and there’s plenty of that here.  Ever since Spielberg got the ball rolling with his prowling raptors in the original Jurassic Park, I’ve had an irrational fear of what lies just around the corner. The film’s director J.A. Bayona, who helmed the excellent psychological allegory A Monster Calls, knows a thing or two about fear. His ability to tap into my primal weakness with some thrilling dino-teeth-snapping sequences successfully distracted me from what is otherwise a fairly average blockbuster.

Stylistically, it operates like a fifties b-grade schlock horror with plenty of jump-scares and gruesome deaths. The island we left in 2015’s Jurassic World is revisited here.  Now over-run by dinosaurs, the volcanic island is blowing its top and a bunch of animal activists sympathetic to the stranded beasts want the creatures re-located to a new remote island.  Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) heads up such an organisation and her efforts to locate some of the more difficult-to-find creatures (including, yes you guessed it, Blue, the raptor from the previous film) requires the backing of multi-millionaire Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell).  Of course, you can’t catch Blue without her trainer … enter Chris Pratt. And while Lockwood’s millions provide the means to do the relocation, his assistant, Eli (Rafe Spall), has more nefarious ideas about what the dinosaurs are worth and where they should go.

*sigh* Aside from the plot, which is as predictable as a rainy Auckland winter, the film falls down in a few other areas.  Most notably, there is an unsavoury whiff of tokenism in the makeup of its multifaceted cast (but hey, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t) which also lead to roles that operate purely functional to the film’s plot machinations. 

One such character is Maisie Lockwood, played by newcomer Isabella Sermon. Despite being given ample screen-time, her intriguing character is disappointingly fleshed out.  Instead, she operates as a means to set up some (admittedly very good) scare sequences and also provide the film its get-out-of-jail-card (for reasons I can’t spoil here) to the final moral impasse. 

There are plenty more faults I could jab and prod at, but perhaps I’m being too harsh on a film that is only purporting to be as light and fluffy as the popcorn you buy with it. Surprisingly, it does have a subtext (of sorts) on the moral worth of genetically manufactured creatures, but its message is very confused and non-conclusive.

Ultimately, the awe and heart of the franchise’s original have long since escaped its cage. And for this reason, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom will no doubt garner plenty of disdain from the original’s adoring masses. In time, I will no-doubt subscribe to such sentiments, but for now, I’m still buzzing over some of the film’s scary action set-pieces … I’m just sucker for monsters and corridors.

See my reviews for Witchdoctor here.

C’est la vie!

clvThe French have always had a penchant for the cinematic farce.  They do it well.  The only problem is that they are often wordy affairs with a playful rat-a-tat rhythm and if you don’t speak the language you’ll spend most of the movie glancing at the subtitles. Not normally a problem as such films are often visually dry. However, C’est la vie! is juuuust good-looking enough to make the visual aversion frustrating.  And it’s odd to call an attractive film frustrating … but hey, c’est la vie (oh come on, you know I had to use that line somewhere in this review!).

The story centres around a day in the life of Max Angély (played to perfection by Jean-Pierre Bacri). He is a seasoned party planner and owns a successful catering company but tonight’s wedding-job poses a number of problems. Held at a historical 17th-century French palace with circumspect electricity the festivities becomes a delicate dance of power management. His staff add a melange of further concerns; an old flame, a rogue wedding-singer, a short-tempered assistant, and a free-loading photographer are just some of the problems. And then there is the narcissistic groom who wants everything to be “chic and elegant”. What could possibly go wrong?

Directors Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano (who also wrote the original screenplay) are probably best known for their breakout hit The Intouchables.  Here they have gone wild with some Fawlty Towers-esque antics. The camera weaves and pirouettes (there are hints of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning Birdman here) throughout the film’s large ensemble cast. There are, in fact, so many interesting characters that the film risks spreading itself too thin. 

Thankfully, Nakache and Toledano have orchestrated a well-paced balance of comedy and sentimentality, not least due to its mainstay, Jean-Pierre Bacri.  His role as the ringmaster of an over-bloated and pompous circus-of-a-wedding provides the glue that keeps it all together. C’est la vie! is as charming as it is ridiculous and deservedly elevates itself from the pack. I just wish I could understand French.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald and NZME here.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool DVD review

fsddihBased on Peter Turner’s memoirs, screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh has teamed up with director Paul McGuigan (Victor Frankenstein) to recount the unlikely, but true story of a romantic relationship between a Liverpudlian youngster and a Hollywood starlet twice his age. 

Matt Greenhalgh is no stranger to adapting true stories from entertainment’s yesteryear.  His profiling of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, Control (2007), was a stunning rendition of the band’s enigmatic lead vocalist.  However, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is quite a different beast.

It is 1979 and Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) is working a season on the stage in Liverpool when by chance she strikes up an amorous relationship with Peter. In the twilight of her career, the rather flighty Gloria (every inch as you’d imagine an ageing Marilyn Munro) maintains a superficial femme fatale demeanour which matches the films she was famous for. She is a product of Hollywood; flighty, conscious of her image, and very sensitive about her age.  Ironically, it is the many years between her and Peter that raise conjecture among the people around them. Peter (played by Jamie Bell) is a stage actor who naively falls for Gloria’s wily charm.  He is “the boy who just can’t say no” as she knowingly quips, and his doe-eyed innocence is luckily met by a woman who genuinely falls in love with him.

The film elides time beautifully as it employs a flashback structure to tell the backstory to their relationship. And although based on Peter’s memoirs it is appropriately sensitive to Gloria’s side of the story.  The result is a simple but reasonably compelling love story bolstered by the protagonists unlikely coupling and the intriguing factual examination of an Oscar-winning Hollywood star’s final years … you may have guessed from the title, but she doesn’t die in Liverpool. 

Topically some might find Film Stars a tad depressing. The dour Coro Street-like colour palette certainly doesn’t help matters—it is the kind of visually drab film that leans heavily on its cast. Thankfully, Bening and Bell do a fine job providing believable and touching performances that drip with genuine pathos and chemistry. Julie Walters also turns in a solid, if slightly predictable performance as Peter’s mother.

The DVD offers a special featurette on the method of back projection used to create the Californian portion of the film.  It is only a few minutes long but gives a welcome peek behind the curtain—the film’s slightly surreal quality eliciting a visual mix of fact and fantasy that links with Gloria’s film-noir background.   Other than the featurette, the DVD gives you the film rendered in 1080p with sound in Dolby Digital 5.1.  The sound, while not pushing any groundbreaking boundaries is accurately mixed and appropriate to the film’s tone.

See my reviews for Witchdoctor here.


tagIt’s hard to believe that among the homes and workplaces of ten “ordinary” men, there is a very serious and highly spirited game of tag happening. Director Jeff Tomsic has teamed up with screenwriter Mark Steilen to tell their story. 

Better known for their TV comedies, the duo have adapted for film an article written by Russell Adams in The Wall Street Journal that outlined the aforementioned group of grown men who every February enter into a month-long season of tag. The only taboo? You can’t tag the tagger—other than that, hunting season is open right across the country. 

Wary of overcooking his cast Tomsic has wisely narrowed the film’s focus to five friends; Hoagie (Ed Helms) who is the spiritual hub to the group, Randy (Jake Johnson) the drug-addled goof, Callahan (Jon Hamm) the successful businessman, and Sable (Hannibal Buress) the fragile and intellectually curious one. 

And then there’s Jerry (Jeremy Renner). He has never been tagged, much to the umbrage of the other four.  His “untouchable” status is a comical MacGuffin that provides the film with its narrative direction. However, at its heart Tag is just as concerned with exploring the bonds of their friendship. Any comedy worth its salt does more than just make you laugh and Tag does a wonderful job of hilariously endearing you to their relationships. Not just with each other, but also with Hoagie’s ultra-competitive wife (Isla Fisher) who acts as his support crew and tipping him off against an impending tag.

But the film’s real strength lies in its physical comedy and lets the reigns loose on some downright hilarious hijinks and clever slapstick moments. Yes, it’s very commercial and incredibly silly; but it’s also fun, irreverent, sometimes awkward and often cringe-worthy—the kind that’ll have you watching between your fingers. It’s normally everything I shy away from but here they’ve got the balance bang on … and right now there are not many comedies that can touch it.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald and NZME here.

Ocean’s 8

oceans 20386.dngIt’s been over a decade since the Ocean’s trilogy planted the then “it” men George Clooney and Brad Pitt firmly within the heist genre. Now director Steven Soderbergh has handed the reigns over to Gary Ross and instead of Clooney and Pitt, we have the “it” chicks Bullock and Blanchett to head up an all-female crew of eight; including Helena Bonham Carter, Mindy Kaling, Rihanna, Awkwafina, Sarah Paulson, and the delightful Anne Hathaway.

For fear of spoilers I won’t dive too deep into the plot details—suffice to say that Ocean’s 8 does have its twists and turns, but on the whole plays it fairly safe.  Fresh out of jail Debbie (Sandra Bullock) seeks revenge on the man who sent her there in the first place.  As they say, revenge is a dish best served cold and five years in the clink has given her plenty of thinking-time to come up with a really cold one.  It is a plan that involves an elaborate heist to rob the multi-million-dollar Cartier diamond necklace right from under the nose of Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) at New York’s glitzy Met Gala ball.

Aside from a few head-scratching moments, which are eventually explained by the obligatory “how it was all done” flashback, the plot is fairly water-tight and explained with such mechanical precision that there is little time left to flesh out its many characters. The end result is a soulless film that attempts to inject some warmth with a few chuckles and an emotive soundtrack.

But the biggest disappointment is that it is far too tentative in its feminist agenda. More should’ve been made of eight kick-ass women who’re played by some of Hollywood’s heaviest hitters. One might argue that the very nature of women occupying roles traditionally reserved for men—and doing so without shouting to the rafters—goes some way to normalise such roles. Yes, a good thing, but here it feels like the potato becomes too hot to handle for its male director.  Sure Ross does an acceptable job of swinging a camera kinetically around a set; he gets the job done, but he doesn’t come close to tapping into the charisma of his ensemble cast.  Ultimately, Ocean’s 8 is clinical, mildly entertaining and carries you along—but could’ve been so much more.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald and NZME here.