Month: October, 2019

The Dead Don’t Die

tdddIt’s hardly surprising that Jim Jarmusch has finally made a zombie flick. It is a sub-genre that many filmmakers have dabbled in and Jarmusch is certainly not shy of turning his pensively paced films into genre movies (eg. Dead Man as a Western). Certainly, this isn’t his first film about the undead. Notably, he sent two love-struck vampires, Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, into a poetic haze in Only Lovers Left Alive. But where that film wallowed in its dreamy melancholic fervour, The Dead Don’t Die is a different beast, opting to reside in the comical and schlocky spirit of yesteryear’s zombie flicks. It’s kooky, mildly amusing … and unfortunately, a complete misfire.

Hosting a zombie hoard of Jarmusch regulars, this film’s rotting belly is bursting with talent. Police officers Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and Chloë Sevigny are the mainstays at the sleepy town of Centerville, while Tilda Swinton, Tom Waits, Steve Buscemi and others (too many to name) fill out the bit parts. It appears that Jarmusch gathered his regulars and asked them what their most typecast role might be—and boom, that’s your role. Swinton, for example, occupies the etherial witch-like samurai-sword wielding mortician (Doctor Strange, Suspiria, etc.), while Buscemi is yet another cap-wearing wise-cracking redneck (Fargo, Lean on Pete, etc.). So purposeful are the archetypes, it leaves little left to be interested in. I guess that might be Jarmusch’s point, as he painstakingly paints each character with a one-dimensional brush to highlight our insatiable appetite for cookie-cutter characterisation.

But because of this, I found myself caring less and less about the fate of anyone in the small town of Centerville. The fourth wall breaking and events that “go off script” smacked of desperation to solicit my attention. At times it did feel like a deeper subtext might’ve been at play beyond riffing on the usual zombies-equal-consumerism metaphor. When Adam Driver says “This isn’t gonna end well”, I think I know what he meant.

I love Jarmusch’s films, and I will be first in line at his next one. But this zom-com represents Jarmusch’s first genuine dud. The Dead Don’t Die is life Jim, but not as we know it.

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

Ride Like a Girl

RLaG1The Melbourne Cup is one of the more glamorous events on the world’s sporting calendar. A sport of small margins, jockeying specifically, requiring a delicate balance of weight management, knowledge, skill, and perhaps most importantly determination—something Michelle Payne, Melbourne Cup’s first female jockey winner, had in spades. However, prior to her win in 2015, she couldn’t seem to catch the eye of the male-dominated horse-racing fraternity. Considering it’s a job that seemingly suits gender parity (arguably even favouring a female’s slighter frame), it’s a travesty that female jockeys had been cast into the margins for so long.

Saddling up in her first feature as director, Rachel Griffiths tells Michelle’s true story of frustration and success. Since playing the tumultuous Rhonda Epinstalk in Muriel’s Wedding, Griffiths has had an exhaustive number of roles, suggesting directing to be the next logical step, and with Ride Like a Girl, the fledgling director has quite understandably held the reins rather tightly. The music swells at all the right moments, telling you how you should feel, and the dialogue is, well, safe. The result is a movie that hits you with a good dollop of feel-good vibes but occasionally feels a little by-the-numbers.

Teresa Palmer (Hacksaw Ridge) gives a dedicated performance as Michelle, and our very own grandad of cinema, Sam Neill, chips in with a solid turn as Michelle’s beleaguered father (he had ten children!). He even gives our 1982 winner, Kiwi, a mention and, yes, Phar Lap … no mention of pavlovas, though.

Despite some deficiencies (loose editing and questionable scripting), this is far from McLeods Daughter’s on horseback, with Griffiths exhibiting a few nice formal flourishes demonstrating her potential as director. Ride Like a Girl is a satisfying crowd-pleaser that does what it says on the tin and if you bridle your expectations before the cinema lights dim, you’ll be off and racing.

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

Photograph

photogIndia’s movie industry isn’t really known for subtlety, Bollywood, in particular, has yet to come to grips with the “less is more” method of filmmaking. Thankfully, there are a number of Indian filmmakers who balk at Bollywood’s gaudy style, overuse of archetypes and cookie-cutter stories. Ritesh Batra is one of those directors, his breakout hit The Lunchbox (2013) wooing crowds with a bittersweet romance sensitively draped over a portrait of Mumbai city. However, in his latest feature, Photograph, Batra may have overcooked his response to Bollywood’s bombastic cliches by giving us a film so contemplative and agonisingly restrained that it will try your patience.

Set in Mumbai, this tale of forbidden love focusses on Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a struggling street photographer whose comically overbearing grandmother is pressuring him to get married. After taking a photo of Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), a painfully shy student, he convinces her to pose as his fiancée to appease his grandmother. Predictably, the two develop a romance that is met with the usual roadblocks of social status and other various pitfalls. It’s a somewhat gimmicky premise from which Batra (who also wrote the screenplay) builds his love story, but elevated by the couples very different backgrounds which gives Batra the opportunity to comment on India’s classism. However, Rafi and Miloni’s relationship is so painfully reserved and devoid of charisma it made me want to leap through the screen and slap some life into their doleful expressions. Photograph fast becomes an emotional desert, disengaging to a point where I felt, dare I say it … bored.

By contrast, this romantic yawn is a sensory delight. Cinematographers Tim Gillis and Ben Kutchins (Ozark) have pepped up this dreamy tale, capturing Mumbai’s rich textures and drizzling each well-considered frame with treacly golden hues that make the most of a Batra’s solid production design.

However, pretty as it is, the lush visuals can’t overcome Photograph’s impenetrable wall of wistfulness. Moreover, its final act is an abrupt misfire. Batra seems more concerned with showing us how his love story ends differently from others. That, or he simply ran out of ideas on how to finish.

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

Animals

Animals - Still 1
“God forbid our reality should ruin the big jazzy fantasy”…such are the many shrewd exclamations of Animals, a film that explores the existential optimism of two young women. It is everything you’d expect from a plucky Irish-Aussie co-production—a spirited, punchy tale that sparkles with a heady mix of confident youthful enthusiasm and dark sardonic humour.

A sassy wise-cracking American, Tyler (played by Alia Shawkat), and local wannabe writer, Laura (Holliday Grainger), are two heavy-drinking Dublin besties and the world is their oyster. Their effervescent friendship sniffs out poetic reckoning and drug-addled hedonism at every turn, but when Laura starts to question their lifestyle, cracks begin to appear in their friendship. Surrounding herself with an awkward mix of Dublin pub dwellers, artistic intelligentsia and her conventional family, Laura’s life is caught in the push-and-pull between partying, bohemian fervour, and traditional life choices. Imagine the relational messiness of A Date for Mad Mary meets the feminist smarts of Jane Campion’s Bright Star and you’ll get an idea of where Animals sits both tonally and topically.

Adapting the script from her own novel, and in her first feature, Emma Jane Unsworth has penned a screenplay that spits with sharp wit, adroitly balancing a love story with one of existential crisis and smothering friendship. The devil is in the detail and Unsworth seems to have plenty of devils to talk about, lacing her script with snappy repartee, which while plentiful, does occasionally border on being overbearing and suffers at the hands of its own cleverness. Nonetheless, Unsworth’s screenplay shows enough agility to suggest her’s is a talent worth keeping an eye on.

Her pairing with Sophie Hyde (52 Tuesdays), a director with clear feminist leanings, make Laura and Tyler’s relationship all the more potent with Laura defining herself as “blazing a new way through old traditions”. Yet, surprisingly the film doesn’t let feminism become a distraction, rather allowing the two women forge out their own destinies through a more conventional narrative arc. Ultimately, Animals is an admirable take on self-discovery and reminds us that change is inevitable.

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

Joker

jkWhat a luxury to have Joaquin Phoenix, an actor of such immense scope, to hang your film on. Especially when that film is about one of the most iconic (and dare I say it, celebrated) fictional villains in history. His turn as the Clown Prince of Crime will most likely draw comparisons to those who have gone before (Ledger, Nicholson, et al). But it needn’t. This film is a different beast and Phoenix occupies quite a different period in the Joker story.

Set within the bowels of Gotham City (stylised as an all-but-in-name early eighties New York City), Joker introduces Arthur Fleck; a heavily medicated clown-for-hire with a neurological compulsive laughing disorder. Living with his mother (Frances Conroy), with whom he spends evenings watching the Late Night show with Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), Arthur cuts a desperately lonely figure. Bullied, alienated, and fast becoming bitter towards the people around him, Arthur succumbs to his darker leanings.

It’s easy to forget that this is yet another film set within the DC universe. Instead of the usual bombastic bluster, Joker gives us an introspective character study that belies its comic-book origins. Dark, gritty and full of rage, this deep-dive into Fleck’s psychological descent is undeniably an eye-opener. But, as absorbing as it is, the pained misunderstood anti-hero shtick does have a very familiar ring to it, with Fleck’s character clearly cribbing from roles such as Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle (De Niro providing yet further connective tissue). Even Phoenix’s role in last year’s You Were Never Really Here—as Joe, another sociopathic loner on whom we were encouraged to cast our sympathies—could easily be considered a “Fleck practice run”. Certainly, the similarities are there.

Joker’s director/co-writer Todd Phillips’ (The Hangover trilogy) pathos-filled characterisation of Fleck is considerably unsettling—a dark vision that walks a tenuous tightrope between empathy towards Fleck’s brokenness and revulsion at the Joker’s psychopathic tendencies. It’s a wobbly moral compass that occasionally leaves you unsure of who you should root for. Despite this, Joker still elevates itself from the pack, thanks in main to Phoenix’s remarkably embodied performance.

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