For Sama

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Hidden Life

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Verdict: A deeply moving Malick mood piece.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Midway

mwVerdict: An overblown and corny theme-park ride.

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

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

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

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

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

Just Mercy

jmVerdict: A conventional but engaging true story of judicial injustice.

True stories are never the easiest ones to tell. Beholden to a number of restrictions, among them that pesky thing called “the truth”, Just Mercy’s writer and director Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) appears to have cautiously tiptoed through this minefield with a very straight-laced retelling of the racially charged Johnny D McMillian case.

Set in Alabama’s deep south, Just Mercy tells the tale of Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a lawyer fresh from Harvard, who makes the unenviable decision to represent death-row prisoners. Stevenson has been (and continues to be) a strong advocate for American legal reform and social justice and his defence of McMillian (Jamie Foxx), which this film focuses on, is a damning statement on the American judiciary system.

The death penalty sentence dished out to McMillian built entirely on the back of a false testimony from Ralph Myers, (a convicted white felon seeking a reduced sentence—played by a wonderfully jittery Tim Blake Nelson) despite there being multiple black accounts to the contrary, lends this film a solid platform to make some pointed statements on race and justice. It’s a compelling story, made even more remarkable by Stevenson who has since exposed the staggering statistic that one in nine prisoners on death-row have since been exonerated.

However, as well-intended as this retelling is, it’s a film that might’ve been better served with a narrower focus. Just Mercy’s impact is unfortunately diluted by peripheral characters who seem to distract rather than solicit emotional buy-in to the Stevenson/McMillian relationship (Brie Larsen’s token white office-worker among them). Furthermore, Cretton appears to shy away from using artistic licence to sell the story, which is a shame because Just Mercy operates best in the fleeting moments where artistic embellishments surface.

But despite missed opportunities, what rises out of the carcass of conventionality are some impressive performances, in particular, Jordan whose measured take on a man with a heart pained by racial injustice elevates this film above the typical prestige drama template. While Just Mercy is conventional it certainly holds your attention.

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

Bombshell

bs1Verdict: Packs plenty of gun powder but doesn’t quite go off with a bang.

Director Jay Roach has gingerly tiptoed through the thorny but serious topic of sexual harassment in his latest film, the provocatively titled Bombshell. It’s a bold move for a director better known for the comedic contrivances of Austin Powers, but his latest certainly isn’t for laughs and plays out more like a politically explosive revenge film.

News anchor Gretchen Carlson (Kidman) kicks off a lawsuit against her boss (Fox Network bigwig Roger Ailes, played by a very slimy John Lithgow) for unfair demotion. The revelation that Ailes sexually harassed her is met with a ground-swell of cautious support, among them news anchor Megyn Kelly (Theron) and Kayla Pospisil (Robbie), that fast becomes a triple barrelled powder-keg of feminine rage planted deep within the bowels of Fox Network’s male-dominated ivory tower.

You’ll forgive Bombshell for the diversity drought—the Fox building, where this tale is predominantly set, is presented as a hotbed of white, conservative ambition. Cleverly, the sexual harassment case plays out to the backdrop of the Trump’s election campaign in which the film screams “see who you’ve let run the free world?!”. It’s fairly obvious where Bombshell’s political sentiments lie.

Unfortunately, Bombshell’s fever-pitched witch hunt does pay undue attention towards its more mechanical “cloak-and-dagger” plot points and timidly shies away from fully fleshing out its female characters. One notable scene in which a disconsolate Kayla (Robbie) weeps down the phone to her friend searching for reassurance, unfortunately, loses vital impact—well-acted, yes, but we just don’t know enough about her to care. As it stands we are held strangely at arm’s length which hints to screenwriter Charles Randolph’s (The Big Short) penchant for punchy political satire rather than deeply personal stories. Perhaps also a product of men telling women’s stories, but far be it from me to make that call.

Despite these grumbles Bombshell still offers engaging viewing thanks in part to Roach’s kinetic film-making but mostly due to the solid acting from the triumvirate of female A-listers who seem to get the most from Randolph’s pallid characterisations. It’s a well-intended film that enthusiastically nods towards the #metoo movement but never fully arrives at the point where feminine ambition intersects with moral fortitude.

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

My favourite eleven films of 2019

ok here goes…

11. The Irishman (not reviewed): Forget the negative rantings about Paquin’s role as Peggy Sheeran. Her physical performance and seven lines of dialogue succinctly (but crucially) encapsulates the entirely of Scorsese’s slow-burning investigation into Frank Sheeran’s life. The anti-aging digital effects aren’t quite up to snuff, but otherwise, this is a fine (but long … you’ll need to attach a catheter) film by a craftsman who’s still got the goods.
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10. Midsommer (review): In his follow up to last year’s harrowing and unsettling Hereditary, Ari Aster has extended his cold touch into the warm reaches of a Scandinavian summer. With a prowling camera that keeps the cast at arm’s length, he has employed a bright canvas and ironically daubed darker themes of grief and shame with striking results. Pugh’s skill, once again, proves why she is one of the most impressive actors working today, with a nuanced performance that masterfully distills the suffocating effects of anxiety.
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9. Destroyer (review): Directed like a pump-action shotgun by woman-power maestro Karyn Kusama, Destroyer flew quietly under the radar during awards season earlier this year. Shame, because this nihilistic slow-burn deserved a lot better. What begins as standard police procedural becomes a primal cry of motherhood as the story investigates how crime has stained a mother’s relationship with her daughter. Kusama knows how to tell a hard-boiled story to lens-cracking effect and hung enough of the film’s driving force on Nicole Kidman’s nail-hard central performance. The result? A Kidman masterclass at the hands of a woman-centric director in utter control of her craft. 
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8. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (review): The 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.
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7. Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse (review): Yes, Spidey just makes the cut with an early Jan 2019 NZ release. Drawing on its comic book roots, the same producers who brought us The Lego Movie have gone with an animation style that fizzes and crackles with explosive energy, creating the genuine feeling of a comic book leaping onto the screen. The banging soundtrack will have you buzzing and writer Phil Lord (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) brings a level of quick-witted irreverence and humour that manages to ground this preposterous tale. The result is an unconventional, vibrantly fresh and laugh-a-minute loving ode to the comics.  It’s really something special.
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6. Joker (review): Perhaps the most divisive film of the year, 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. Joker elevates itself from the pack, thanks in main to Phoenix’s remarkably embodied performance. I really, really, really liked this film.
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5. If Beale Street Could Talk (not reviewed): Barry Jenkins is one of the most important directors working today and if his Oscar-winning effort, Moonlight, wasn’t proof, then If Beale Street Could Talk certainly is. This film unapologetically meets America’s racist past head-on weaving into its fabric a mesmerising love story that is so heartfelt it made me sigh for days after. Jenkins brings black activist, James Baldwin’s novella into vivid focus with a softy trod diatribe (if there is such a thing) tempered by James Laxton’s breath-taking cinematography. It’s a symphony for the emotions and senses. Achingly beautiful and woozily sensual, If Beale Street Could Talk is essential viewing. 
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4. Apollo 11 (review): A marvel of technical filmmaking, exemplified most acutely with the launch scene—an undeniable high-point that cleverly ratchets tension through an orchestration of deft editing, stunning sound design and accompanied by Matt Morton’s spine-tingling score. It’s a mind-blowing experience that makes you sit back and simply gape in awe.
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3. Amazing Grace (review): If the technically dazzling Apollo 11, literally took you to the moon and back, then Amazing Grace metaphorically does the same with a cinematically enthralling and spiritually charged presentation of a titanic talent. If this film doesn’t move you then you might want to check your pulse.
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2. The Farewell (not reviewed): Perhaps the biggest (and most pleasant) surprise of the year. A poignant but ultimately heart-warming family drama, The Farewell broadsided me with bags of emotion and humour. Awkwafina is a revelation.
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1. Parasite (review): Korean director Bong Joon-ho has once again lanced the infected boil on the bum of society: inequality. Exhilarating and thrillingly portrayed, Parasite is elevated by Bong’s skill as a visual director as well as his dextrous use of satire to illuminate the more unsavoury side of class-politics. Pure brilliance.
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Righto, that’s me done. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year everyone!

Happy Ending

heVerdict: A lightweight but pleasant romantic comedy with a satisfying final kick.

Although Happy Ending’s prophetic title might give away how this Danish dramedy finishes, the ending mightn’t be quite what you’d expect. For a film that traverses the well-trod topic of a retired couple breakup, Happy Ending does its best to break with traditions before the final credits roll and what is predominantly a lightweight fluffy meringue of a film ends as something a little more thought-provoking.

Married couple Helle (Birthe Neumann) and Peter (Kurt Ravn) see retirement quite differently. Peter is a silver fox suffering (or blossoming, depending on how you look at it) from a late-life-crisis and unwilling to give up on his masculine agency. However, Helle sees retirement as a time to reconnect with an-all-but-absent husband previously consumed by his work. With opposing philosophies thrust upon them, their marriage begins to blow in the breeze as the two go down very different paths.

In her eighth feature Danish director Hella Joof (Shake It, Bitter Sweetheart) has taken the retired couple marriage breakup routine—something that has almost become a cliche—and updated it for the modern age. Joof is an experienced director; black, female and lives in a progressive Nordic country—plenty of reasons for her to have carte blanche on topics of feminism and race. Yet, despite a few pointed barbs Happy Ending is surprisingly reserved, opting instead to gloss over the gloomier and gender-weary battlegrounds of marriage.

Acting veterans Neumann and Ravn (who have previously worked together) provide a good amount of chemistry and run through an even-keeled screenplay that keeps the story predictable but pleasant. That is, until the film’s final stanza where things take a curious but satisfying turn.

Happy Ending isn’t a particularly demanding watch, nor will it crease you over with laughter, but it manages to push juuuust enough boundaries to keep things interesting. And the happy ending? Well, that depends on your definition of happiness.

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

The Good Liar

tglVerdict: A con trick flick with an ending that doesn’t stick.

Royalty of the British acting talent pool, namely Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Helen Mirren duke it out in a game of intrigue, skulduggery and lies … delivered with the best possible manners, of course. The Good Liar is an adaptation of Nicholas Searle’s novel of the same name, a story about old people lying to each other (a topic Searle no doubt garnered from his time spent working for the NZ Government).

McKellen plays Roy, an elderly man whose pleasant nature belies his shady past. He is a con-artist who prays on victims seduced by his seemingly harmless age and impeccable manners, but his latest victim, a money-flush widower named Betty (Mirren), proves to be a trickier prospect than he had first anticipated.

Director, Bill Condon, has worked with McKellen before (Mr. Holmes, Gods and Monsters), and with far better results than this misdirected disappointment. What begins as a promising con-artist tale built on two unlikely candidates unravels itself to reveal a disjointed, illogically told farce.

Screen-writer Jeffrey Hatcher (who also worked with Condon and McKellen on Mr. Holmes) has made a dog’s breakfast of his adaptation of Searle’s book. Good mysteries deliver their “big reveal” from a collection of lies and truths. To decipher fact from fiction is the game the audience must play. But when a film throws back the curtain on its mystery without allowing its audience the remotest chance of figuring it out, then there is a sense of cinematic betrayal going on. I can’t mention specifics without divulging spoilers, suffice to say that The Good Liar offers two key twists; The first delivered at such glacial speed, environmental scientists could’ve seen it coming. The second twist is such a head-scratcher that it requires a subsequent lengthy flashback (setup that should’ve come a lot earlier) to explain itself. Not quite an “it was all a bad dream” moment, but it feels like it. Shame, because The Good Liar starts out so well, but in the words of the good Sir Ian McKellen “You shall not pass!” Indeed, his movie doesn’t get one either.

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

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.