Sunday, 19 November 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes: Blu Ray Review

War for the Planet of the Apes: Blu Ray Review

In the concluding part of the trilogy, you'd be forgiven for expecting that it would be full-on action for Caesar and his pals as the fight for the earth continued.

But, if you're anticipating being delivered apes with all guns blazing, then director Matt Reeves, the incredibly talented WETA Digital team and the ever-under-appreciated Andy Serkis have a very big surprise for you.

War for the Planet of the Apes
War for the Planet of the Apes: Blu Ray Review

In the final chapter, Caesar (mo-capped Serkis) has become a legendary figure to both the apes and humans, held in both reverence and fear by both sides. On the run and in hiding, Caesar's world is shattered when an ambush from the humans (led by Harrelson's Colonel) leads to very personal losses.

Against the wishes of the rest of the apes, Caesar heads off on a quest for vengeance, endangering the apes' future and his own...

Mixing up a degree of a simian Band of Brothers, an end-of-times Western and a psychological rumination, War For the Planet of the Apes is not your average blockbuster thrill-ride, but an absorbing conclusion to a consistently intelligent and entertaining series.

The power of this trilogy of films has been one about the clashes of ideologies, the divisive line between human and animal, and the perilous balance between descending into madness. In War For The Planet of The Apes, it's Caesar whose journey is the most important, and who stands to lose the most after deciding on a course of revenge.

Thankfully, a wonderfully nuanced turn from Serkis imbues this outing with the requisite and expected emotional depth that we've come to expect from the series. And while the signs are on the wall (quite literally throughout) of another paean to Apocalypse Now, thanks to a Kurtz like turn from an almost messianic Harrelson, those behind the script deserve to be commended for not launching into a salvo of bullets flying and explosions (well, right away at least.)

In fact, it's the almost mournful script that elevates this from the primal mud; early parts of the movie have a Western feel to them as Caesar and his small troop move on after a tension-filled action burst of a beginning. It's just as well, because the rumination-like feel of the script and execution thereof is slightly muddied by the introduction of a comedy "Bad Ape" (voiced with requisite catchphrase glee by Steve Zahn) and the need to ram home some of the inspirations for the finale.

War for the Planet of the Apes

It's to be understood why, given the almost dirge-like feel to the proceedings (not a bad thing by any step of the imagination) and how it ends up as some kind of allegory of a fight between workers and unions, Spartacus meets Shawshank Redemption and riddled with Holocaust imagery, such as ape crucifixions as well as the obligatory Ape Escape sequences.

Harrelson deserves commendation for adding an edge to his Colonel, and a tragedy to proceedings. Rather than head into OTT territory, there's a subversion of expectations in War For The Planet of the Apes that he helps deliver.

It's not that there are not meaty concepts within this film, more a feeling that morally things are grey - and once again the digital apes deliver that in spades in their performance. Even Harrelson's Colonel wryly remarks while staring down Caesar that his eyes "look almost human."

Layering both tragedy and pathos in relatively equal measure, and despite some faltering turns in the story early on, (mainly involving a Nell-like child), War For the Planet of the Apes delivers a finale that crackles with delicious nuance as it debates whether Caesar (and by extension all of us) is right to succumb to his demons.

War For The Planet of the Apes is a sublime conclusion to the franchise, and a timely reminder that combined with intelligence and digital excellence, these Apes manage to mirror our human lives and future pre-occupations  in ways that may actually surprise cinema-goers. 

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Wonder Woman: Blu Ray Review

Wonder Woman: Blu Ray Review

The internet's already exploded with outrage at a "Women only" screening of the latest entrant into the DC Extended Universe.
Wonder Woman: Film Review

Equally, there have already been calls to hail the two-and-a-half-hour film one of the best of the DC big screeners, thanks to its all-woman pairing of Monster director Jenkins and Gadot's Amazonian Princess.

After Suicide Squad (one complete with leering camera lingering uncomfortably on Margot Robbie's behind as Harley Quinn overtook the screen) and the all-boys fight club of Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, complete with its pomposity and nonsensical plot, the DC Comics world had some way to go to catch up with the levity of its comrade-in-arms the Marvel films.

Particularly, given that current the social climate apparently sidelines women as leads and we live in a world populated by Women's Marches.
Wonder Woman: Film ReviewBy necessity an origins story (yet again), Wonder Woman, stripped of the campery of the original Lynda Carter's stars and stripes TV show, manages to bring to life a slice of wish fulfillment as America, by way of Chris Pine's spy and Wonder Woman's patented red, white and blue garb, manage to save the day in the dying moments of World War I. (And 2000AD fan boys will notice similarities to Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell's superhero vs Nazis Zenith stories of 1987)

Though while DC's universe and track record of films within isn't exactly great, thanks to the assured directorial eye of Patty Jenkins (whose Monster revitalised Charlize Theron), this is one comic book origins story that largely gets the bigger picture right - and also goes some way to satiating the furore that women are under-represented on film and in certain genres.

Starting on the mystical island of Themyscira where nobody but teutonic athletic Amazons train in perpetual slow-mo and live, Gal Gadot's early Diana years centre on her world being uprooted when plucky spy Steve Trevor (an earnest, likeable and restrained Pine) literally falls out of the sky and onto the island.

Once Diana learns of the world beyond her shores from her dude-in-distress Trevor and believes there is the very real possibility that Amazon-banished god Ares, the god of War is at work in the wider world, she teams up with Steve to do her sworn duty and save the world from destruction.

Book-ended by two different action sequences (one a rote obligatory superhero CGI-heavy spectacle and clash of the titans that lacks the personal, the other an athletic and graceful balletic sequence that showcases the fighting skills complete with usual slow-mo), the film feels like a mesh of war-time adventure and expected conventions.

Playing up the comic naivety in the real world schtick, as made popular by Chris Hemsworth's culture -clash Thor in Marvel counterpart films, Gadot and Pine form an easy bond early on, and imbue their burgeoning relationship with a heart and earnestness that makes for easy watching.
(Though, in fairness, Diana's naivety begins to grate thanks to a continuing number of speeches on the horrors of war as she navigates the world). Demonstrating that comedy and humour are the best way to create heart makes for an easy bedfellow as the drama gets underway, and it helps that Pine underplays to a terrific degree, ensuring that his Steve Trevor is seen as a genuine good-guy in all of this.

Gal Gadot also impresses, even if so many of her close-ups seem to fall straight from the shooting of a pouting lip-gloss commercial.

Wisely eschewing the lecherous cameras that plagued Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad and any female in a Michael Bay Transformers movie, Jenkins and Gadot manage to bring to life an icon that's perhaps as empowering as she is important.

There's no denying that in a patriarchal hegemony, Diana, the Queen of the Amazons breaks through, but she manages to do it in such a way that it's hard now for future films to belittle or sideline female leads.
It helps that Gadot manages to deliver a turn that strips away some of the woodenness of her prior roles (see Keeping Up With the Joneses) and parts of the wooden script.
Wonder Woman: Film ReviewThis is a heroine for our times, and while there's a nagging feeling that Diana becomes slightly rote in the messy third act, there's no denying that Gadot's turn here is going to inspire many.

But if plenty of effort's been poured into Gadot's Diana and Pine's Trevor, it's clear that other parts of Wonder Woman are sadly left wanting.(Though these feel less significant than quibbles in films like Suicide Squad and Batman vs Superman.)
Wonder Woman: Film ReviewDanny Huston's German villain and Dr Poison (aka The Skin I Live In's Elena Anaya, once again wearing a Phantom of the Opera style facials) are bereft of anything other than a once-over villain stereotyping, a charge often laid at both Marvel and DC's door. In fact at times, the maniacal duo are reminiscent of Rocky and Bullwinkle's Natasha and Boris in their cartoon villainy and machinations.

Equally, the rest of Trevor's squad, selected for a suicide mission in France's trenches, are fairly rote, given a few scenes of enforced bonding and ultimately add little to proceedings, other than comedy.
While former The Office star Lucy Davis proffers some comedy chops as Trevor's secretary and Diana's guide to women-in-wartime, there's a distinct feeling that bit players in this piece could have been handed more.

A good 30 minutes of the 150 minute run time could have been chopped in the edit suite, and Wonder Woman would have been a testament to oestrogen-fuelled film-making.

As it is, and thanks largely to Gadot's work, and Jenkins' smart handling of re-jigged source material, there's little denying that Wonder Woman has given very real life to the DC Extended Universe.

Here's hoping the future films continue to build on this development and this beacon of superhero light is the start of better things to come within the genre. 

Friday, 17 November 2017

Human Traces: Film Review

Human Traces: Film Review

Cast: Sophie Henderson, Mark Mitchinson, Vinnie Bennett
Director: Nic Gorman

New Zealand films usually fall into one or two categories - and usually fail to offer many points of difference.

From murky history pieces lecturing on how the country wronged its indigenous settlers to some dramas that never quite make it to dizzying heights of feeling more than TV fare, the industry as a whole has shied away from mystery.
Human Traces: Film Review

Step forward Nic Gorman's elegaic, intriguing and thoroughly impressive Human Traces to pick up the mantle and throw down a gauntlet.

In this moody and evocative piece set 750 kms south of New Zealand on an island (though in truth, with its universal themes, and stripped of its accents, it could be anywhere) where Mitchinson's Glenn is monitoring the eco-system. Sarah, his wife of 30 years his junior, (Henderson, achingly isolated and bristling for a return to home-life) doesn't believe Glenn's work is succeeding; her bond in him and with him is clearly fraying when we join them.

Their world is changed by the arrival of Vinnie Bennett's Pete, a DoC ranger and whose arrival, although expected, is fraught with suspicion.

To say more about Human Traces is to rip away its ingenue and its central mystery, a knotty and, for the large part, gripping tale.
Human Traces: Film Review

Gorman's twist-and-turns script pulls and pushes his actors in ways that are challenging, but it's the central premise of the story split into three pieces and scenes played again but from different protagonist points-of-view which give Human Traces its captivating USP.

Its psychological edges completely grab you in the second act, as everything you thought you knew and suspected is pulled from in front of your eyes. Cleverly disorienting audiences is part of its Rashomon effect, and while Human Traces hints at a lack of humanity on show, what envelops the central trio is explicitly human at its core.

As the gradual layers reveal themselves, Gorman sets scenes to the crashing waves, their churning and thrashing signifying a change in the emotional tides. He makes great fist of the rugged terrain of the Otago coastline, revelling in it to help convey the script's increasing confidence.

At times, Human Traces is a sparse film, but it's also one which soars magnificently as it plays out in front of audiences. Its third act may feel weaker as a denouement, but that's simply demonstrating how much that happens previously grips in a vice.

Moody, suspenseful and expertly executed, Human Traces is perhaps one of New Zealand's finest cinematic 2017 experiences.

The Beguiled: Blu Ray Review

The Beguiled: Blu Ray Review

Gifted the best director awards at Cannes for this, Sofia Coppola returns to more ethereal portraits as is her wont in The Beguiled.

Set in 1864 Virginia, 3 years into the Civil War (though, in all honesty, time and the world outside barely trouble much of what transpires), Coppola's take on the 1971 Don Siegel Southern psychodrama, which starred Clint Eastwood, is as wispy as the mist which hangs over the woods in the opening shot.

The Beguiled: NZIFF Review
The Beguiled

Colin Farrell stars as a wounded Union soldier, Corporal McBurney, found cowering under a tree by one of the young charges at the local girls seminary, run by Nicole Kidman's buttoned up Martha. At first the seven of them debate what to do with McBurney, but different feelings of repression, desire and blossoming sexuality come to the fore as time passes.

Initially deciding to allow McBurney to recuperate before being sent on his way, the chaste and secluded women find themselves all-a-fluster thanks to McBurney (and by extension, Farrell) and his rogueish charm.

Soon, however, the question becomes who is beguiling who?

Coppola's eye for the female gaze is evident throughout, much like it was in The Virgin Suicides.

By turns, light, funny and sultry, The Beguiled does much to bewitch, even if its flirtations are as passing as the breeze.

What transpires is a four-way as Farrell, Kirsten Dunst, Kidman and the preternaturally youthful Elle Fanning vie for the attention. From dinners that drip with the potential of a cat fight, or the closest a finishing school will allow, to clandestine visits and impromptu liaisons, the film positively drips with sultry sensuality as it plays out.

Coppola's more interested in the female dynamic at play here and most men, bar Farrell, are framed from a distance when they appear and / or are surplus to proceedings. Sure, cannons fire and plumes of smoke appear on the horizon, but men are rarely seen at this finishing school, giving the flirtations a weight that's understandable when McBurney shows.

But as she stacks the deck with betrayal, lust and repressed desire, what she creates in The Beguiled is a similarly themed entrant as others display in her catalogue. Using a similarly ethereal lens and vision, Coppola may be making an obvious film in many ways, but its subtleties are enough to beguile the audience.

With equal amounts of humour, takes on etiquette and coquettishness, the battle of the females, and simple simmering, the film manages to cast a spell on those who view.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Justice League: Film Review

Justice League: Film Review

Cast: Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot,  Jason Momoa, Amy Adams, Ezra Miller, Henry Cavill, JK Simmons, Jeremy Irons
Director: Zack Snyder

The Avengers had it after numerous build up films, and while Suicide Squad signalled DC's intentions to let the baddies have all the fun first to cinematically buck the team-up trend, it was perhaps inevitable that the squad team up event would ultimately arrive.

And that it has now - albeit more with dramatic deja vu and some moments that genuinely engage and amuse among the appallingly executed and shonky CGI - should come as nothing of a surprise to those who've been following the rapidly-bloating superhero genre.
Justice League: Film Review

Following on from Snyder's much-derided Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and the critical success of Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman, Justice League arrives with a degree of weight of expectation to see if DC can properly launch a squad franchise for future incarnations. (Though baffingly, Jason Momoa's Aquaman will get an origins film after this one releases).

With Superman dead after the tussle with Batman, the world's awash with chaos, with an increase in terrorist events and general hoodlums.

As if that's not enough, Batman's wandering around in a kind of funk, awash with ennui and with hair flecked with grey - even Alfred (Irons) wryly notes at one point that one misses the days when the biggest problems they faced were wind-up electronic penguins.

Diana Prince (Gadot, a little less wooden this time around) is faring a little better, protecting those in peril and persuading Bats that they need more people on their team to help combat a growing problem, which threatens the world and as usual, involves a MacGuffin.
Justice League: Film Review

Enter Ezra Miller's Barry Allen aka The Flash, the quip machine and nerdy heart and soul of the piece. His touch of levity doesn't go too far a la Thor Ragnarok, but signals DC's intentions to perhaps add a degree of humour.

Sadly, he's the only one of the new additions who's not saddled with reams of exposition for their introduction - unlike Ray Fisher's Cyborg, and Jason Momoa's Hawaiian influenced Aquaman. Their involvement isn't so much shoe-horned in, but clearly laden with necessity that could have been cleared up in an origins film.

The main issue with Justice League isn't so much that DC's pulled together something that feels like a revamp of intentions for the DCEU, but more that due to superhero cinema overflow, feels like a rather unfortunate piece of deja vu, that suffers once again from a lacklustre villain and definite feeling of lack of threat to all. It certainly undoes some of the good work done by Wonder Woman in terms of narrative and execution.

A series of cubes that threaten the world - pretty sure that was in an Avengers film.
A series of flying insect creatures that threaten the world - again, pretty sure that was in an Avengers film as well.

The sense of deja vu in this heroes assemble film is almost stifling, it feels like much is an identikit of all-too-familiar elements and tropes.
Justice League: Film Review
Its denouement is perhaps its weakest point, a muddled mess of CGI weakness that feels dark, muddied and narratively laughable thanks to its deus-ex-machina.

And while for a DC effort, there's no denying this is a massive step-up in terms of delivery and signalling of intent, it never quite reaches any highs that you'd hope for, and settles more for a run-of-the-mill middle of the road blockbuster that's let down poorly by badly executed CGI and a rote plot.

Ultimately, while there are parts of Justice League that show the DC universe is righting itself, there are not enough of them on show in the film among the dullness that pervades. There's no denying Justice League is the creative leap that DC wanted, but there's also a persistent nagging feeling that the genre is reaching the end of its shelf life, and this should-have-been hit-it-out-of-the-park piece is more a film that never managed to convince itself to reach for greatness.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

The Killing of a Sacred Deer: Film Review

The Killing of a Sacred Deer: Film Review

As darkly black as they come and as uncomfortable as you may expect from the director of The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is an unmissable experience.

In other hands this could easily have been a horror, but under Lanthimos' unswerving eye, it's his usual combination of both the weird and also the devilish, which cause you to squirm uncomfortably in your seat. As demonstrated with The Lobster and Dogtooth, Lanthimos has a way of creating a world that's self-contained and populated with a veneer that doesn't quite feel right, but feels drily plausible.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer: NZIFF Review

A heavily-bearded Colin Farrell plays heart surgeon Steven, whose journey begins post-surgery discussing the banality of a new watch that he needs with his colleague. As they stalk the halls of the immeasurably clinical hospital where they work, Steven talks in a staccato robotic turn of phrase, with the inane sounding incredibly offbeat, almost as if a robot synthesiser programme has followed a series of sub-routines and thrown out something that could pass for conversation.

Steven's life appears fine - he has a wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and a daughter and son. He also has a friendship with a young boy Martin (Dunkirk star Barry Keoghan) that seems a little unusual at best.

But as the black humour and the film plays out, that relationship with Martin becomes key to proceedings as retribution, guilt and Greek tragedy begins to bite. To say more is to spoil the reveals of the film, which come gradually and powerfully as it unspools.

Lanthimos isn't interested in moralising in his latest - and it's clear that pretty much everyone has something to hide in the film, giving it a dangerous edge and a warped sense of desperation. As Martin's obsession grows, the long slow shots that Lanthimos injects into the film and the darker edges become almost unbearable, blessing proceedings with a quite horrific dread that spreads malignantly and quickly.

Many spend time remarking on Steven's hands in this film and how clean they are. It's a delicious irony that they're anything but, and with Farrell's cool veneer losing its grip the more it carries on, the film's more absurdist edges actually become more plausible and all the more horrific because of it.

If Farrell and Kidman are unswervingly staunch, it's Keoghan's malicious Martin that impresses most. With a cold, clear sense of warped logic, his path to the punishing plays out with an underplayed edge; his calmness makes everything seem that more sinister and disquieting.

Ultimately, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a bold film - it pushes some buttons excellently, but Lanthimos knows when to hold off, when to hold his nerve and when to put the audience through the wringer. Much like The Lobster set things with a bittersweet off-kilter feel, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is truly knuckle-clenching. Like a master, Lanthimos leads us to the final destination and we arrive at it, breathless and wrought with the horror of the ride. It's compellingly grim cinema at its dark unpunishable best. 

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Tulip Fever: Film Review

Tulip Fever: Film Review

Cast: Alicia Vikander, Dane DeHaan, Christoph Waltz, Cara Delevingne, Holliday Grainger, Jack O'Connell, Tom Hollander, Judi Dench
Director: Justin Chadwick

Forever destined to be known as the film disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein left on the shelf for 3 years and also the first film to be released by the Weinstein Company post Weinstein's spectacular fall from grace, Tulip Fever is something of a tonal mess.
Tulip Fever: Film Review

Future Tomb Raider star Alicia Vikander stars as Sofia in this period piece set in 17th century Amsterdam as the tulip market grows feverishly. Similar to the stock market, there's a great trade to be had in bulbs and speculation, and Sofia finds herself in the middle of it when she escapes the convent she's in by agreeing to be married off to Waltz's merchant.

With pressure to conceive, Sofia is found wanting and Waltz's Cornelis decides to commission a painting of the two of them from upcoming artist Jaan (DeHaan). But an illicit affair grows between the pair, culminating in tragedy for everyone in the house - including Grainger's maid and confidante and her lover (O'Connell).

It's hard to know exactly what Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) wanted to do exactly with Tom Stoppard's mashed together screenplay.
Tulip Fever: Film Review

From period drama, romance, farce and finally on to inevitable tragedy, the film flip-flops so badly and bounces between different genres that you get cinematic whiplash watching on.

It's not like any of the cast (with the exception sadly of DeHaan and Delevingne who prove to be the weakest links here) give it anything but their best and throw themselves into it with gusto. But a lack of coherence and cohesion proves to make this narrative bulb wilt and wither as its inevitable formulaic tropes are systematically ticked off.

Inevitably what emerges from Tulip Fever is a Carry On style drama film that even Shakespeare would have dismissed as too light for his attention.
Tulip Fever: Film Review

And despite Vikander's continuing allure and dramatic chops for every role she takes, the film's fatal flaw causes the whole house of cards to come crashing down around everyone's ears.