This week’s releases …

It Must Be Heaven – This gentle, quirky, and very plot-thin film follows Palestinian director and writer Elia Suleiman’s (who plays himself) as he travels from Palestine to Paris and then to New York. Synchronised Parisian police on electric unicycles, an angel on the run, and a bothersome sparrow, among other eccentricities all make up Suleiman’s peculiar brand of humour and whether this mould of comedy works for you is subjective. While the film’s absurdist charms did not work on me, It Must Be Heaven will most likely be the uplifting antidote to this year’s drudgery for many. And if nothing else it’s certainly beautiful to watch.

Sputnik – This Russian creature flick is a crawling slithering cliche, but that’s not to say it’s bad. Yes, it borrows liberally from the likes of Alien, The Thing, and Solaris, both in plot and creature design, but it’s still well put together and the production values are top-notch.

Amundsen – Unfortunately it bites off too much, cramming in the famed Norwegian’s complicated romantic life, the turbulent relationship with his brother, and his expeditions to both poles. Would’ve benefited from a more focussed examination of his life, but remains interesting viewing, nonetheless.

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

This week’s releases…

Hope Gap – A quiet and intimate film, Hope Gap explores the realities of marriage and what it means to age together. Bill Nighy and Annette Bening deliver reliably strong performances as a couple who face some cold truths about their relationship.

The Secret Garden – It may not have the emotional pull that you’d expect from a story about children undergoing the trauma of parental loss, but what it lacks in dramatic clout it makes up with the quality of its production. Although being cast with the acting talents of Colin Firth and Julie Walters, the film’s biggest star is its art department. Luscious set designs and exquisitely lit forested wallpapered hallways wonderfully flirt with magical realism and blur the lines between interior and exterior, fantasy and the real. The overall effect is one of total visual emersion.

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

Becky


What happens when a petulant teen unloads a rage-filled can of kick-ass on some baddies? Becky happens. That’s the kind of feel-good revenge-swagger that director’s Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion (Bushwick) want you to feel in their latest action-thriller. Unfortunately, aside from the occasional chunk of slasher thrills and a notable performance from its lead, Becky isn’t going to be the cult film they want it to be.

Kevin James (Paul Blart: Mall Cop) heads up a quartet of swastika tattooed prison escapees hell-bent on retrieving a mysterious key that will unlock their master plan (a macguffin that never fully reveals itself). Unfortunately for them, the key has fallen into the unsuspecting hands of thirteen-year-old Becky—a resourceful little viper who luckily is out of the house when the crims arrive. The film moves swiftly through the gears of sub-genres; hostage thriller, slasher, revenge, even a hint of body horror makes an eyeball-amputating appearance as Becky proceeds to go all Rambo on her assailants. There is an uneasy mix of Stallone and Macauley Culkin as she unloads a blood-curdling tirade of cobbled-together weapons made from household items. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t satisfying seeing neo-nazis get their comeuppance. Unfortunately, it should’ve been more so, as Kevin James is woefully miscast here. His many roles as the cuddly comic may have tarnished his chances to play a bad guy and I struggled to remove the mall-cop from the neo-nazi.

Becky does, however, contain plenty of nice formal flourishes with some clever cross-cuts that deliver flash-points of tension, but it unfortunately loses steam over the course of the film. Racial undertones are never fully explored and the script begins to show cracks. And while Lulu Wilson (Annabelle: Creation) brings plenty sass to her role as Becky, its not enough to rescue what is otherwise a run-of-the-mill gore-fest that will satisfy only fans of the genre.

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

This week’s releases …

Tenet – A Christopher Nolan brain-bender that incorporates his signature blockbusting clout and a heady blend of time, physics, and action. While this is far from Nolan’s best, it manages to carry you along with some astonishing set pieces. And if you can unshackle yourself from the mind-contorting plot, Tenet becomes quite an exhilarating two hours.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things – Director Charlie Kaufman appears to relish peering into the psyche of loners (Adaptation., Being John Malkovich etc.) often with alluring results. Captured from the novella by Iain Reid, I’m Thinking of Ending Things reveals the inner workings of a very private life and is dripping with Kaufman’s typically wordy style as he tells the story of Jake (Jesse Plemons) and the strained relationship with his girlfriend (played by Jessie Buckley). Indeed the film’s inner monologues can occasionally feel like wading through molasses, but the intriguing characters linger in your mind long after you’ve put the Netflix remote down, calling you to piece together the film’s many clues and ponder its allegories. As expected all is not what it seems and I’m Thinking of Ending Things begs 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.

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

This week’s releases

Here are some flicks I’ve seen that are due out in cinemas this week …

The Australian Dream – A powerful and challenging film that documents the racial abuse of AFL player Adam Goodes. The film brilliantly peels back the layers of his story as he stares straight down the barrel of the camera lens, implicating and provoking a reaction from its audience. A well-structured documentary that found me effortlessly floating in the invisibility of its filmmaking and thinking only of the man at its centre. Would make a great (but arduous) double-bill with Sweet Country.

The Quarry – A man on the run assumes a new identity in this searing slow burn that’s been left in the frying pan too long. It makes a reasonable attempt at exploring the theme of forgiveness, but it’s far too strained and elongated to effectively get the message through. Michael Shannon does what Shannon does best but Shea Whigham is painfully wooden.

Fatima – Based on true events this swooning period piece tells the story of three children and their miraculous visions of Mary that lead to unrest in their small Portuguese town. It’s patchy but honest story telling that longs for a Malickian touch but doesn’t quite get there.

New streaming titles…

Here are latest streaming capsule reviews from the good Witchdoctor. I give Lovecraft Country a favourable writeup after having seen the first episode. Gotta say I was slightly less enamoured with episode two which aired last night. I guess after such a great start the only way was going to be down. You can read the reviews here.

Irresistible

Verdict: Easy to resist.

Written and directed by American political commentator and satirist Jon Stewart (of The Daily Show fame) Irresistible, examines the crazy circus that is the US election system. It’s only Stewart’s second time in the director’s chair after his critically well-received debut, Rosewater. Unfortunately, lightning hasn’t struck twice, and what begins as a whip-smart political commentary descends into smugness and unapologetically spans a rather contrived narrative arc.

The film follows Democratic electioneering strategist, Gary (Steve Carell), who heads into small-town-America on a recruitment drive after seeing an inspirational speech from town-hall upstart Jack (played by Chris Cooper). Much to Gary’s glee, Jack’s rural brand of rhetoric is surprisingly sympathetic to the Democrat cause and Gary is eager to convince him to run for local Mayor, thereby giving the Democrats an unsuspecting voice deep inside the Republican camp… a Trojan Donkey, if you will.

It’s meaty political subject matter and something I would’ve expected Stewart, with his political savvy and witty repartee, to be all over a like Trump tanning booth. Yet, given the opportunities for satirical complexities, Irresistible is disappointingly plain. Carell is typically Carellesque in his humorous delivery, and the ever-reliable Chris Cooper competently negotiates some fairly straight-forward dialogue. But none of the film’s cast (Rose Byrne and MacKenzie Davis included) are stretched to anywhere near their talented boundaries, which speaks volumes to Stewart’s limited experience as director.

Yes, there are some highlights, most notably the film’s final subversive comment on financial involvement in the US election process, but digging beneath the film’s satirical surface reveals an unsavoury whiff of questionable virtues—from the creepy romantic undertones between the Gary and Jack’s daughter (who is half his age), to the tired city-slicker routine which comes across as condescending to small-town-America and whose inhabitants are depicted as simple but warm-hearted people. Shame, because despite Irresistible’s clumsy handling there is a well-meaning film that has some valid points to make on the financially warped US electoral system.

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

Rosie

Verdict: An enthralling Irish social realist drama that is painfully relevant here.

It wasn’t that long ago when heartbreaking stories of families living out the back of their cars hit the headlines in New Zealand. Although Rosie is set in Ireland, it’s a story that still picks at the raw nerve on New Zealand’s own housing problem. There are hints of Ken Loach’s or Mike Leigh’s kitchen sink dramas in this moving portrait of a working-class family who have fallen on desperately hard times. But you can replace the kitchen sink with a dash-board as this film focuses on a Dublin family who live out of their car.

Rosie, played with a focussed intensity by Sarah Greene (Normal People), finds herself living from hour to hour, juggling her four children’s needs while looking for a place to stay the night. There is a palpable sense of tension created through Paddy Breathnach’s taut directing as he captures the strain of a family’s good intentions and the situation thrust upon them. Working from a screenplay by writer Roddy Doyle (The Commitments), Breathnach’s pin-sharp drama is never manipulative or preachy, and gives a brutally honest account of their plight.

It’s not all doom and gloom, and like Loach’s Palme d’Or winning I, Daniel Blake, Rosie manages to capture little nuggets of hope and humour within the depths of the family’s desperate situation. But what sets this film apart is that it avoids the tropes common to many stories about poverty. Nowhere is there substance or physical abuse, or mental health issues. Rather, it focuses on the systemic poverty that they fall victim to. In one scene Rosie says that her family are “not homeless, just lost. We have lost our keys.” Her heartbreaking words echo the film’s thesis on dignity and goes a long way in highlighting the negative stigma that poverty often attracts.

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.

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

The Trip to Greece

Ah it’s good to be back. Here’s my first review for the NZ Herald since lockdown began. The Trip to Greece:

Verdict: Worth the trip despite having been there and seen that.

Early in The Trip to Greece, Rob Brydon fittingly quotes Aristotle on the virtues of imitation. Although the birthplace of classical western narratives might be a perfect setting for such quotes, it also serves to shield this film against critical flak for doing just that; imitating itself. The critics have a point, The Trip to Greece is fairly much identical to the previous three outings (set in England, Italy, and Spain). But for good reason. The formula works.

A travelogue of sorts, Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan (who play fictionalised version of themselves) saunter from tourist site to restaurant, back to tourist site, while comically casting out quick witticisms and well-read eloquent prose about their surroundings. It’s all rather idyllic and you do wonder at times if it is going anywhere beyond their conversations and observations. The plot, such that it is, is fairly scant and the thinnest of the four Trip movies. But you don’t go to see a movie like this for the plot.

The self-aware Brydon and Coogan know how to laugh at themselves and tease each other about their skewed level of success, occasionally flirting with serious topics such as their own mortality. The result is an insightfully funny and sometimes thought provoking look at their lives. However, if you’ve seen any of the previous Trip films and found their impersonations and pedantic squabbling to be annoying, then this movie won’t convert you.

Michael Winterbottom (A Mighty Heart), who has directed all four Trip movies, injects very little directorial flavour and settles, once again, on an observational approach, letting his two muses verbally run amock with what appears to be a loose script and plenty of ad-libbing. A surprisingly melancholic score does occasionally threaten to steer the film into more serious territory, and Coogan, who is perhaps more sombre than previous, looks to be the man to do it. But no. Brydon, Coogan, and Winterbottom appear to know what side their toast is buttered. Imitation is sometimes strangely comforting.

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

Streaming, streaming, streaming…

From Spike Jonze’s fascinating doco, Beastie Boys Story (pictured above), to Netfilx’s not so good White Lines (described by Gary Steel as “vapid”), and others make up the Witchdoctor’s latest round of streaming reviews here.

Here’s my bit on BBS…

Despite hitting the big time during my impressionable years, Beastie Boys were never my bag—a novelty act, sexist, brash, and, well, shit. But after watching Beastie Boys Story I might have to swallow my words. The two remaining members, Mike Diamond and Adam Horovitz (Adam Yauch died of cancer in 2012) stand in front of a live audience and tell their tale with the aid of a teleprompter, a few props and a giant video screen in the background. If you’ve ever seen an Apple live event, then you’ll recognise the similar setup (curiously, this is also an AppleTV+ release). But this is way more than a “woohoo” Tim Cook event. Long time video collaborator Spike Jones helms this film and injects plenty of his unique flavour, spicing up what is already a fascinating story. But what makes this documentary special is how Diamond and Horovitz reflect on their journey, touching on topics of shame, regret, passion and friendship. As anyone will tell you, a good music doco will have you Googling the act and streaming their music after. Hell, this doco is so good it’s got me trawling the stores for some Beastie vinyl.