Tuesday, 31 January 2023

The Woman King: Blu Ray Review

The Woman King: Blu Ray Review

Cast: Viola Davis, Lashana Lynch, Thuso Mbedu, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, John Boyega

Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood

Hailed as a cinematic moment for representation (which in of itself is depressing for 2022), Gina Prince-Bythewood's The Woman King is a based on history story that dips into melodrama for its emotion, when it doesn't really need to.

Set in the West African kingdom of Dahomey in 1823, the film centres around the all-female warrior group the Agojie, a brutally effective band trying to help John Boyega's King Ghezo prepare for war with their neighbours.

Led by Viola Davis' General Nanisca, the troupe is focused only on war and conflict, with contact with men banished and training the only thing they observe. But with Nanisca needing new recruits to train, Mbedu's Nawi finds herself under their command when her father kicks her out for refusing to marry.

The Woman King: Movie Review

Nanisca and Nawi end up at loggerheads with conflicting viewpoints on life coming sharply into focus - but will the Agojie be torn apart by this fight?

The Woman King starts off superbly with some tautly choreographed battle elements feeling like anything Braveheart could muster. Fearsome, revered and focussed, the women are truly terrifying and led with Davis' intensity, the movie wastes no time on showing the cost of dedication and the price of shuttering oneself off.

Yet it lapses into an obvious melodrama as the conflict between Nanisca and Nawi heads down very familiar routes. Fortunately, while this can be seen a mile off, it helps that Davis' powerful performance and Mbedu's steely determination make this watchable enough fare.

The script follows a very familiar route - training montages, conflicts, betrayal and coming-of-age edges. It's a little too formulaic, even if what's injected into the proceedings feels fresh and different.

With a script that's unafraid to discuss and show sustained rape, there is a boldness here that's worth saluting, but the emotion sometimes feels like it's lacking - even if Lashana Lynch's more human turn proves to be more compelling in her relationship with Mbedu's Nawi, you can still spot what's coming a mile off.

Ultimately, whilst it's depressing that in 2022 the female-led and female narrative-led elements of The Woman King have to be saluted, the formidable force of innocence vs traumatised life makes for an engaging cinematic experience - albeit one whose story feels paradoxically cliched and yet somehow (thanks to the power of the lead actors) fresh at the same time.

Monday, 30 January 2023

Mrs Harris Goes To Paris: Blu Ray Review

Mrs Harris Goes To Paris: Blu Ray Review

Cast: Lesley Manville, Jason Isaacs, Isabelle Huppert, Alba Baptista
Director: Anthony Fabian

You've seen the likes of Mrs Harris Goes To Paris before.

Feelgood heartwarming fare that's aimed at the older end of the cinema-going audience, it's the kind of English fare that gets rolled out on Christmas telly when everyone's stuffed to the gills and just wants something easy and non-challenging to watch.

Normally, while that would be a way to dismiss a film, with Mrs Harris Goes To Paris, it becomes its winning sentiment, a pervasive sense of wholesomeness that sees you through the sentiment and obvious mawkishness when it comes.

Manville is Mrs Harris, a recently widowed cleaner whose world is changed when she sees a Dior dress at a client's house and sets her heart on earning enough to travel to Paris to purloin one. But when she finally gets to her destination, she finds herself a fish out of water as snobbery starts to batter her - will this Cinderella go to the ball?

It doesn't take much to make you realise where Mrs Harris Goes To Paris is going, and the journey is entirely predictable fluff that can all be set out from the opening frame. But sometimes, there are rare films that force cynicism into submission, revel in their goodness and prove the predictable is permissible.

Mrs Harris Goes To Paris: Movie Review

Mrs Harris Goes To Paris is one such film - thanks largely to Manville's considerable charm. Her downbeat approach to the role keeps everything grounded in a kind of reality that allows the fairytale elements to grow and flourish; her character's inherent Britishness when it comes to cultural conflict and her unerring sense of goodness wins over not only the characters in the film but an audience as well.

It may be the tale of a working class lass done good, and it may well be up there with the Full Monty for its predictability, but Mrs Harris Goes To Paris' feelgood factor shouldn't be discounted here - it proves to be its winning touch in a cynical world populated by hollow blockbusters and CGI fare. It's English escapism at its most primal - and don't be surprised if you fall for its charms, no matter how fleeting they may be.

Sunday, 29 January 2023

Dual: Neon NZ Review

Dual: Neon NZ Review

Riley Stearns (The Art of Self-Defense) returns with a Black Mirror-esque movie that proves to be as tragic as it is poignant.

Doctor Who and Guardians of the Galaxy's Karen Gillan is Sarah, a remote and emotionally flat woman who discovers she's dying with a disease that's 100% going to kill her. Even though the doctors tell her there's a 2% margin of error, she's told to make her final plans for life.

Dual: NZIFF Review

Discovering a cloning service that will give her family and friends a version of her to live on after her death, she opts for the process. As the clone adopts her way of life, Sarah's stunned to find out that 10 months later, despite the initial prognosis, she's gone into full remission.

The only way to get her life back now is a fight to death with her clone...

There's a stilted unnatural bent to the dialogue and Gillan's performance throughout Dual, but the rhythms of this sci-fi tinged story are extremely satisfying, despite its lo-fi nature. It may be about high concepts, but this movie works on its basic levels by tapping into human insecurities, dystopian twists and a feeling that something's not quite right all the way through.

There's an intrigue coursing through Dual's veins, and while there's also some humour to be found in the offbeat moments, it's all rooted in a bittersweet feel that's based on veracity. Dual taps into the loneliness of life, the staccato speeches belying the emotional truths which are being passed, and an inherently subtle take on the human condition.

In among it all is Gillan, whose dual role here requires as much subtlety as it does hands-off. Her interactions with both Aaron Paul's trainer and Beulah Koale's partner work because of the edge Gillan brings to the party. You end up wanting her to win, but you know deep down, there's always a better version of you that's going to win over.

Dual is a thrill; a cold concept film that has deliciously deadpan edges, but also a uniquely human moral edge.

Saturday, 28 January 2023

Ghost In The Shell: Neon NZ Review

Ghost In The Shell: Neon NZ Review

There's an irony that 2017 yields a shiny, yet empty and hollow, new version of Ghost In the Shell, all wrapped up in FX and Weta's wizardry, and coming nearly 30 years after the first iteration of the Manga series appeared.
Ghost In the Shell, starring Scarlett Johansson

Along with the campaign against the film over its apparent white-washing of its lead, the Asian Major, and a meme meltdown that seized on the film's apparent ignoring of any potential Asian leads, there's already enough for Ghost In The Shell to achieve.

So, it's perhaps frustrating to report that the 2017 version of Ghost In The Shell is pretty hollow, and feels like a missed opportunity, a series of shooter / fighting sequences all wrapped up in some damn near incredible visual and practical work from WETA.

Johansson stars as Major, who's part of an elite group called Section 9, who hunts down terrorists at the government's behest in a futuristic world. But Major is more than just the star operative of this ragtag group, headed up by Beat Takeshi Kitano's Chief. In a world where cybernetic enhancements are becoming the norm, Major's a perfect meshing of a human brain in a robotic body - a precedent for the future.

However, while Major's fairly adept at taking out the bad guys, she begins to experience glitches in her daily life, giving her frightening flashes of a life before... and causing her to question her own identity and loyalties, just as a new terrorist threat emerges...

To be fair to Ghost In The Shell, the themes tackled within are not exactly new and the trope of questioning self and identity are ones which are endemic to most of the genre's films that feature a robot protagonist. (Ridley Scott's Blade Runner being perhaps the chief example of such a film and TV's Westworld being the latest version of the nature of consciousness discussions).

Ghost In the Shell, starring Scarlett Johansson

Yet, despite its shiny paint and exquisite visuals for 2017, the new version is very much lacking in anything other than a simple cyberpunk ethos and a videogame aesthetic and narrative. This is not an adaptation of an anime that comes anywhere near close to hitting some of the rich resonance and emotional themes of the originals.

Relatively soulless, and without too many real philosophical edges for the audience to grapple with, this Ghost In The Shell simply chooses to throw out the more thoughtful elements of the series before it, in favour of yet another (admittedly well) choreographed action sequence. It's no Joss Whedon's Dollhouse, that's for sure.

Despite some truly impressive neon-soaked Blade Runner and video game Remember Me-esque cityscape visuals to make up the world, what sits within is, unfortunately, a little less well realised.

While the Geisha-bots that become like scuttling spider-bots are early indications of the visual mastery of Weta's work, their memory soon fades in light of some well-worn familiar style sci-fi dialogue and bullets flying as the emotionally detached film plays out.

Johansson pretty much dials down the emotion and comes off a little like a second-rate action version of her character from Luc Beeson's much-overlooked flick Lucy. She brings some edges to some of the emotional conflict that arises from within, but she never quite fully sells the struggle with her past.  And Snow White and The Huntsman director Sanders reaches Michael Bay levels of fetishization of Johansson's form within the suit and when she's lying on a bed as he brings the story-boards to life...

(And it has to be said, unfortunately, that some of the white-washer naysayers have a point, particularly when Major's past is addressed towards the film's denouement. There's also a whole debate over the rest of the casting of the film as well, with many of the Asians represented on screen playing more sub-serviant roles than anything substantially meaty.)

Ghost In the Shell, starring Scarlett Johansson

Pilou Asbaek's second-in-command is a thankless role that ploughs the action into the brawn and little else; Kitano's support is equally solid as well, but he's relegated to the sage overlord dispatching ideas and checking up on his team, rather than anything more. Elsewhere, Juliette Binoche brings the humanity in her doctor, but again, it's scant anything other than brief broad brush strokes to satisfy the most brain-dead of audience members.

It helps little that Ghost In The Shell's emotional edges are lacking and the pay-offs not as spectacular as the stakes in the final act. It's something that's little supported in the film's scripting and filters through the entire film; and while the action sequences are dispatched tautly and effectively, they're all emotionless, formulaic sequences that barely stay in the memory long after the conclusion of the film.

Ultimately, Ghost In The Shell's extraordinary visuals shine way above anything else on the screen.
It's a clear case of style over substance, which is no bad thing given the level of detail spent on them. 
Referencing The Matrix, Blade Runner and many Arthur C Clarke tropes, the film's eye-wateringly gorgeous FX and confidently realised world crackle where the rest of the film unfortunately does not.

In the final wash, Ghost In The Shell's weaker narrative, combined with its sidelining of the more interesting philosophical debates and the story of identity of its main protagonist, sadly stop it from becoming a true sci-fi classic, leaving it floundering as a hollow and shallow video-game lite experience that's more about what's on screen than what lies beneath.

Friday, 27 January 2023

Top Gun: Maverick: Neon NZ Review

Top Gun: Maverick: Neon NZ Review

Cast: Tom Cruise, Miles Teller, Val Kilmer, Jennifer Connelly
Director: Joseph Kosinski

As narratively hollow as blockbusters come, but a spectacle like cinema has been crying out for for years, Top Gun: Maverick poses somewhat of a conundrum.
Top Gun: Maverick: Movie Review

As a sequel to the 1986 film, it finds Cruise's Maverick swept up in the regrets of the past, while trying to take on the future. the future here being training a group of elite fighter pilots for a dangerous - and possibly suicidal - mission to destroy a nondescript nuclear threat, housed within a mountain.

He's training the elite of the elite - and included in their number is Rooster (Teller), the son of his former wingman Goose....

There's no denying that the plot isn't really the thing which propels Top Gun: Maverick along. Sure, it's a catalyst for endless scenes of broing and of planes in the sky, but it's got little flesh on it, and it's to the credit of those involved that there are some moments that truly land for this flick.

But it's also telling that a short sequence involving Val Kilmer's Iceman and Cruise's Maverick that packs more of the emotional heft than any of the moments which punctuate the continual feeling you are in an extended advert for the Royal Navy air force.
Top Gun: Maverick: Movie Review

There's also a touch of Maverick being a relic of the past, with a drone programme shutting down his test ventures, and an antagonistic relationship between Cruise and Hamm's character that's reminiscent of Bruno Kirby and Robin Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam - but all of these touches aren't really what the film's interested in pursuing.

There are moments of reflection, snippets of a past haunting Maverick - but it's roundly drowned out by chiselled jaws, toned bodies and aerial sequences. Talking of those, it's to Kosinski's credit that they are so kinetic, so thrilling and adrenaline-inducing that they're probably the sole raison d'etre for this film. Taking you inside the cockpit and getting you into the forefront of the action is immersive and engaging - and it's these sequences which pour some lifeblood into the film itself.

Cruise is reflective and as watchable as ever, inhabiting a skin that he's clearly relaxed in; of the rest of the cast, aside from a bit more depth to Teller and the aforementioned Kilmer cameo, there's little depth to be found. There's a younger more headstrong arrogant Top Gun pilot in the group who's clearly supposed to be the Maverick of the gang, a token female, a token newcomer to the group and some other hotheads who largely fade away into insignificance as the story goes on. Connelly is there to be alluring and little else, which feels like a waste in all honesty.

But at the centre of it all, thanks solely to the aerial scenes, there's a viscerally thrilling experience that cries out to be seen on the biggest screen possible. If 1986's Top Gun existed to sign people up, then this sequel clearly knows that it wants to do that again - it's just a crying shame that the story doesn't have a bit more depth to elevate it into the stratosphere.

Thursday, 26 January 2023

X: Neon NZ Review

X: Neon NZ Review

Cast: Mia Goth, Martin Henderson, Brittany Snow, Scott Mescudi, Jenna Ortega, Stephen Ure
Director: Ti West

In a movie that purports to put ideas ahead of straight schlock and gore, director Ti West’s New Zealand shot X certainly is all about the idea of the fears of youth and the regrets of the elderly.

X: Movie Review

It's 1979 rural Texas: When a group of young good looking things head to a ranch to make an adult film after their topless car wash falls foul of the IRS, it seems like they’re onto a good thing. Especially with the rise of the home video market.

Amongst their number is enthusiastic producer Wayne (a cowboy hat wearing Henderson, all goofy enthusiasm and lowbrow ideals) and wannabe actress Maxine (Goth, fragile and vulnerable yet determined to make it - even if she does need drugs to get through her tawdry scenes).

But the owner of the isolated Texas barn (Ure) is not happy the young 'uns are on his land and warns them to behave through fears of what it’ll do to his wife...

X knows what it wants to do and sets about it in a creepy, unsettling and understandably exploitative way.

However, West is adroit at building atmosphere whether it be the conventions of the adult film they’re making or the more gory elements that come in later on. Though in truth, it’s the ideas and homages to the horror genres that West gets his kicks from - and audiences will adore long after the lights have gone up.

X: Movie Review

There are some clever ideas going on behind the scenes here as the film progresses and thanks to long slow shots that build tension and disturb, the film has a way of drawing you in before trying to freak you out.

While more in the genre of uneasy psychological shocks than full on kill shots, X is delightfully disturbing and deeply icky as it examines the age issues from within with a central range of characters that play with conventions and occasionally subvert them.

Wednesday, 25 January 2023

Pig: Neon NZ Review

Pig: Neon NZ Review

Less John Wick, more philosophical musing on how society has crumbled, Pig is a film that benefits greatly from the largely muted performance of Nicolas Cage.

Pig: Movie Review

Cage is Rob, an isolated living-in-the-woods ambler of a man, whose long lank hair and ragged clothes make him appear homeless and disconnected from society. Rob leads the life of a truffle farmer, with his trusty pig sniffing out the best delicacies to sell off to his yuppie dealer Amir (Wolff, all slicked-back hair and flashy car).

However, one night without warning, Rob's cabin-in-the-woods door is kicked down, and his beloved truffle pig stolen. Calling on the (seemingly) only person he knows Amir to help him, the hermetic Rob powers into the city with only one thing on his mind - Where is my Pig?

An odd couple pairing of a film that always threatens to erupt into violence, but always takes the more calmly measured philosophical approach, Pig rises on the merits of its two leads.

While Wolff appears to be a boy trying to find his way in a man's world and to shake off a legacy of an elder, his youthful anger early on gives way to a more nuanced turn of a belligerent soul coming to realise his actions have consequences.

Elsewhere, Cage leans heavily into the enigma of the role, with answers not coming early on as to why this man is living alone with a pig, why he's so revered when he returns to the city and why his heart is so broken for the abduction of a porcine pal. Sure, there are a few familiar tropes here that are explored and utilised, and a sign that the philosophies are only skin deep, but Sarnoski's maudlin film is more about the poignancy than the pummeling of faces and answers.
Pig: Movie Review

There's a debate to be had from one scene where Cage's Rob eviscerates a man by destroying his empire with words rather than actions and it's here that Sarnoski sets his stall out, by layering the scene with amusing moments, human tragedy and sheer contempt - to say more is to spoil the film's desire to toy with expectations of revelations.

There's a drip feed attached to Pig's proceedings, and when a simple phrase like "I'd like to speak to the chef" can provoke such a mix of emotional responses as laughter and trepidation, you can tell it's a heady concoction that permeates this melancholy movie.

There's an interesting dish served up in Pig - a subversion of expectations works terrifically well and a monosyllabic main actor helps set the scene and underscore the atmospherics. But what Sarnoski does in Pig as events transpire, is to subtly peel back the layers of complexity and hook you in when you least expect it. It's a film that benefits greatly from no fore knowledge - other than the fact that it's a rare piece of cinema that will marinade your soul for days after.

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