Lean on Pete

lopAcclaimed British writer/director Andrew Haigh has shifted focus from English domestic life in his much-lauded film 45 Years, to America’s north-west. His portrait of a rural America languishing in deep-seated economic woes isn’t a particularly flattering one, but it is a beautifully shot and incredibly powerful one.

Adapted from Willy Vlautin’s book of the same name, Lean on Pete centres on a soft natured but emotionally resilient teen named Charley (Charlie Plummer). While his dad is holed up in hospital, he meets by chance a race-horse trainer (Steve Buscemi) who runs the lower-level race circuits in Oregon. Bonding with a flagging racehorse who seems destined for the glue factory, Charlie decides to steal the horse across state. But far from the sentimental boy-and-his-horse tale you might expect, this road-journey (of sorts) is a desperately human tale that is more concerned with a boy’s need for belonging.

The film’s haunting score and fawning cinematography swoon over the American landscape, providing Haigh’s screenplay ample space and time to soak in Charley’s milieu. This is a masterclass of contemplative cinema; a slow-burn that encourages a strong sense of connection with Charley’s plight. It is sublimely moving, occasionally heartbreaking, and always engaging.

Haigh appears to have an eye for acting talent and his gamble to hang the whole film on Charlie Plummer’s performance has paid off.  Plummer (All the Money in the World) is an immense talent and repays Haigh’s trust by delivering the film its heart and soul. If you were mesmerised by New Zealand’s own Thomasin McKenzie’s nuanced and introspective performance in Leave No Trace, then you will find Plummer’s performance a perfect companion piece.

Working from his own screenplay, Haigh avoids cheap sentimentality and credits his audience with enough patience to dig beneath its gentle nature and root out meaning.  And dig you should, because beneath the surface is a film that will pack an emotional gut punch.

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


The Grinch

grinchIn a cinematic version of hanging your Christmas decorations out too early, The Grinch begs the question of why we need a Christmas story in November, let alone one from the well rinsed Dr. Seuss pantheon. But here we have it.

Directors Yarrow Cheney (The Secret Life of Pets) and Scott Mosier (Eddie’s Life Coach) have pieced together a feel-good film that puts a spotlight on Christmas cheer. Residents of the snowy town of Whoville have decided to turn up their Christmas festivities to eleven.  Enter that ol’ killjoy, the Grinch (Benedict Cumberbatch), to cast the shadow of his lowing brow upon the town’s unbridled optimism. We all know the Grinch’s drill; loner, outcast, grumpy, and Whoville’s seasonal exuberance proves to be one curly ribbon too many. He is, however, not quite the curmudgeon we’ve become accustomed to in previous films.  In fact, when he  complained of rampant consumerism I began to be sympathetic to his plight. His mission to steal the town’s joy (ie. their Christmas presents) sees him, along with his trusty dog Max, embarking on an evening of “righteous” thievery that has far-reaching consequences.

On the surface, the film offers plenty of plucky family entertainment. It has a noble message, and even takes the time to paint the Grinch’s backstory. Visually it’s full of lively action, the animation is snappy and the pallet is bright and attractive. However, Michael LeSieur’s (You Me and Dupree) pallid writing hasn’t done this film any favours. More should’ve been made of the talent on offer and despite Cumberbatch squeezing what he can from the bland screenplay, it remains a story that that lacks depth and wit.  

That said, there are a couple of highlights worth noting; Mr. Bricklebaum’s (Kenan Thompson) infectious enthusiasm delivers a few chuckles and the film’s vibrant visuals will no doubt delight the young’uns. But ultimately The Grinch feels like you’ve received one of those practical Christmas presents destined for the sock drawer; soft, dull and lacking in imaginative spark.  Bah humbug. 

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

Whitney: Blu-ray review

whitneyScottish writer/director Kevin Macdonald is perhaps best known for his chilling account of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland.  His latest outing, Whitney sees him return to his documentary roots painting a captivating tale of the troubled pop diva Whitney Houston. 

We all know how this story ends, and right from the outset Macdonald plays with the awkward push and pull of the demons that dogged her life. From her “don’t do drugs” sign, to a sad account of her dreams “Devil is always trying to get me … but he never gets me”, Whitney is a film that drips with irony. 

It’s an exhaustive examination of her life and career, spanning from her early years through to her death, pausing at times to take in a few of her key performances.  Her’s was a life that epitomised the thin facade of the eighties and nineties, and the film not only documents her inexorable pull towards drugs but also operates as a damming statement on the hollow optimism of the era. Macdonald illustrates this through striking montages of a nation brimming with the positive utopian fakery of big brands, sports stars, blonde hair and smiling white faces contrasted against the dark shames of war and race riots.

Whitney is a compelling documentary and attention given to its visual arrangement makes for an engaging watch. Macdonald has done a commendable job of harnessing the copious amount of archival footage, presenting a tapestry of overlapping imagery and footage that jumps around the screen, building on the film’s larger canvas. 

Rather than relying solely on archival footage, this very well sourced documentary is laced with anecdotal stories from friends and family who give an emotional account of the pop diva. The breadth of candid interviews is worth noting. From larger-than-life personalities such as Bobby Brown to her mum, brothers, industry confidants, friends and family, all flesh out the Whitney Houston story. Even Kevin Costner has a few words to say. 

The Blu-ray of Whitney offers little in the way of optional extras … none, in fact, save the obligatory English subtitles which are provided for the hearing impaired. The sound offers DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 format which is delivered with consistent channel separation; a feat that can’t have been easy to achieve considering the awkward blend of footage from different eras. The picture is 1080p widescreen 1.85:1 format but often resorts to pillarboxing in order to accomodate earlier archival footage. 

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

You Were Never Really Here

ywnrhSeven years ago Scottish director Lynne Ramsay ushered us, along with a very tired looking Tilda Swinton, into the disturbing world of Kevin. Among other themes, We Need to Talk About Kevin was a cold hard look at the warped mind of a killer. Ramsay’s damming statement on America’s weaponised culture was curiously (and perhaps more strikingly) made with the absence of guns. You Were Never Really Here is no different as it follows a “hired gun”, who plies his trade with a ball-peen hammer. Although one should know never to take a hammer to a gun fight, Joe who is played by a very beefy looking Joaquin Phoenix certainly knows how to swing one.

When a senator’s daughter, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) goes missing, Joe finds himself embroiled in a twisted ring of underage sex trafficking. Nina’s traumatic upbringing holds a mirror to Joe’s own, elevating his mission into a vigilante cause. 

Living with his frail mum, Joe keeps to himself and one of the film’s lighter moments humorously acknowledges his similarity to Psycho’s Norman Bates. Indeed, Ramsey’s psycho-dramatic take on crime does in many ways resemble a modern-day Hitchcock as she dives deep into Joe’s subconscious. 

Actually, the film owes a lot to its predecessors, markedly paying homage to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. But what it seems to furiously batter its long eyelashes at is Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. Those who were mesmerised by the latter’s intense, monosyllabic, and heavily stylised violence will find appeal here.

It’s a rich blend of brutal beauty cut to a hypnotising electronic score, all wonderfully balanced by Joaquin’s physical performance — it’s spellbinding stuff and Ramsay’s sensual style of story-telling is undeniably compelling.

Although the simple narrative suggests style over substance, Ramsay has laced this tale with ample subtext. Most notably it mercilessly swings a bag of bloody hammers at one of ​humanity’s most urgent sins, human trafficking. Thankfully, it doesn’t let you leave the cinema without a relieving sense of hope.

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

The Girl in the Spider’s Web

Claire Foy (Finalized)The antisocial hacker and ball-breaker Lisbeth Salander has finally made a return to the big screen in this adaptation of David Lagercrantz’s fourth book of the “Millenium” series. Departing from the brooding drama and gritty violence of Stieg Larsson’s first three stories, this tale instead heads down the more conventional Hollywood path.  Gone is the laser-focussed indictment of misogyny. Gone is the lucid paranoia or the slow-burning mystery. Here we have a middling spy-thriller that only loosely acknowledges its roots; I’m sure Larsson will be turning in his grave. Consistent though, are Lisbeth’s (played by the excellent Claire Foy) knack for kicking some serious ass and her penchant for a bit of heroic crusading and vengeance. Throw in a moral conscience, some family infighting, and a rogue piece of software on the loose (that allows a single user control of the world’s nukes … of course) and you have a bitchy blend of Bond, Bourne and Batman.

It’s all fairly conventional stuff; a very simple tale of fast cars (and bikes), preposterous motivations, a far-fetched use of tech, and disorienting action sequences all set to the backdrop of a forgettable soundtrack. Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez (Don’t Breath) does bring about some visually striking set-pieces that make full use of his horror background, but unfortunately, the collective whole feels too episodic.

What is refreshing, though, are the traditional gender roles which have been turned on their head. The chief power parts (on both sides of the ledger) are strong active women, with men being relegated to the margins. At one point the film even acknowledges the passivity of journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason) as just a pretty face.

Unfortunately, this renders the excellent cast, many of whom have impressive credentials, as woefully underused. Try as she might, Claire Foy’s commendable take on Lisbeth’s reckoning, or even Sylvia Hoeks’s (Blade Runner) chilling rendition as her sister can’t halt the inexorable pull of the film towards Hollywood’s formulaic juggernaut.

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


Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino has scaled back Argento’s 1977 original cult horror, making a more introspective version that plays out like a muted fever-dream. It’s a far cry from the original’s bombastic excess and plays on chilly haunts rather than abrasive scares.

Like the original, this relatively simple tale is set in a cold-war Berlin during the seventies. An urban coven of witches operate out of a famed dance academy, which not only acts as a perfect cover but also conveniently provides them with the necessary dance routines which feed directly into their rites and rituals. Tilda Swinton cuts a striking figure as the head of the coven, Madame Blanc.  But while she is visually chilling there is no single antagonist to pin your fears on.  Rather, it is the coven as a whole that provides a brooding sense of dread.  Especially when the doe-eyed dancer, Susie (Dakota Johnson), pirouettes headlong into their clutches.

The eagle-eyed will notice the gender-bending Swinton also playing a prosthetic laden Dr. Klempe. His investigative voice of reason provides the film its moral centre and themes of motherhood along with the guilt and shame of a post-war Germany are slathered on thick. However, Suspiria‘s deep metaphorical register feels at times a difficult nut to crack. It is a complex wolf’s tale cloaked in sheepskin and unfortunately, I found the desire to dig deep and ascribe meaning curiously lacking.   

There’s no denying, however, the impressive craft on display and Guadagnino paints plenty of unconventional yet visually striking imagery.  There are some disturbing yet remarkable flash-points of body horror which build on Suspiria‘s sinister and suffocating tone. One particular scene involving the bone-dislocating fate of a rebellious dancer is a standout that I won’t forget in a hurry.

Suspiria is an ambitious homage to the original but its enterprising style, unfortunately, becomes less compelling as the film wears on and its final throw, an operatic bloodbath, is disappointingly overwrought. Despite this, if you have the stomach for it, Suspiria is still well worth seeing.

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

Bohemian Rhapsody

bohrhapAs a tousle-haired bedroom-poster-hanging teen of the eighties and nineties, the news of Freddie Mercury’s death came to me as quite a shock. Love him or not, there is no denying Queen had an omnipresent quality that seared their sound on the musical psyche of the masses. So, a film that explores this phenomenon was always going to be a very personal journey for many.

Bohemian Rhapsody has suffered its fair share of setbacks with Directorial changes and the much-publicised departure of Sacha Baron Cohen as Mercury’s original casting, who left after creative differences. It is a troubled film that feels like it bears the weight of a troubled upbringing … but hey, that’s rock’n’roll for you.

Spanning the formation of the band in the early seventies to their famously celebrated performance at Live Aid in the eighties, the film covers a lot of ground … and avoids a lot as well. When Mercury states his desire to not be the poster boy for AIDS but instead to be remembered for his art, the film makes clear its stance. His sexuality, which clearly played a big part in his life, is never entirely explored and while it is not ignored, you get the feeling that complexities are tip-toed around rather than confronted head-on.

But before you think Cohen’s warts’n’all rendition might’ve been the better angle, the film’s conventional yet crowd-pleasing antics catch you off guard with a medley of well choreographed scenes. Rami Malek’s performance as the flamboyant troubadour is excellent and he superbly cuts a desperately lonely figure of Mercury offstage as well as captures his majestic energy onstage.

Bohemian Rhapsody will most likely split its audience into two camps. If you’re after a stirring account of Queen’s musical life then this one is for you.  However, if you’re after an authentic retelling of Mercury’s off-stage life then you’ll be let down.  Yes, it’s entertaining, even euphoric in parts, but as a deep dive into the rock icon’s life this biopic is disappointingly safe.

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

Brimstone & Glory

brimThose who remember the euphoric opening sequence to Beasts of the Southern Wild will immediately recognise similarities with Brimstone & Glory.  That is because both Beasts and Brimstone share the same brilliantly sense-inducing talents of producer/musician Ben Zeitlin, and although helmed by feature debutant, Viktor Jakovleski, Brimstone & Glory has certainly gleaned a lot from Zeitlin’s explosive input.

Coming in at a modest sixty-seven minutes long, this firecracker of a movie is appropriately punchy and zeroes in on the small(ish by Mexican standards) town of Tultepec, which once a year lights up to celebrate San Juan de Dios, the patron saint of fireworks.  But this is no “hang a lantern in the window dressing” kind of festival; instead, this is a brutally unforgiving two evenings of high octane pyrotechnics.  OSH has no place here.

The doco loosely follows the fortunes of Santi, a young boy whose family is entering a float into the “running of the bulls”.  The giant bull floats are paraded down the street on the second night and systematically ignited and blown up in all manner of ways. There is an element of machismo on show here as the pundits, who are mostly men, follow the pyro-fanatic faith like some sort of rite of passage.  But as much as the festival purports to be celebrating the 16th century Saint—who was credited with rushing into a burning hospital to rescue patients, escaping untouched by the flames (or so the story goes)—it really does seem more like an excuse to blow stuff up. Regardless, the heady mix of beauty and lunacy will have you giggling in amazement. 

The film keeps dialogue to a minimum (a bonus for subtitle averse film-goers), choosing instead to focus more on the fireworks.  The results offer some stunning visuals that capture the beauty of seemingly every individual spark (some of which were shot at an incredibly high 1500 fps), all perfectly wed to Zeitlin’s majestic score.  It’s utterly mesmerising, and although the narrative could’ve been stronger, Brimstone & Glory remains a triumph of sensory delights.

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

American Animals

aaposterHave you ever daydreamed how to engineer the perfect heist? Just a harmless fantasy for most, but American Animals considers what happens when such reverie flirts with reality. 

Pushing beyond the simple heist genre-flick that the trailer suggests, American Animals is a true story that examines the seemingly senseless motivation behind the desire to cross that criminal line.  Four promising young American college students decide to steal some rare and extremely valuable books from their university library. But the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry and this is no exception as the film traverses their comically flawed caper. It dives deep into the psyche behind the two main players, Warren (Evan Peters) and Spencer (Barry Keoghan), finding them restless and frustrated at the privileged life neatly laid out before them. But their efforts to disrupt their predetermined “entitlement” is met with far-reaching consequences.

As the title suggests, American Animals is less about the crime per-se and more a damming statement on the country’s disaffected youth. Riffing on the pseudo-documentary form, American Animals’ style owes a lot to recent films like I, Tonya and Compliance.  It is riddled with unreliable narrators who drive home the film’s thesis on relativism and personal truth. What is interesting here, are the interjections from the real-life people involved which are inter-spliced throughout.  The result is an intriguing and often moving insight into lives of regret and atonement. 

Writer/Director Bart Layton (The Imposter) has employed his documentarian background to great effect giving a heady blend of dynamic drama, humour and alluring fourth-wall breaking. The accuracy of how events actually played out are deliberately left open for conjecture—as the real Warren insists “you’ll just have to take my word for it”.  But one thing’s for sure; American Animals presents these lads’ “truth” as an intoxicating tale of dark humour and tragedy that proves to be an absorbing tale from start to finish.

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

Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist

WestwoodPunkIconActivistThis year has now produced two notable documentaries about British fashion designers. But where the recently released McQueen was a straight stare at a life that burnt bright, Westwood dials things back and is a more measured examination of a designer still working.

From the outset, the film makes it clear that Vivienne does not want to tell us her life story. In the film’s only vagary, it’s difficult to discern if she is apologetically embarrassed about boring us with her stories, or unapologetically annoyed about boring herself with them. What is abundantly clear though, is that Westwood is a straight shooter offering some Gordon Ramsey styled moments of non-minced vocabulary.  

The documentary dispenses with her upbringing, beginning instead in the seventies when Westwood was busy confronting society with the self-proclaimed invention of punk. It was when punk became fashionable, rather than a middle finger to the establishment it was supposed to be, that Westwood branched off and seriously honed her skill as a clothes designer.  Unsurprisingly, her punk sensibility (which is still in evidence today) raised the ire of the British fashion fraternity. Her label independently forged on nonetheless and even to this day, it’s rapid expansion clashes with her desire to maintain control of it. 

Westwood is a wonderful sensory experience and its fractured visual approach makes for an engaging experience. Fledgeling Director Lorna Tucker has done a commendable job of harnessing the copious amount of archival footage, presenting it in an imaginative way. A tapestry of overlapping imagery and footage jumps around the screen, building on the film’s larger canvas. 

Although visually rewarding, the documentary lacks the narrative bite to match Westwood’s iconoclastic persona. There are interesting flash-points of drama throughout, but as a whole, the film doesn’t have the punch of contemporaries such as McQueen—obviously, a lot more difficult when the subject of your doco is still alive and kicking.

Even so, Westwood is a worthwhile documentary that demonstrates how an outspoken provocateur, who is pointed in the right direction, can be an effective agent for positive change. And if the film teaches us one thing it is that the world needs punks, icons, and activists.

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