War for the Planet of the Apes

poaContents don’t always match what is printed on the tin. War for the Planet of the Apes’ lengthy title (let’s just call it WPA) and marketing material suggest that you’re likely to be be subjected to two and a half hours of bloodshed, courtesy of a certain Wellington digital effects company.  But WPA is far more introspective than advertised. Sure, it’s not La La Land, but WPA has a lot less “war” in it than we’re led to believe. Critically, comparisons have been made with Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.  Famously, Ford Coppola reworked Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, by expressing its themes of colonialism, self-discovery and the meaninglessness of evil against the backdrop of the Vietnam war. In WPA the astute viewer will pick up on this comparison fairly quickly, but for those not familiar with Coppola’s film, a wall graffiti’d with “Ape-pocalypse Now” is plain for all to see.

WPA picks up where Dawn of the Planet of the Apes left off. Chief ape Caesar (voiced and motion-captured by Andy Serkis) certainly hasn’t lightened up since his last outing. He’s not the kind of chap you’d invite over to liven up a dinner party, but he wears his pouty face and moody Batman style voice for good reason — his wife and son have been killed by a sadistic human known only as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson). As Caesar and four other riders “head up river” to hunt down the rogue Colonel, they pick up a mute human girl (Amiah Miller) who provides the film with a welcome human counter-balance to the Colonel’s corruption.

WPA begins as a war film, then becomes a western borrowing heavily from the likes of True Grit, and then descends unabashedly into a POW escape caper. Yes, its a mosaic of different genres that somehow blend into a gripping whole.

What is extraordinary is a narrative which focusses on the ape’s world, with human considerations being ushered into the margins. The plausibility of ape protagonists who communicate predominantly in sign language, with the only significant humans being signifiers of evil, or relegated to speechless vessels, must’ve been a hard sell to the studio execs. But WPA presents its ambitions with total confidence and is bursting at the seams with plausible characters who are brought to life with perhaps the most stunningly believable digital effects to date. When the Colonel stares at Caesar and says “My God. Look at your eyes. Almost human”, it is as much a meta-comment on the incredible digital work as it is on human-simian relations.

Its many parts are curiously engaging and despite the misleading marketing, WPA culminates as a compelling block-buster option these school holidays.

You can see my published reviews here.

Long Way North

lwnLong Way North has finally made its long way south onto our screens. Having screened as part of last years NZIFF, its theatrical release brings about the welcome return of its low-fi animated appeal. The film is a co-production out of France and Denmark and is Rémi Chayé’s debut feature in the directors chair (or wherever directors plant their bum for an animated feature these days).  Chayé had previously worked as assistant director on the stunningly beautiful (and Oscar nominated) Secret of Kells.  By contrast, Long Way North dials things back … but in a good way that compliments this charming coming-of-age story.

It’s 1882 in St. Petersburg, and the Russian aristocracy is in full swing. When explorer Oloukine disappears after a mission to the North pole, the state puts up a million rubles for the discovery of his boat, the Davai. His granddaughter, Sacha (voiced by Christa Théret), is a strong willed 14-year-old girl who laments her loss but stumbles on evidence that suggests they’ve been looking in the wrong place. Her desperate pleas to send out another search are met with frustration, so Sacha decides to take things into her own hands. Fiercely independent, capable and readily equiped with her dogged determination, she ultimately convinces a group of sailors to help her on an intrepid quest to the polar north to find the Davai.

Sacha is an engaging character and an example of girl-power and focussed independence. Although the plot may be a tad lightweight for some, its lack of complexity only serves to shift focus to the film’s exceptional art style.  An interesting decision was made to abandon (for the most part) the drawn line in favour of simple blocks of colour. Its style is enhanced by well considered framing that wonderfully captures the mood and ambience of the film’s various locations, the result being a picture-book style that evokes art from the era (Chayé cited Russian realist painter Ilya Repin as an influence).

Not without some false steps, Long Way North contains a few forgivable historical inaccuracies and a slightly peculiar sound-track that feels at odds with the period (although to be fair, it suits Sacha’s inexorable progression north).  Nonetheless, Long Way North is a beautiful film and although subtitled, it certainly isn’t taxing. So take your kids … they may just appreciate the break from your standard Hollywood animated fare these school holidays.
 

You can see my published reviews here.

Chocolat

choccy“Your success is an insult to white people. Negroes must know their place.” — It’s a blunt statement from the film Chocolat, but a brutally honest account of the entrenched racism of nineteenth century France which acts as a warning to the viewer that Chocolat isn’t just about the whimsically joyful world of clowns from yesteryear.

Chocolat tells the true story of Rafael Padilla (played by Omar Sy from The Intouchables), a former slave who is employed by a small-time circus in provincial France.  The year is 1897 and his role as the wild eyed “cannibal” baring his teeth scares, delights, and indulges the audience’s prejudices of the time. But when he is discovered by George Footit (actor James Thierrée – grandson of Charlie Chaplin), a struggling clown in desperate need of upping his game, the comedy duo Chocolat and Footit is born. Soon after, the prestigious Parisian Nouveau Cirque gets wind of their act and sends them slap-sticking their way to fame and fortune.

As the saying goes, ignorance is bliss and Rafael appears unconcerned about the broader racial implications of a black man being physically abused for laughs.  The crowd is adoring and he is paid handsomely, even if his white partner, Footit, is paid more. However, during a short stint in jail he meets Victor, a black activist, who enlightens Rafael to the fact that he is only playing someone else’s whipping boy, rather than the artist he sees himself to be.

Meanwhile, the consummate professional, Footit appears to be more colour-blind than those around him, perhaps due to recognising similar struggles of bigotry. The film alludes to his homosexuality but is never explicit about it, suggesting that this film is as much about sexual identity as it is about race.

Nonetheless, the film wears its racial concerns boldly on its sleeve and forces us, the movie going audience, to observe another audience laugh and holler at the racist antics within the circus ring. However, it’s not long before you realise that you’re stifling a few laughs of your own at Chocolat and Footit’s down-right hilarious hijinks. The irony is palpable and you start to question whether you are complicit in your laughter, or whether it is testament to two very funny men whose performance transcends racial boundaries.

Roschdy Zem does an adequate job at directing this solid biopic, but its lavish production values just can’t match the two wonderfully charismatic and convincing performances of Sy and Thierrée. A film worth seeing for their performances alone.

You can see my published reviews here.

This Beautiful Fantastic

 

tbfWith the darkness of winter imminent and New Zealand gardens well into lock-down, it seems an odd time to release an optimistically colourful film about an English garden.  Perhaps it was a scheduling decision by the studio to make Lions supporters feel more at home.  However, all is not well in an English garden.

Written and directed by Simon Aboud, This Beautiful Fantastic is a light-hearted fable about two warring neighbours: Alfie, an obstinate old-man played by the wonderfully earthy Tom Wilkinson (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), and the other an obsessive-compulsive young woman named Bella played by Jessica Brown Findlay (Sybil Crawley in Downton Abbey). Bella’s “criminal neglect” of her back garden is met with Alfie’s ire when he snitches on her landlord. With a month to tidy up her garden, Bella must find some way of growing green fingers. Predictably, walls (both  metaphorical and literal) are broken down as the two learn to gain more understanding of each other.  Alfie’s cook, Vernon (Andrew Scott), acts as the conduit between the two to smooth over their relationship.  Meanwhile, the painfully adorable Billy (Jeremy Irvine) frequents the library where Bella works and waits in the wings to sweep her off her feet.

The film’s whimsically twee style is possibly something of an acquired taste that might be irksome to some but inspiring to others. Its form is reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie and offers a similar palette that is pleasing on the eyes. Cinematographer Mike Eley (who also shot My Cousin Rachel which is in current release) is given plenty of scope to play with colour and focus. Eley’s camera does a wonderful job of eliciting the film’s modus operandi as a modern day fairytale, and as the film’s title suggests, occasionally ventures into magical realism.

However, like most fairytales the damsel in distress remains a tad too passive and reactive and This Beautiful Fantastic does little to break out of this mould. Here, Bella seems a lost cause without the help of the men around her, and life lessons learnt through the use of garden metaphors seem at times a laboured attempt to disguise her lack of agency.  Nonetheless, This Beautiful Fantastic is an enjoyable, if predictable film of familiar faces, tropes, and environs. Its gentle and warm comedy will go some way to break down the cynics in the audience.

 

You can see the published review here.

The Mummy

tmmyIt looks like Universal Pictures want some of that lucrative franchise action. In the opening credits to The Mummy we are introduced to the “Dark Universe” logo — a series that is being spearheaded by The Mummy in what appears to be a new world of characters born out of classic horror; The Hunchback, Dr. Jekyll, Frankenstein, and Dracula, to name a few.  Although, if The Mummy is any indication, they’re going to make a monstrous mess of the whole lot.

In The Mummy we get Tom Cruise in all his blockbuster glory. From his quizzical expressions to his dramatic running style, everything here is so familiar, even down to the cookie-cutter template that this action blockbuster has been styled on. Cruise plays Nick Morton, a military recognisance scallywag who likes to steal antiquities and sell them on the black market.  One amorous night he steals a map from Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) which leads him (and her eventually) to the resting place of a 5000-year-old mummified Egyptian princess named Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella). Ahmanet was fairly miffed over a family spat back in the day … but I wont bore you with the details. Suffice to say that she comes back to life to set things straight and wreaks havoc over old Blighty.

Where do I start with what is wrong with The Mummy? Well, if you are sensitive to gender representation then you will most likely realise it contains a bunch of a negative stereotypes.  Ahmanet being the monstrous feminine seductress that toys with the male mind might’ve been an interesting angle to explore further, but instead we are dialled back to the old-fashioned conventions of a self-centred hero with his abject love interest in tow. And don’t get me started on the age gap between Cruise and Wallis.

But, at the end of the day the film is meant to be taken as a light hearted romp, so I’ll dispense with further heavy-handed complaints.  Even as a light hearted romp though, it’s still a disjointed mishmash. There are some nice set pieces but none of these coalesce into a coherent film. Character development is poor, leaving any vested interest in their cause waning.  Perhaps the most intriguing character is Dr. Henry Jekyll played by Russell Crowe.  The small glimpse of his struggle to contain the monstrous Mr. Hyde looked like a movie I’d want to see.  Or, if we’re lucky we might see Mr. Hyde run on for Crowe’s beloved South Sydney NRL side — certainly would be a more fun than The Mummy.  In the meantime, buckle your seat-belts, because this looks like only the first of many more monstrous turds flung our way.

You can see the published review here.

Adult Life Skills

“Am I still a twin if my twin is dead?” — a question posed by the protagonist of Rachel Tunnard’s debut feature, Adult Life Skills.  The question succinctly sums up the film’s central thesis into what makes us whole; specifically when someone we love so dearly feels like they are a part of our being.  Thankfully, such heavy questions are complimented with large dollops of humour, thanks to Tunnard’s witty script which is infused with as much playfulness as it is with existential insight.

Anna, played by Jodie Whittaker (Broadchurch), is struggling to come to terms with the death of her twin brother. Nearing thirty and withdrawing into her shell, Anna lives in her mum’s garden shed and contents herself with making humorous adventure videos using her thumbs as central characters. Her insular life is at odds with most people around her; her mother is constantly trying to push her out of the nest, and her best friend has a vivacious personality that bubbles and froths against the grain. The exception is Clint (Ozzy Myers), an eight-year-old whose mum is terminally ill. His character provides the metaphorical mirror in which Anna sees herself.

Tunnard’s screenplay manages the difficult task of balancing humour with domestic anguish and provides Jodie Whittaker with ample opportunity to show her acting chops … of which she has plenty. Cinematographer Bet Rourich has done a commendable job of visually contrasting a rich array of personalities against the wonderfully earthy and damp backdrop of northern England. It’s a contrast that provides the perfect visual companion to its sometimes touching and sometimes hilarious moments.

Adult Life Skills maintains its independent flavour but rescues itself from becoming excessively twee by drawing on allegories and metaphors that stop short of unnecessarily explaining themselves. Clint presents Anna with a conundrum, unaware that it perfectly illustrates her own life. Anna asks “So what’s the answer?” to which Clint responds “There isn’t one. It’s one of them questions, but you have to think about [it]”. The film leaves you with Clint’s vague response and moves on. As such, Adult Life Skills is a surprisingly deep film that endorses journeys and processes rather than destinations and answers.


You can see the published review here.
 

Wonder Woman

Diana (Gal Gadot) and Charlie (Ewen Bremner)The fact that I remain grumpily unsentimental towards the superhero genre I think is a good thing. If anything, it allows me to offer an unflinching opinion of the film on its own merits. And the merits of DC’s cinematic universe has been fairly uninspiring to date. I was genuinely hoping Wonder Woman might be the exception.

As a kid, I never read the comics, my only memory of Wonder Woman being Linda Carter on the old family black and white box waaaay back in the seventies. Well, this is quite the different beast. Wonder Woman is directed by Patty Jenkins who debuted with the similarly female centric (but different in every other way) Monster.  In that film Charlize Theron played the femme fatale who wielded power over men. It was a dark, gritty, brooding, brutal revenge film and in most respects everything Wonder Woman isn’t.  However, an investigation into the theme of feminine power (albeit corrupt in Monster) is present in both films and it’s a credit to Jenkins’ ability as director to handle common themes across two wildly different films.

In Wonder Woman, Diana is princess of the Amazons, a trained warrior, and destined to protect mankind from the misguided god of war, Ares.  After seeing a plane plunge into the waters of her homeland, Diana (played by Israeli, Gal Gadot) investigates and finds Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a WWI spy for the British cause.  His story of a world at war incites Diana to help end the bloodshed.

Part of the film’s appeal is Jenkins’ attempt to keep things simple and clean. Working with screen writer Allan Heinberg, the film explains the origins of Diana’s character, but unfortunately it doesn’t avoid getting bogged down in the semantics of law and mythology. Abandoning DC’s typically dark and grim style, we are presented with a more lighthearted take on a heroic story in a setting that feels relatively new to DC’s universe. However, the setting is at odds with its fanciful story and the film never feels grounded. A scantily clad woman running through the muddy trenches of war-torn Belgium brandishing a sword and shield borders on the silly (yes, even for a superhero film) and weak attempts at humour only go some way to relieving the absurdity of it all.

Lest we forget that Wonder Woman is still one of the many superhero films that are flooding the market — it is a genre that this decade will be cinematically defined by. I really wanted to report that Jenkins had escaped the gravitational pull of DC’s disappointing back-catalogue and headed into orbit with a superhero film that can be celebrated. I wanted to find an iconic film from the genre that we will fondly look back on in years to come. The search continues.

You can see the published review here.

The Shack

 

shackHaving sold over ten million copies, William P. Young’s best-selling novel, The Shack, has a reader fanbase that unsurprisingly, has now been tapped into by the movie industry. It is an interesting story of one man’s very personal journey through great loss, depression and redemption.  But does the film handle this story with the gravity it deserves?

Mack (Sam Worthington) and Nan Phillips (Radha Mitchell) have three children.  They are the quintessential all American mid-west God loving family; but when their youngest daughter is murdered, Mack spirals into depression. Then one day a mysterious note is delivered, inviting him to the place of his daughter’s death.  There he meets the personification of the Christian Holy Trinity (God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit).

For the most part God is played by Octavia Spencer (The Help, Hidden Figures), a homely African-American woman speaking soft social wisdoms as she bakes. Such representations of mystery incarnate have become a cliche since The Matrix presented the disarming Oracle (played by Gloria Foster).  Her motherly (rather than fatherly) portrayal might ruffle some feathers in the Christian fraternity, but given that her persona is someone Mack knows from earlier in his life, it seems that in this instance the personification of God is personal to Mack rather than a middle finger to theology.

At times Mack’s conversations with God raise more questions than they answer. Frustratingly, it had me wanting to dive through the screen and throttle Mack for not asking some obvious ones.  However, the film settles for a curiously satisfying Christian philosophy rather than a Bible-bashing theology. And, it’s important to note that one doesn’t have to be a Christian to understand and benefit from its message.

The very American setting eschews its international production which offers talent from around the globe — the only clue being Sam Worthington (Avatar). Try as he might, he still hasn’t nailed an American accent and his smokey voice sounded at times like he was auditioning for an Australian version of Batman. English director Stuart Hazeldine (Exam) plays it very safe and perhaps misses opportunities to explore the book’s darker themes. The resulting tone constantly errs on surreal beauty (a visual style reminiscent of Vincent Ward’s What Dreams May Come) and its lush backdrops have all the synthetic beauty of a stock wallpaper for an Apple device. So yes, it’s a little smarmy in parts, trite, and laden heavily with saccharin, but The Shack’s emotive qualities caught me off guard and the result was very affecting.  Certainly worth seeing if you’d like a good cry.

You can see the published review here.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

 

unspecified-1Nothing stirs me less than a film about King Arthur. In the current scape of entertainment the legend plants itself firmly within the fantasy fraternity of Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings and the like.  It’s a well trodden path that offers a bland and dreamy world of kings, wizards, and swords.  And the title “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” really doesn’t do the film any favours. On the flip-side nothing gets me more excited than a film by Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch).  He successfully breathed life into the Sherlock Holmes franchise with Robert Downey Jr. So, just maybe, Ritchie could do the same here with Charlie Hunnam who plays the titular Arthur.

I’ll dispense with the plot details as I’m sure most will know the broad strokes of the Arthurian tale. Suffice to say that the film begins with Arthur as a young boy, robbed of his birthright by his power-hungry uncle Vortigern (Jude Law). Cast adrift down the river Thames, Arthur is taken in at a brothel and is brought up the hard way on the dirty back streets of Londinium. It is at this point that Guy Ritchie’s signature style and visual swagger comes to the fore as we are treated to a superb montage that illustrates Arthur’s street-wise life from boyhood through to adulthood. It is a stunning piece of cinema and the visuals that accompany the intoxicating musical score are a pure joy to experience.

There are a few other tweaks (ok, a lot) along the way to accomodate Ritchie’s interpretation of the Arthurian legend. Merlin is replaced by a feisty young woman known only as The Mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), and there are a number of additions that come in the form of Arthur’s band of east-end geezers that lend the film a certain gritty Lock Stock quality;  Back Lack, Wet Stick, Goose-fat Bill, Flat-nose Mike and antagonist Mischief John all make up a vibrant spectrum of wisecracking gutter dwellers. Such characters go a long way to preventing the film from taking the Arthurian legend too seriously, lubricating a healthy dose of humour throughout.

Unfortunately the sum of all its excellent parts doesn’t quite make the film a coherent whole and it gets somewhat bogged down in the mechanics of the Arthurian story. Excalibur is held aloft (yes, any mention of the Arthurian sword must include the word “aloft”) and the film does the opposite. Shame, I would’ve simply enjoyed the telling of Arthur’s life on the street alone.

You can see the published review here.

The Case for Christ

 

tcfcMy reticence towards films that champion fundamental Christianity in contemporary society is that they tend to be preachy and often err on the side of sentimentality and over simplification.  I’m sure there are exceptions but I’ve yet to see any.  The Case for Christ, thankfully, is not one of those films … at least not entirely.

Directed by Jon Gunn (My Date with Drew) with a screenplay written by Brian Bird (Captive) and based on the autobiography of the same name by Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ tells the story of its author’s journey from atheism to a faith based belief in Christ.

It’s 1980 and Lee Strobel, played by a very moustachioed Mike Vogel (Cloverfield, The Help), is an award winning investigative journalist for the Chicago Tribune, and a devout atheist. After his wife Leslie (Erika Christensen) converts to Christianity (the fundamental type), Lee attempts to debunk her beliefs by undertaking an investigation into the crux of the religion — the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Meanwhile their marriage teeters on the brink of breakdown.

I have read Strobel’s best-selling book and as someone who examined faith through a similar lens I found his investigation a fascinating one. However, here the detailed arguments in the source material have been somewhat glossed over by Bird to allow for its packing down into a two hour film. The unfortunate (but perhaps unavoidable) result leaves its meaty arguments vague at best. However, it does allow the film to explore Lee’s relationship with Leslie. Unfortunately,  the depiction of Lee’s marriage as well as his investigation into Christianity presents two plot lines that feel disparate and neither appear fully realised. Furthermore, the film’s delivery is not without its fair share of mis-steps, cliches and awkward moments. Despite this, Vogel and Christensen do a convincing job of a married couple in torment, but its investigative concerns fall well short of contemporaries like Spotlight or Zodiac.

The Case for Christ does however prove a little more engrossing than most films of its denomination and raises some intriguing questions. One might posit that the more Strobel investigated the Christian world the more he succumbed to its rhetoric — a sort of Stockholm Syndrome for journalists. Or perhaps Strobel dug up some genuine truths. Thankfully, it focuses more on the story than the pulpit.

You can see the published review here.