Spider-Man: No Way Home

Verdict: Conventional MCU fan service with some nice flourishes.

Occasionally, a new director offers a fresh perspective on the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) franchise (Taika Waititi’s humorous take on Thor, or Bob Persichetti’s brilliantly animated Into the Spider-verse). But when a vanilla director, such as Jon Watts in his third MCU outing, takes the helm you shouldn’t expect a reinvention of the wheel.

Having swung to the lofty heights of commercial success with his previous two Spidey flicks (Homecoming and Far From Home), Watts has, unsurprisingly, played it safe and repeated the dose. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. They weren’t bad films.

Following on from Far From Home, and with his secret identity as Spider-Man now exposed, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) turns to fellow Avenger, Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), to conjure a spell that will restore his secret. But in doing so, he cracks open the multiverse, letting through villains from other Spider-Man universes. Chaos follows as Parker and crew attempt to herd Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock, Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin and Jamie Foxx’s Electro back from whence they came.

As expected, there is a slew of less-than-engaging action sequences, but thankfully No Way Home also presents plenty of more-than-engaging characters to balance things out.

Holland is excellent as the webbed hero, providing the titular character with a youthful innocence and charm that wasn’t fully captured by previous Spideys, Andrew Garfield and Toby Maguire. Zendaya is also good with her reprisal of love interest MJ, and it’s in their moments together, along with their friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) where this film works best.

Where the story comes unstuck is in the convoluted set-up of its multiverse characters. Yes, the multiverse — a concept that has, so far, served to broaden MCU’s narrative scope (and cash haul) but also threatens to be its undoing. Space-time hullabaloo rarely works well in movies and No Way Home invests too much effort wrestling with this web of confusion.

I can already hear the MCU nerds decrying my lack of attention towards the intricacies of MCU lore. No Way Home is, after all, building on the labyrinthine, yet impressive, canon of MCU films and it certainly helps to have a good knowledge of them all. As a stand-alone film, though? No Way Home is a mixed bag of excellent whip-smart flair and average fan serving Spider-Meh.

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

Tick, Tick… Boom!

Verdict: A colourful tale of bohemian anguish.

The age-old mantra “write what you know” echoes throughout the work of musical maestro of stage and screen Lin-Manuel Miranda. Certainly, if his previous outings are anything to go by (Hamilton and more recently In the Heights), Miranda has built a deserved reputation as a vibrant teller of musical tales.

Surprisingly though, this is Miranda’s first feature film as director. And while he clearly knows a clarinet from an oboe, the finer details of directing is a different kind of instrument to play. Thankfully, the connection between Miranda’s creative prowess and this film’s musical subject comes to the screen with organic ease. This, along with the fizzy talents of Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man) and a solid supporting cast, Tick Tick Boom is a spirited journey through one man’s struggle to get his art on the stage.

Set in the nineties and based on the Broadway musical of the same name, Tick Tick Boom is an autobiographical adaptation of the late Jonathan Larson (Garfield). The film centres around his struggles to write the stage musical, Superbia, a work that would never eventuate as intended. Meanwhile, his dancer girlfriend Susan (Alexander Shipp) is cast to the margins as he frets over getting the work completed on time. A New York winter, sweaty shifts at the local diner, coats, scarfs, and the pained anguish of bohemian lower Manhattan provide the backdrop to the film’s many foot-tapping, colourful musical numbers.

As you might expect from a Miranda musical, peeling back the glossy layers of its well-choreographic set-pieces does reveal plenty of predictable tropes and cheesy dialogue. However, the film does a commendable job of disguising its many cliches, in part due to Garfield’s remarkably attuned performance, but mainly because of Miranda’s unflinching ability to distract his audience with kinetically charged and well-balanced storytelling. It’s unashamed heart-on-sleeve stuff and hard not to get swept away by it all.

Halfway through the film, Larson receives some advice from his agent: “Write what you know”. Indeed, it seems Larson, who sadly died in 1996, would have been pleased that the man to tell his story on screen heeded that mantra and appears to have a genuine passion for the subject.

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

The Power of the Dog

Verdict: A meticulously crafted masterpiece.

The rural drama that pits soft sensitivity against stoic masculinity is perhaps one of the more recognisable sub-genres to emerge from cinema’s woke age. Think Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, or more recently, Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country. Although the location is remote, it is the immediacy of their stories that resonate and certainly, The Power of the Dog will likely garner comparisons to such films.

However this isn’t solely another postmodern cowboy movie exploring male sexuality. Rather, Kiwi directing royalty, Jane Campion, has crafted a sinister slow-burn set in 1920s Montana that is (as the title suggests) as much about power as it is about masculinity.

Campion has corralled an impressive cast and crew to create a film that like her magnum opus, The Piano, is both outwardly beautiful and deeply multilayered and complex. At its centre is a committed performance from Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank, a caustic, controlling, yet charismatic cattle farmer. When his brother (Plemons) brings into their fold a widower, Rose (Dunst, equally impressive) and her son (Smit-McPhee) the pot boils over and secrets threaten to spill out. On the surface, this may sound like an innocuous tale of domestic squabbles, but Campion’s impeccably paced screenplay ratchets tension in all the right places as she begins to explore the oppressive side of masculinity.

Cinematographer Ari Vegner (Lady Macbeth) does a remarkable job of transforming New Zealand’s landscape (where this film was shot) into the Montana backdrop. It’s not New Zealand’s first rodeo at being the backdrop to an American western. Notably, the similarly paced Slow West (which also starred Smit-McPhee) was just as visually impressive. But here, Vegner’s slow brooding camera crawls over the rolling hills and skulks around the huge gothic mansion at its centre in a way that evokes Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. It’s spellbinding stuff.

Add to the visually sublime an intoxicating musical score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, and you have a sensory experience that demands big-screen treatment. Some might find Campion’s pace a little slow and her exposition too murky—she’s a film-maker not afraid to let her story rest on its ambiguities and trust her audience to interpret. Indeed, the more patient audience will discover a masterpiece shot among them there hills.

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

F9 (Fast & Furious 9)

Verdict: A slick but braindead popcorn pleaser.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past twenty years The Fast Saga (ten films in total, including a spin-off) has been loudly spinning its wheels by throwing subtlety to the wind in favour of bold accessible thrills. I’m hardly The Fast Saga’s target audience, but this action franchise doesn’t seem to care—and that’s something to admire.

Its latest instalment, F9, picks up where the previous film (The Fate of the Furious) left off and follows Dom (Vin Diesel, who shows as narrow an acting range as, well, Groot) as he comes to terms with a sibling rivalry that erupted soon after their father’s death. Dom’s brother (a slightly less Groot-ish John Cena) has gone rogue and is now mining super-hacker Cipher (Theron) for information on a weaponised plot device that, when boiled down, is nothing more just an excuse for Dom and his posse to drive fast and blow shit up.

It’s easy for a reviewer such as myself to dismiss F9 as a formulaic studio production built solely on a ton of inflated posturing, action set-pieces, and a plot that has as much cinematic nutrition as a bowl of processed chicken nuggets… and I’d be kinda right. But this isn’t trying to be a social realist art film and there is some technically impressive production wrangling on show here. F9 has a cohort of writers, a large and mixed pedigree of actors—from Oscar winners Helen Mirren and Charlize Theron (who cash in), to the aptly named rapper, Ludacris, and fellow muso Cardi B (who are probably also cashing in big)—and a gigantic post-production team, all who have been competently corralled by director Justin Lin. The Taiwanese-American director now has five Fast films under his bonnet and the ease at which the action flows from his camera is the product of a well-oiled machine.

Undoubtedly, The Fast Saga has become slicker with each chapter under Lin’s watch, and this is no exception. The increasing ridiculousness of each action set-piece and the healthy dollops of fourth-wall-breaking meta-comedy make F9 a serviceable ride and should please fans of the franchise. However, you get the feeling it might be time to park this series before the gas runs out.

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

Tom & Jerry

Verdict: For fans of slapstick only.

Those looking for a version of Tom & Jerry with substance might be a bit disappointed— it’s a lightweight flick that aims low. A cat and mouse slugging it out for almost two hours does wear a bit thin and this rendition, a glossy modern adaptation of the Hanna and Barbara original, disappointingly drapes a wafer-thin plot over the top of its action. The result is an Acme factory brimming with crash-bang-wallop but little else.

The opening sequence tracks an animated posse of hip-hopping pigeons down to a swanky New York hotel where most of the action takes place. Through dubious means Kayla (Chloë Grace-Moretz) has landed a gig as the hotel’s event manager. Meanwhile the squabbling Tom and Jerry are looking for a place to stay and the hotel seems like the perfect option. Digs and gigs collide when a high-profile wedding is booked at the same hotel and, unsurprisingly, chaos ensues. The plot, unashamedly used as a vehicle to transport the action from one location to the next, episodically rolls past like a conveyor belt as Grace-Moretz (Shadow in the Cloud) and Michael Peña (Ant-Man) wade their way through an awkwardly paced screenplay.

But hey, ultimately you’re at this film to see Tom and Jez duke it out with limb-stretching, mallet-toting, vengeful malice—and in these action sequences there is plenty to like. The animation style, which blends traditional animation with real-life action (à la Who Framed Roger Rabbit), brings heft to their tomfoolery and is something my seven-year-old cheezels’n’coke movie snacking self would’ve loved. Alas, I am not that boy anymore and despite Tom & Jerry’s old school roots, it doesn’t span the generational gap in the same way that better films (such as Paddington) do.

Sure, the slapstick antics will undoubtedly make for perfect school holiday fodder, but it commits the sin of dumbing things down way too much for its younger audience—they really are smarter than this film thinks they are. However, there is no denying that many will giggle their way through much of it… and I suppose that can’t be a bad thing.

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

From the Vine

Verdict: Very far from a full-bodied drop but still inoffensively quaffable.

Joe Pantoliano has been put out to pasture, quite literally, in this film about finding yourself in rural Italy. Pantoliano, who contorted our minds in Christopher Nolan’s Memento, double-crossed us in The Matrix, and ran with the mob in The Sopranos, is now making wine in the idyllic Italian town of Acerenza. Yep, Pantoliano’s career arc has a familiar ring to it; quality actor hits retirement age and is shoe-horned into a “twilight-years film”. Think Diane Keaton, Bill Nighy, and, well, pretty much the entire cast of Marigold Hotel. But there is something endearing about the “find yourself in retirement” flick that has struck a notable chord with its audience—so much that it’s pretty much become a genre in its own right and From the Vine has set down roots firmly at its centre.

Based on a Kenneth C. Cancellara’s book Finding Marco, the film tells the story of Marco Gentile, a high-flying executive from Toronto who abruptly ups-sticks and moves to Italy to tend to his late grandfather’s derelict vineyard. Spurred on by the nostalgia of his upbringing and the callous nature of his job, Marco’s late-life crisis hits fever pitch where, among the sun-dappled vines, he attempts to atone for the environmentally destructive nature of the company he once worked for by reviving the old vineyard.

With its locale centric plot and testing moral ramifications, I had hoped to be treated to some raw Italian neo-realism (I think some of the film’s marketing even suggests this). But From the Vine couldn’t be further from it, instead opting for an easily digestible feel-good vibe that unapologetically goes down like a bargain-priced red. The treacly cinematography shows off the rural Italian landscape with all the dreaminess of a travel brochure—perhaps not what we need in this non-tourist era, but it’s undeniably beautiful to look at.

Director Sean Cisterna, whose back-catalogue includes other syrupy sentimental films as Kiss and Cry, seems comfortably at home here. And despite never fully exploring its themes and containing more cliches than a cheap wine label, From the Vine does have its heart in the right place. It also provides the perfect chance for Pantoliano (who is easily the best thing about the film) to dip his toes into the acting-retirement-village pool. Come on in Joe, the water is tepid.

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

My favourite 11 films of 2020

Despite the rubbish year, there were still some crackers that hit our screens. Here are my top eleven …

Director Marielle Heller on set with Tom Hanks.

1. A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (not reviewed) – where do I start? Just go see it.

2. Rosie (review) – elegant and strikingly simple in its exposition, Rosie is an incredibly restrained film that hits all the right beats and leaves you with one of the more hauntingly powerful final images I’ve seen in cinema.

3. The Last Black Man in San Francisco (not reviewed) – a warm, yet wickedly satirical look at race, displacement and ownership. Beautiful, entertaining, and a fantastic sound-track.

4. Alone (not reviewed) – a taut edge-of-the-seat survival nail biter. Director, John Hyams takes a simple time-worn premise and reduces it to an almost primal level with pin-sharp film-making.

5. 1917 (not reviewed) – perhaps more of a technical exercise than anything else, but I found this film engrossing all-the-same. Worth seeing for Roger Deakins’ eyeball popping nighttime-flares-over-town sequence. True visual genius.

6. I’m Thinking of Ending Things (not reviewed) – Kaufman films are an acquired taste and this film’s inner monologues can occasionally feel like wading through molasses. Nonetheless, Kaufman’s intriguing characters linger in your mind, calling for a deep post-view reading. Doing so delivers a wonderfully rewarding experience and if nothing else it’s worth seeing for the brilliant Jessie Buckley.

7. The Lighthouse (review) – an unnerving and claustrophobic monochrome nightmare at sea. Robert Eggers’ formal brilliance along with two highly committed performances from Pattinson and Dafoe deliver a thrilling gothic vision of madness that may well be an oppressive experience, but is something to be admired.

8. A Hidden Life (review) – a deeply moving Terence Malick mood piece and a welcome return to form. A Hidden Life is a graceful and hauntingly beautiful symphony for the senses that is sympathetic to lives of moral fortitude lost in the white noise of history.

9. For Sama (review) – a powerful document of love and injustice and probably the most courageous documentary you’ll ever see.

10. Calm with Horses (not reviewed) – rural Irish gangsters abound in this surprisingly good thriller. Great performances from Cosmo Jarvis and Barry Keoghan.

11. The Australian Dream (not reviewed) – a powerful and challenging doco, that highlights the racial abuse of AFL player Adam Goodes. The film’s impeccable (if somewhat conventional) structure peels back the layers of his fascinating story to great effect.

A Son

Verdict: A quietly powerful triumph from a fresh voice in Arab cinema.

The idylls of a family holiday are transformed into a screaming nightmare in Tunisian writer/director Mehdi Barsaoui’s debut feature. His delicately crafted but intensely powerful film is as much a family drama as it is a high-pitched primal cry and wastes little time planting you smack-bang in the middle of this heart-rending tale.

Set in Tunisia, a married couple, Fares (Sami Bouajila) and Meriem (Najla Ben Abdallah) along with their eleven-year-old son are part-way through their holiday when they unwittingly stumble into an Islamic-terrorist ambush that leaves their eleven-year-old fighting for his life in hospital and in desperate need of a liver transplant. With time running out the couple desperately look for a donor, but their search leads them down moral cross-roads and uncovers dark secrets that threaten to derail both their marriage and their son’s life.

Belying his lack of experience as director, Barsaoui appears to be in total control of his craft and deftly weaves plenty of subtextual commentary into the fabric of this compelling drama. Most notably, patriarchy within an Arab-world context is explored as the couple’s progressive ideals lock horns with Tunisia’s “archaic” laws. It’s a touchy subject to breach, but Barsaoui skilfully juggles this along with a minefield of other issues with minimal fuss and a pin-sharp tone.

It’s a style that appears to be straight out of the Asghar Farhadi film-book (A Separation, Everybody Knows) and A Son’s wonderfully focussed form is similarly achieved utilising little in the way of flamboyant cinematic embellishments; the musical score is sparse but effective, the cinematography is understated but beautiful, and the screenplay never succumbs to needless histrionics. Barsaoui (who definitely seems to be a talent worth keeping an eye on) appears to know exactly how to use subtlety to his advantage, and is aided by two fantastic leads who offer solid performances. Bouajila, in particular, cuts the pained figure of a man desperately in search for where his loyalties lie. But Barsaoui’s evenhanded script is careful not to lose sight of Meriem, a strong female character, who stands to lose not only her son but a husband as well.

A Son is an exciting and understatedly complex debut from a fresh voice in Arab cinema and is a movie that deserves your attention.

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

I Am Woman

Verdict: A mildly entertaining biopic that hits a few flat notes.

At the beginning of I am Woman, a young fresh-faced Australian, Helen Reddy, exits a New York tube station past an advertisement depicting a young sixties house-wife smiling next to a bottle of tomato sauce with the words “Even I can open it”. Blink and you’ll miss it, but the brief shot is supposed to set the tone of the film. However, although the film is about a woman who’s titular song put a rocket under the women’s rights movement, I Am Woman is, disappointingly, not the feminist film you might imagine. Rather, it focusses on Helen Reddy’s career—a nut-and-bolts portrayal of the Aussi songstress. And if you want to see a film about Helen Reddy the diva, rather than Helen Reddy the feminist, then this is your film.

Portrayed as a mild-mannered but strong-willed woman, Tilda Cobham-Hervey (Hotel Mumbai) gives a determined, if somewhat patchy performance as the doe-eyed Aussie. Alone in the big smoke, a toddler in tow, and only a few dollars to her name, I Am Woman traces the professional arc of Reddy’s career and gives ample time to show off her many hits.

Evan Peters (American Animals) slithers into frame as Helen’s husband—a roguish coke-snorting talent-manager whose self-interest threatens their relationship. It’s a train-wreck you can see a mile off but provides the perfect spring-board for the film to explore Reddy’s relationship with woman’s rights. Or, at least it would have, had writer Emma Jensen‘s clunky screenplay taken the time to explore it with more vigour. It’s a shame, especially given Jensen’s superb feminist-slanted writing in the recent Mary Shelley biopic.

Despite these missteps, the film just manages to hold itself together thanks in part to high production values and some very well-considered cinematography. However, Reddy’s depiction as the flag-bearer of woman’s rights is sadly lost within this safe and formulaic biopic. I Am Woman is a serviceable and mildly entertaining film, yes, but it still feels like an opportunity missed.

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

This week’s releases…

Monsoon – starring the very charismatic Henry Golding, this sleepy and at times ponderous film opens up some interesting views on displacement, memory, and gay love but never explores them fully. Beautifully shot, but otherwise underwhelming.

Alone – a taut edge-of-the-seat survival nail biter. Director, John Hyams takes a simple, time worn, premise and reduces it to an almost primal level with pin sharp film-making. This could be my sleeper hit of the year.

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