Month: February, 2019

Everybody Knows

ekIranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi, maker of quiet but piercing human mysteries (A Separation, The Salesman), has gone once more to the well, yet again painting a portrait of a family under the suffocating chokehold of dark secrets. However, the skill with which he has crafted his latest feature, Everybody Knows, suggests that for Farhadi the well has not yet run dry.

Set in a small rural town near Madrid, Laura (Penélope Cruz) returns to her childhood home to attend her sister’s wedding.  When her teenage daughter Irene (Carla Campra) is kidnapped on the night of the wedding along with a chilling warning against contacting the police, the family gather around to consider their options.

Side-glances and finger-pointing abound as this taut mystery spares few from the merciless gaze of suspicion — as the film’s provocative title implies, Everybody Knows revels in the small-town milieu where no secrets are safe. While the family’s background slowly unfolds (and indeed the mystery of Irene’s whereabouts), the film takes on an almost Agatha Christie tone as the ensemble of agitated characters helplessly mill about exchanging barbed remarks and petty retorts.

Both leads, Cruz and Bardem (who plays her old flame) show their class, giving anguished but balanced performances. Yet what makes this film extraordinary is the seemingly modest way in which it is delivered.  Technically the film appears nondescript, bland even, but closer inspection reveals Farhadi’s very deliberate style. His careful consideration of framing and lighting is a concerted wonder of subtlety and furthermore, the bold decision not to have a musical score only proves to enhance the story’s intrigue.

The result is a film that appears to take pleasure in slow cooking its central puzzle. And as the meat of the mystery slowly falls off the bone it exposes hidden motivations and menacing issues of resentment. Everybody Knows is a slow burn that some might find frustrating but I found the impeccable pace of this intriguing mystery immensely satisfying.

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

Escape Room

ERMany of us have experienced the tension of being locked in a confined space with only an hour to escape. No, I’m not referring to tackling Auckland’s traffic, but rather the current fad of escape rooms that seem to be everywhere at the moment.  Such is their ubiquity it’s little wonder Hollywood has mined the craze for some big screen treatment. All the prerequisites are baked right in for a thriller such as this to grab and run … and in this instance fall flat on its face at the final exit.

Escape Room takes its cue from (but falls well short of) cult-classics such as The Game, Cube, and Saw. It’s a lightweight tale of implausible horror that pits six escape room players against the ingenuity of an unknown puppet-master.  The stakes are simple, $10,000 or death—although none are privy to the latter upon entry, of course. If only they’d read the fine print. 

There are the usual bunch of archetypes who receive an invitation to play; the shy student, the smarmy stockbroker, a shelf-stacking slacker, the long-distance trucker, the Iraqi war vet and an escape room fanatic whose only seeming purpose is to explain the ins-and-outs of escape rooms just in case we aren’t aware of how they work. None are particularly well-sketched characters, but that’s to be expected when life expectancy is this limited.

It quickly becomes apparent that Escape Room is standard check-your-brain-at-the-door fare. No tricky plot points to trip over or clever culture subverting subtexts here. In fact, the only head-scratching moment comes in the film’s finale which offers one of the more illogical, bizarre and poorly rendered WTF endings I think I’ve ever seen. Clearly, Director Adam Robitel (Insidious: The Last Key) hadn’t a clue on how, or when, to end this film.

There are some solid flash-points of tension early on, but as the ever-dwindling team shift from room to room it all becomes rather episodic and dull. For the record, it took me exactly 99 mins to escape the theatre, others might get out sooner.

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

Colette

colettePart way through Colette, our lead says to her husband “I can read you like the top line of an optician’s chart.” It is an amusing but biting line signaling the refreshing winds of change that sweep through this proto-feminist period drama.  Don’t be fooled into dismissing Colette as yet another stuffy costume snore starring a type-cast Keira Knightley. No, this quick-witted and feisty feature crackles with energy and humour as it pits the forces of traditional marital dynamics against a lop-sided distribution of talent.

Set in Paris during the turn of the twentieth century, this is the true story of novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Knightley) and her marriage to Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West). Willy, as he was affectionately known to his adoring public but latterly referred to by Colette as a “fat, smug, lazy, selfish bastard” was a patron of hedonistic excess and an “author” whom Colette dutifully ghostwrote for. Willy became a celebrated rock-star of the Parisian literary field despite his fragile empire being built on the duplicitous foundations of Colette’s writing talent. It is a familiar tale of sexist and professional treachery that will no doubt garner comparisons to the recent film The Wife (starring Glen Close). However, this is more than The Wife’s “behind every great man” story, as Colette dives head first into the sexual politics of a woman coming to terms with her autonomy and gender identity.

It is a simple story but with wonderfully complex characters that you can really sink your teeth into, and thankfully screenwriter Richard Glatzer (Still Alice) takes plenty of time to explore them.  The two leads offer vibrant performances that bristle with a pin-sharp wit as they boil in their volatile chemistry.  Knightly’s take on a blossoming woman in a society that demands feminine submission encapsulates a heady mixture of humility and rage as she bounces off West’s quite brilliant balance of bombastic bluster and faux naivety. 

Although the film’s somewhat rigid visual style doesn’t quite match the lively milieu of its characters, this thoroughly entertaining biopic is worth seeing for the two outstanding performances alone.

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

On the Basis of Sex

You might have noticed the meme “Notorious RBG” bandied about recently; a humorous meld of Ruth Bader Ginsburg—a demure Jewish lawyer—and American rap artist Notorious BIG who is anything but. As this film neatly illustrates, Ginsburg’s dogged drive and determination for shaking up the establishment show that there is more truth to the meme’s apparent oxymoron than meets the eye. She’s diminutive in stature but a giant in the fight for gender equality.

On the Basis of Sex begins in the sixties with Ruth as a bright-eyed Harvard law school entrant with a gifting for the books and a firm belief in the power of change. It’s a volatile combination and her struggle with sexism within the male-dominated law fraternity was something her quiet resolve could not ignore. So she set about illuminating the lecturers, Judges and pundits who didn’t think sex-discrimination existed … rather successfully.

Spanning her life through to the seventies, the film settles down into a procedural court-room drama examining the Wiesenfeld case—a foundational case that Ginsburg used to bring about constitutional change to womens rights.

Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything) walks a fine line between an authentic portrayal of the real Ginsburg—whose reserved and mild nature was never going to set the silver screen alight—and breathing new life into her persona for the purposes of engaging cinema. Thankfully, she finds common ground and delivers a performance that leans well enough on emotional drama while never losing sight of Ginsburg’s stoney temperament.

For the most part On the Basis of Sex adequately handles its material. Yet, conventionality is a sticking-point for a film that struggles to avoid riffing on some well-trodden clichés. Director Mimi Leder (Deep Impact) certainly doesn’t bring anything fresh to the cinematic bar despite having a seemingly solid screenplay to work with. Although Jones works hard to spice up the dry world of constitutional law, On the Basis of Sex remains superficially inspiring and lacks the venom of Notorious RBG’s reputation.

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