Month: July, 2019

Booksmart

booksActress and activist, Olivia Wilde, has kicked off her feature directing career with a trailblazing teen comedy that belies her inexperience as a film-maker.  Helped by a stable of female-centric writing talent (including Susanna Fogel: The Spy Who Dumped Me), Booksmart is a production that places young women stories front-and-centre without needlessly drawing undue attention to a “look at me, look at me” political agenda. Rather, it quietly acknowledges the gender-correctives that’ve recently hit the headlines and moves on with a normalising modern-day coming-of-age tale. Despite its many genre cliches Booksmart still feels fresh and honest thanks to Wilde’s inventive direction.

Wilde recently described her film as “the Training Day of high school movies.”—an odd comparison, although parallels can be drawn within Booksmart‘s darker recesses. More-so, Booksmart appears to sit somewhere between the goofy style of Superbad and the feminist smarts of Lady Bird.

Kaitlyn Dever (Short Term 12) and Beanie Feldstein (Lady Bird) play two high-achieving students, Amy and Molly, in their final year of high-school. Putting their social lives on hold in order to get into top Universities, the pair are disgruntled to learn that their hard-partying counterparts have also been accepted into similar institutions. Not ones to miss out on a teenager’s rite-of-passage, they head off to make up for lost time at the end of year party.

It’s not a particularly taxing plot, but what it lacks in brain-stretching complexities it counters with a quick-witted staccato styled humour, some richly fleshed-out characters that are a delight to be around and two leads that radiate an immense amount of chemistry.  Amy and Molly crackle and pop with enthusiasm as their giddy level of geeky charisma invites us to plumb the depths of their fomo and then be buoyed by their comical naivety. 

Add a menagerie of vibrant characters (including an amusing turn from Wilde’s husband, Jason Sudeikis), along with some very dexterous writing and Wilde’s whip-smart direction and you have a hilarious teen comedy that’s infectiously charming. Well worth getting a hall pass for.

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

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Rory’s Way

The Etruscan Smile
Po Valley Productions Ltd 
041916.The giant acting talent of Brian Cox (Churchill) tackles the role of a cantankerous old Scotsman, Rory, who is forced from his peaty shores across the pond to seek medical treatment in San Francisco. A preference for rough-hewn edges rather than America’s modern clean lines, Rory also uses the trip to begrudgingly reconnect with his son Ian, after a fifteen-year absence. Ian is a chemist-come-chef whose Heston Blumenthal styled ultra-modern gastronomic creations wow patrons with their smokey bluster and gelatinous wonder—a far cry from Rory’s preference for black pudding and two veg. Unsurprisingly, the two don’t see eye to eye.

The film riffs on the rural-foreigner-visits-big-city-America schtick—a tired routine that threatens to turn this film into Crocodile Dundee for old Scottish folk. Thankfully it doesn’t go quite that far, and broader themes that compare the quaint with the modern fall away in favour of a standard father-son tale. Of course, a crowdpleaser of this nature wouldn’t be complete without some light romance with the much younger looking (sigh) Rosanna Arquette. Suffice to say that Rory’s Way doesn’t break much fresh ground and appears to be content with running a by-the-numbers routine that snuggles up to a very risk-free screenplay and a comfy score drumming to the bland beat of “mediocre”. It’s disappointingly formulaic and something I don’t normally go for. Yet, it is also undeniably a likeable crowdpleaser providing just enough silky-smooth pleasantries to gently usher your brain towards its predictable ending.

Feature debutants, directors Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis, have clearly played things safe, which unfortunately deals a stifling blow to Cox’s immense talent. Also worth noting is that JJ Feild (Austenland) who plays Ian, cuts an uncanny similarity to Tom Hiddleston (with a hint of a young Gabriel Byrne). But his lack of the same screen presence as the aforementioned fittingly reflects a film that seems to care more about image than substance, and like Ian’s molecular gastronomy, Rory’s Way feels synthetically manufactured for easy digestion.

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

Camino Skies

csThe Irish poet David Whyte once penned “abandon the shoes that had brought you here right at the water’s edge, not because you had given up but because now, you would find a different way to tread”. He was referring to the Camino de Santiago, an 800km walk that finishes at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. The long trek acts as a spiritual journey for hundreds of thousands of pilgrims a year, and while Whyte’s poem so eloquently expounds upon his niece’s journey through the fabled Spanish hinterland, this documentary focusses on people from our own back-yard.

Enter Mark, Julie, Cheryl, Susan and Terry; an average bunch of Kiwis and Aussies, each with their own cross to bear.  Fledgling documentarians Noel Smyth and Fergus Grady do an admirable job of slowly unfolding the group’s very personal backstories, and what begins as a lightweight skip through the daisies becomes a heart-felt expression of loss, grief and acceptance.  Most notably Smyth and Grady (who seem to belie the age gap between themselves and their more aged subjects) have avoided making a Spanish tourism flick—a temptation given the stunning scenery the group cover. Rather, the debut film-makers cast a more introspective gaze on the group, exploring their reasons for committing to what is ultimately an arduous task.  

Parts of the journey provide almost self-flagellation levels of physical hardship. In particular, Susan, an “I can do it, I can do it” eighty-year-old from Western Australia whose dogged determination is met head-on by severe arthritis and the emotional pain of a recently ended marriage. But perhaps the most poignant story is that of Julie, with her heartbreaking account of multiple deaths within her family which will leave even the most stoic film-goer in tears.

Some will consider Camino Skies to be little more than a collection of meandering stories set to the backdrop of a long walk, and its lightweight style to be lacking the caustic drama of its contemporaries. However, I found this stripped back production to be a work of compassion and maturity from a couple of young film-makers.

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

Girl

girlIn his first feature, Belgian writer/director Lukas Dhont has tightly packed a cinematic masterpiece into a topical powder keg. It’s little wonder that a production about a transgender ballerina has courted so much controversy; the pitfalls of which were well documented by Dhont’s well-meaning, but perhaps naive blind-casting of its lead role, Lara. In the end, he settled on a cis male actor, Victor Polster, to play a teenage girl who was born a male, much to the chagrin of the trans-community who felt it more appropriate that Lara be played by a transgender actor at the very least. There are valid points on both sides of the ledger, and notwithstanding further controversies, it’s a wonder that this hot potato of a film ever got off the ground. I’m glad it did.

The film gives a brutally honest account of Lara. Her induction into a prestigious Belgian ballet academy is fraught with difficulties surrounding her hormone treatment, the impeding sex-change procedure and the impact this has on her ability to dance. Polster’s tender portrayal of Lara belies his lack of acting experience, as he captures a teenager’s quiet fragility and petulant defiance with breath-taking skill. Dhont’s camera, which keeps Polster’s spell-binding performance centre of the frame, unapologetically explores Lara’s loneliness, highlighting the bond she has between her body and her emotional well-being.

Certainly, this cis male reviewer wouldn’t begin to cast assumptions on what it’s like to be transgender. However, Girl harnesses one of cinema’s great commissions, offering a direct channel (seemingly, at least) into the life of a transgendered person with whom I could connect.

Straight out of the Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) school of aesthetics, Girl embraces a sensual harmony of movement and sound—its vérité style lending the film a lived-in quality that makes Lara’s story feel so very authentic. Girl may not be to everyones liking, but I found it an uplifting triumph and an astonishing statement on the human spirit.

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

Lost & Found

lafWriter, director, star and chief financier Liam O Mochain crafts a collection of sketches about life in and around an Irish train station. Although billed as a comedy, Lost & Found is very light on laughs, rather this is more an observational film that expounds on the tall-tales you’d expect to overhear at the local pub. No surprise then, that O Mochain’s anecdotal ephemera were indeed inspired by true stories; among them are wedding proposal antics, a Publican’s opening night anguish, a treasure hunting son, funeral wakes, and of course the lost property desk clerk, David (O Mochain), around whom the film loosely centres.

Lost & Found may very well be the product of O Mochain’s keen ear at the local watering hole, but his skill as a story-teller suggests this to be a work of beer-mat scribblings stitched together by the local village quilting club. And as the patchwork vignettes roll out, some of which work better than others, there is a distinct lack of cohesion that hints strongly at the film’s laboured five year production cycle.

The narrative structure consists of a tableau of seven overlapping chapters, each one highlighting a character within the station’s milieu. Characters alluded to in early chapters are subsequently fleshed out, turning up later at unexpected junctures. This serves to deliver a kind of cathartic reveal—a pleasant distraction from the film’s piecemeal delivery, and as individuals duck and dive in and out of each other’s lives Lost & Found feels like it is building up to something big. Unfortunately it doesn’t, and remains a meandering potpourri of lightweight stories that don’t appear to amount to much.

Far be it for me to be mean-spirited over a film that is clearly a labour of love beset by an elongated production cycle and next to no budget—it certainly can’t be easy, and despite Lost & Found’s many faults, it does have some highlights. Go in will low expectations and you might be pleasantly charmed by the film’s more observational qualities, but beyond that the only thing you’ll find charming is the Irish accents.

 

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