Saturday, 16 December 2017

IN THEATRES: The Last Jedi & Better Watch Out

 As a band of rebels fight a last-ditch battle to save the galaxy from an evil empire, a young woman goes in search of the one man who can bring hope to their cause...

It is rare nowadays to watch a big movie that manages to get the fundamentals right: story, character, and tone. There is always a sense of lack in certain areas (Spider-Man: Homecoming's weak character arc; Rogue One's more egregious lack of cohesive character or plot development). The Last Jedi is that rare beast that manages to feel like a fully developed dramatic narrative, with characters who grow and a story that has stakes and feels of a piece with itself.

Technically it is a middle part in a trilogy, but the best thing about this movie is that writer-director Rian Johnson does not care. He does not care about the plot strands and teasers from the previous movie, because those things are immaterial to the story he is telling. He takes all these hanging threads and elegantly ties them off. The Last Jedi does not feel like a sequel or an episode in a cinematic universe: it feels singular, and complete.

It also finds ways to take old concepts that have become esoteric and finds ways to deepen them, and to give them a universal applicability that feels almost... spiritual. There is a sense of empathy to the way that Johnson interrogates the concept of the Force, and strips it of the aristocratic, pseudo-science mumbo jumbo that George Lucas turned it into. In the original movie, the force did not require a bloodline -  it felt like something elemental that anyone can tap into. Johnson takes the concept back to that, but then finds a way to make it mean something. By the end of the movie, it is clear that the Force does not belong to a select few - it is for everyone.

Johnson deserves credit for coming up with a new plot that does not feel like a re-hash. This one actually feels like the first real 'sci-fi' premise this series has had, with a ticking clock scenario that forces characters to make real life-and-death choices. The move becomes a running (and shooting) debate about the true meaning of heroism, and that is often different from what it means to make the right choice.    

 It does everything you expect, but with an intelligence and wit the franchise has lacked since the original trilogy. You get great new characters (Kelly Marie Tran's Rose is the standout), set pieces that do not outstay their welcome (and don't feel like weightless CGI) and some fun world-building great world-building.

There is a sense at the end of this movie that the slate has been wiped clean. Sure, there can be another movie, but The Last Jedi never feels like it's saving anything for later. Everything is set up and paid off. The creative team behind the sequel will have a lot of hard work to do to try and match this.

Better Watch Out
So there's this asshole kid who really wants to bang his babysitter see? And so he and his friend/whipping boy come up with a plan to get her to fall for him by staging a home invasion. Great!

The message of this movie is that horror comedies are really hard to pull off. And it starts with the premise.

This movie is based on the POV of a 13-year-old psychopath who is trying to gaslight his babysitter into sleeping with him. To do this he is willing to kidnap her and (spoilers) kill the people who care about her.

If you cannot tell, I fucking hated this movie. Above and beyond the fact that it is neither scary or funny, there is a fundamental nastiness to the story, particularly in terms of gender relations, that does not work for comedy.

There appears to be a modicum of irony to the opening scenes between Luke (Levi Miller) and Garrett (Ed Oxenbould) as they talk about his crush on Ashley (Olivia DeJonge), but there is no real sense of critique or understanding of the expectations constructed by men toward female sexuality. There is no sense of awareness to the film. It just wants to push some taboos by having the villains as the baby-sat rather than external threats (ala Michael Myers in Halloween).

The movie wants to be Home Alone with Macauly Culkin's character from The Good Son. But the scenario the filmmakers have come up, with its creepy sexual undercurrent, requires a nuance and delicate touch that this film does not have.

As our villain, Levi Miller is a one-note bully who comes across as more whiney and petulant than a master manipulator. These kinds of movies require a charismatic villain with at least a degree of pathos for us to connect with. Take Tragedy Girls, which balances a high bodycount with a story about two best friends trying to figure out what their relationship means when they start to become famous. Luke is just a one-note psycho, with his only unique feature being that he is 13 years old.

I spent the entire movie trying to figure out if the filmmakers were trying to make some kind of commentary about rape culture and male entitlement about women's bodies, but I came out stumped. It is just an empty exercise in trying to be extreme, but with no real style or wit to make it worth watching.

Boring, stupid and nasty, Better Watch Out is an empty vessel of a movie.


My theatre

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

A Thin Line Between Love and Hate (Martin Lawrence, 1996)

Darnell Wright (Lawrence) is a hotshot club owner with an eye for the ladies. He has a girlfriend (Regina King), but Darnell does not care. When he meets Brandi (Whitfield), an older woman, he finds his usual charms don't work. Determined to conquer her, he goes the extra mile to grab her attentions. After he finally seduces her, the tables turn once the lothario casts her aside. Brandi becomes obsessed with Darnell and begins a campaign to destroy his life.

In 1996, Martin Lawrence was on the way up. His show Martin was a success, and his team-up with Will Smith, Bad Boys, had been a hit the previous year. With his increased prominence, Lawrence got a deal to write and direct his own feature film. The result was the dark comedy A Thin Line Between Love and Hate, co-starring the great Lynn Whitfield.

Probably best known for starring in Eve's Bayou and the Netflix show Greenleaf, Whitfield is one of those actresses whose talent is greater than her number of credits.

This movie is like what would happen if Eddie Murphy's Boomerang character had gone on a date with Glenn Close from Fatal Attraction. That description fits the tone pretty well too. It is really hard to tell if the movie wants to be a comedy, a thriller or a drama.

In the lead role, Lawrence is no Eddie Murphy. As written and performed, Darnell comes off as an insecure misogynist who sees any woman as fair game, and refuses to have his advances denied. The opening sequences show him breezing though various women with no care. While this montage is intended to set Darnell up for a fall, but for us to root for him there needs to be something redeemable about him - and there really isn't.

The one saving grace of this movie is Lynn Whitfield. Sometimes you watch a movie, and there is one performance that is not only good, but manages to give the movie a spine - unlike Darnell, Brandy has a genuine reason for acting the way she does, and Darnell is such a self-absorbed asshole that - for most of the second act - it is easy to see Brandy as the protagonist of this movie. Whitfield's performance provides the movie with its only sense of dramatic escalation, while Lawrence never manages to flesh Darnell out.

By the end of this movie, it becomes pretty clear that Whitfield is so much better than this movie. But because she is so good, she makes the movie far better than it has to be. It is also worth watching just for the spectacle of comparing Whitfield's nuanced, wounded portrayal of a woman scorned against Lawrence's cartoonish buffoon. It is as if Sigourney Weaver starred in an Adam Sandler movie - the disconnect between the leads is that stark.  

Maybe if Lawrence was not the auteur of this movie, it might have been more fully-realised. There is a good movie here, but it needed a different director, someone who could have figured out the tone and given Lawrence the space to build Darnell into a fully-realised character. 

The movie just have some good comedic beats - the scene where Darnell discovers Brandy has stolen his car tires is hilarious - but overall it is does not really work as a comedy. What's really strange is that it looks like a comedy, but most of the movie is basically a dramatic thriller. The aesthetic is so flat and airless that it is really hard to gauge the tone or intent of individual scenes.

My favourite scene in the movie is when Darnell confronts Brandy in hospital after she has made him out to be a woman-beater. Whitfield begins the scene indignant at her former paramour's disregard for her. Once the police arrive to take him away, on a dime she turns into a traumatised victim unable to let go of her abusive lover. As soon as he is out the door, she snuggles back in bed. It's brilliant, and the one time that the movie hits the darkly comedic tone that Lawrence was aiming for. 

Regina King is another actor who is better than this movie - she plays Darnell's one female friend, Mia. As with Whitfeld, she grounds her subplot and gives the movie some credibility. She's so good I actually bought her chemistry with Lawrence.

Because both female leads are so good, I just started reading the movie as a meta-textual hostage situation in which Whitfield and Regina King worked together to steal the movie out from under its star. 

The rest of the cast are a mixed bag. The recently departed Della Reese plays Darnell's mother. Apart from Brandy she is the one character to call Darnell on his crap, but she does not get much to do. RnB singer Bobby Brown plays Darnell's best friend, and somehow manages to be even more odious in his relations with women than his friend.

Overall, I cannot really call A Thin Line Between Love and Hate a good movie. But it is interesting to watch, particularly in light of the rape culture has finally breached the cultural zeitgeist. The filmmakers intended it as a response to Waiting to Exhale, but in the end A Thin Line Between Love and Hate feels just as self-righteous and ridiculous as a troll's response to a Roxane Gay tweet. The main reason to watch the movie is Lynn Whitfield - she picks it up on her shoulders and carries it the finish line. 

Saturday, 9 December 2017

NZIFF Documentaries

Here is the last of my retrospectives on the New Zealand International Film Festival. I generally catch a lot of the documentaries when I am ushering, and it always results in some interesting surprises.

Unrest (dir. Jennifer Brea)
Directed by Jennifer Brea, Unrest chronicles her journey with chronic fatigue syndrome, from initial misdiagnosis through her activism to get the condition properly recognised.

Starting as a deeply personal narrative (complete with home movies and unvarnished footage of Brea's everyday life, Unrest quickly situates the viewer in Brea's mindset - perpetually exhausted and  sleep-deprived, she relays her feelings in some brutal to-camera reflections and equally uncomfortable conversations with her husband.

Once Brea reaches the point in her story where she began to learn more about her illness, the movie branches out to cover other people from all over the world with the same affliction but with very different experiences. This multiplicity of POVs gives the documentary a more rounded and frankly terrifying picture - not of CFS, but how various medical authorities around the world view and deal with it. 

There is no ego with Brea's approach - there are many sequences in which she shows herself at her worst: collapsing while dancing with her husband; her demand that he change clothes repeatedly; and the various testimonial scenes, in which she allows herself to break down. It is extremely unflinching and brave.

It is pretty strong stuff, but considering how misunderstood CFS is, it is worth tracking down.

House of Z (dir. Sandy Chronopoulos)

And now for a completely different kind of ego. 

House of Z chronicles the rise, fall and rise of the fashion designer Zack Posen. At the turn of the century, he was the talk of the town as the next big thing. Not only in terms of his designs, but the fact that he was only 21 when he 'made it.' 

A variation on the traditional heel redemption story, House of Z is built around Posen's final gamble to save his company, with flashbacks to his narcissistic early days. One of the most interesting aspects to his background is that his business was initially a family affair with his parents and siblings involved in various aspects of bringing his designs to life. As his success grew, he became more demanding and disconnected from his family, who eventually departed the company. 

While the documentary is interesting as a look at his process, for me it undermined the family aspect of the business. We see his family slip away but this story is only briefly touched on as the film resolves. I would have preferred a focus on how Posen was able to repair his relationships with his family, considering their importance to his career.

By focusing solely on his comeback, it almost feels like the film is contradicting the idea that his fall was due to his own ego. There needed to be a little more connective tissue in this aspect of the story so that his redemption connected. 

The third act, chronicling his latest show, is interesting for how it goes into the details of putting together a collection but the suspense that this sequence is aiming for never builds - the film has not  built Posen's character arc. Ultimately the movie just lacked emotional investment. 

If you are interested in fashion or not, House of Z is an interesting watch -  but it never rises above the level of 'interesting'. And the main reason it never rises beyond that is that I found it really hard to root for Posen. It is not necessary too like your subject, but since this documentary is structured as a comeback story, but I found it almost impossible to get invested in Posen's struggles. 

Politics, an Instruction Manual (dir. Fernando León de Aranoa)

A ground-level look at the rise of Spanish political party Podemos, from the anti-austerity protests of 15 May, 2011 to the general election in December 2015, in which they won over 20% of the vote and 69 seats in the 350 seat parliament.

As a document of thew working parts of making a political party from scratch, this film is fascinating. You really get a sense of the often arduous process of democracy in action. From deciding what leadership model to follow, to deciding their position on Catalan independence, Politics... gives the viewer a sense of how pedantic, repetitive and exhausting every tiny aspect of politicking is. It helps that Podemos's leader Pablo Iglesias Turrión and his team are articulate and extremely well-versed about the machinations necessary to make a political party viable. 

Beginning with stock footage of the 2011 protests, the film ends with Podemos' triumphant entry to parliament four years later. It works structurally, even though it would have been interesting to see how Podemos' central figures (and the film's key talking heads) react to later events (the failed government formation and subsequent early election). 

This is not a fault of the film, more a case of wanting more. Because of the film's access to Turrión and his brain trust, I was really looking forward to hearing their perspectives on more recent events. Ah well, hopefully there is a sequel - it's not look Spanish politics have become boring in the interim between 2015 and now.

The documentary's perspective is not that critical or include any external perspectives, but as a look at  the business of politicking it is worth checking out.

Other festival reviews


Live Cinema



Wednesday, 6 December 2017

IN THEATRES: The Disaster Artist

In 1998, aspiring thespian Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) meets Tommy Wiseau (James Franco). Inspired by their shared desire to become actors, they become fast friends and move to Hollywood to pursue their dream.

Frustrated by his inability to make any inroads as a professional actor, Tommy decides to make his own movie, one that allow him to show off his creative talents, and salvage his fraying relationship with Greg.

For almost a decade Jame Franco has been writing and directing his own movies. I have not seen any of them. On this evidence, he is onto something.

Sure, it is funny - the story is bizarre - but the filmmakers have found a through line (the friendship between Greg and Tommy) that grounds the antics and the in-jokes in something profoundly relatable. 

The movie is about the desire to create, and particularly the work that goes into making movies - even if the people making the movie are going about it in almost the exact opposite way that you would expect. More importantly - and the reason why this movie is not just some cheap celebrity in-joke at Wiseau's expense is that The Disaster Artist is ultimately more invested in the friendship between Tommy and Greg.

The way Greg impacts Tommy is just as fascinating as the impact he has on Greg - while Greg respects Tommy's go-for-broke approach to acting and filmmaking, Tommy enjoys playing mentor to the young man. However, as Greg matures and begins to experience the things that Tommy cannot (especially in terms of relationships), their dynamic completely flips.

Greg and Tommy
As the main characters, the Franco brothers are terrific. James is completely believable as Tommy - Wiseau is such a specific and easily recognisable character, yet the elder Franco completely disappears into the role. There are points when he is wearing the glasses where it is almost impossible to tell them apart.

As Greg, Dave Franco is the heart and soul of the movie.  He is also the audience's way into Tommy's world, and as their friendship develops, it helps to humanise the auteur beyond the 'Oh Hi Mark?' meme.

The focus on the friends means that the rest of the cast do not get to make the same kind of impact. Seth Rogen is terrific as The Room's incredulous script supervisor Sandy - he basically acts as the straight man to the on-set chaos. It is not really a stretch for him, but he never overplays. The scene where Sandy cashes his first salary check is one of the funniest things Rogen has ever been involved with.

Because we only see them in the context of their roles during filming, the rest of The Room's 'cast' come off a little weightless - I spent the whole movie comparing Ari Gaynor, Josh Hutchinson and Jacki Weaver to their real-life alter-egos. A minor pleasure for me was getting to see the hosts of How Did This Get Made? show up as supporting players (I really hope Jason Mantzoukas and Hannibal Burress get a spinoff movie about their characters).

I don't really have much more to say about the movie. It is a really good, and I am very curious to see where Franco's directorial career goes.

Overall, The Disaster Artist is far better than it has any right to be. A funny but incredibly empathetic look at one of cinema's great outsiders, it is definitely worth checking out - regardless of whether you have seen The Room or not.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Coffy (Jack Hill, 1973)

One of the best blaxploitation movies ever made, Coffy was intended as a straight rip-off to MGM's Cleopatra Jones, a big budget follow-up to their previous hit Shaft. On release, Coffy ended up punching above its wait - becoming a huge hit and introduced the world to Pam Grier, the first true American female action hero.

By day, Coffy (Pam Grier) is a nurse. By night, she is a vigilante, hunting down the dope pushers and pimps responsible for killing her sister. One by one, she makes her way up the food chain, only to find that the corruption goes right to the top...

I'll be honest. I still have not seen Shaft. But I've seen Coffy so many times. Written and directed by Jack Hill, Coffy is far better than it has any right to be. AIP movies are known to be cheep and cheerful nonsense, but they rarely rise above the watchable. That's not to say they did not make some great movies, but like all studios, most of their output was garbage.

Though it is pitched as a cheap cash-in, Coffy never feels like it. The title character and her world feel fully realised in a way that few big budget movies are, let alone cheap drive-in fare. The story is fully fleshed out, and the characters feel three-dimensional. The action is on-point, and the plot is filled wiht twists and turns which further develop the central character, and force her to confront the injustice the system has imposed on her.

Pam Grier is magnificent as Coffy. Of course she is a badass, but Hill and Grier shrewdly make her feel like a real human being, rather than a total superhero. In the opening sequence, we witness Coffy use her acting skills and sexuality to get invited into a drug dealer's abode. Once inside, she kills him and his lackey. With most other action movies, the hero would move on with no emotional repercussions. But when Coffy tries to carry on and goes to her job at the hospital, she is too shaky and distracted to work, and has to take a break.

In another scene she goes to interrogate a prostitute about drug dealers. At first she is in complete control - but then the prostitute's bigger, tougher girlfriend turns up and Coffy has to leg it. It's hilarious.

The fact that Coffy is human pays dividends as the story develops. In the end, Coffy discovers that the big bad is her boyfriend, a wealthy man who has sold out his community for a piece of the pie. In typical seventies fashion, Coffy is forced to kill him and then, emotionally destroyed, wanders off into the night.

Coffy is so much more than just an action picture with a female lead. It juggles action with well-developed characters, an interesting plot and a suitably cynical political subtext. It moves fast, has a great sense of humour and a killer soundtrack by Roy Ayers, which literally narrates the movie ('King George, he's a pimp!'). It's amazing.

If you haven't seen Coffy, check it out.


Jackie Brown

Thursday, 30 November 2017

IN THEATRES: Ingrid Goes West & The Killing of a Sacred Deer

It has been a while since I did one of these, and for once both movies are great!

Ingrid Goes West
After her latest crush lands her a stay in pysch, Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) becomes fixated on an Instagram celebrity living in California, Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen). With the money she inherited from her mother, Ingrid heads to the coast with dreams of becoming Taylor's best friend.

After stalking her and kidnapping her dog, Ingrid is able to worm her way into Taylor's life. Now it is just a matter of time until Ingrid's scheme goes down in flames...

This movie is like a knife with no handle - no matter how you hold it, you are going to get cut.

This movie could have been broader, with characters drawn in primary colours. But such a treatment would have created a distance between the character's antics and the viewer. The element that elevates Ingrid Goes West is that the minds behind it are not interested in sparing the viewer from their own obsession with social media.

Ingrid never comes across as a villain. She is a woman struggling to find emotional connections online that she is incapable of finding fulfilment online. She has constructed a version of herself that does not exist.

By refusing to categorise its characters as good or evil, the film emphasises the omnipresence that social media has had in the way everyone relates to each other. This is not a context specific to Ingrid and Taylor. The film is a skewering of our relationship with social media and the way it has distorted the ways in which we interconnect, and how the superficiality of these platforms has permeated the real world.
In a world grappling with the effects of cat-fishing, cyber-bullying, and a reality TV star is the US president (to say nothing of his Twitter account), Ingrid's scheme feels worryingly pedestrian. The ease with which she ensconces herself into Taylor's life is not so much a testament to her abilities as a manipulator, but a side effect of how easy we find it now to include strangers into our lives.

There are no easy ways out here. You can see the outcome coming from the beginning, and the filmmakers offer no cop-out plot twists or character shifts. Eventually, Ingrid recognises that Taylor is not the person she thought she was, and Taylor finds out what Ingrid has been up to. Their final confrontation does not lead to some kind of catharsis - their friendship is not restored, and neither is Ingrid ceded the moral high ground by the revelation of Taylor's superficial existence.

Ingrid does not gain some new appreciation for real friendship - instead, she records a video and then tries to kill herself. She fails and then has her confidence boosted when she sees that her video went viral. While the ending validates Ingrid's sense of self, the fact that she is still receiving validation through the vehicle that led to her decline remains disquieting.

Aubrey Plaza and Elizabeth Olsen are great. Plaza has never been this empathetic or exposed in anything I've seen her in. It never feels like she is making fun of Ingrid's compulsions, and she is unafraid in pushing the character's tone-deafness and willingness to appease others. This movie is the cinematic equivalent of Schrodinger's Cat, and Plaza's performance embodies that ambiguity.

Likewise, Olsen manages to push Taylor's pretentiousness without making her a two-dimensional hipster. To do so would unbalance the movie and make Ingrid more sympathetic (thereby derailing the movie's point about the pervasiveness of social media). Taylor can be unlikeable, but it is never enough to justify her stalker's behaviour.

Following his work playing his own father in Straight Outta Compton, O'Shea Jackson Jr is hilarious as Ingrid's unsuspecting landlord-turned-boyfriend. Like the other characters, he is living a fantasy - obsessed with Batman, he has written a spec script for a Batman movie that he believes will be his ticket to fame and fortune. Even the focus of his fandom ties into the movie's treatment our obsession with fame as an equivalence for a better life: he is a big fan of Batman Forever, a film with a plot that echoes Ingrid's scheme - an isolated loner (the Riddler) seeks to become one with his hero and ends up trying to destroying him.

Hilarious, excruciating and painfully on-point, Ingrid Goes West is one of the most savage and uncompromising satires I have seen in years. Its commentary about our relationship with social media, especially the false sense of intimacy and kinship it can create is terrifying.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer
After he kills a patient, Dr Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) finds his life literally plagued by the dead man's son (Barry Keoghan). As his family falls apart, he is forced to make a decision to save them before it is too late.

The latest joint from Yorgos Lanthimos, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a perversely understated
 nightmare. From the beginning, the viewer is off-balance - people react to tragedy with nonchalance,  intimidate each other with dinner invitations, and make small talk by revealling extremely personal information.

From the first image of an exposed heart beating in extreme close-up, the viewer is immersed in a world of life in all its messiness and an underlying sterility. This is a world of vapid people who consider a conversation about watch bands as a symbol of personal interaction. These people go through the motions of life, but at the end of the day they believe in nothing.

A better title for this movie might have been The Living Dead.

Farrell and Kidman's characters are the ultimate hypocrites, unwilling to recognise how little control they really have over their lives. And when confronted with a way off, albeit with a price, it does not take long for them to start quantifying the fallout and preparing for the future. The ultimate truth of this movie is that these people only care about themselves, and they are willing to rationalise their way out of any situation that requires them to confront their own feelings.

Ever since Colin Farrell stopped trying to be a movie star, he has become more relevant, vibrant and just fascinating to watch. Following his work on Lanthimos' The Lobster, Farrell is doing something very special here.

His character, a brilliant but arrogant surgeon, has the emotional range of a rock. Where his performance in The Lobster was based on the repression of empathy and emotion, in this film his character views the world through the same clinical frame as he does his patients. However, once confronted by a figure who embodies a chaos he cannot control. As a man who believes he knows everything, Farrell's performance is a struggle not so much to react to inexplicable events, but failing to know how to. It's an incredibly subtle and sophisticated performance that I am still trying to puzzle out. Anyway, he's great.

Nicole Kidman is just as good as his wife. Honestly, these two were so in sync and of a piece that I feel like I'll just be repeating what I said about Farrell's performance here. There is a difference - Kidman's character, Anna, is more aware of the emotional expectations around being a parent and a spouse, but once the situation escalates she reveals a cold-hearted pragmatism that matches her husband's. 

Playing the interloper who destroys the bourgeoisie family, Barry Keoghan is fantastically deadpan. Unblinkingly earnest, he never gives his victims or the viewer a break - there are no cracks in his blank facade or parting of the curtain. All you are left with is a dead face and a basilisk stare. His performance is so underplayed it feels like the set up to a joke, and we spend the entire running time waiting for a punchline that never comes.

Yorgos Lanthimos' direction is as poised and ambiguous as his antagonist. Every element of the film, from shot choice to blocking to sound design, is designed to keep the viewer off balance.

There are shades of Stanley Kubrick to his style - the cold, objective wide frames and the extended tracking shots that isolate the characters from the viewer are the most overt examples - but the biggest similarity is thematic. Kubrick's films are based around characters caught in systems or a cosmic order that they cannot comprehend or control (his noirs of the fifties; 2001; The Shining; heck, even Spartacus fits the bill). 

Lanthimos appears to follow a similar idea - the movie is framed like a documentary, with the camera following these characters and their eventual demise with the clinical interest of an ethnographer. It is terrifying, surreal and hilarious, often within the same shot.

I feel like I have missed a million things. I'm probably going to have to watch a few more times and see how it works on re-watch.

One of the most terrifying films of the year. Check it out.

Monday, 27 November 2017

Everything, Everything (Stella Meghie, 2017)

Based on the novel by Nicola Yoon, Maddy (Amndla Stenberg) is a young woman confined to her air-tight home by SCID, a condition that means her immune system is too weak to handle the outside world. With only her mother Pauline (Anika Noni Rose) and nurse Carla (Ana de la Reguera) for company, Maddy yearns for a chance to experience the outside world.

When Olly (Nick Robinson) moves in next door, Maddy's desire to escape gains a newfound urgency. But will love trump genetics?

Growing up, I was voracious consumer of anything my parents were into - so when I wasn't watching Arnold Schwarzengger wiping out whole countries or reading Robert Louis Stevenson I'd spend time watching Audrey Hepburn movies with my mum and poaching whatever romance novel she was reading (Chocolat and Bridget Jones' Diary). I caught the bug. There is something about a romantic melodrama, particularly one with a contrived premise like this that always pulls me in. 

While I was totally game for this kind of potboiler, going in there was something I was worried was going to happen.

Every time one of these movies come out, where someone with an illness or disability (e.g. A Walk To Remember; last year's Me Before You) is involved in a romance, they are never the central character and their role is to act as a catalyst for their non-impaired paramour to learn something profound about life and loss and blah blah blah.

From the jump, this looked like another one of those stories. But to this movie's credit, it does not follow that template too closely. Whether it plays into the underlying ideology of those stories - well, we will get to that.  

First the good stuff. Number one is that this is a mainstream movie directed by and starring WOC, based on a book by a black female writer. It was also a hit, so hopefully we shall see some ripple effects for other YA movies featuring people of colour both in front of and behind the scenes. 

Stella Meghie's direction is really good, especially considering the limitations of the story: as well as the focus on single location, the central relationship is dependent on conversations via text message. Most of Maddy and Olly's early text interactions are dramatised as Maddy's fantasies of meeting Olly in the model environments (a diner, a library) that she builds for school.

These sequences are probably the best thing in the movie, as they allow the viewer to identify with the characters' growing attraction without having to wade through endless shots of text bubbles covering every line of dialogue. Because they are so dramatically satisfying - the actors have good chemistry - this stylistic choice never comes off as contrived.

Meghie is aided by DOP Igor Jodue-Lillo (The Kids Are All Right and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), who gives the movie a warm, rich colour palette that leans into the movie's heightened sense of melodrama. It could have been overdone, but with a movie as earnest as this, it works.  

One of the key reasons why I liked this movie is that, despite her physical immobility, Maddy is the prime mover of the movie's plot. The movie is rooted in her POV, and she never allows herself to be defined by her disability. While looks play a part (duh), it is to see why Olly falls for her. She even calls him out when it looks like he is pitying her. 

Another thing I liked about this movie was the fact that the movie does not end with Maddy dying. I was afraid that was going to happen, and while I have some problems with the way it was done (see the next paragraph), the fact that we did not have that trope was  a plus.

But that is where we get the final twist - haunted by her husband and son's deaths, Pauline faked her daughter's condition to protect her from the world. While it feels like an extreme extension of Pauline's over-protectiveness, I did not know what that turn meant in terms of what the film was trying to say.

Maddy wants to experience the outside world, but I could not track any big difference in terms of how this twist reveals what her character really wants. All it does is give Maddy another reason to become independent, but she already wants that. While it is not as egregious as a few twists I could mention, it does not feel that natural - it just felt like a way to get the characters together in a traditional happy ending.

If the movie's focus had been on the relationship between Maddy and her mother, then the twist could have been used as a catalyst for Maddy's breaking away on her own. But the movie is more interested in the love story, and leaves this relationship to one side. Basically, the twist ends up feeling underwhelming, because it feels like it is the culmination of a different movie. Pauline ends up as a minor obstacle - one that is too easily overcome.

So in a way the movie does fall into the ableist trap - it's just instead of the message being 'life is too hard to live', it is ' good thing you are not sick so you can have a happy ending'. It is not a killer blow  but does strike a bit of a bum note.

As far as the acting goes, Anika Noni Rose steals the show. Even with the plot twist, she never comes off as a villain. Even when she is putting the kibosh on Maddy's dreams of romance, she remains incredibly empathetic - it never feels like Pauline is operating from a sense of malice. It is always from a place of love. 

The scenes where she talks to Maddy about her infatuation are great, as she navigates between motherly affection for this milestone in her daughter's life, and her own need to protect her from these attachments. The moment where she tells Maddy that Olly will never be 'hers', and that he will eventually move away and find someone else never feels cruel (at least not until the twist) - Pauline is just trying to protect her daughter from the heartbreak she knows is coming.  

When the movie is just about a woman trying to help her daughter navigate the world, while also shielding her from it, Everything Everything feels wonderfully complicated. When the twist comes, all those complicated feelings are thrown out in favour of a simple 'gas lighting' narrative.

As far as the lead performances go, Stenberg and Robinson and suitably winsome. The only thing I had seen Stenberg in was Colombiana - this is a far better vehicle for their talents. Stenberg gives Maddy a a sense of intelligence and self-possession that ensure that when the movie demands that she leave her house, Maddy never comes off as an innocent waif. She knows what things are, and the joy comes from watching her get to experience them in a visceral way (such as riding in a car, or swimming in the ocean). Hopefully this movie's success (it made about $60 million in the US, off a $10 million budget) gives Stenberg more leading roles.

Robinson is also good, but because the movie is anchored to Maddy's perspective, we do not get as much character development as the lead. Although that is a nice a change from most movies, where the female lead feels like an afterthought. 

Overall, while it does fall down a bit in the third act, and it ultimately does not deviate from Hollywood's penchant for ignoring/marginalising disabled characters, Everything Everything is a nice addition to the recent trend of YA romance movies, and is definitely worth a look. 

Sunday, 26 November 2017

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Tiger Raid (Simon Dixon, 2016)

According to Wikipedia, "a tiger kidnapping or tiger robbery involves two separate crimes. The first crime usually involves an abduction of any person or thing someone highly values. Instead of demanding money, the captors demand that a second crime be committed on their behalf."

In the middle of Iraq, two Irish mercenaries Joe (Brian Gleeson) and Paddy (Damien Molony) kidnap a young woman, Shadha (Sofia Boutella), and hold her ransom so that her father will help their boss 'Dave' commit another crime. As time ticks by, secrets are revealed and the pair quickly realise that their seemingly straightforward operation is far more complicated than they assumed...

The only reason I knew this movie existed was because it starred Sofia Boutella (Kingsman and Star Trek Beyond), and this time she would get to play an actual human being.

 Based on a play, Tiger Raid's structure is pretty familiar if you have seen The Disappearance of Alice Creed44 Inch Chest or any low-budget crime thriller in the last 20-something years - a group of professional criminals in a confined location. Cue double crosses and Mexican stand-offs. And to be honest, Tiger Raid does not really break that heard from the formula. One of the kidnappers is a loose cannon (Joe), while the other (Paddy) has more of a conscience. 

To its credit, Tiger Raid does throw in some nasty character reveals that destroy that easy dichotomy. Joe is more empathetic than the front he puts on, while Paddy's dedication to the woman he loves is revealed as something far more disturbing and obsessive.

It is a good thing that the development of these two characters goes in such interesting directions, because the movie does have some noticeable flaws - the pace flags in the middle, and the shifts in power between the characters start to feel repetitive as the movie heads into the home stretch.

The three main performances are all really good. I don't think I have seen Brian Gleeson in anything before, but he is the easy standout as the more extroverted of the two kidnappers. Molony is also good, but his role is less showy.

With a character that does not depend on her physical abilities, Boutella has a chance to just play a character. As the plot unfolds, and the nature of her role changes, Boutella manages to handle the transition from terrified hostage to (spoilers) scorned lover and victim well. The role is not that developed, but there was nothing wooden and superficial about her performance - this film is good evidence that she has potential in roles that do not require hours of prosthetics and high kicks.

Overall, I came away from Tiger Raid a little underwhelmed. It's not objectively terrible: the actors are good, and the production values are solid. Simon Dixon's direction is good - he has a good feel for the material's nihilistic, paranoid tone - and Is Bell's cinematography lends the desert exteriors a sense of scope, but like the script, there is a certain visual and aural familiarity to the movie's style that prevents it standing out from similar films.

The movie does briefly touch on one of my favourite themes - the contradiction between a man's image of a woman and the woman herself - but it never feels specific to Paddy and Shadha's relationship. Because of the casting and location, there is a subtext of racism running through their particular power dynamic, but it feels embryonic, rather than full developed.

The movie's biggest flaw is a fundamental sense of familiarity - I feel like I have seen this premise before in multiple movies, and done with far more originality and thematic heft. The Iraqi context makes for an original location, but if you took it away, you could set this movie in New York or London and it would be the same movie. If more had been made of this backdrop, and infused into the movie's story and characterisation, Tiger Raid could have the makings of something great. As is, it is merely solid.

Friday, 24 November 2017

Hello Cupid (web series)

Whitney (Ashley Blaine Featherson) wants to know why she cannot find anyone on the dating website 'Hello Cupid'. As a bet, Whitney swaps her profile picture with one of her roommate Robyn (Hayley Marie Norman). The next day, she discovers hundreds of messages in her inbox. She starts talking to one of these prospective suitors, Cassius (Brandon Scott), and discovers they have a lot in common. 

Unwilling to break it off, she convinces Robyn to go on a date with Cassius and find out what he is like. And then things get REALLY complicated...

Series stars Robyn (Hayley Marie Norman) and Whitney (Ashley Blaine Featherson) 
I stumbled on this show via a circuitous route involving Roger Ebert's review for the teen comedy Fired Up!, the show Adam Ruins Everything, and finally Adam's podcast, where he interviewed Hello Cupid star Hayley Marie Norman. Since it was easy and free, I burned through the whole first season in an evening.

Created by Lena Waithe (Netflix's Master of None) and Featherson herself (currently starring on Netflix's Dear White People), this show is great. A lo-fi take on the rom com, Hello Cupid is elevated by strong writing, complex and likeable characters, and a strong understanding of how to best utilise their chosen medium.

While this show is based around finding romance, it is the foregrounding of the friendship between its lead characters that gives this show its spine and heart. It is so rare to see female friendship, warts and all, in a movie or a TV show. Despite the light tone, the relationship between Whitney and Robyn feels like a genuine relationship, and is interesting for the ways in which their predicament highlights both the strengths and weaknesses in their friendship. With no forced exposition, the writers and performers manage to build the dynamics of their relationship through the early episodes, so that by the time their 'date' shows his face in the fifth episode, the viewer is immersed in how they work as unit.

Throughout the series, I was amazed at how natural and real their interactions were. They feel attuned to each other's wants and needs, reacting in ways that feel believably empathetic (the girls' play-fighting over what to wear for a date) and petty (Robyn interrupting Whitney and Cassius's bonding moment with a casual saunter in her shorts).

The way the show takes advantage of its format really plays into this focus on character. I love the sense of scale - each episode is basically one scene. Freed from the constraints of TV, it allows the relationships and conversations to develop naturally, with their own rhythm. The show was partially improvised, which adds to the sense of verisimilitude in the characterisation and relationships.

In this respect, there are two examples of how the stand out: Episode 3, which is built around Whitney's first conversation with Cassius online. This scene reminded me of how hard it is to create a believable 'meet cute'. In terms of showing a connection develop without feeling contrived, it reminded me of the dinner table scene in Your Sister's Sister.

I think I like this guy...
Robyn's date with Cassius is another strong meet cute - once again, thanks to good writing, performances, and the lack of a set runtime their date is allowed to play out at its own pace, and by the end of the scene you believe that this guy could gel with either of the leads.
The most impactful beat in the episode is a visual callback to Whitney's talk in episode one about light-skinned girls. When Cassius describes what he likes about her features, the filmmakers cut to those features on Whitney's face. It's a quietly brutal moment that adds a sour note to the scene that prevents the viewer from committing to this 'relationship'.

Yes, you do
From a creative standpoint, this series has really inspired me -while Hollywood and mainstream TV stumbles vaguely toward some version of diversity in casting and production, this kind of small-scale (but long form) storytelling is the vehicle for all kinds of POVs and relationships to get better representation. Movies cannot do it - runtimes and the decline of the small to medium budget drama/comedies have put paid to that. But TV and online platforms can.

The casting is so on-point: the leading ladies feel like best friends, and Cassius, their shared object of attraction, actually lives up to the hype. He's a good guy with interesting habits and a sense of humour. You buy into the girls' ridiculous scheme because they - and he -are so believable
Because writing and directing are more important, casting can get overlooked, but the performances and the chemistry amongst the cast are pitched so perfectly, I had to bring it up. And if you want any idea of how strong the casting is, you have to look to Brandon Scott's performance as Cassius.    

I cannot emphasise how many movies screw up the shared love interest. They always base the plot on some bland-but-good-looking guy who both women lust over. It is never based on someone who might have something more to offer, like a personality or shared interests. It means the female character wind up feeling shallow and petty. Hello Cupid is the rare case where they make the ménage-trois believable. Scott manages to pitch himself on such a fine line that you can see the appeal for straight-laced Whitney and flower child Robyn.

Of course, the show would not work without its lead players.

Whitney (Ashley Blaine Featherson) could be hard to like - she is basically using her friend to get a man. Despite being a smart, considerate woman, she acts quite selfishly. But the way the story unfolds is so naturalistic, and the way events spiral out of her control. Likewise, Robyn (Hayley Marie Norman) could have been a type - an airhead valley girl - but once again that type is just a launching pad for the show's analysis of the ways first impressions (particularly around notions of physical attractiveness and its intersection with race). That might sound a bit heavy, but the show handles its themes with a subtlety and deftness that prevents it from ever feeling didactic. 

This show is great. The premise might come off a little rote, but this is all about the execution.

The show spans two seasons, with 10 episodes each (the first is available on Youtube; the second season has a few episodes behind a pay wall). Don't worry, the first season feels like a complete story, so don't feel under any obligation to keep going. But - it's really good, so keep going!

There is also a third season and a short film, which feature new characters and different variations on the original's premise.

You can watch the first episode here.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Raw Deal (John Irvin, 1986)

Determined to bring down the mob that murdered his son, veteran FBI Agent Harry Shannon (Darren McGavin) enlists former agent Mark Kaminsky (Arnold Schwarzenegger) to go undercover as a hitman 'Joseph P. Brenner', infiltrate the mob and destroy it from the inside.

By itself, Raw Deal is not a good movie. It is not terrible, but it is pretty dull stuff considering whose name is above the title. However, as an example of the wrong casting, and how filmmakers can misjudge a star persona, it is fascinating.

If you ignore the Ah-nuld component, Raw Deal is a by-the-numbers narc thriller. Directed any John Irvin, a respectable British filmmaker (whose chief claim to fame is the original miniseries of Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy), Raw Deal does not look or sound like any other Arnie movie - in tone and style it feels more like a cop thriller from the seventies.

According to the trivia I could find online, the script was literally picked at random; Ah-nuld was under contract to Dino DeLaurentis (producer of the Conan movies and, uh, Red Sonja) and wanted out. And thus the star of Commando and the director of Tinker, Tailer OG were handed a script co-written by the Oscar-nominated writer of Serpicio and the writer of the buddy cop movie Running Scared (BTW, these guys' personal lives are WAY more interesting than any of their movies), and movie magic was made.

The High and Mighty podcast reviewed Raw Deal last year and the hosts compared watching the movie to watching a dog race where one of the greyhounds has been replaced with an Irish wolfhound; I would compare it to a really nice soup with a Big Mac dumped in it.

Every aspect in this movie is a respectable, down-to-earth thriller - every aspect except its hulking star, who lurches through every scene like the proverbial rhino in a china shop. The supporting cast all look like real cops and mobsters. The photography and editing are very conventional and understated. Even the film's set pieces are staged without any flair - no OTT explosions or epic shoot-outs. None of it looks like an Arnie movie.

Schwarzenegger tries his best, but the filmmakers make the mistake of treating him like another actor. They give this character so many lines of conflict, but Schwarzenegger can only play the surface of these beats - there is never a sense that the character is in over his head.

The rest of the acting is pretty good, but when juxtaposed with Arnie's familiar wooden delivery, it is the real actors who come off looking silly. To make matters worse, the script gives Schwarzenegger some overly-verbose one-liners which do not fit his accent or cadence at all. Watching him struggle to get through the romantic repartee with Kathryn Harrold is painful. 

It is worse when the script tries to give Arnie something in his wheelhouse:

"You're under arrest." 
"For what?" 
"Impersonating a human being."

But it goes beyond one liners and set pieces.

For an Arnie movie to work, he needs a character with no internal conflicts, and a clearly established  antagonist who can justify his OTT physique and presence. By contrast, watching the Austrian Oak wipe out middle-aged mobsters is no fun at all.

This movie never feels like an Arnie movie, but even with a better star, I do not think Raw Deal would be much better. It is so generic it would have taken a re-write and a completely different creative team to make it good. As is, it is just competent. 


Stallone v Schwarzenegger

Predator & The Running Man

Thursday, 16 November 2017

IN THEATRES: Justice League

Following the death of Superman,  Batman gathers a team of super-powered peeps to take on an interplanetary threat that could destroy the planet.

Here it is - the latest holding action in Warner Bros campaign to bring their DC properties to the screen.

This movie is not a masterpiece. This movie is not a disaster. This movie is a stopgap that tries to fix or ignore what happened in the movies that came before it. Just as BvS was a reaction to Man of Steel, and Suicide Squad was a reaction to BvS (and its own trailer), Justice League feels like a reaction to all of those movies (including Wonder Woman).  

Re-written, re-shot and re-colour-corrected, Justice League is a mixed bag. It's vaguely entertaining and possessed of a certain pace (it comes in at 121 minutes, which is nice), but there is not much else to it.

Directed by Zack Snyder and an un-credited Joss Whedon, the movie feels like someone started with one idea, and then was replaced by someone else with a different idea that kinda, sorta fit with the earlier idea, but not really. To be honest, I was seriously considering ignoring this movie, but with all the backstage hijinks and tinkering, morbid curiosity got the better of movie. The spectacle of two diametrically opposed filmmakers being pulled together sounded like a dare: Would Snyder's over-saturated excess sync with Whedon's penchant for character dynamics over set pieces?

Watching the movie, I could not really tell. The tone is certainly more dynamic than Snyder's previous movies. But while the re-shoots probably helped, the story still feels clunky and the characters feel half-baked. There are beats that are clearly Whedon, but the character stuff never really gels in a way that feels cumulative.

As far as the catalyst for bringing our heroes together, Steppenwolf is one of the most uninteresting and generic villains to come around in a long time: he is just a generic CG god-ling, with no interesting motivation or characterisation to speak of. Ciaran Hinds is always good value (he's great in Tomb Raider 2), but Steppenwolf is such a colourless villain you could have cast anyone in the role. His design is not even that interesting - he looks like a minor character from a Ray Harryhausen movie. He never feels like a genuine threat for the team, and honestly he does not feel like the right villain for the medium: he feels more like the bad guy in a TV pilot - he's just there so the good guys have a reason to come together.

Our heroes are not much better.

Superman, such a non-entity in the previous movies, is here presented as a symbol of hope. It does not stick because the movie does nothing to make that feel believable. We get a neat flashback at the top (a child's iPhone interview with Superman) and an extended talking scene with Lois Clark in a CG farm-scape. That's it: we're still stuck with two movies worth of backstory that boil down to four hours of filmmakers who do not know what to do with Superman. So when Batman talks about Superman being a beacon of hope, it rings hollow because he has never been shown to act like any kind of role model. When he makes his return in the third act, he may be acting more like Supes (i.e. giving a shit about people), but it never feels like a big catharsis for the group. It just feels like a plot point.

Batman's character is similarly hamstrung. He gets a good rapport with the Flash and a leaden flirtation with Diana (it might be a good idea, but not based on this chemistry).

One real bum note is Gal Gadot, who oscillates on an almost scene-by-scene basis from sparky and invested to wooden and amateurish (there's one confrontation with Bruce Wayne where she goes full-on soap opera). I chalk it up to the re-shoots and the lack of Patty Jenkins to help with the performance.

Because this is the first time most of the Justice bros have appeared onscreen, the movie has to stop dead to introduce them and their respective worlds. Of the new characters, the easy highlight is Ezra Miller as Barry Allen/The Flash. The scenes setting up his relationship with his dad, and his dynamics with the team all feel the most well-realised. It helps that aside from his powers, he is the most ordinary character in the movie (he even trips over at one point).

Jason Momoa's Aquaman will probably be great in his own movie. Here he is hamstrung by being only one of a group of surly bad asses. He is funny and charismatic, but he feels side-lined.
Ray Fisher's Cyborg needed so much more build-up. We are introduced to him too late in his evolution. He is already a CG-augmented character when we meet him, and it is difficult to feel the tragedy the filmmakers intend because we never get a sense of what his life was like before his accident. It does not help that his powers never really feel like a curse. This is a rare blockbuster that could have used more breathing room.

If you are looking for some cool action scenes to tide you over, you are out of luck. They are still airless collections of CGI poses. The lack of genuine scale and lack of tactile threats (and collateral damage) makes the movie feel really small. And because of the extended tinkering, there are a lot of really obvious green screen backdrops. And look out for Henry Cavill's CG lip - it is very weird and very obvious.

Overall, the movie is meh. It has some funny scenes, and has a better grasp of the characters' personas (character development, less so) than the previous DC movies, but it cannot help feeling like what it is: a studio mandate to have a superhero franchise. These characters do not belong together because they want or need to: it is because Warner Bros wants some of that Marvel money. It is a better movie than expected, but not much by much. If you are not a die hard fan, give it a miss till it comes out on home media. If you are in the mood for a big blockbuster, go see Thor: Ragnarok instead.