Crooked House

crookedhouseThat this murder mystery is pleasingly old-school only serves to bed in well with its source material. Agatha Christie’s sordid tales of murder and mayhem have long been a rich source of cinematic intrigue since the age of silent cinema, often with mixed results. But here, director Gilles Paquet-Brenner has done an admirable job with a conservative but well-considered adaptation of arguably Christie’s most twisted tale.

Set in the fifties, spy-turned-private-detective Charles Hayward (Max Irons) reluctantly takes a job from an old flame, Sophie (Stefanie Martini).  Her grandfather was murdered with a fatal barbiturate injection … or so it seems. The film’s cold palette and haunting score lend an appropriately ominous mood as Hayward, against his better judgement, visits the sprawling estate where Sophie’s aristocratic family live together in complete opulence.

The mansion’s labyrinthine layout is full of plausible suspects; among them, the bombastic matriarch Edith (Glenn Close), two problematic sons Philip (Julian Sands) and Roger (Christian McKay), a pretentious actress Magda (Gillian Anderson) and the late Mr. Leonides’ second wife and widow Brenda (Christina Hendricks) who stands to inherit it all.

The film plays out as you’d expect from a Christie story that’s been infused with screenwriter Julian Fellowes’ immutable clipped English period treatment. It is the kind of style he achieved with so much bravura in Gosford Park, but unfortunately this film never quite reaches the same lofty heights. 

The acting is typically heavy-handed with plenty of theatrical bluster, but far from being on-the-nose, Paquet-Brenner has worked Fellowes’ water-tight script with the kind of Directorial timing that’ll have you feeling like the solution is tantalisingly close—exactly what you want from a whodunnit.

Not without its faults, the film drags its heels in the middle stanza and the handsomely mild Max Irons lacks the charisma (ironically unlike his father, Jeremy) required of the role as the central sleuth. Nonetheless, Crooked House’s murderous riddle is mercifully accessible in its exposition, yet intriguingly clever, and its courageous ending will leave a bitter but satisfying taste.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald and NZME here.

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Mr. Stein Goes Online

MrSteinFrench writer/director Stéphane Robelin (All Together) appears to have developed a penchant for warm-palleted comedies; the kind of light-hearted crowd pleasers that go down well with dinner out and a glass of red.  On first impressions, his latest film—a comical French tale of seduction where old meets new—will have you brushing off your best bottle of Bourgogne Pinot Noir. 

French acting stalwart Pierre Richard (The Fugitives, A Chef in Love) lends his considerable talents to the titular role as Pierre Stein, an elderly widower pining for his late wife within the confines of his central Parisian home.  His slide into loneliness and depression is curbed by his daughter, who hires an internet tutor to help him get online.  His new tutor Alex (Yaniss Lespert), a naive doe-eyed lad, finds himself unwittingly complicit in Pierre’s experimental dabbling in dating sites.  Sure enough, Pierre falls for an attractive young woman, Flora (Fanny Valette), who is none-the-wiser of Pierre’s real age. Alex and Pierre end up comically in the deep-end as Alex is persuaded to physically stand in for Pierre’s organised rendezvouses.

As is common to many farcical comedies, the film plays up the disparity between old-age and technology, which is perhaps a little assumptive at times but nonetheless offers some rib-tickling comedy. The film’s strength lies in these moments of situational humour and the complex web of lies and misdemeanours that play out to some wonderfully awkward situations.  However, the film’s lack of attention to character’s other than Pierre and Alex, make this a very male-centric story.  In particular, Flora, who is so poorly drawn that the film begins to feel uncomfortably fetishistic.  

The result is a burgeoning romance that feels emotionally hollow and is further let down by its clumsy ending.  Shame, because the intriguing setup had so much promise. Mr. Stein Goes Online is still worth your night out, but I’d advise you leave the Bourgogne Pinot Noir at home.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald and NZME here.

Chappaquiddick

ChappaquiddickA very Marlon Brando-esque Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) takes the lead as the last surviving son of Joseph Kennedy’s flagging dynasty in this tale of political intrigue and moral soul-searching.  

Famously, Ted Kennedy, one of nine siblings, was being groomed to follow in the political footsteps of his successful brothers when misfortune, fitting of the accursed Kennedy family, struck.  Ted’s night of misadventure resulted in a car accident that claimed the life of a young campaign strategist, Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) and Chappaquiddick recounts the story of the ensuing political damage control, and the moral quandary that Ted found himself in.

Ted’s oppressively patriarchal father, Joseph (played by Bruce Dern with a ruthless dedication to the Kennedy name) operates as the film’s pseudo antagonist as it begins to explore father/son relationships. A sort of Vader/Skywalker dynamic develops as Ted is tempted to give in to his dark ambitions in order to feel accepted by his father, moreover have a successful political career. 

The moral impasse of political opportunity versus honest integrity comes to a head in the film’s final moments—does he come clean about what happened that fateful night, or spin a web of untruths? Those who remember Ted Kennedy’s nation-wide televised statement might not feel the tension of Chappaquiddick’s climax as much as the rest of us, but it should still make for an interesting exposé on what happened behind the public exterior.

The film tries hard to coax mood out of its audience. Director, John Curran’s (The Painted Veil) expressive framing laps up a very broody script—you can almost see the cogs turning, and the film’s manipulative machinations are perhaps a little too obvious in their ironic intent to mirror the Kennedy PR engine.  That said, Chappaquiddick does look delicious.  Cinematographer, Maryse Alberti (The Wrestler) has done a fine job of capturing the feel of the late sixties, colour grading the final product with the golden smokey haze of the time.

Despite leaving little space to flesh out Ted’s backstory, or to lament over Kopechne’s death, the film stays its course.  And far from feeling undercooked, Chappaquiddick’s laser like focus succinctly reveals a slice of American history that is quite enthralling and will make you feel glad you weren’t a Kennedy …  queue Shona Lang.

See my reviews for Witchdoctor here.

Kedi

kediMost have experienced the mesmerising quality of cats and their unique personalities. In his first feature-length film, Turkish director Ceyda Torun has created an urban wildlife documentary that gives a snapshot of a city’s fascination with its homeless feline population.

Kedi (Turkish for “cat”) is a charming film that traverses the urban landscape of Istanbul, telling stories of its large semi-domesticated cat population and the people who care for them.  The film operates loosely as a social anthropology doco and a portrait of mankind’s relationship with their feline counterparts. One thing’s for sure, LOL cats this isn’t.

Much of the footage is taken from the cats’ eye view, with Torun’s camera getting down and dirty among the nooks and crannies of Istanbul’s back streets. Torun uses drones, radio control cars, and hand-held cameras to evoke a pseudo guerrilla style of film-making that gets right in amongst the cats’ lives. Despite the film’s lo-fi attitude, it delivers some stunning cinematography and if cats aren’t your bag then the film still offers a wonderful look at the colourful street-life of Istanbul.

Throughout, various cat “owners” pontificate philosophies and life lessons learnt from their moggies. One says “A cat meowing at your feet, looking up at you is life smiling at you.”  It might be life smiling at you or just a hungry cat—either way, many cat owners will relate to the film’s sentiments.

At Kedi’s heart is a subtext that offers an insightful comparison with human homelessness.  Many of the film’s stories operate as a parable of the less fortunate and should remind many of us that we are only an adverse turn from similar circumstances.  As one “owner” ponders: “the troubles that street cats or other street animals face are not independent of the troubles that we all face.”

Despite this, Kedi remains a little too upbeat in its scope and seems to ignore the many realities of a city overrun (as some would consider) by cats. For some Kedi will be a fascinating look at a city’s homeless population, for others this will be a Gareth Morgan nightmare. 

See my Witchdoctor reviews here.

Avengers: Infinity War

avengersinfinityI’m unapologetically lukewarm about the superhero genre having long suffered the much-maligned superhero fatigue.  And while many fans will bemoan such critics and explain how the superhero genre differs little (in quantity) from other celebrated genres, I must highlight one notable difference; the dreaded word “universe”.  Attach that word to a large grouping of open-ended narrative arcs and it’s a recipe for trouble.

Rather than the episodic nature of other genres, the superhero genre has, for some reason, decided to create giant cross-pollinated mythologies of characters who share the same “universe”—every so often tying them up in one big tentpole movie.

Beholden to Marvel’s “universe” Avengers: Infinity War tries its hardest to corral its many denizens into narrative alignment. You can almost hear the cogs turning as each hero is conveyer-belted onto the screen and plugged back into the Marvel “universe” system.  Despite such difficulties, directors Joe and Anthony Russo have done an admirable job of wrangling it all together.

Understandably, the plot is fairly shallow in order to fit in the numerous heroes and villains. The infighting of previous Marvel films is largely forgotten as the Avengers are all forced to contend with a larger, outside threat: Thanos (Josh Brolin), an enormous, galaxy-trotting warlord who believes the universe would be better off if half of the population was exterminated. His genocidal plans depend on obtaining all six Infinity Stones, their combined power would allow him to reduce life in the universe by half with the literal snap of his fingers.

The action is predictable, with plenty of the usual punchsplosions, collapsing walls, and CGI overload that we’ve become accustomed to. But thankfully the fight sequences aren’t too long … there simply isn’t time for them.  Curiously, a by-product of accommodating an enormous cast seems to be the reduction of tedious fight sequences. However, character development also takes a back seat—a mere luxury squeezed as small as Antman’s undies (who ironically isn’t in this film).  What’s left, however, is Marvel’s intoxicatingly funny brand of humour which keeps pace with the film’s sheer kinetic momentum and culminates in a bold and risky ending (of which my lips are sealed).

Fair to say, I was not expecting much and had to muster all my super-reviewing powers of critical impartiality.  And although Avengers: Infinity War is far from perfect, the result was better than I had anticipated and should satisfy even lukewarm superhero fans.


See more of my NZME reviews here.

Last Flag Flying

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Director Richard Linklater is something of an enigma within the independent film fraternity. Although not new on the scene, the American auteur consistently eschews independent cinema’s insistence on reinventing the wheel and applies the philosophy that it is what you shoot, rather than how you shoot, that maketh the movie. He is in a sense, pushing boundaries by not doing so, and his latest film Last Flag Flying epitomises the old adage of less is more. Like his award-winning Boyhood, Linklater has taken complex relationships and layered them over a simple story using a crystal-clear cinematic vocabulary. No arty camera angles, overly contemplative takes or other undue focus on the mise-en-scène. Nope, Linklater’s vision here is uncluttered, transparent, and affecting.

Set in 2002, at the time of the war in Iraq (and the onset of cellphones, which the film amusingly pays homage to), the story centres around three Vietnam veterans. Larry (Steve Carrell), a widower, has recently lost his son in the Iraq war. The internment causes tension between Larry, who wants his son buried at home, and the state who’d “prefer” to have him buried as a war hero at Arlington Cemetery.  Alone and adrift in a sea of grief, he turns to his old war buddies, Sal (Bryan Cranston) and Richard (Laurence Fishburne).  The film becomes a road trip of sorts as they travel to collect the body, but it lends them time to reconnect and discover common bonds they still share despite their wildly different post-war paths. 

It is a heart-achingly tender film laced with moments of warmth and humour.  Linklater’s roomy directorial style gives all three actors ample space to spread their wings—Fishburne’s slightly stilted performance perhaps the film’s only let-down. And while Cranston’s charismatic bluster compensates, it is Carrell’s performance as a grieving father that resonates most. 

Last Flag Flying is a fine example of Directorial restraint and is a beacon among a self-indulgent film industry that appears to be losing its ability to tell an authentic story with simple grace. 

See more of my NZME reviews here.

 

Sweet Country

sweetcountry“What chance has this country got?” So asks Sam Neill in the Sweet Country’s final moments.  Such is the film’s central theme as it examines Australia’s sordid racial past and brings its concerns into the present with a film that is as tragic as it is strikingly beautiful.

Set in the Northern Territory frontier in the 1920s, Sweet Country tells the story of an aboriginal farm-hand, Sam Kelly.  Working for a kind-hearted farmer Fred Smith (Sam Neill), he is “lent” to a neighbouring farmer who is new to the area and in need of an extra hand. Unfortunately, the neighbourly gesture goes sour when the new farmer proves to be an unhinged war veteran and Sam finds himself unwittingly complicit in a provoked act of deadly violence. As the local authority, Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) and his posse, set about hunting Sam down, Sweet Country takes the opportunity to play cute with a few western genre tropes; however it never loses sight of its charged racial commentary.

Director and cinematographer Warwick Thornton (Samson & Delilah) confidently struts a visual approach that avoids the temptation to use an emotive musical score.  Stylistically informed by the likes of Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James) and John Maclean (Slow West), Thornton’s camera slowly, but intently, prowls the landscape with a quiet tension that heightens a sense of dread. Thornton has done a stunning job at capturing Australia’s picturesque outback and pitted its beauty against the ugliness of the denizens who run amok within.  Such is the fine line Thornton treads, that it is perhaps inevitable a few missteps have been made where aesthetics have obstructed narrative concerns; a minor quibble.

Down-under stalwarts Bryan Brown and Sam Neill are typically good, and although they provide the film’s star pulling power, the real heavy lifting is provided by its aboriginal cast, specifically Hamilton Morris who superbly encapsulates Sam Kelly’s heart-breaking anguish, fear and frustration.

Sweet Country provides little in the way of relief to its oppressive tone, but this cautionary tale is skilfully told with a brutal eloquence and should really be considered mandatory viewing. 
See more of my NZME reviews here.

Lost in Paris

 

lostinparisDominique Abel and Fiona Gordon team up once again, opening a kitbag of acting, writing and directing talents that can best be described as an “acquired taste”. Their films feel like an unwieldy blend of Mr Bean and Wes Anderson minus the comic timing or genius, and Lost in Paris is no different, with a gratuitously quirky style that renders it insufferably twee. Despite wanting to be, The Grand Budapest Hotel this is not.

Fiona (Gordon), a librarian in a sleepy Canadian town, receives a distress letter from her elderly Parisian aunt (played by the great Emmanuelle Riva … really, what were you thinking?!). Fearful of being carted off to a retirement village, Aunt Martha does a runner moments prior to Fiona arriving. Much hilarity ensues. New to Paris, Fiona stumbles upon Dom (Abel), a vagrant who falls in love and pursues her, endlessly. Much hilarity continues.  The two continue to look for Aunt Martha and stumble their way through Parisian streets, graveyards, the Eiffel Tower etc; more hilarity etc.

If you can detect a slight hint of sarcasm in my commentary, you’d be right—there is no hilarity to be had here, that is, unless your taste in humour sits within the bounds of the farcically banal. If that’s your bag then fair enough, you’ll be all over this film like a cheap suit. Because here, the inane gags line up like lemmings.

In the film’s most questionable scene, Dom’s predatory behaviour finally abates and they find common ground that leads to possibly the most unintentionally awkward sex scene in cinematic history (ok, perhaps Tommy Wiseau’s The Room takes that honour … but this is close).  The scene appears to want its audience to gush over its deft use of the filmic artifice, and giggle at its alluring charm.  Nope, not even close.

Try as I might to find some redeeming quality to Lost in Paris, a noble allegory or subtext perhaps, all I found was an impenetrable wall of whimsy too difficult to pierce. So I gave up the fight and just drifted along for the ride—that didn’t help either.
 
See more of my NZME reviews here.

Peter Rabbit

peterrabbitIn a modern-day take on Beatrix Potter’s beloved leporine tale of the same name, director Will Gluck has drummed up a warren of talent that would be the envy of any studio. James Cordon, Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Daisy Ridley and Elizabeth Debicki, among others, all chip in to flesh out this story about a cheeky (and very cute) anthropomorphised rabbit and his battle for a vegetable patch.

Confident to a fault, Peter (Cordon) observes Old Mr McGregor’s (Sam Neill) vegetable patch with envious eyes until his rebellious nature gets the better of him.  It doesn’t take long for the rascally rabbit to persuade his friends and siblings to join his march on foreign soil, but when Old Mr McGregor is replaced by the even more ruthless Thomas (Gleeson), the stakes are raised.  Add a love interest to the mix (the very affable Rose Byrne) and you have a complex cocktail of romance, ownership, and vengeance which becomes as cute and charming as it is volatile.

There’s plenty of slapstick action to keep the young ones giggling (and some good gags for the oldies as well) but the carrots are planted rather shallow here and any semblance of plot-depth cough and splutter with mixed results.  Quite charming in parts and yet annoyingly episodic, the film attempts addressing issues such as “ownership”—the vegetable patch providing the film with a weak allegory about “living together” and “sharing” to which recent contemporaries, such as the superb Paddington, handled with far more heart. Instead, Peter Rabbit becomes surprisingly spiteful in parts, to the point where you’re not too sure who you’re supposed to be rooting for and I suspect some of the young‘uns might find the film’s complex moral compass a little disorientating.

Peter Rabbit’s attempt to appeal to the widest possible audience is understandable when you consider the generational appeal of the source material. However, it can’t quite contain all it surveys and the result is a rollercoaster ride of good and bad, making the whole experience rather flat. Call me a vegetable patch fence-sitter but the dust is still settling on this one.
See more of my NZME reviews
 
See more of my NZME reviews here.

Mary Magdalene

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The history of the Christian church is one fraught with systemic fault-lines, brought about by a long line of fallible decision-makers pushing male-centric agendas of the age. One particular victim of the church’s patriarchal institutional flaws has been Mary Magdalene. In his latest movie, Director Garth Davis (Lion) has set about straightening some historical distortions of a woman who, only recently, has been recognised by the Catholic Church as an “Apostle to the Apostles”.

Most notably, the film does not depict Mary as a former prostitute—a tenuous claim introduced by Pope Gregory in 591, that Davis was keen to dispel. Instead, Davis’s Mary appears to be a corrective to many previous depictions, aided by the quiet potency of Rooney Mara who plays her. She is shown here to be a woman whose strength and agency becomes an affront to many men around her.

The film begins in Mary’s family home and recounts her journey from elopement to a life of discipleship. Following Jesus (played by a very measured Joaquin Phoenix) up to the time of his death and resurrection, she learns that some of his teachings may be at odds with the interpretations of the disciples around her.  In particular, Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who voices his discomfort at her understanding of selflessness and her brash claims that revolution and change comes from within, rather than, as another disciple declares, a physical revolution of “fire and blood”.

Mary Magdalene does not push the artifice of film in any groundbreaking direction, Davis opting to keep his sophomore outing aesthetically safe. However, this conservative approach only serves to highlight the film’s introspective calling, ensuring that one doesn’t get caught up in a sensory light-show, but rather, inwardly contemplate the gravity of what the film is revealing.  It seems appropriate, in this current age of feminine resurgence, that this film has been made and while Mary Magdalene might not be everyone’s cup of tea, it remains a thought-provoking and timely story.
  
See more of my NZME reviews here.