Month: March, 2019

Fighting with My Family

fwmfSaraya “Paige” Knight competes as part of a wrestling mad family from Norwich, who run a local wrestling gig out the back of a van. This is the “pro” brand of wrestling, complete with fake punches, body slams and dramatic leaps off the top rope onto some poor sucker waiting to take the fall—the kind of wrestling that spawned the likes of Hulk Hogan and (yes) Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. For Saraya (the excellent Florence Pugh) and her brother Zac (Jack Lowden), the dream of making it to the glitz and glamour of America’s WWE hits a snag when the inseparable siblings have to split their tag-team … she got selected to trial, he didn’t.  

This simple but true story is Saraya’s after all—it’s a classic rags-to-riches tale, a kind of Rocky story built on sweaty training montages and more eye-rolling cliches than a wrestler’s verbal retort.  

Of course, no film about wrestling would be complete without an appearance from the aforementioned mountain of machismo himself. The Rock’s planetary sized screen presence orbits his goofy charismatic charm, sucking your attention with tractor-beam-like command—that’s no moon, it’s The Rock. So it’s unfortunate then, that he only makes two brief appearances (despite promo material suggesting otherwise). But hey, that’s one for each bicep, so you take what you can get.

However, as is so often the case, the film’s heart and soul rest with its writer/director. Here, Stephen Merchant (The Office) proves that he can pen some heartwarming moments and very funny gags for the big screen. Sadly, his directorial efforts don’t fare so well—he’s on autopilot and although hanging on tightly to his inflatable pen, he seems to be drowning in a sea of predictability.  Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead) delivers a rib-tickling performance as Saraya’s dad, lacing this film with plenty of feel-good vibes as he vicariously lives through his daughter’s fortunes. Beyond that, Fighting with My Family remains an entertaining but lightweight affair of humorously choreographed muscle.

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

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Hotel Mumbai

hmDev Patel and Armie Hammer lead an ensemble cast in a film about the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. There were a series of twelve coordinated attacks across the city that would last four days leaving over 160 people dead and hundreds more injured.  This film, however, focusses on the events that unfolded over one exhaustively long night at the Taj Hotel.

The opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan comes to mind as this thriller doesn’t waste any time climbing into the horrifying action. The onslaught of killings and bloody mayhem, although expected, relentlessly assaults your senses with only brief moments of nerve rallying relief.

Despite some key setup sequences the film keeps the majority of the action within the doomed halls of the luxury hotel. In his first feature, Australian Director Anthony Maras has done an impressive job at breathing life into the palatial building as it seemingly cries out in pain, heaving and huffing under the strain of the terrorist’s bullets, bombs and fires. In stoney contrast to the hotel’s normal inviting warmth, the second and third acts expose its cold labyrinthine underbelly.  The building’s blinkered indifference, unflinching and unsentimental to the innocent guests trapped within its bowels, highlight the sheer brutality that humans are capable of inflicting on one another.

But it is this voyeuristic stare at the brutality that presents the film its problem. Often losing sight of its humanity, Hotel Mumbai focusses on “action” rather the people at the centre of it. Making this kind of film inherently walks a fine line between art and exploitation, and Hotel Mumbai feels too much like the latter. The terrorists roam the halls like aliens in the Nostromo, creating a currency of tension that feels like an entertainment transaction rather than a fundamental story about people.  Sure, the white knuckle thrills are undoubtedly effective but they come laced with a sense of guilt.  

There is little doubt that Maras has displayed some very impressive technical filmmaking and orchestrated a nerve-fraying experience. But as for a story of well fleshed-out characters that resonate deeply with the victims of the Taj Hotel tragedy? Hotel Mumbai falls short and leaves you exhausted rather than despairing.

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

If Beale Street Could Talk

ibsctBarry Jenkins (Moonlight) has hit another out of the park. Beautiful and woozily sensual, If Beale Street Could Talk is essential viewing. 

Nuff said.

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

Destroyer

destLost in the shuffle of award season comes a police procedural so hard-boiled it could break your teeth.  LAPD Detective Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) is not one for small talk; her steely nature and gaunt face (along with some Rami Malek calibre prosthetic dentistry) casts a striking central figure that occupies the lens like an oncoming freight train.

Neo-noir elements are slathered liberally over this cop thriller; it’s a nihilistic slow-burn that takes a while to get going, but like all good cop dramas, once hooked you’re desperate to see how it ends.

Prowling the sun-drenched suburbs of present-day L.A. in search for Silas (Toby Kebbell)—a bank robber who has recently re-emerged after wronging her years earlier—Bell’s search leads her down a rabbit warren of wrong turns and dead ends. What begins as standard police procedure becomes a primal cry of motherhood as the story investigates how the crime at hand has stained her relationship with her daughter. The chilly utilitarian connections in Destroyer certainly make for a stark moral universe.  However, welcome relief comes in the form of Bell’s undercover partner (Sebastian Stan) who manages to break up, albeit too briefly the film’s dusty scapes and drained palette with the soft glow of their relationship.

From her first outing with the critically acclaimed Girlfight, Karyn Kusama has honed her skills, becoming a noteworthy Director of women-centric tales.  Here, her decision to hang the whole film on Kidman’s performance has paid off. While Kidman may not be the first name you’d think of to play a vengeful haprd-ass, her immense scope has repaid Kusama’s gamble, delivering the film its driving force.

And driving it is, with a kinetically charged second half that makes good of its slow beginnings and offers a final twist that packs a decent wallop. But despite this, and Kidman’s compelling performance, Destroyer will most likely find itself lost in the white noise of awards season and seems destined for the scrapheap of obscurity. Shame, it deserves better.

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