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Just Mercy

jmVerdict: A conventional but engaging true story of judicial injustice.

True stories are never the easiest ones to tell. Beholden to a number of restrictions, among them that pesky thing called “the truth”, Just Mercy’s writer and director Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) appears to have cautiously tiptoed through this minefield with a very straight-laced retelling of the racially charged Johnny D McMillian case.

Set in Alabama’s deep south, Just Mercy tells the tale of Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a lawyer fresh from Harvard, who makes the unenviable decision to represent death-row prisoners. Stevenson has been (and continues to be) a strong advocate for American legal reform and social justice and his defence of McMillian (Jamie Foxx), which this film focuses on, is a damning statement on the American judiciary system.

The death penalty sentence dished out to McMillian built entirely on the back of a false testimony from Ralph Myers, (a convicted white felon seeking a reduced sentence—played by a wonderfully jittery Tim Blake Nelson) despite there being multiple black accounts to the contrary, lends this film a solid platform to make some pointed statements on race and justice. It’s a compelling story, made even more remarkable by Stevenson who has since exposed the staggering statistic that one in nine prisoners on death-row have since been exonerated.

However, as well-intended as this retelling is, it’s a film that might’ve been better served with a narrower focus. Just Mercy’s impact is unfortunately diluted by peripheral characters who seem to distract rather than solicit emotional buy-in to the Stevenson/McMillian relationship (Brie Larsen’s token white office-worker among them). Furthermore, Cretton appears to shy away from using artistic licence to sell the story, which is a shame because Just Mercy operates best in the fleeting moments where artistic embellishments surface.

But despite missed opportunities, what rises out of the carcass of conventionality are some impressive performances, in particular, Jordan whose measured take on a man with a heart pained by racial injustice elevates this film above the typical prestige drama template. While Just Mercy is conventional it certainly holds your attention.

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

Bombshell

bs1Verdict: Packs plenty of gun powder but doesn’t quite go off with a bang.

Director Jay Roach has gingerly tiptoed through the thorny but serious topic of sexual harassment in his latest film, the provocatively titled Bombshell. It’s a bold move for a director better known for the comedic contrivances of Austin Powers, but his latest certainly isn’t for laughs and plays out more like a politically explosive revenge film.

News anchor Gretchen Carlson (Kidman) kicks off a lawsuit against her boss (Fox Network bigwig Roger Ailes, played by a very slimy John Lithgow) for unfair demotion. The revelation that Ailes sexually harassed her is met with a ground-swell of cautious support, among them news anchor Megyn Kelly (Theron) and Kayla Pospisil (Robbie), that fast becomes a triple barrelled powder-keg of feminine rage planted deep within the bowels of Fox Network’s male-dominated ivory tower.

You’ll forgive Bombshell for the diversity drought—the Fox building, where this tale is predominantly set, is presented as a hotbed of white, conservative ambition. Cleverly, the sexual harassment case plays out to the backdrop of the Trump’s election campaign in which the film screams “see who you’ve let run the free world?!”. It’s fairly obvious where Bombshell’s political sentiments lie.

Unfortunately, Bombshell’s fever-pitched witch hunt does pay undue attention towards its more mechanical “cloak-and-dagger” plot points and timidly shies away from fully fleshing out its female characters. One notable scene in which a disconsolate Kayla (Robbie) weeps down the phone to her friend searching for reassurance, unfortunately, loses vital impact—well-acted, yes, but we just don’t know enough about her to care. As it stands we are held strangely at arm’s length which hints to screenwriter Charles Randolph’s (The Big Short) penchant for punchy political satire rather than deeply personal stories. Perhaps also a product of men telling women’s stories, but far be it from me to make that call.

Despite these grumbles Bombshell still offers engaging viewing thanks in part to Roach’s kinetic film-making but mostly due to the solid acting from the triumvirate of female A-listers who seem to get the most from Randolph’s pallid characterisations. It’s a well-intended film that enthusiastically nods towards the #metoo movement but never fully arrives at the point where feminine ambition intersects with moral fortitude.

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

My favourite eleven films of 2019

ok here goes…

11. The Irishman (not reviewed): Forget the negative rantings about Paquin’s role as Peggy Sheeran. Her physical performance and seven lines of dialogue succinctly (but crucially) encapsulates the entirely of Scorsese’s slow-burning investigation into Frank Sheeran’s life. The anti-aging digital effects aren’t quite up to snuff, but otherwise, this is a fine (but long … you’ll need to attach a catheter) film by a craftsman who’s still got the goods.
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10. Midsommer (review): In his follow up to last year’s harrowing and unsettling Hereditary, Ari Aster has extended his cold touch into the warm reaches of a Scandinavian summer. 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. 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.
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9. Destroyer (review): Directed like a pump-action shotgun by woman-power maestro Karyn Kusama, Destroyer flew quietly under the radar during awards season earlier this year. Shame, because this nihilistic slow-burn deserved a lot better. What begins as standard police procedural becomes a primal cry of motherhood as the story investigates how crime has stained a mother’s relationship with her daughter. Kusama knows how to tell a hard-boiled story to lens-cracking effect and hung enough of the film’s driving force on Nicole Kidman’s nail-hard central performance. The result? A Kidman masterclass at the hands of a woman-centric director in utter control of her craft. 
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8. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (review): The focussed intensity of love is explored in French writer/director Céline Sciamma’s latest film. A period piece that details the lives of two 18th century women over the course of one fateful week, Sciamma’s romantic drama feels modern despite its setting. It’s a brooding and simmering film that evokes themes of modern classics; the transcendent feminine gaze of Campion’s The Piano, the gay love of Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name, even its exploration into forbidden lives echoes von Donnersmarck’s Oscar-winning The Lives of Others. And yet despite thematic similarities, Portrait of a Lady on Fire feels entirely fresh in its treatment of femininity, due most notably to the resolute absence of masculinity set within Sciama’s frame.
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7. Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse (review): Yes, Spidey just makes the cut with an early Jan 2019 NZ release. Drawing on its comic book roots, the same producers who brought us The Lego Movie have gone with an animation style that fizzes and crackles with explosive energy, creating the genuine feeling of a comic book leaping onto the screen. The banging soundtrack will have you buzzing and writer Phil Lord (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) brings a level of quick-witted irreverence and humour that manages to ground this preposterous tale. The result is an unconventional, vibrantly fresh and laugh-a-minute loving ode to the comics.  It’s really something special.
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6. Joker (review): Perhaps the most divisive film of the year, 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. Joker elevates itself from the pack, thanks in main to Phoenix’s remarkably embodied performance. I really, really, really liked this film.
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5. If Beale Street Could Talk (not reviewed): Barry Jenkins is one of the most important directors working today and if his Oscar-winning effort, Moonlight, wasn’t proof, then If Beale Street Could Talk certainly is. This film unapologetically meets America’s racist past head-on weaving into its fabric a mesmerising love story that is so heartfelt it made me sigh for days after. Jenkins brings black activist, James Baldwin’s novella into vivid focus with a softy trod diatribe (if there is such a thing) tempered by James Laxton’s breath-taking cinematography. It’s a symphony for the emotions and senses. Achingly beautiful and woozily sensual, If Beale Street Could Talk is essential viewing. 
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4. Apollo 11 (review): 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.
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3. Amazing Grace (review): If 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. If this film doesn’t move you then you might want to check your pulse.
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2. The Farewell (not reviewed): Perhaps the biggest (and most pleasant) surprise of the year. A poignant but ultimately heart-warming family drama, The Farewell broadsided me with bags of emotion and humour. Awkwafina is a revelation.
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1. Parasite (review): Korean director Bong Joon-ho has once again lanced the infected boil on the bum of society: inequality. Exhilarating and thrillingly portrayed, Parasite is elevated by Bong’s skill as a visual director as well as his dextrous use of satire to illuminate the more unsavoury side of class-politics. Pure brilliance.
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Righto, that’s me done. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year everyone!

Happy Ending

heVerdict: A lightweight but pleasant romantic comedy with a satisfying final kick.

Although Happy Ending’s prophetic title might give away how this Danish dramedy finishes, the ending mightn’t be quite what you’d expect. For a film that traverses the well-trod topic of a retired couple breakup, Happy Ending does its best to break with traditions before the final credits roll and what is predominantly a lightweight fluffy meringue of a film ends as something a little more thought-provoking.

Married couple Helle (Birthe Neumann) and Peter (Kurt Ravn) see retirement quite differently. Peter is a silver fox suffering (or blossoming, depending on how you look at it) from a late-life-crisis and unwilling to give up on his masculine agency. However, Helle sees retirement as a time to reconnect with an-all-but-absent husband previously consumed by his work. With opposing philosophies thrust upon them, their marriage begins to blow in the breeze as the two go down very different paths.

In her eighth feature Danish director Hella Joof (Shake It, Bitter Sweetheart) has taken the retired couple marriage breakup routine—something that has almost become a cliche—and updated it for the modern age. Joof is an experienced director; black, female and lives in a progressive Nordic country—plenty of reasons for her to have carte blanche on topics of feminism and race. Yet, despite a few pointed barbs Happy Ending is surprisingly reserved, opting instead to gloss over the gloomier and gender-weary battlegrounds of marriage.

Acting veterans Neumann and Ravn (who have previously worked together) provide a good amount of chemistry and run through an even-keeled screenplay that keeps the story predictable but pleasant. That is, until the film’s final stanza where things take a curious but satisfying turn.

Happy Ending isn’t a particularly demanding watch, nor will it crease you over with laughter, but it manages to push juuuust enough boundaries to keep things interesting. And the happy ending? Well, that depends on your definition of happiness.

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

The Good Liar

tglVerdict: A con trick flick with an ending that doesn’t stick.

Royalty of the British acting talent pool, namely Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Helen Mirren duke it out in a game of intrigue, skulduggery and lies … delivered with the best possible manners, of course. The Good Liar is an adaptation of Nicholas Searle’s novel of the same name, a story about old people lying to each other (a topic Searle no doubt garnered from his time spent working for the NZ Government).

McKellen plays Roy, an elderly man whose pleasant nature belies his shady past. He is a con-artist who prays on victims seduced by his seemingly harmless age and impeccable manners, but his latest victim, a money-flush widower named Betty (Mirren), proves to be a trickier prospect than he had first anticipated.

Director, Bill Condon, has worked with McKellen before (Mr. Holmes, Gods and Monsters), and with far better results than this misdirected disappointment. What begins as a promising con-artist tale built on two unlikely candidates unravels itself to reveal a disjointed, illogically told farce.

Screen-writer Jeffrey Hatcher (who also worked with Condon and McKellen on Mr. Holmes) has made a dog’s breakfast of his adaptation of Searle’s book. Good mysteries deliver their “big reveal” from a collection of lies and truths. To decipher fact from fiction is the game the audience must play. But when a film throws back the curtain on its mystery without allowing its audience the remotest chance of figuring it out, then there is a sense of cinematic betrayal going on. I can’t mention specifics without divulging spoilers, suffice to say that The Good Liar offers two key twists; The first delivered at such glacial speed, environmental scientists could’ve seen it coming. The second twist is such a head-scratcher that it requires a subsequent lengthy flashback (setup that should’ve come a lot earlier) to explain itself. Not quite an “it was all a bad dream” moment, but it feels like it. Shame, because The Good Liar starts out so well, but in the words of the good Sir Ian McKellen “You shall not pass!” Indeed, his movie doesn’t get one either.

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

Ready or Not

ronVerdict: A raucous dark comedy that feels like a game of Cluedo played in an abattoir.

Latest in the “shall we play a game?” horror sub-genre pits a young bride against a murderous hoard of well-to-do American aristocratic toffs. Directors Tyler Gillett and Matt Bettenelli-Olpin, who together previously brought us a slew of B-grade horror (V/H/S, Devil’s Due) have outdone themselves this time with a slasher that is as funny as it is … uhh … splattery.

Unsurprisingly, Ready or Not isn’t heavy on plot. Grace, played with a lively energy by Samara Weaving (a sort of Margot Robbie lite), is a young woman on her wedding night who is surprised by her new in-laws with a postnuptial board game—a strange family tradition, but hey, whatever gets you past Go. In good humour, she follows along and picks from a selection of games; Chess, Checkers etc, even (gasp!) Hide and Seek—“just don’t pick the wrong one”. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that, yes, she picked the wrong one. I guess two hours of watching them play Chess wouldn’t make much of a movie.

So, the game is afoot (or is that a decapitated hand!?), with things getting a bit bloody in parts as Grace is hunted down by a bunch of hoity-toity in-laws turned killers (including a very insidious Andy MacDowell). Thankfully, they’re all rather incompetent and what might’ve become a slasher film trying to take itself seriously, instead appears to knowingly revel in the ridiculousness of it all. Ready or Not is raucous fun and Messrs Gillett and Bettenelli-Olpin seem to know how to balance their gore with generous dollops of humour.

It’s not all hack’n’humour, though. Ready or Not has a few salient comments to make on classism, but to suggest they’re said with any subtlety would be the understatement of the century. When Grace screams at her assailants as “F**ken rich people!”, you kinda know who the baddies are.

As the bungling archetypes run riot within the Agatha Christie-styled mansion, it’s clear that this is a horror that knows its strengths and undeniably operates best in its more playful moments. The result is loads of bloody fun.

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

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

poalofThe focussed intensity of love is explored in French writer/director Céline Sciamma’s latest film. A period piece that details the lives of two 18th century women over the course of one fateful week, Sciamma’s romantic drama feels modern despite its setting. It’s a brooding and simmering film that evokes themes of modern classics; the transcendent feminine gaze of Campion’s The Piano, the gay love of Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name, even its exploration into forbidden lives echoes von Donnersmarck’s Oscar-winning The Lives of Others. And yet despite thematic similarities, Portrait of a Lady on Fire feels entirely fresh in its treatment of femininity, due most notably to the resolute absence of masculinity set within Sciama’s frame.

Set on a remote island off the coast of Brittany, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) is reluctant to marry and refuses to sit and have her image painted—a task required for potential suitors. With Héloïse having already worn a previous artist out with frustration, her mother commissions a new young female artist, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), to finish the job. Marianne accompanies the reclusive Héloïse on long, contemplative walks in attempts to observe her more closely, committing furtive glances to memory before secretly setting about painting her portrait in the privacy of her own room. Resting on this simple but intriguing premise, Sciama sets about igniting a fire under the belly of their burgeoning relationship as she delivers a hauntingly seductive tale of forbidden love.

Portrait is a spellbindingly beautiful film shot with a painterly palette and well-considered framing that, appropriately, accompanies an artist’s tale. But its Sciamma’s attention to timing that really sets this romantic drama apart. Her camera lingers in all the right places and for the perfect amount of time. Portrait is a slow burn, intentionally and painstakingly so, it demands patience and investment—but look and listen carefully, because everything matters. For example, crucial to Portrait’s immaculate structure is the effective use of music which begins seemingly piecemeal and fragmented only to be carefully reassembled, revealing one of the most astonishingly powerful final scenes to a movie I’ve experienced in a long time. Do yourself a favour and bask at the fire of Sciamma’s film, because it is a masterpiece.

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

The Beach Bum

tbbAre we witnessing the end of the McConaissance? If The Beach Bum is any indication then we might be. Writer/director Harmony Korine (Spring Breakers) has dragged Matthew McConaughey’s through a round of Korine’s favourite topic; sex, drugs, and … well, that’s about it. To be fair, a loose, wise-cracking “bum” who lives by his own rules is just the kind of role McConaughey was destined to play and, unsurprisingly, he is by far the best thing about this film.

A tale of hedonism and misbehaviour, The Beach Bum is big on style and small on plot. Moondog (McConaughey) is a celebrated but burnt-out poet living in the sun-drenched environs of the Florida Keys. Rich, popular, and hell-bent on living out the rest of his life within the drug-addled haze of his kitsch hovel. The only catch; his estranged wife, Minnie (Isla Fisher), holds the purse strings and tasks him with finishing his next book in order to access the remainder of his wealth. That’s about as far as the plot complexities go, the film opting instead to stumble through a potpourri of episodic (but colourful) scenes. A conveyor-belt of big names roll past; Zac Efron, Jonah Hill, Snoop Dogg, and Martin Lawrence, among others, line up to have a holiday in Florida’s sun at the studio’s expense, or have a crack at ruining their careers … or both, hard to tell.

It’s not all bad. There are some interesting formal flourishes, Korine’s woozy style plays cute with some unconventional editing, with single conversations playing out seamlessly across multiple scenes. It’s clever stuff, but deft editing and attractive cinematography can only go so far.

Ultimately, it’s difficult to admire a film that, while not outright glorifying abhorrent self-indulgence, does nothing to vilify it either. In one scene Jonah Hill seems to sum up the film’s moral compass “You know what I like the most about being rich? You can just be horrible to people and they just have to take it.” The glass-half-full in me says that Korine is trying to be intentionally provocative. A clever subtext perhaps, a sarcastic stab at Trumpism, or some other gem of wisdom deep within its hazy bowels … I just found this film too annoying and obnoxious to care.

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

Pain and Glory

P and G Leonardo Sbaraglia and Antonio BanderasMaking an autobiographical film about a director’s life can be a tricky task.  Get it wrong and it comes across as a self-absorbed exercise in navel-gazing. But get it right and you have something wonderful, like Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory. 

Set in Spain, this film centres on the “fictional” life of Salvador Mello. Through a series of flash-backs, Almodóvar (for whom this film operates as a thinly veiled semi-autobiographical drama) fleshes out Salvador’s formative years at the hands of his impoverished mother (played by Penelope Cruz), his absent father, and the sexual awakenings of the house help.  Fast forward to the present and Salvador is now a successful but creatively stifled film-maker, who suffers from numerous ailments and is struggling to unite his past with the present. But through a series of coincidental reconnections, his past is thrust upon him.  There is a hint of Fellini’s 8 1/2, or even Cuarón’s more recent Roma in the self-confessional nature of Almodóvar’s sideways glance at his own life and the people who influenced him.

Almodóvar collaborator Antonio Banderas gives an exceptionally soul-searching performance as Salvador, one of intensely focussed restraint as an internalised individual who ruminates on his past life.  He is a picture of contradictions, with mournful eyes that betray his smooth image of studied unkemptness. At one point Salvador exclaims to a colleague “The one who cries is not a better actor than the one who struggles to hold back tears”— advice that Banderas takes on board in one heart-wrenching scene that sums up the pain and glory of Salvador’s life. Indeed, Banderas’ remarkably nuanced performance does plenty of this film’s heavy-lifting and elevates it into something quite sublime.

But far from solely a Banderas masterclass, Almodóvar’s distinctive flavour is evident throughout.  Although at the restrained end of his oeuvre, Pain and Glory is still a visually compelling work with a rich colour palette and some subtle formal flourishes that are wall-hangingly beautiful. Certainly, Pain and Glory’s thought-provoking final shot will have your post-viewing tongues wagging while you sip on your Tempranillo.

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

Brittany Runs a Marathon

britAs Brittany Runs a Marathon’s spoilerific title hints, this movie quite literally does what it says on the tin. Yes, Brittany does actually run a marathon. But this indie dramedy also packs plenty of soul-searching smarts that go beyond the accessibly cheerful packaging. Think Francis Ha with sneakers.

In her late twenties and unhealthily overweight, Brittany drinks heavy and parties hard. She’s happy on the exterior but sad on the inside, so much so that together with a wakeup-call from her doctor, it leads her to question her hollow lifestyle. As she embarks on a journey of reinvention, she is forced to contend with the inherent messiness of body positivity, the awkward push-and-pull of being happy with the body you’re in, and recognising that losing weight is important for your longevity. Not easy when your best friend is an online influencer who can’t run because “it makes me too skinny”.  Despite this, Brittany laces up her running shoes, thanks in part to her burgeoning new-found support group; the sporty woman upstairs, her understanding black brother-in-law, her gay running partner, and the unlikely Indian love-interest.  Yes, representation is woke-fully present in this film, a good thing if perhaps a little intentional.

But contrasting this refreshing blend of new-world characters is Brittany’s more traditional narrative arc.  It is, when pared down, a predictable crowd-pleaser. However, the feel-good vibes are elevated by some delightful directing, thoughtful writing, and heartfelt performances from the cast. Written and directed by Paul Downs Colaizzo (his first feature), Brittany was inspired by his real-life flatmate.  His screenplay is consistently honest in its conversations about weight, wellness, and self-worth. But the pairing of his screenplay to actor Jillian Bell (Rough Night) is the film’s master-stroke.  Bell’s pitch-perfect performance really makes this film hum as she takes the self-deprecating Brittany along a path of physical and emotional change.

Although Brittany runs through a lot of familiar territory, there is a sense of authenticity to Colaizzo’s film. Joyful, funny, and inspirational in a totally unsentimental way, this film crosses the finish line with its head held high.

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