WHITE LIES

The following is a review I wrote for Thread, a new publication on the Kapiti Coast in New Zealand. Pick up a copy if you’re in the area, or you can visit their blog version here. Hopefully this will be a somewhat regular thing, so support a really cool new thing!

8854141I was fortunate enough over the weekend to attend a screening of NZ feature White Lies followed by a revealing Q+A session with writer/director Dana Rotberg, star Antonia Prebble, composer John Psathas and novelist Witi Ihimaera. It might seem odd for a film about NZ colonial identity to be made by a Mexican filmmaker, but surprisingly the story benefits greatly by coming from an outside perspective.

Adapted from Witi Ihimaera’s novella Medicine Woman, White Lies doesn’t have a particularly well told story at its core, but is nonetheless an important film for NZ to have produced. Set during the early days of settlement, the film depicts a sinuous power struggle between colonial housewife Rebecca (Prebble), her housemaid Maraea (Rachel House), and Paraiti (Whirimako Black), the Maori medicine woman whose particular skills and discretion are sought.

The shifting dominance of each of these women, representing different aspects of female identity at the time, weaves a compelling and bleak narrative, but some of the story beats that should have had greater impact unfortunately fall a little flat. Elements that needed more room to breathe play out much too quickly, not allowing audiences time to digest, although the film’s closing scenes are powerful. White Lies deals with uncomfortable subject matter, and Rotberg doesn’t shy away from the story’s most tragic aspects.

Thankfully, White Lies looks better than any NZ film for some time. The cinematography by NZ legend Alun Bollinger gives the rugged setting of the film a beautifully oppressive quality reminiscent of his work on Vincent Ward’s Vigil, and has moments of rare, haunting beauty. 

White-LiesIt’s a shame that most viewers will be unable to hear Rotberg speak about her approach to the film. The director’s keen understanding of the tragedy of colonialism in her homeland brings significance to White Lies that a Kiwi director may have been guarded about addressing, and hearing her thoughts on NZ colonialism and our nervous attitude about exposing our own violent past was incredibly refreshing. Her desire to treat the subject with integrity while never sugarcoating it comes across with wonderful passion, and while she remained respectful of the source material, she makes no excuses for altering Ihimaera’s work to suit her own vision. Despite the film’s faults, White Lies takes more risks and offers deeper perspective than most NZ films of late.

THIS IS THE END

This-Is-The-End-Rogen-Franco-HilcblMainstream American comedy has been in a bit of a lull in the last few years, with films like the Hangover series achieving box office success with lowest common denominator laughs generated through mean-spirited, uncomfortable characters and repetitive situations. That’s what makes This Is The End such a welcome change; a comedy that takes the high concept approach while embracing its relatively low budget and, heaven forbid, has filmmakers and performers who actually seem like they’re having fun.

Sure, enjoyment of comedy more than maybe any other genre is a personal thing, but I don’t usually find a lot of humour in tired character tropes suffering or inflicting punishment on each other. The key to the success of This Is The End lies in Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s decision to feature actors as exaggerated versions of themselves, playing with audience perceptions of the stars who are clearly having a ball exposing their own feelings about their image. 

The list of cameo performances is almost too long to mention, but primarily the story poses the question of what would happen if Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, James Franco, Craig Robinson and Danny McBride were trapped together in a house during the apocalypse. It’s a smart move to keep Baruchel mostly at the centre of the film, being probably the least familiar to audiences and therefore bringing the least baggage to the character. Rogen too keeps himself more or less grounded, with only momentary displays of narcissism and self involvement, but the remaining support cast boldly push themselves to hilarious limits. Most fun are Hill’s overly nice-guy veneer barely concealing a dark insincerity and Franco’s excessive bohemian silliness, with Michael Cera’s brief appearance as a cocaine-addled sexual deviant funnier than anything I’ve seen this year.

this-is-the-end-michael-ceraThis Is The End embraces the spirit of the best 80s comedy that Rogen and Goldberg obviously grew up with, owing much of its supernatural elements to Ghostbusters while also prioritising the characters over the situation. With not a lot riding on the film’s box office performance, the people involved are free to follow threads they want to, and it’s evident that a whole lot of improvising went on during filming. As is often the case with comedy like this not every joke hits, but everyone involved is unafraid to pursue things that safer comedies usually cop out on, and while it’s not much more than harmless, silly fun, sometimes that’s all that you need. 

WORLD WAR Z

url-15For whatever reason there seems to be a problem with making a zombie film on a grand blockbuster scale. Looking at all the greatest zombie movies from the past, from George Romero’s defining Dead series to more recent examples like 28 Days Later, the genre seems to lend itself to lower budgets and independent cinema. So it’s no surprise that World War Z had a troubled production, with costly reshoots seeing the budget apparently balloon to as much as $400m, making any kind of financial success a tough ask.

WWZ is good enough that it deserves to find an audience, but given the competition at this time of year and the industry rumblings about the troubled production, it seems unlikely that it will make much of an impact, even with Paramount and leading man Brad Pitt launching one of the biggest marketing campaigns of the year.

Loosely adapted from Max Brooks’ epistolary anthology novel, WWZ follows Gerry Lane, a former UN peacekeeping specialist of some description, called back in to action to fight a global zombie outbreak in the interests of protecting his family. In the spirit of the source material, Gerry globe trots from Philadelphia to South Korea, Jerusalem and Wales in his hunt for a cure while his wife and two daughters powerlessly await his return aboard a US naval vessel established as a temporary government stronghold somewhere in the Atlantic.

While it’s not ultimately the most original or satisfying take on the material WWZ does get a lot of important things right. There are some tense moments early on as the chaos of the outbreak unfolds, and some fresh ideas are employed to fight the zombie hordes, even if some of the decisions made by Pitt and others seem a little daft. The zombies themselves are absolutely the film’s strong point, one of the most memorable and interesting examples I’ve seen in quite some time. Rather than being portrayed as infected individuals, the masses of undead essentially become the disease, and the visuals of huge waves of infected flowing through alleyways and scaling buildings is unnerving and effective. It’s a very clever use of an arguably overused monster, and the film even gets around the slow zombie vs fast zombie debate pretty successfully.

Sadly, where WWZ falls short is almost certainly where things were changed between the initial script and finished product. There are ideas in the film that feel unfinished and underdeveloped, particularly in the Jerusalem sequence and most of what follows, but there are tell tale signs right from the beginning (for example, Matthew Fox is far too big a star to have just one line in the film). What WWZ is missing when compared to other zombie films is any kind of implied social commentary, however setting part of the film inside the walls of Jerusalem is the kind of bold move that cries out for an allegorical bent, particularly considering what happens at the end of the sequence. The ripe territory is left almost completely unexplored however, simply ending with another zombie rout.

Allegedly accurate breakdowns of the original, very dark script are out there (you can read a good one here), and while WWZ works for the most part, it would have been nice to see the filmmakers take a few more risks and not retreat to the safety of a more crowd-pleasing conclusion.

AFTER EARTH

after_earthPointing an accusatory finger at the work of M. Night Shyamalan seems almost like shooting fish in a barrel at this point, so far has he fallen from the heights of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, but to have to lay the blame for his latest travesty After Earth on a figure as beloved as Will Smith is really quite troubling. However, considering this and Smith’s previous film Men In Black 3 occupy the bottom of the cinematic heap for me in the last two years, it’s hard not to worry that a spectacular fall from grace similar to Shyamalan’s may await the once untouchable box office behemoth.

For After Earth is unquestionably Smith’s film (he is even given a story credit), a vehicle to push not only his son Jaden’s Hollywood agenda but allegedly other, perhaps more nefarious ideologies (more about that below) in front of the cinema going masses. Shyamalan’s name, most likely at the behest of the studio given his toxic reputation, is all but absent from the film, and even his regular cameo is either non-existent or so brief that I missed it completely. What results though is a movie so devoid of any narrative or stylistic drive that feels like it was in fact directed by no-one at all, and you have to ask whether he should have been given a little more rope so at least there would be some level of authorship, for better or worse.

After Earth is essentially a two hander with Smith Senior and Junior as the lone surviving father and son team crash landing on Earth an indeterminate number of centuries into the future, long after our species have abandoned the the planet made toxic by our own carelessness. I think. Maybe there was an alien invasion, but that might have happened on another planet. It’s hard to tell, so terribly does the film lay out the backstory.

Anyway, Smith Senior, a literally fearless military hero, is crippled by a broken leg (or two?), leaving Junior to make a journey of 100 kilometres to reach a beacon to alert off world rescuers to their presence. Unfortunately, according to Senior every creature on the planet has evolved specifically to kill human beings (although humans apparently haven’t been present for quite some time?), and the dangerous drop in temperature every evening adds an extra element of danger to the mission. Oh, and there was a vicious alien on the crashed aircraft that can smell human fear, because all the monkeys, tigers, giant eagles, poisonous leeches and weird flying snake things weren’t enough of a threat apparently.

Basically everything about After Earth is atrocious. Where the estimated $130m budget went is anyone’s guess, as the film is not only messily written but features some of the most laughable special effects of recent times. There’s no consistency to the direction, and none of the major story beats come close to earning their intended impact. But even if it looked great, and the potentially interesting animal evolution aspect was fleshed out more, After Earth was doomed from the beginning by a fatal error in crafting Smith Senior’s character.

This, as those who pay attention to such things may have heard, is where Smith’s apparent true motives lay with the movie, and was the main reason I ventured out to see this nightmare. What’s below might be considered mildly spoiler-ish, so if you were planning on seeing After Earth (pro tip: don’t), it might be worth skipping the end of this review.

after_earth_trailer_1I don’t particularly want to get into too much of a discussion about Scientology as a whole or Will Smith’s alleged involvement, as much better writers than I have looked into it (if you’ve got a couple of hours, I highly recommend this series of articles), but I am interested in how After Earth is being viewed by some as heavily promoting the quasi-religious group.

Smith’s character, the absurdly named Cypher Raige, is a hero of the ongoing off-Earth wars against the hideous alien species because of his ability to ‘ghost’, to become invisible to the aliens because of a complete absence of fear. Smith Junior on the other hand lives with the guilt of his sister’s death during the initial alien attack, guilt which manifests itself in fear which the aliens can detect through skin secretions. Unfortunately, as bad ass as it might sound on paper to have a character who actually has no fear, it makes it all but impossible to care about anything that happens to him or his son. A lack of fear comes across on screen as a lack of all emotion, and why should the audience care about any of what’s happening when it seems that the character doesn’t?

Predictably, the only way Smith Junior can overcome the alien adversary and activate the beacon is by freeing himself from his guilt, and letting the memory of his sister’s death lie once and for all. This concept of being hampered or in some way disadvantaged by memories is one of the documented cornerstones of Scientology beliefs, and while I never really felt After Earth was actively recruiting for the controversial religion, it certainly heavily promotes those strengths which Scientology holds in high regard. Smith Senior, a man whose strength seems borne out of his ability to live in the moment and without regret, even has a handful of weak moments which are intercut with flashbacks, and it’s hard to ignore the connections once they are brought to your attention.

Personally I don’t think it makes a difference to the quality of After Earth either way, but it’s certainly an interesting extra element which might explain some of the film’s more glaring faults, and it’s worth applauding those film analysts who cottoned on to the film’s Scientology agenda first.  To be perfectly honest though, even this weird side to the story doesn’t make it worth seeing. People wanting a thrilling science fiction yarn or a touching father and son overcoming adversity movie aren’t going to get either, but nor will anyone get a hilariously awful Battlefield Earth style Scientology screed. It’s just an aggressively bland, ugly and pointless waste of time, and remains uncontested for worst of the year thus far.

THE GREAT GATSBY

The following is a review I wrote for Thread, a new publication on the Kapiti Coast in New Zealand. Pick up a copy if you’re in the area, or you can visit their blog version here. Hopefully this will be a somewhat regular thing, so support a really cool new thing!

The-Great-GatsbyI can’t remember the last time a film took me by surprise quite as much as Baz Luhrmann’s lavish, lascivious adaptation of The Great Gatsby. If you’ve seen the marketing for the film you might think (as I did) that you know what to expect, but beyond all the glitz and spectacle, Luhrmann and his fantastic cast offer a faithful, enveloping and timely take on the greatest novel of the twentieth century.

Luhrmann’s unique vision of Gatsby gets off to such a rocky start that it’s tempting to write the film off. This is the film we saw in the trailers, where it feels like the director is retreating back to the past success of Moulin Rouge, tragically taking a treasured classic with him. Snatches of story are doled out amidst the chaos of the decadent backdrop, an attempt to disorient us alongside Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) that just doesn’t succeed. However just as it reaches insufferable limits, Luhrmann reigns in his most self-indulgent whims and lets F. Scott Fitzgerald take over.

Having a top-notch cast inhabit these iconic roles really brings out the power of the story, and Leonardo DiCaprio and Joel Edgerton in particular shine through Luhrmann’s bluster when he lets them, as he thankfully does for the second half of Gatsby. DiCaprio expertly juggles both sides of Jay Gatsby, transforming his enigmatic traits into insecurity and warped ambition, and Edgerton captures the brash entitlement of the vile Tom Buchanan wonderfully.

Luhrmann has never been known for his restraint, yet beyond the difficult opening act he manages to engage through story not style, even saving a stinging indictment of modern excess that hovers just out of reach right until the closing moments. Like the titular character himself, there’s much more to Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby below the surface.