Month: November, 2018

Lean on Pete

lopAcclaimed British writer/director Andrew Haigh has shifted focus from English domestic life in his much-lauded film 45 Years, to America’s north-west. His portrait of a rural America languishing in deep-seated economic woes isn’t a particularly flattering one, but it is a beautifully shot and incredibly powerful one.

Adapted from Willy Vlautin’s book of the same name, Lean on Pete centres on a soft natured but emotionally resilient teen named Charley (Charlie Plummer). While his dad is holed up in hospital, he meets by chance a race-horse trainer (Steve Buscemi) who runs the lower-level race circuits in Oregon. Bonding with a flagging racehorse who seems destined for the glue factory, Charlie decides to steal the horse across state. But far from the sentimental boy-and-his-horse tale you might expect, this road-journey (of sorts) is a desperately human tale that is more concerned with a boy’s need for belonging.

The film’s haunting score and fawning cinematography swoon over the American landscape, providing Haigh’s screenplay ample space and time to soak in Charley’s milieu. This is a masterclass of contemplative cinema; a slow-burn that encourages a strong sense of connection with Charley’s plight. It is sublimely moving, occasionally heartbreaking, and always engaging.

Haigh appears to have an eye for acting talent and his gamble to hang the whole film on Charlie Plummer’s performance has paid off.  Plummer (All the Money in the World) is an immense talent and repays Haigh’s trust by delivering the film its heart and soul. If you were mesmerised by New Zealand’s own Thomasin McKenzie’s nuanced and introspective performance in Leave No Trace, then you will find Plummer’s performance a perfect companion piece.

Working from his own screenplay, Haigh avoids cheap sentimentality and credits his audience with enough patience to dig beneath its gentle nature and root out meaning.  And dig you should, because beneath the surface is a film that will pack an emotional gut punch.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

The Grinch

grinchIn a cinematic version of hanging your Christmas decorations out too early, The Grinch begs the question of why we need a Christmas story in November, let alone one from the well rinsed Dr. Seuss pantheon. But here we have it.

Directors Yarrow Cheney (The Secret Life of Pets) and Scott Mosier (Eddie’s Life Coach) have pieced together a feel-good film that puts a spotlight on Christmas cheer. Residents of the snowy town of Whoville have decided to turn up their Christmas festivities to eleven.  Enter that ol’ killjoy, the Grinch (Benedict Cumberbatch), to cast the shadow of his lowing brow upon the town’s unbridled optimism. We all know the Grinch’s drill; loner, outcast, grumpy, and Whoville’s seasonal exuberance proves to be one curly ribbon too many. He is, however, not quite the curmudgeon we’ve become accustomed to in previous films.  In fact, when he  complained of rampant consumerism I began to be sympathetic to his plight. His mission to steal the town’s joy (ie. their Christmas presents) sees him, along with his trusty dog Max, embarking on an evening of “righteous” thievery that has far-reaching consequences.

On the surface, the film offers plenty of plucky family entertainment. It has a noble message, and even takes the time to paint the Grinch’s backstory. Visually it’s full of lively action, the animation is snappy and the pallet is bright and attractive. However, Michael LeSieur’s (You Me and Dupree) pallid writing hasn’t done this film any favours. More should’ve been made of the talent on offer and despite Cumberbatch squeezing what he can from the bland screenplay, it remains a story that that lacks depth and wit.  

That said, there are a couple of highlights worth noting; Mr. Bricklebaum’s (Kenan Thompson) infectious enthusiasm delivers a few chuckles and the film’s vibrant visuals will no doubt delight the young’uns. But ultimately The Grinch feels like you’ve received one of those practical Christmas presents destined for the sock drawer; soft, dull and lacking in imaginative spark.  Bah humbug. 

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

Whitney: Blu-ray review

whitneyScottish writer/director Kevin Macdonald is perhaps best known for his chilling account of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland.  His latest outing, Whitney sees him return to his documentary roots painting a captivating tale of the troubled pop diva Whitney Houston. 

We all know how this story ends, and right from the outset Macdonald plays with the awkward push and pull of the demons that dogged her life. From her “don’t do drugs” sign, to a sad account of her dreams “Devil is always trying to get me … but he never gets me”, Whitney is a film that drips with irony. 

It’s an exhaustive examination of her life and career, spanning from her early years through to her death, pausing at times to take in a few of her key performances.  Her’s was a life that epitomised the thin facade of the eighties and nineties, and the film not only documents her inexorable pull towards drugs but also operates as a damming statement on the hollow optimism of the era. Macdonald illustrates this through striking montages of a nation brimming with the positive utopian fakery of big brands, sports stars, blonde hair and smiling white faces contrasted against the dark shames of war and race riots.

Whitney is a compelling documentary and attention given to its visual arrangement makes for an engaging watch. Macdonald has done a commendable job of harnessing the copious amount of archival footage, presenting a tapestry of overlapping imagery and footage that jumps around the screen, building on the film’s larger canvas. 

Rather than relying solely on archival footage, this very well sourced documentary is laced with anecdotal stories from friends and family who give an emotional account of the pop diva. The breadth of candid interviews is worth noting. From larger-than-life personalities such as Bobby Brown to her mum, brothers, industry confidants, friends and family, all flesh out the Whitney Houston story. Even Kevin Costner has a few words to say. 

The Blu-ray of Whitney offers little in the way of optional extras … none, in fact, save the obligatory English subtitles which are provided for the hearing impaired. The sound offers DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 format which is delivered with consistent channel separation; a feat that can’t have been easy to achieve considering the awkward blend of footage from different eras. The picture is 1080p widescreen 1.85:1 format but often resorts to pillarboxing in order to accomodate earlier archival footage. 

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

You Were Never Really Here

ywnrhSeven years ago Scottish director Lynne Ramsay ushered us, along with a very tired looking Tilda Swinton, into the disturbing world of Kevin. Among other themes, We Need to Talk About Kevin was a cold hard look at the warped mind of a killer. Ramsay’s damming statement on America’s weaponised culture was curiously (and perhaps more strikingly) made with the absence of guns. You Were Never Really Here is no different as it follows a “hired gun”, who plies his trade with a ball-peen hammer. Although one should know never to take a hammer to a gun fight, Joe who is played by a very beefy looking Joaquin Phoenix certainly knows how to swing one.

When a senator’s daughter, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) goes missing, Joe finds himself embroiled in a twisted ring of underage sex trafficking. Nina’s traumatic upbringing holds a mirror to Joe’s own, elevating his mission into a vigilante cause. 

Living with his frail mum, Joe keeps to himself and one of the film’s lighter moments humorously acknowledges his similarity to Psycho’s Norman Bates. Indeed, Ramsey’s psycho-dramatic take on crime does in many ways resemble a modern-day Hitchcock as she dives deep into Joe’s subconscious. 

Actually, the film owes a lot to its predecessors, markedly paying homage to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. But what it seems to furiously batter its long eyelashes at is Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. Those who were mesmerised by the latter’s intense, monosyllabic, and heavily stylised violence will find appeal here.

It’s a rich blend of brutal beauty cut to a hypnotising electronic score, all wonderfully balanced by Joaquin’s physical performance — it’s spellbinding stuff and Ramsay’s sensual style of story-telling is undeniably compelling.

Although the simple narrative suggests style over substance, Ramsay has laced this tale with ample subtext. Most notably it mercilessly swings a bag of bloody hammers at one of ​humanity’s most urgent sins, human trafficking. Thankfully, it doesn’t let you leave the cinema without a relieving sense of hope.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web

Claire Foy (Finalized)The antisocial hacker and ball-breaker Lisbeth Salander has finally made a return to the big screen in this adaptation of David Lagercrantz’s fourth book of the “Millenium” series. Departing from the brooding drama and gritty violence of Stieg Larsson’s first three stories, this tale instead heads down the more conventional Hollywood path.  Gone is the laser-focussed indictment of misogyny. Gone is the lucid paranoia or the slow-burning mystery. Here we have a middling spy-thriller that only loosely acknowledges its roots; I’m sure Larsson will be turning in his grave. Consistent though, are Lisbeth’s (played by the excellent Claire Foy) knack for kicking some serious ass and her penchant for a bit of heroic crusading and vengeance. Throw in a moral conscience, some family infighting, and a rogue piece of software on the loose (that allows a single user control of the world’s nukes … of course) and you have a bitchy blend of Bond, Bourne and Batman.

It’s all fairly conventional stuff; a very simple tale of fast cars (and bikes), preposterous motivations, a far-fetched use of tech, and disorienting action sequences all set to the backdrop of a forgettable soundtrack. Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez (Don’t Breath) does bring about some visually striking set-pieces that make full use of his horror background, but unfortunately, the collective whole feels too episodic.

What is refreshing, though, are the traditional gender roles which have been turned on their head. The chief power parts (on both sides of the ledger) are strong active women, with men being relegated to the margins. At one point the film even acknowledges the passivity of journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason) as just a pretty face.

Unfortunately, this renders the excellent cast, many of whom have impressive credentials, as woefully underused. Try as she might, Claire Foy’s commendable take on Lisbeth’s reckoning, or even Sylvia Hoeks’s (Blade Runner) chilling rendition as her sister can’t halt the inexorable pull of the film towards Hollywood’s formulaic juggernaut.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

Suspiria

suspiria
Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino has scaled back Argento’s 1977 original cult horror, making a more introspective version that plays out like a muted fever-dream. It’s a far cry from the original’s bombastic excess and plays on chilly haunts rather than abrasive scares.

Like the original, this relatively simple tale is set in a cold-war Berlin during the seventies. An urban coven of witches operate out of a famed dance academy, which not only acts as a perfect cover but also conveniently provides them with the necessary dance routines which feed directly into their rites and rituals. Tilda Swinton cuts a striking figure as the head of the coven, Madame Blanc.  But while she is visually chilling there is no single antagonist to pin your fears on.  Rather, it is the coven as a whole that provides a brooding sense of dread.  Especially when the doe-eyed dancer, Susie (Dakota Johnson), pirouettes headlong into their clutches.

The eagle-eyed will notice the gender-bending Swinton also playing a prosthetic laden Dr. Klempe. His investigative voice of reason provides the film its moral centre and themes of motherhood along with the guilt and shame of a post-war Germany are slathered on thick. However, Suspiria‘s deep metaphorical register feels at times a difficult nut to crack. It is a complex wolf’s tale cloaked in sheepskin and unfortunately, I found the desire to dig deep and ascribe meaning curiously lacking.   

There’s no denying, however, the impressive craft on display and Guadagnino paints plenty of unconventional yet visually striking imagery.  There are some disturbing yet remarkable flash-points of body horror which build on Suspiria‘s sinister and suffocating tone. One particular scene involving the bone-dislocating fate of a rebellious dancer is a standout that I won’t forget in a hurry.

Suspiria is an ambitious homage to the original but its enterprising style, unfortunately, becomes less compelling as the film wears on and its final throw, an operatic bloodbath, is disappointingly overwrought. Despite this, if you have the stomach for it, Suspiria is still well worth seeing.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

Bohemian Rhapsody

bohrhapAs a tousle-haired bedroom-poster-hanging teen of the eighties and nineties, the news of Freddie Mercury’s death came to me as quite a shock. Love him or not, there is no denying Queen had an omnipresent quality that seared their sound on the musical psyche of the masses. So, a film that explores this phenomenon was always going to be a very personal journey for many.

Bohemian Rhapsody has suffered its fair share of setbacks with Directorial changes and the much-publicised departure of Sacha Baron Cohen as Mercury’s original casting, who left after creative differences. It is a troubled film that feels like it bears the weight of a troubled upbringing … but hey, that’s rock’n’roll for you.

Spanning the formation of the band in the early seventies to their famously celebrated performance at Live Aid in the eighties, the film covers a lot of ground … and avoids a lot as well. When Mercury states his desire to not be the poster boy for AIDS but instead to be remembered for his art, the film makes clear its stance. His sexuality, which clearly played a big part in his life, is never entirely explored and while it is not ignored, you get the feeling that complexities are tip-toed around rather than confronted head-on.

But before you think Cohen’s warts’n’all rendition might’ve been the better angle, the film’s conventional yet crowd-pleasing antics catch you off guard with a medley of well choreographed scenes. Rami Malek’s performance as the flamboyant troubadour is excellent and he superbly cuts a desperately lonely figure of Mercury offstage as well as captures his majestic energy onstage.

Bohemian Rhapsody will most likely split its audience into two camps. If you’re after a stirring account of Queen’s musical life then this one is for you.  However, if you’re after an authentic retelling of Mercury’s off-stage life then you’ll be let down.  Yes, it’s entertaining, even euphoric in parts, but as a deep dive into the rock icon’s life this biopic is disappointingly safe.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.