Booksmart

booksActress and activist, Olivia Wilde, has kicked off her feature directing career with a trailblazing teen comedy that belies her inexperience as a film-maker.  Helped by a stable of female-centric writing talent (including Susanna Fogel: The Spy Who Dumped Me), Booksmart is a production that places young women stories front-and-centre without needlessly drawing undue attention to a “look at me, look at me” political agenda. Rather, it quietly acknowledges the gender-correctives that’ve recently hit the headlines and moves on with a normalising modern-day coming-of-age tale. Despite its many genre cliches Booksmart still feels fresh and honest thanks to Wilde’s inventive direction.

Wilde recently described her film as “the Training Day of high school movies.”—an odd comparison, although parallels can be drawn within Booksmart‘s darker recesses. More-so, Booksmart appears to sit somewhere between the goofy style of Superbad and the feminist smarts of Lady Bird.

Kaitlyn Dever (Short Term 12) and Beanie Feldstein (Lady Bird) play two high-achieving students, Amy and Molly, in their final year of high-school. Putting their social lives on hold in order to get into top Universities, the pair are disgruntled to learn that their hard-partying counterparts have also been accepted into similar institutions. Not ones to miss out on a teenager’s rite-of-passage, they head off to make up for lost time at the end of year party.

It’s not a particularly taxing plot, but what it lacks in brain-stretching complexities it counters with a quick-witted staccato styled humour, some richly fleshed-out characters that are a delight to be around and two leads that radiate an immense amount of chemistry.  Amy and Molly crackle and pop with enthusiasm as their giddy level of geeky charisma invites us to plumb the depths of their fomo and then be buoyed by their comical naivety. 

Add a menagerie of vibrant characters (including an amusing turn from Wilde’s husband, Jason Sudeikis), along with some very dexterous writing and Wilde’s whip-smart direction and you have a hilarious teen comedy that’s infectiously charming. Well worth getting a hall pass for.

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

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Rory’s Way

The Etruscan Smile
Po Valley Productions Ltd 
041916.The giant acting talent of Brian Cox (Churchill) tackles the role of a cantankerous old Scotsman, Rory, who is forced from his peaty shores across the pond to seek medical treatment in San Francisco. A preference for rough-hewn edges rather than America’s modern clean lines, Rory also uses the trip to begrudgingly reconnect with his son Ian, after a fifteen-year absence. Ian is a chemist-come-chef whose Heston Blumenthal styled ultra-modern gastronomic creations wow patrons with their smokey bluster and gelatinous wonder—a far cry from Rory’s preference for black pudding and two veg. Unsurprisingly, the two don’t see eye to eye.

The film riffs on the rural-foreigner-visits-big-city-America schtick—a tired routine that threatens to turn this film into Crocodile Dundee for old Scottish folk. Thankfully it doesn’t go quite that far, and broader themes that compare the quaint with the modern fall away in favour of a standard father-son tale. Of course, a crowdpleaser of this nature wouldn’t be complete without some light romance with the much younger looking (sigh) Rosanna Arquette. Suffice to say that Rory’s Way doesn’t break much fresh ground and appears to be content with running a by-the-numbers routine that snuggles up to a very risk-free screenplay and a comfy score drumming to the bland beat of “mediocre”. It’s disappointingly formulaic and something I don’t normally go for. Yet, it is also undeniably a likeable crowdpleaser providing just enough silky-smooth pleasantries to gently usher your brain towards its predictable ending.

Feature debutants, directors Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis, have clearly played things safe, which unfortunately deals a stifling blow to Cox’s immense talent. Also worth noting is that JJ Feild (Austenland) who plays Ian, cuts an uncanny similarity to Tom Hiddleston (with a hint of a young Gabriel Byrne). But his lack of the same screen presence as the aforementioned fittingly reflects a film that seems to care more about image than substance, and like Ian’s molecular gastronomy, Rory’s Way feels synthetically manufactured for easy digestion.

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

Camino Skies

csThe Irish poet David Whyte once penned “abandon the shoes that had brought you here right at the water’s edge, not because you had given up but because now, you would find a different way to tread”. He was referring to the Camino de Santiago, an 800km walk that finishes at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. The long trek acts as a spiritual journey for hundreds of thousands of pilgrims a year, and while Whyte’s poem so eloquently expounds upon his niece’s journey through the fabled Spanish hinterland, this documentary focusses on people from our own back-yard.

Enter Mark, Julie, Cheryl, Susan and Terry; an average bunch of Kiwis and Aussies, each with their own cross to bear.  Fledgling documentarians Noel Smyth and Fergus Grady do an admirable job of slowly unfolding the group’s very personal backstories, and what begins as a lightweight skip through the daisies becomes a heart-felt expression of loss, grief and acceptance.  Most notably Smyth and Grady (who seem to belie the age gap between themselves and their more aged subjects) have avoided making a Spanish tourism flick—a temptation given the stunning scenery the group cover. Rather, the debut film-makers cast a more introspective gaze on the group, exploring their reasons for committing to what is ultimately an arduous task.  

Parts of the journey provide almost self-flagellation levels of physical hardship. In particular, Susan, an “I can do it, I can do it” eighty-year-old from Western Australia whose dogged determination is met head-on by severe arthritis and the emotional pain of a recently ended marriage. But perhaps the most poignant story is that of Julie, with her heartbreaking account of multiple deaths within her family which will leave even the most stoic film-goer in tears.

Some will consider Camino Skies to be little more than a collection of meandering stories set to the backdrop of a long walk, and its lightweight style to be lacking the caustic drama of its contemporaries. However, I found this stripped back production to be a work of compassion and maturity from a couple of young film-makers.

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

Girl

girlIn his first feature, Belgian writer/director Lukas Dhont has tightly packed a cinematic masterpiece into a topical powder keg. It’s little wonder that a production about a transgender ballerina has courted so much controversy; the pitfalls of which were well documented by Dhont’s well-meaning, but perhaps naive blind-casting of its lead role, Lara. In the end, he settled on a cis male actor, Victor Polster, to play a teenage girl who was born a male, much to the chagrin of the trans-community who felt it more appropriate that Lara be played by a transgender actor at the very least. There are valid points on both sides of the ledger, and notwithstanding further controversies, it’s a wonder that this hot potato of a film ever got off the ground. I’m glad it did.

The film gives a brutally honest account of Lara. Her induction into a prestigious Belgian ballet academy is fraught with difficulties surrounding her hormone treatment, the impeding sex-change procedure and the impact this has on her ability to dance. Polster’s tender portrayal of Lara belies his lack of acting experience, as he captures a teenager’s quiet fragility and petulant defiance with breath-taking skill. Dhont’s camera, which keeps Polster’s spell-binding performance centre of the frame, unapologetically explores Lara’s loneliness, highlighting the bond she has between her body and her emotional well-being.

Certainly, this cis male reviewer wouldn’t begin to cast assumptions on what it’s like to be transgender. However, Girl harnesses one of cinema’s great commissions, offering a direct channel (seemingly, at least) into the life of a transgendered person with whom I could connect.

Straight out of the Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) school of aesthetics, Girl embraces a sensual harmony of movement and sound—its vérité style lending the film a lived-in quality that makes Lara’s story feel so very authentic. Girl may not be to everyones liking, but I found it an uplifting triumph and an astonishing statement on the human spirit.

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

Lost & Found

lafWriter, director, star and chief financier Liam O Mochain crafts a collection of sketches about life in and around an Irish train station. Although billed as a comedy, Lost & Found is very light on laughs, rather this is more an observational film that expounds on the tall-tales you’d expect to overhear at the local pub. No surprise then, that O Mochain’s anecdotal ephemera were indeed inspired by true stories; among them are wedding proposal antics, a Publican’s opening night anguish, a treasure hunting son, funeral wakes, and of course the lost property desk clerk, David (O Mochain), around whom the film loosely centres.

Lost & Found may very well be the product of O Mochain’s keen ear at the local watering hole, but his skill as a story-teller suggests this to be a work of beer-mat scribblings stitched together by the local village quilting club. And as the patchwork vignettes roll out, some of which work better than others, there is a distinct lack of cohesion that hints strongly at the film’s laboured five year production cycle.

The narrative structure consists of a tableau of seven overlapping chapters, each one highlighting a character within the station’s milieu. Characters alluded to in early chapters are subsequently fleshed out, turning up later at unexpected junctures. This serves to deliver a kind of cathartic reveal—a pleasant distraction from the film’s piecemeal delivery, and as individuals duck and dive in and out of each other’s lives Lost & Found feels like it is building up to something big. Unfortunately it doesn’t, and remains a meandering potpourri of lightweight stories that don’t appear to amount to much.

Far be it for me to be mean-spirited over a film that is clearly a labour of love beset by an elongated production cycle and next to no budget—it certainly can’t be easy, and despite Lost & Found’s many faults, it does have some highlights. Go in will low expectations and you might be pleasantly charmed by the film’s more observational qualities, but beyond that the only thing you’ll find charming is the Irish accents.

 

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

Parasite

paraKorean director Bong Joon-ho has once again lanced the infected boil on the bum of society: inequality. Those who saw his sci-fi action-thriller Snowpiercer (which cut a strikingly violent image of a class system gone awry) will know he isn’t a stranger to the topic. While far less abrasive, Bong’s latest, this year’s Palme d’Or winning Parasite, is no less pointed. Rather, this time he gives us the same critical castigation cloaked in the tranquility of a present-day urban setting. 

Bong brings an uneasy mix of dark comedy and caustic ideas to his story about a family of four who wrestle with poverty, greed and dignity. Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi), a street-wise teenager, lives with his family within the bowels of the city’s “lower class”, wallowing (literally at times) in the filth, vomit and excrement that seemingly pools on their doorstep.  But fortune (and a bit of creative forgery) lands Ki-woo a job uptown at the wealthy Park family residence. As he ingratiates himself into the family’s trust he manages to engineer (again, via deceitful means) jobs within the household for the rest of his own family to occupy. 

The aptly titled Parasite is indeed a double-entendre that perfectly describes the two families’ symbiotic relationship. However, all is not as it seems at the Park mansion and Bong, whose camera begins to spit and sputter to life, appears to delight in slowly exposing the rotting underbelly of their newfound life.

Exhilarating and thrillingly portrayed, Parasite is elevated by some jaw-dropping scenes, employing to maximum effect Bong’s skill as a visual director as well as his dextrous use of satire to illuminate the more unsavoury side of class-politics. In many ways, it casts a striking resemblance to last year’s Palme d’Or winner Shoplifters, and also gives a quiet nod to Jordan Peele’s slick modern horror, Us. Nonetheless, Parasite remains a unique parable of the haves and have-nots—a resonant masterpiece that, like its name, gets under your skin but leaves you the richer for it. 

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

NZ Herald’s top ten of 2019 so far

No review this week.  Instead, have a gander at NZ Herald’s top ten of 2019 so far.  It’s been slim pickings for the first half of the year and there was much gnashing of teeth at TimeOut’s golden towers as we settled on this list.  But at least I managed to convince my fellow compadres of Beale Street and Destroyer.  If I was supreme overlord of editorial decision-making then I’d have also swapped out a couple for Everybody Knows and Colette … but hey, I’m not complaining or anything. Check out our write-ups on the Herald website here.

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Sometimes Always Never

Sam Riley (left) and Bill Nighy (right) star in Sometimes Always NeverIn his debut feature, director Carl Hunter has embraced a very British vibe with this low-key dramedy about a missing person, a mourning father, and, umm, Scrabble. And what better person to play its mainstay—an unconventional Scrabble-obsessed tailor—than the inimitable Bill Nighy. Like him or not (and for the record, I like him), he plays these kinds of roles with aplomb.

Alan (Nighy) pines for his missing son who walked out after a heated game of scrabble, mysteriously never to be seen again. Although the film doesn’t clarify when the disappearance occurred, it’s still fresh enough for Alan to clutch onto unrealistic hopes of his return—much to the chagrin of his other son Peter (Sam Riley from Control) who wishes he’d just move on with his life.  However, some fresh evidence leads to a road trip that forces the two to reflect on their own relationship.

Although the “prodigal son” trope is a well-worn one, it does provide this tale with a solid bounding-board from which to launch its character study. And as the father/son dynamics play out, the two find themselves in some very comical situations— most notably, Alan, who hustles another grieving dad (wonderfully played by Tim McInnerny) out of 200 pounds over a game of (yes) Scrabble.

The camera-work is wall-hangingly beautiful, each shot being carefully framed with a lush pallet that sings loudly the film’s whimsical sensibilities.  However, cinematographer Richard Stoddard might’ve pushed the boat out too far with a style that doesn’t quite match the substance.  Pretty to look at, yes, but Frank Cottrell Boyce’s comparatively pallid screenplay is worse off for the distraction. That said, the usually sombre Boyce, who penned the surprisingly dark AA Milne biopic, Goodbye Christopher Robin, has thankfully lightened up and laced this film with some fairly quick-witted comedy—it’s a perfect fit for Nighy whose dry delivery seems to delight in soaking up Boyce’s more gloomy tendencies. 

Sometimes Always Never is a quintessentially British film; a damp slice of seaside village life, often ponderous and offbeat (perhaps to a fault, depending on your tolerance) but curiously endearing.

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

Never Look Away

nlaThe regally named Writer/Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (who hit a career-high with the Oscar-winning The Lives of Others), has helmed an ambitious project that examines the opaque world that lies between art and its creation. Such is an artist’s modus operandi, this film follows suit by placing meaning tantalisingly just beyond reach and invites you to plum the depths of an artist’s life to find it.  Yes, watching this movie is as much a frustrating experience as it is a cathartic one.

The three-hour-plus running time gives Von Donnersmarck plenty of wriggle room for a deep dive into this lengthy tale. It begins with Kurt Barnert (wistfully played in his later years by Tom Schilling) as a wide-eyed impressionable boy staring in awe at an art exhibition in pre-war Nazi Germany. His deep connection with what the Nazis considered “degenerate” art frustrate his vocation as an artist, especially later on when his home falls under the equally stifling Stalinist Communist regime. Finally escaping to the liberal freedom of Germany’s West, Kurt’s artistic sensibilities are thrown into further disarray as he comes to terms with an immense cultural shift.  As the film slowly unfolds, it suggests that only by reconciling his past with his present can Kurt discover his own artistic voice. 

Never Look Away is an alluring film that blends exquisitely framed visuals with Max Richter’s (Shutter Island) haunting score. However, if you’re looking for the clipped precision of Von Donnersmarck’s Oscar-winning effort, you won’t find it here. The German Director has undone his top button and gone for a looser, more contemplative approach that encourages you to rummage around the tapestries of its oblique ideas and provocative ambiguities for meaning.

Those wanting clean lines of exposition might find this film a frustrating watch. It does occasionally riff heavily on the pained artist routine and is hampered by some moments of pretentiousness and trite sentimentality.  But if you check your cynicism at the door and stick with it, you will be rewarded by a film that is ultimately a sublime experience. 

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

Asterix: The Secret of the Magic Potion

asterix1If you’ve been into any local library recently you’d most likely have seen an empty section on the shelf where the Asterix books normally sit. Such is the popularity of the moustachioed hero and his oafy side-kick that they’ve been flying off the shelves since the sixties.

Animated versions of the French comic are nothing new, having spawned multiple efforts with varying quality (including the awful, but oddly popular Gérard Depardieu live-action renditions). Here, writer/director Alexandre Astier is ably assisted by Louis Clichy who boasts animation credits on Wall-E and Up. It’s a second time around for the duo who commanded Asterix’s first foray into the world of CG-animation with 2014’s Asterix: Mansion of the Gods. The results are, unsurprisingly, similar here.

This film sees an injured Druid Getafix deciding it is time to search for a worthy replacement—someone he can entrust with the recipe of his magic potion that keeps the village safe. The future security of their village hangs in the balance as Asterix and Obelix head-up the search. It’s a simple story that works as a parable of our times; read deeply and you might find it emblematic of Brexit, Trumpism, climate change or other current miseries that threaten our “global” village. But most likely its a simple nod to the recent retirement of Uderzo (Asterix’s co-creator) and the successful search for his successor. Indeed, replacements Ferri and Conrad have rekindled the original magic that this film represents.

The animation is surprisingly agile and while not Pixar grade it visually captures the warmth and feel of the comics. There are faults though; the dubbed voices do take some adjusting to—American accents never quite match my mind’s ear of how residents of a little Gaulish village should sound (dedicated fans will do well to hunt out a subtitled showing wherever possible); and the film trips over an overly fanciful final act that departs from the feel of its source material. Nonetheless, there are still plenty of village brawls, confused Romans, roast boar and an off-tune bard. It’s all fairly lightweight fun, full of nostalgia for the older fans and plenty of slapstick giggles for the young’uns.

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