Category: Uncategorized

Midsommar

minsommarThere is an uneasy tension in the air with Ari Aster’s latest horror.  In his follow up to last year’s harrowing and unsettling Hereditary, the brooding filmmaker has extended his cold touch into the warm reaches of a Scandinavian summer.

Midsommar follows a group of American students into the rural Swedish hinterland where a closed-off druidic community has lived for hundreds of years. The community provides Anthropology student Christian (Jack Reynor), the opportunity to study their pagan rites and rituals. But when one ritual turns from an innocuous flower-clad-romp into an insidiously horrific death, the group start to doubt the community’s principles.  

Far from a diet of schlocky jump-scares and giggles, Midsommar is a slow burn, a ruminating and sinister film that ratchets tension with a vice-like grip. Aster maintains Hereditary’s grief-stricken psychological brilliance but dispenses with the disappointingly supernatural literalness that plagued its ending.  Instead, Midsommar, while flirting with the uncanny, roots itself in the real … and feels more creepy for it.

Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth) plays the film’s mainstay, Dani.  Suffering from a tragic loss in her family she cuts a needy figure desperate for stability and security, something she hopes a trip to Sweden with her boyfriend, Christian, might provide. Pugh’s skill, once again, proves why she is one of the most impressive actors working today, with a nuanced performance that masterfully distills the suffocating effects of anxiety.

It’s an odd but refreshing experience to have horror in the sunshine. Rather than skulking around in the darkness offering opportunities for lazy production design, Aster has quite astutely put Sweden’s perennial summer sunlight to good use. With a prowling camera that keeps the cast at arm’s length, he has employed a bright canvas and ironically daubed darker themes of grief and shame with striking results.

Horror films should never outstay their welcome and if I had one reservation, it would concern the film’s length which becomes one pagan ceremony too many. Yet again, Aster can’t quite nail an ending down and almost overcooks what is otherwise a superbly crafted film.

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

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High Life

hlMovies from the enigmatic French director, Claire Denis (Beau Travail), are often described as elliptical in nature—a cinematic version of those three provocative dots at the end of a sentence prompting an “and?” response, where more is denoted by what isn’t said. High Life is one of those films—a smouldering question mark that casts a giant shadow over the film’s other concerns.

Set in an undefined future, Monte (played by a detached but oddly warm Robert Pattinson) is one of eight prisoners in a ship hurtling through space towards a black hole, all of whom have elected to give their lives to science rather than undergo an earth-bound sentence.  The ship’s resident scientist, a prisoner herself, is a femme-fatale styled matriarch (played by Juliet Binoche) whose motherly gaze cautiously watches over the crew with one eye and keeps tabs on her reproductive experiments with the other.

The film takes pleasure in showing us a cocktail of bodily fluids pumping through the film’s industrial retro-chic production design. Aesthetically, High Life owes much to films that have gone before; the plastic-wrapped grime of Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, the damp biological machinations of Scott’s original Alien (along with Mother’s built-in DOS prompt), the syrupy darkness of Glazer’s Under the Skin and finally the the organic hope of Boyle’s Sunshine.  And while Denis doesn’t inject much originality into her production design, High Life is still an evocative sensory feast for the senses.

Although the dark and foreboding palette may not be to everyone’s taste, it’s the perfect companion to Denis’ angry take on humanity’s self-destructive nature. Make no mistake, High Life is cold, bitter, perverse and very violent in parts—unsurprising, I suppose, for a film about a bunch of violent criminals cooped up in a shoe-box.

However, my biggest reservation rests with High Life‘s seemingly impenetrable wall of final ambiguities. It leaves you floating in a seething broth of questions, tasking you to fill in the gaps—a rewarding process for some, but I suspect many will balk at the film’s final vagaries. Simply put, Denis’ deliberately obtuse and elliptical style keeps you at arm’s length for too long and offers an ending that feels about as complete as this senten…

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

Girls of the Sun

gotsBased on true events, Girls of the Sun is set during the volatile period of Isis expansion into Kurdish territory in northern Iraq. It follows Mathilde, a French war journalist (played by Emmanuelle Bercot) as she documents a group of Kurdish women anti-Isis fighters and their struggle to reclaim their town and the children captive within.  A far cry from the warmth of her role in Jarmusch’s Paterson, Golshifteh Farahani plays the battalion’s leader, Bahar, whose own horrific back-story is revealed to us through flashbacks.  Her capture was just one of the many stories of women and children killed or captured and sold (along with 7000 others) as sex-slaves. They are important stories to tell for many reasons, and Girls of the Sun pays special attention to the battalion’s uncompromising female spirit in the face of a ruthless misogynistic regime.

French director Eva Husson (Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story)) handles plenty of tricky material with conviction, bringing about a movie that juggles the brutality of war with accessibility to a wider audience. In particular, Husson injects some edge-of-the-seat set pieces; a tense tunnel scene to match Sicario and a nerve-frying birthing scene reminiscent of Children of Men, are just a couple worthy of note. And while none of it is original movie-making, the sum of its parts is a bruising assault on the nerves.

Not without its faults, the film does occasionally lose focus, suffering from the (enviable) problem of having too many stories to tell; the displaced Kurdish people, the treatment of women and children, the plight of western journalists, and the personal stories of each participant all struggle for attention in a film that tries its best to narrow its scope. 

As a result, Husson’s film does become a little uneven in parts—its style bouncing between a taut gritty war tale and melodrama. Nonetheless, Husson’s confident approach, if occasionally overbearing, built enough suspense and sympathy to get me swept up in the film’s cause.

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

Amazing Grace

ag2Archival footage documentaries are knocking it out of the park at the moment. And if last week’s release, the technically dazzling Apollo 11, literally took you to the moon and back, then Amazing Grace metaphorically does the same with a cinematically enthralling and spiritually charged presentation of a titanic talent.

In 1972 Aretha Franklin returned to her roots and graced the microphone laden pulpit of the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles to record her iconic gospel album, Amazing Grace. Standing beneath a giant mural of Jesus Christ (looking every inch a Californian surfer-dude) and backed by the Southern California Community Choir, Franklin belts out an array of gospel songs to an enraptured congregation—the footage of which is almost an other-worldly experience to take in.

The late great director Sydney Pollack (Out of Africa, Tootsie) was tasked with the job of recording the show for later release. Unfortunately, it became an incomplete project, and while Franklin’s recorded album went on the be the biggest selling gospel album of all time, Pollack’s footage was separated from its soundtrack and lay dormant in the vaults for decades.

Thankfully, director Alan Elliott has taken the reins of Pollack’s wandering horse and lead it back to water. And drink deeply from the spiritual well this final film does. Raw and shambolic in appearance, the film’s imperfections only serve to enrich and highlight Franklin’s jaw-dropping vocals. It captures a sense of dignity and authenticity to her performance that peaks at the film’s titular centrepiece—a sweaty, focussed and transcendent rendition of Amazing Grace that is tearfully received by both the congregation and backing performers alike.

Pollack clearly looks like someone who has found the winning lottery ticket as he joyously, but frantically, gestures his crew to point their camera to this once-in-a-life-time performance and then off stage to an audience that can no longer contain themselves (Mick Jagger included). It’s impossible not to get caught up in the emotion of it all, and if this film doesn’t move you then you might want to check your pulse.

 

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

Apollo 11

a11From the opening shot of workers ushering the gigantic Saturn V rocket into place like ants hauling a giant stick-insect, Apollo 11 broadsides you with absolute awe. First, at the enormity of man’s creation, and then at the realisation that the crystal clear images unfolding before you are half a century old.

As part of the fifty year anniversary of Apollo 11’s successful journey to the moon and back (shame on you if you consider that a spoiler), director Todd Douglas Miller has impressively wrangled a large cache of previously unreleased audio recordings and large-format footage (found deep within the bowels of NASA’s archives) into a single spellbinding documentary.

The wizardry involved in cleaning, colour correcting, and smoothing out fifty-year-old footage may seem astonishing enough, although surprisingly very little restoration work was required due to the immaculate archives at Nasa. What is astonishing, though, is the way in which Miller has presented this piece of history; no narration, no talking heads, just the jaw dropping footage of the events as they unfolded.

It’s a marvel of technical filmmaking, exemplified most acutely with the launch scene—an undeniable high-point that cleverly ratchets tension through an orchestration of deft editing, stunning sound design and accompanied by Matt Morton’s spine-tingling score. It’s a mind-blowing experience that makes you sit back and simply gape in awe.

As the film continues to trace astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins (yes, the forgotten third tenor gets some love) across the gulf of space, the film briefly settles back into a more leisurely pace, allowing you to gather your wits before descending into an equally impressive moon landing sequence. Some might find the technical ramblings of control centre a shade monotonous, but it lends the necessary authenticity and vital exposition to a project that eschews narration.

In much the same way Peter Jackson brought the horrors of war into the present, Miller has, with pin-sharp efficacy, elided time and brought one of mankind’s great achievements to the fore. Bend space, time, and your babysitter’s arm to see this.

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

Blinded by the Light

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There is a sense of earnest confidence found in Gurinder Chadha’s films. She began her feature directing career in fine style with the excellent Bhaji on the Beach before going on to bend the establishment, Beckham style, and in the process booting Keira Knightley into stardom. Blinded by the Light adds another solid chapter to Chadha’s career, whose films encourage you to check your cynicism at the door and be swept away by her bold enthusiasm.

Blinded by the Light is a true story, based on the memoirs of Sarfraz Manzoor, played here as Javed by newcomer Viveik Kalra. Growing up in the eighties backwater of Britain’s Luton town, the soft-natured but free-spirited Javed longs to become a writer but is hobbled by his overbearing parents, racism and the economic confines of Thatcher’s depressed Britain.

It’s a familiar east-meets-west culture clash story but spiced up by Chadha’s delightfully engaging direction. Similar to Bend it Like Beckham, Javed’s story uses the celebrated work from one of the world’s most iconic celebs (in this instance, Bruce Springsteen) to find common ground between two cultures, examining that volatile point where traditions and desires collide … all to the backdrop of the Boss’s lyrical anthology.

As Javed pursues his dream, the film busies itself by turning up the eighties nostalgia to eleven. A slew of eighties iconography; cassette tapes, geometric fluro designs, synth pop and more hair than a Rodney Wayne advert are paraded to hilarious effect. And, although there are some moments that don’t quite work as intended, Chadha manages to make the film’s faults feel more endearingly amateurish rather than an embarrassing misstep.

Its eighties musical sensibility will no doubt remind many of John Carney’s exceptional Sing Street. And while Blinded certainly doesn’t have Sing Street’s polish, it matches it for warmth and charm. As Javed’s school principal says “the Twiglets and Chardonnay will be flowing” which may well be code for laughs and tears, because Blinded provides plenty. It’s life-affirming, heartfelt and a lot of fun.

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

The Public

tpBreakfast Clubber, Emilio Estevez, is causing more trouble in the library, this time jumping over the counter and playing a rogue librarian rather than a rogue student.

The Public focusses on an extraordinary day in the life of the Cincinnati Public Library during a particularly harsh winter. With an ever-growing number of homeless, many who shelter there during the day, the library’s resources are stretched to breaking point. When a number of them refuse to spend another freezing night outside, they hunker down for the night, ironically in the social sciences section. As a standoff between the homeless (plus a sympathetic librarian) and the authorities plays out you’d be forgiven for thinking that this story should have “based on true events” in its opening credits. It doesn’t. But this gives Estevez, who writes, directs and stars as the beleaguered librarian, plenty of wriggle-room to explore a plethora of social issues. Unfortunately, this also proves to be one of the film’s many problems.

Not least of its shortcomings are Baldwin and Slater who chime in with very utilitarian roles; Baldwin, a police negotiator and Slater a Trump-esque Mayoral candidate provide the callous face of right-wing politics. Both flesh out the film’s political stance but also bring a swathe of needless subplots that are left unresolved. There is an unsavoury whiff of “white saviour” keeping the capitalist menace at bay and when one homeless man says “They’re looking at us like a bunch of crazy angry n*ggers. It’s up to you to prove them wrong Mr. Goodson (Estevez)” the film makes clear who it thinks the power brokers are.

Furthermore, for a film about social issues, active female representation is disappointingly sparse. I’m fairly certain the homeless also include women, yet the only women here are a love interest (played by Taylor Schilling), a catty TV reporter and a passive library assistant. The noticeable lack of feminine agency might be an innocent oversight but the film feels so much the poorer for it.

Finally, there is inauthenticity to the dialogue which feels obvious, agenda-pushing and entirely at odds with the film’s candid style of cinematography. Despite Estevez using this film to comment on a dizzying array of social issues (class, race, poverty, addiction, politics, the economy, the environment), it barely scratches the surface of most of them. It’s clear that Estevez is well-meaning but ultimately, The Public is a movie that lacks any genuine depth.

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

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.

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.