Category: Uncategorized

Queen & Slim

QUEEN & SLIMVerdict: A well-meaning and beautiful looking disappointment.

As far as first dates go, this one’s a bit of a fizzer. No, I’m not talking about the titular Queen and Slim’s Tinder date from hell, to which this film explores. Rather, I’m referring to my first outing with promising first-time feature directing and writing duo Melina Matsoukas and Lena Waithe, whose woke sensibilities and vibrantly kinetic film-making style held so much promise. Add to the mix, two “it” actors—the eye-catching Jodie Turner-Smith and Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya—and you have a film that by all measures should be overflowing with style, sass and smarts.

The story follows the duo’s aforementioned first date which goes pear-shaped after they are pulled over by a racist white cop. Following some racial injustice, rash responses and a flurry of gunshots, Queen and Slim suddenly find themselves high-tailing it for the border. The film proceeds to make some fairly pointed comments on authoritarian prejudice as the couple’s panicked flight from the authorities garner a Bonnie and Clyde style posse of unsolicited support that usher them towards freedom.

There is plenty to like about Queen & Slim. For one, it’s beautiful to look at, drenched in silky imagery that dovetails nicely into Pete Beaudreau (A Cure for Wellness, Margin Call) well-considered editing patterns. I simply can’t emphasise enough how good this film looks, and for some, this alone will be worth the price of admission. Secondly, Daniel Kaluuya’s screen presence—anyone who’s seen him in Get Out and then Widows will know his significant range.

Unfortunately, all this is put to waste by Waithe’s patchy screenplay that ebbs and flows from moments of sublime enlightenment to cliched dashboard-thumping expletives and woefully signposted character motivations. I could hear the clunky gears turning.

It’s a classic case of style over substance. Shame, because Queen & Slim film does have a noble message, but it gets overexposed by Waithe’s overwrought dialogue. What’s more, Matsoukas shows her lack of feature-length experience, one that hasn’t yet captured the focussed subtlety of contemporaries such as Barry Jenkins (Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk). As for a future second date with Matsoukas’ next flick? Weeell … for now, I’ll just be polite and say “it’s not you, it’s me”.

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

Color Out of Space

coosVerdict: A trippy tale of cosmic horror that occasionally rises above its B-horror roots.

You might think that a loopy Nicholas Cage, a herd of alpacas, and a half-baked woodland hippie might resemble some sort of comedy, but you couldn’t be further from the truth. Color Out of Space, the latest in many adaptions of H.P Lovecraft’s literary work, is a story of cosmic horror that picks at the raw nerve of our deepest existential fears. 

Lovecraft was indeed ahead of his time, his stories inspiring a wave of celluloid horror many years after they were written. Unfortunately, few are any good. Alex Garland’s recent masterpiece, Annihilation, being a notable exception (actually adapted from Jeff VanderMeer’s book, but with remarkable similarities that capture the cosmic horror Lovecraft was aiming for), but most trip and fall into a mad scientist’s vat of cheap B-grade excess. 

Is this any different?  Well … kinda. It is relatively faithful to the source material, narratively speaking. But that’s not saying much as it has a very simple plot: When a strange meteor falls into the Gardner family’s front yard it contaminates the water supply, turning the flora and fauna into a wondrously indescribable hue. Yep, there’s something in the water alright (last week’s reviewed Dark Waters and this would make a terrifying double bill) and things from here begin to get pretty trippy for the Gardner family, giving way to a wild-eyed alpaca blood soaked dad that only Nicholas Cage could pull off. Even Tommy Chong (of dope-smoking duo Cheech and Chong fame) turns up. Again, no, this isn’t a comedy.

There are some exceptionally thrilling moments within Color’s psychedelia and director Richard Stanley (returning after a long hiatus) has wrangled a tsunami of sight and sound into some very experiential and mind-blowing sequences. Beyond that, unfortunately, the film rather predictably surrenders to the genre-revelling schlock of its cinematic forebears and never fully captures Lovecraft’s intended cosmic horror. Color just can’t seem to decide what kind of movie it wants to be; a high-end sci-fi, or B-grade ham. It’s the lovechild of Alex Garland and Ed Wood and a very frustrating experience to boot. I loved it, and I hated it.

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

Dark Waters

dwVerdict: The murky waters of environmental law turn crystal clear in this efficiently told whistleblowing biopic.

How do you spice up the mundane subject of environmental law? Throw in a couple of A-listers, shoot them with provocative mood filters and set your story to the angsty backdrop of our environmentally frail times. Dark Waters is all this and more—a film that through its lid-lifting on the DuPont scandal has tapped directly into the zeitgeist of today’s environmentally savvy public.

Cut from the same cloth as movies like Erin Brockovich, The Insider, and more recently The Report, Dark Waters offers more of the same David vs Goliath whistleblowing narrative that, while not breaking new cinematic ground, is a compelling enough drama to have you questioning the safety of the water we drink.

Robert Bilott (played by a suitably driven, yet affable, Mark Ruffalo) is a corporate lawyer who defends chemical companies, but when a farmer thrusts into his reluctant hands compelling evidence for gross negligence of one of the world’s largest chemical companies, it causes him to sit up and take notice. The ensuing investigation into the chemical giant DuPont, who knowingly released dangerous chemicals into the public’s water supply, snakes its way down a river of shadowy conspiracies and paranoid side-glances.

Is this movie formulaic? You bet. But it’s a formula that works and director Todd Haynes (Carol, I’m Not There) has meticulously worked his craft with a laser-like (but very predictable) precision. From the do-I-turn-the-key-for-fear-of-the-car-exploding cinematic flash-points of tension to the seamless montages of Bilott pouring over legal documents, Dark Waters flows before your eyes ushering us from one complex plot-point to the next with effortless ease. In fact, this film almost feels too efficient and calculated for its own good. Which is why the more organic and messy relationships, such as Robert’s marriage to Sarah (Hathaway), feel disappointingly undercooked.

Despite this, Dark Waters still operates as a compelling and well-told whistleblowing yarn that explains the complex machinations of the DuPont case with aplomb. I will never look at my glass of water the same.

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

Mr. Jones

mjVerdict: A captivating account of truth-seeking journalist Gareth Jones.

Back for its theatrical release following a rather quiet response at last year’s NZIFF, Mr. Jones feels like a timely reminder of today’s unrelenting flow of fake news.

Set in the early 1930s, Mr. Jones is based on the true story of Welsh journalist Gareth Jones (played by Bond candidate, James Norton), who ventured into the maw of Stalin’s genocidal starvation of the people of Ukraine. His eyewitness account of Holodomor (as it is known by) contradicted the dominant narratives flowing out the Soviet Union at the time—stories that the west was willing to accept in favour of burgeoning trade opportunities. Yet despite Jones’ vociferous protests his words continually fell on deaf ears.

Spearheading this tale of injustice is a suitably odious Peter Sarsgaard (An Education) who slithers into the frame as the Pulitzer winning Walter Duranty, New York Times’ patsy to Soviet interests. His decision to favour hedonism over truth represents the sickening number of political players who turned a blind eye to Stalin’s atrocities.

In contrast, a sympathetic George Orwell (played by Joseph Mawle) pops up intermittently to hear Jones’ concerns—burdens that would later be famously reworked into his opus, Animal Farm. These interludes may seem a tad superfluous at times, however this insight into Orwell’s politically driven narratives serve to highlight Jones’ frustration in convincing the political establishment to accept his ground-level reporting as fact.

And it is at ground-level and in Ukraine’s frozen tundra where this film operates best. Oscar-nominated director, Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa, In Darkness) has crafted a bleak and desperately lonely vision of Holodomor that appropriately hits home the horrors of Stalin’s atrocities.

Not without a few flaws, most notably Jones’ “obligatory” love interest with New York Times employee Ada Brookes (Vanessa Kirby) whose character, while softening an otherwise all-male cast, does little to further the film’s cause. Some might also wonder if a trimmer, more focussed, version of Mr. Jones lives inside its slightly bloated 141 mins running time. Small quibbles for what is otherwise a gripping history lesson.

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

The Lighthouse

tlhVerdict: An unnerving and claustrophobic monochrome nightmare at sea.

You will never look at seagulls the same after watching Robert Eggers latest film, The Lighthouse, a tale of nautical superstitions and closely guarded secrets set in the late nineteenth-century. His first film, The Witch, was among other things a feminist film. The Lighthouse, similarly is a cold-hard stare at toxic masculinity, exploring what happens when two mismatched men are forced to cohabit in a lighthouse, on a rock in the middle of the sea, farting, drinking, masturbating, and beating on seagulls. It’s unsettling at times, yes, but also utterly mesmerising.

As Eggers once quipped “nothing good happens when two men are trapped in a giant phallus.” And he’s right, but before you dismiss The Lighthouse as some sort of ugly stew of perverted male squalor, think again, because this well-considered journey into the mental abyss has been meticulously crafted by a director at the top of his game.

At its centre is Thomas Wake (Dafoe), a salty-sea-dog-turned-lighthouse-keeper and his new assistant, the quiet and guarded Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson), who have four weeks to go about their duties on the weather-beaten island before relief arrives. But when a storm delays the impending relief, it tests their mental resilience. Wake becomes jealously protective of his lighthouse and his insistence that only he “tend to the light!” leads Winslow to become curious about its attraction. The film cleverly flirts with magic realism, as the mystery of the “tended light” is slowly revealed.

Shot in black and white with an aspect ratio of 1.19:1, which is to say, almost completely square, The Lighthouse is a claustrophobic and suffocating experience. Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke’s who also worked with Eggers on The Witch, and his brooding camera evokes photography from the period, which is hauntingly complimented by the unceasing cry of the island’s foghorn, moaning as if in labour with Eggers’ new film.

Add to Eggers’ formal brilliance two highly committed performances from Pattinson and Dafoe and you have a thrilling gothic vision of madness that may well be an oppressive experience, yet is something to be admired.

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

Emma

emma
Verdict: A stylish and smart big-screen treatment the Austin classic.

The oft-adapted classic, Jane Austin’s Emma, seems to be a screenwriters dream. Not least because of the book’s intriguing plot contrivances that drip with romantic machinations, but more because it has at its centre a wonderfully complex female character that bristles with feisty agency. Emma is a story of misguided match-making as she (played by a mischievous Anya Taylor-Joy) plays cupid for others who blindly bare the brunt of her bad advice.  Needless to say, things go horribly wrong.

Kiwi word-smith Eleanor Catton appears to have relished her opportunity to adapt the queen of romantic mismanagement for the big screen. Plunging her pen deep into the pages of Austin’s book, Catton has gilded this plucky production with delightful attention to Austin’s wonderfully witty prose. She has avoided pandering to the “Downton Abbey sect” and its more easily digestible frippery. Rather, this version feels more faithful to the source material than prior renditions which will no doubt delight fans of Austin. Those less familiar with Austin’s work might find the sharp word-play and dizzying array of characters a tad disorienting.  It is a complex web that Emma weaves and it appears that Catton doesn’t suffer fools, so if its a more contemporary version you’re after, then perhaps Amy Heckerling’s Beverly Hill’s update, Clueless (a good film in its own right), might be a better option.

The film’s tagline “Handsome, clever, and rich” is not only an apt summation of its protagonist, but also describes Catton’s intelligent screenplay and a production that brims with all the trimmings that come with a romantic romp through the early nineteenth century. Costumes, finery and luxuriously green-gardened estates—it’s all there along with an excellent ensemble cast that includes Bill Nighy hitting peak Nighy.

If I had one reservation, it is that director Autumn de Wilde, in her feature debut, hasn’t quite lived up to her music-video roots. Her name might look lovely on the poster, but the film’s beautiful production design and vivid cinematography should’ve been weaved into something a little more kinetic.  But de Wilde’s lack is thankfully made up for by Catton’s biting script and Anya Taylor-Joy whose embodiment of Emma proves a whimsical delight.

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

For Sama

fs
Verdict: Probably the most courageous documentary you’ll see this year.

The horrors of civil war are explored in Waad Al-Kateab’s Oscar-nominated documentary For Sama. A Syrian journalist and reluctant hero, Waad recounts her tumultuous five years trapped within the besieged city of Aleppo along with her husband Hamza and their newborn daughter, Sama. They lived a meagre existence while working at a makeshift hospital during Assad’s brutal assault on the city.

Armed only with Waad’s handheld camera and Hamza’s surgical know-how (but both with an inspiring supply of courage), the couple do their best to save lives with limited resources. The film is a heart-breaking assault on your senses and doesn’t pull any punches as the seemingly endless conveyor-belt of wounded—civilian casualties of Assad’s unforgivably ill-targeted bombings—pass through the hospital doors.  Yet, behind the bloodshed For Sama presents itself as a love story on many levels; one of Waad and Hamza’s love for each other, also one of compassionate love for the city of Aleppo, but ultimately, as the title suggests, this film is Waad’s love letter to her daughter, Sama.

Waad explains how the plight of the rebels was muddied by an influx of Islamic extremists. However, the film wisely avoids getting too bogged down in the politics of war, rather, locking its attention on the plight of the innocent civilians at ground level, specifically the children caught up in the bombing. One heartbreaking scene in which two young boys softly weep over the body of their brother, a victim of yet another bomb, is particularly difficult to stomach. Such scenes, harrowing as they are, are necessary and serve to focus the film’s humanist concerns, as well as crystallise Waad and Hamza’s personal moral edict to stay and save lives rather than flee.

Never losing sight of the medium of film, Waad and her co-director Edward Watts have wrangled over 500 hours of hand-held footage and weaved it into a strong piece of cinema. The result is a profoundly intimate yet horrifically heartbreaking film—a powerful document of love and injustice that traverses an array of emotions. For Sama is essential viewing.

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

A Hidden Life

ahl
Verdict: A deeply moving Malick mood piece.

Based on the letters between Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian conscientious objector during the Second World War, and his wife Fani (played by Valerie Pachner), this true story revisits one of history’s many forgotten wartime martyrs. The couple forge out seemingly utopian lives as farmers outside a remote village beneath the picturesque Austrian Alps. But when Franz (played by August Diehl), a devout Christian, refuses to bend the knee before the evil of Hitler’s Nazi regime, it threatens to shatter their idyllic lifestyle. His refusal to sign an oath of allegiance is an act that would have him thrown into prison and potentially sentenced to death for treason. 

Those who appreciated writer/director Terence Malick’s masterpiece The Tree of Life, will welcome Malick’s return to form. He’s had a few misses since, but A Hidden Life represents a renewed conviction for his craft—one of whispered fever dreams laced with periods of lucid connection to nature, all built on liberated camera movement, vibrant imagery, and oiled with fluid editing patterns. It is tactile film-making par excellence that pipes straight into your soul.  Yes, Malick’s best films are more spiritual experiences rather than mere entertainment.  

However, at nearly three hours long some might find Malick’s contemplative style too taxing, with a seemingly endless supply of swooning camera movements that are sublime, yes, but also numerous. Those less versed in Malick’s style will question if this relatively simple story could’ve been trimmed to a more digestible length. For that, Malick himself might be considered a conscientious objector to today’s popcorn movies, stubbornly forging out a work of meaningful cinematic art without bowing the knee to today’s ever shortening attention span. I applaud him for it, because what we have here is a master work. 

A Hidden Life unflinchingly locks us inside Franz’s moral conundrum. First showing paradise, with humanity and nature living as intended high in the pristine Austrian Alps, and then with a slow, prowling, cloying, camera ushering in the inexorable threat of Hitler. Paradise lost, indeed. 

It’s an anachronistic parable for our Trumpian times, sympathetic to lives of moral fortitude lost in the white noise of history. A Hidden Life is a graceful and hauntingly beautiful symphony for the senses that is urgently pertinent. I loved it.

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

Midway

mwVerdict: An overblown and corny theme-park ride.

If you liked Pearl Harbour, then you’ll love Midway… but that’s not saying much. Pearl Harbour was a posturing leaky barrel of testosterone that overflowed with commercial bluster and was most likely an insult to those who suffered from the real-life event.  Midway is more of the same, an unintentional sequel of sorts that focusses on events post Pearl Harbour that led up to the battle of Midway.

Dick Best (don’t ask), the obligatory wise-cracking gum-chewing hero (played by Ed Skrein), leads us into battle. He’s the best Dick around. Yep, a real Top Gum (he doesn’t ever stop chewing), a chiselled jawed Wriggly’s advert who spouts machismos like “Let me put a 500-pound bomb right down their goddam smokestack”. Behind him all the way is, of course, his dutiful wife (Mandy Moore), Woody Harrelson’s silver wigged Admiral Nimitz and a supporting slew of military archetypes who head off to save the Pacific and the Free World. 

It’s writer Wes Tooke’s first crack at a feature film. It shows. His screenplay would make a Baz Luhrmann film feel wooden, with a robotic script that brims with needless exposition.  There is so much “tell and also show” going on, that Tooke has seemingly dropped his own 500-pound word bomb down the goddam smokestack of this film. Fool of a Tooke!

To be fair, this heaving special effects-laden extravaganza is everything you’d expect from a director such as Roland Emmerich. He’s the one responsible for patriotically gouging our brains out with Independence Day and White House Down among other “God Bless America” middle-of-the-road block-busters. Midway is all that and more, and you’d be fairly naive if you went in expecting anything else.  In fact, Emmerich’s bombastic eye-candy may indeed be the perfect foil for Tooke’s mechanical script—it’s almost admirable how the duo have achieved peak-brain-dead-commercial-crap. It’s a “himbo” of a film; handsome to look at but not much above deck.  Unfortunately, Midway treats it audience similarly.
 

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

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.