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.

The Dead Don’t Die

tdddIt’s hardly surprising that Jim Jarmusch has finally made a zombie flick. It is a sub-genre that many filmmakers have dabbled in and Jarmusch is certainly not shy of turning his pensively paced films into genre movies (eg. Dead Man as a Western). Certainly, this isn’t his first film about the undead. Notably, he sent two love-struck vampires, Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, into a poetic haze in Only Lovers Left Alive. But where that film wallowed in its dreamy melancholic fervour, The Dead Don’t Die is a different beast, opting to reside in the comical and schlocky spirit of yesteryear’s zombie flicks. It’s kooky, mildly amusing … and unfortunately, a complete misfire.

Hosting a zombie hoard of Jarmusch regulars, this film’s rotting belly is bursting with talent. Police officers Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and Chloë Sevigny are the mainstays at the sleepy town of Centerville, while Tilda Swinton, Tom Waits, Steve Buscemi and others (too many to name) fill out the bit parts. It appears that Jarmusch gathered his regulars and asked them what their most typecast role might be—and boom, that’s your role. Swinton, for example, occupies the etherial witch-like samurai-sword wielding mortician (Doctor Strange, Suspiria, etc.), while Buscemi is yet another cap-wearing wise-cracking redneck (Fargo, Lean on Pete, etc.). So purposeful are the archetypes, it leaves little left to be interested in. I guess that might be Jarmusch’s point, as he painstakingly paints each character with a one-dimensional brush to highlight our insatiable appetite for cookie-cutter characterisation.

But because of this, I found myself caring less and less about the fate of anyone in the small town of Centerville. The fourth wall breaking and events that “go off script” smacked of desperation to solicit my attention. At times it did feel like a deeper subtext might’ve been at play beyond riffing on the usual zombies-equal-consumerism metaphor. When Adam Driver says “This isn’t gonna end well”, I think I know what he meant.

I love Jarmusch’s films, and I will be first in line at his next one. But this zom-com represents Jarmusch’s first genuine dud. The Dead Don’t Die is life Jim, but not as we know it.

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

Ride Like a Girl

RLaG1The Melbourne Cup is one of the more glamorous events on the world’s sporting calendar. A sport of small margins, jockeying specifically, requiring a delicate balance of weight management, knowledge, skill, and perhaps most importantly determination—something Michelle Payne, Melbourne Cup’s first female jockey winner, had in spades. However, prior to her win in 2015, she couldn’t seem to catch the eye of the male-dominated horse-racing fraternity. Considering it’s a job that seemingly suits gender parity (arguably even favouring a female’s slighter frame), it’s a travesty that female jockeys had been cast into the margins for so long.

Saddling up in her first feature as director, Rachel Griffiths tells Michelle’s true story of frustration and success. Since playing the tumultuous Rhonda Epinstalk in Muriel’s Wedding, Griffiths has had an exhaustive number of roles, suggesting directing to be the next logical step, and with Ride Like a Girl, the fledgling director has quite understandably held the reins rather tightly. The music swells at all the right moments, telling you how you should feel, and the dialogue is, well, safe. The result is a movie that hits you with a good dollop of feel-good vibes but occasionally feels a little by-the-numbers.

Teresa Palmer (Hacksaw Ridge) gives a dedicated performance as Michelle, and our very own grandad of cinema, Sam Neill, chips in with a solid turn as Michelle’s beleaguered father (he had ten children!). He even gives our 1982 winner, Kiwi, a mention and, yes, Phar Lap … no mention of pavlovas, though.

Despite some deficiencies (loose editing and questionable scripting), this is far from McLeods Daughter’s on horseback, with Griffiths exhibiting a few nice formal flourishes demonstrating her potential as director. Ride Like a Girl is a satisfying crowd-pleaser that does what it says on the tin and if you bridle your expectations before the cinema lights dim, you’ll be off and racing.

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


photogIndia’s movie industry isn’t really known for subtlety, Bollywood, in particular, has yet to come to grips with the “less is more” method of filmmaking. Thankfully, there are a number of Indian filmmakers who balk at Bollywood’s gaudy style, overuse of archetypes and cookie-cutter stories. Ritesh Batra is one of those directors, his breakout hit The Lunchbox (2013) wooing crowds with a bittersweet romance sensitively draped over a portrait of Mumbai city. However, in his latest feature, Photograph, Batra may have overcooked his response to Bollywood’s bombastic cliches by giving us a film so contemplative and agonisingly restrained that it will try your patience.

Set in Mumbai, this tale of forbidden love focusses on Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a struggling street photographer whose comically overbearing grandmother is pressuring him to get married. After taking a photo of Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), a painfully shy student, he convinces her to pose as his fiancée to appease his grandmother. Predictably, the two develop a romance that is met with the usual roadblocks of social status and other various pitfalls. It’s a somewhat gimmicky premise from which Batra (who also wrote the screenplay) builds his love story, but elevated by the couples very different backgrounds which gives Batra the opportunity to comment on India’s classism. However, Rafi and Miloni’s relationship is so painfully reserved and devoid of charisma it made me want to leap through the screen and slap some life into their doleful expressions. Photograph fast becomes an emotional desert, disengaging to a point where I felt, dare I say it … bored.

By contrast, this romantic yawn is a sensory delight. Cinematographers Tim Gillis and Ben Kutchins (Ozark) have pepped up this dreamy tale, capturing Mumbai’s rich textures and drizzling each well-considered frame with treacly golden hues that make the most of a Batra’s solid production design.

However, pretty as it is, the lush visuals can’t overcome Photograph’s impenetrable wall of wistfulness. Moreover, its final act is an abrupt misfire. Batra seems more concerned with showing us how his love story ends differently from others. That, or he simply ran out of ideas on how to finish.

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


Animals - Still 1
“God forbid our reality should ruin the big jazzy fantasy”…such are the many shrewd exclamations of Animals, a film that explores the existential optimism of two young women. It is everything you’d expect from a plucky Irish-Aussie co-production—a spirited, punchy tale that sparkles with a heady mix of confident youthful enthusiasm and dark sardonic humour.

A sassy wise-cracking American, Tyler (played by Alia Shawkat), and local wannabe writer, Laura (Holliday Grainger), are two heavy-drinking Dublin besties and the world is their oyster. Their effervescent friendship sniffs out poetic reckoning and drug-addled hedonism at every turn, but when Laura starts to question their lifestyle, cracks begin to appear in their friendship. Surrounding herself with an awkward mix of Dublin pub dwellers, artistic intelligentsia and her conventional family, Laura’s life is caught in the push-and-pull between partying, bohemian fervour, and traditional life choices. Imagine the relational messiness of A Date for Mad Mary meets the feminist smarts of Jane Campion’s Bright Star and you’ll get an idea of where Animals sits both tonally and topically.

Adapting the script from her own novel, and in her first feature, Emma Jane Unsworth has penned a screenplay that spits with sharp wit, adroitly balancing a love story with one of existential crisis and smothering friendship. The devil is in the detail and Unsworth seems to have plenty of devils to talk about, lacing her script with snappy repartee, which while plentiful, does occasionally border on being overbearing and suffers at the hands of its own cleverness. Nonetheless, Unsworth’s screenplay shows enough agility to suggest her’s is a talent worth keeping an eye on.

Her pairing with Sophie Hyde (52 Tuesdays), a director with clear feminist leanings, make Laura and Tyler’s relationship all the more potent with Laura defining herself as “blazing a new way through old traditions”. Yet, surprisingly the film doesn’t let feminism become a distraction, rather allowing the two women forge out their own destinies through a more conventional narrative arc. Ultimately, Animals is an admirable take on self-discovery and reminds us that change is inevitable.

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


jkWhat a luxury to have Joaquin Phoenix, an actor of such immense scope, to hang your film on. Especially when that film is about one of the most iconic (and dare I say it, celebrated) fictional villains in history. His turn as the Clown Prince of Crime will most likely draw comparisons to those who have gone before (Ledger, Nicholson, et al). But it needn’t. This film is a different beast and Phoenix occupies quite a different period in the Joker story.

Set within the bowels of Gotham City (stylised as an all-but-in-name early eighties New York City), Joker introduces Arthur Fleck; a heavily medicated clown-for-hire with a neurological compulsive laughing disorder. Living with his mother (Frances Conroy), with whom he spends evenings watching the Late Night show with Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), Arthur cuts a desperately lonely figure. Bullied, alienated, and fast becoming bitter towards the people around him, Arthur succumbs to his darker leanings.

It’s easy to forget that this is yet another film set within the DC universe. Instead of the usual bombastic bluster, 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. But, as absorbing as it is, the pained misunderstood anti-hero shtick does have a very familiar ring to it, with Fleck’s character clearly cribbing from roles such as Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle (De Niro providing yet further connective tissue). Even Phoenix’s role in last year’s You Were Never Really Here—as Joe, another sociopathic loner on whom we were encouraged to cast our sympathies—could easily be considered a “Fleck practice run”. Certainly, the similarities are there.

Joker’s director/co-writer Todd Phillips’ (The Hangover trilogy) pathos-filled characterisation of Fleck is considerably unsettling—a dark vision that walks a tenuous tightrope between empathy towards Fleck’s brokenness and revulsion at the Joker’s psychopathic tendencies. It’s a wobbly moral compass that occasionally leaves you unsure of who you should root for. Despite this, Joker still elevates itself from the pack, thanks in main to Phoenix’s remarkably embodied performance.

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