Friday, 14 September 2018

IN THEATRES: The Predator

During an encounter with a Predator, black ops sniper Quinn (Boyd Holbrook) manages to steal some of the alien's advanced equipment. Fearing that the government will want to keep the incident under wraps, he send the tech to his hometown as insurance.

What he does not know is that another Predator is enroute to Earth, intent on destroying the technology and anyone that stands in its way.

With a band of ragtag ex-soldiers-turned-convicts, and a scientist (Olivia Munn) with knowledge of the creatures as allies,  Quinn is in a race against time to get home and protect his family from the evil ET. 

I was really looking forward to The Predator. Not because of the franchise, but because Shane Black, of Lethal Weapon and The Nice Guys, was taking up the reins. Sadly, it is the second-worst thing Black has done this year.

A sure hand with action flicks, the filmmaker and co-writer Fred Dekker (of Monster Squad fame) are completely adrift here. Black's hand with hard-bitten characters exchanging barbed, self-reflexive dialogue is barely in evidence, and the movie is weighed down with a dis-jointed story populated by under-written characters.

Particularly in its early scenes, it feels like key scenes have been cut out; characters are introduced and events happen with no build-up or real context. Not to say it is confusing, but there is a rushed quality to proceedings that makes the movie feel unfinished. There is little of the easy flow and relationship-building of previous Black movies. The Predator is in too much of a rush to set up all of the story pieces.

In terms of genre and tone, the movie never lands: is it hard-bitten action flick? A kids movie from the 80s? An alien-government conspiracy thriller? Is it trying to be scary? Is it trying to be funny? Is it aiming for pathos? It never figures itself out.

The set pieces also feel off - there is little build-up or suspense, and an over-reliance on CGI. The would-be show-stopper of the movie, the 'Upgrade' Predator never gets the kind of treatment it needs to come across as an effective threat.

Watching the super-Predator stomp across screen, you really appreciate the physicality and grace that Kevin peter Hall brought to the role in the first two Predator movies, as well as the limitations of technology, which forced the filmmakers to use the creature sparingly. One of the great aspects of the original is the fact that we do not see the Predator until the finale - and that was because the filmmakers literally scrapped the original design for the alien and had to come up with a new one.

In Black's film, the Upgrade Predator is treated so perfunctorily it reminded me of the Alien's inauspicious return at the end of Alien Covenant last year: while there was probably some mo-cap involved, the film's villain is just a computer-generated creation with no weight and little personality. 

The film also suffers from a lack of clear narrative POV.  The focal point is meant to be Boyd Holbrook's hardbitten sniper, but we also have Olivia Munn's scientist Dr Casey Bracket, Holbrook's son (Jacob Trembly) and a busload of military prisoners (Trevante Rhodes, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen, and Augusto Aguilera).

Holbrook's fellow soldiers are more interesting than the bland protagonists, and the scenes of them bonding are the closest the movie gets to being fun. They are just types, but the movie would have been better served by being an ensemble piece.

In light of how the male cast have abandoned Olivia Munn following her revelations that Black had hired a convected sex offender without informing the cast or studio, there is a bitter aftertaste to watching the team try to reconnect with their humanity and become heroes. Combined with the shakiness of the story-telling, knowing about their (in)actions offscreen just reinforces how ineffective they are as 'badasses'.

As Holbrook's offspring, Room star Jacob Trembly fills in the cliche of the super-powered disabled person. As with the other characters, he has no real characterisation, and it is hard to believe or understand his relationship with his father. His part of the plot feels so rote and cliche - and considering how rote the rest of the movie is, that is saying something.

Even the basic premise - a predator fleeing to earth pursued by its comrades - could be cool. It is surprising for a filmmaker like Black, who has displayed an ability to turn conventions on their head, to overlook the potential for playing the story out from the title character's POV.

The movie tries to add detail and shading to the Predator mythos, but the aliens have never been that interesting by themselves - they are designed to hunt other beings. It is hard to find pathos in that makeup. Plus, by revealing more about them, the Predators lose any real sense of danger, and it just draws attention to how silly their mythos is. 

The movie is not without its good points. Jake Busey shows up playing the son of his father Gary's character from Predator 2. There is a great set piece involving our heroes holding onto the outside of a spaceship as its shields activate. The space dogs are fun, and deserved far more screen time (like everything else).

The Predator is not an outright disaster, but the sloppy execution frustrates any attempt to really engage with it as a fun night at the movies.


Monday, 3 September 2018

NZIFF 2018 Diary: Good Manners

Clara (Isabel Zuaa) gets a job working for expectant mother Ana (Marjorie Estiano). Shortly after she begins work, Clara realises that her employer is not all that she appears to be. By night, Ana turns into a sleep-walking, meat-craving monster.

While their bond grows more intense by day, by night Clara has to figure out how to contend with her nocturnal roaming. As her due date draws close, it becomes clear that whatever is afflicting Ana is related to her pregnancy...

I had a choice between this and The Guilty. This one looked weird - and started earlier - so it won. And I am glad I checked it out.

This movie is so wonderfully specific in look and tone. And it touches on so many different tones and ideas: a supernatural horror; a love story; and a story about adolescence, and breaking away from parental control.

As Clara, Zuaa is wonderfully understated. The story is so potentially ridiculous that it requires a careful balancing act in terms of performance. The actress conveys so much with believably human reactions. There is none of the histrionics one gets occasionally in horror movies.

Aesthetically, this movie is fascinating - Ana's apartment is hyper-realistic; the colour palette and lighting of early scenes reminded me of a soap opera. The exteriors are shot against green screen backdrop - or using some weird colour grading. And yet, it never feels cheap - it feels like a contemporary version of the miniatures and matte paintings of an earlier era.

Ultimately, Good Manners feels like a fable - this is a story about the power of love to overcome all hurdles - including lovers who try to kill you, or children who kill their parents (or eat other kids). I have to say, watching films at the festival this year really shook me out of the idea that cinema can only work with three acts/a clear plot. While Good Manners is pretty straightforward, there is something so off-book about the relationship between the leads: The dynamic between Clara and Ana is so well-established, and so unpredictable, that the second half, based around Clara raising Ana's lycanthropic son, feels formulaic.

When this movie is a slow-burn chamber piece about the shifting power dynamic between Clara and Ana from employer-employee to friends to human-monster to lovers - is so engrossing and unpredictable that the second half cannot help but come across as just another monster movie. The CG werewolf effects do not help.

While flawed, Good Manners - at least in the first half - is an intoxicating cocktail of fantasy, black comedy and relationship drama.



The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Skate Kitchen

Let The Corpses Tan

Little Woods

Friday, 31 August 2018

NZIFF 2018 Diary: Little Woods

Ollie (Tessa Thompson) is in a bind. Days away from the end of her probation (for smuggling medicine over the border from Canada), Ollie wants to leave North Dakota, and make a new life for herself elsewhere, leaving the family home to her ne'er-do-well stepsister Deb (Lily James).

Ollie's plans get derailed by a series of new pressures: the bank is coming for her mother's house and Deb needs an abortion.

As time ticks away, and the obstacles pile on, Ollie finds herself heading back toward her old career. Can she get the money together to save her family? Or will she have to risk her life in another run across the border?

The first time I saw Tessa Thompson was in an episode of Cold Case where she played a lesbian poet in the Depression. I had no idea who she was until Creed when I looked at her filmography and realised she had been around for awhile.

There is something old about Thompson, a sense of hard-won wisdom, that always comes through in her performances. Think back to her un-Adrian-like, no-nonsense performance in Creed, or her role as the only adult in the room in Thor: Ragnarok. I have always wanted to see her play the lead in a noir, and Little Woods is the closest thing to it.

Thompson imbues Ollie with a strong sense of drive and intelligence. Ollie is in a struggle to move mountains, and every aspect of Thompson's performance resonates with the stresses the character is under. At the same time, there is a weariness and wryness to her portrayal that prevent her from coming off a s two-dimensional martyr. Ollie has been through all of this before, and Thompson oscillates between exhaustion, bemusement and terror as she is drawn back into her old ways.

America's healthcare system is the perfect fodder for a noir-like drama like this (Breaking Bad is the prime example), with the context of the Dakota oil fields providing another layer of economic pressure to the characters and their struggles.

There are no good guys and bad guys here. Ollie's past business kept her mother alive, and the workers she previously sold to are either uninsured or so poor they cannot afford time off. The drugs are not cure but a distraction, a way to minimise pain rather than heal it.

This movie feels like a dystopia - the jobs are dangerous, law enforcement is arbitrary and discriminatory, there is no healthcare, and if you are a woman...

Little Woods is a small movie, but it ultimately feels like the perfect encapsulation of the pressures facing ordinary people in present day America. There are no explicit references to the current occupant of the White House, or his policies, but such commentary is unnecessary. Little Woods may be the story of two sisters learning to come back together, but the picture it paints of the inequalities built into the American system is terrifying. The sisters may win or lose their personal battle, but in the grander scheme of things, in a society where every basic necessity comes with a price, it may mean nothing at all.



The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Skate Kitchen

Let The Corpses Tan

NZIFF 2018 Diary: Let The Corpses Tan

Following a bank robbery, a group of robbers retreat to a hilltop villa to divvy up the spoils. Their plan goes wrong when a series of unexpected visitors - including a single mother and a pair of motorcycle cops - arrive at the house.

Eventually the house turns into a battle ground as the thieves battle the visitors and each other to control the loot... 

This review is going to be something of a self-own. I was not a fan of Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani's Amer, and because of that I skipped the duo's second effort, The Strange Colour of Your Body's Tears.

Now I want to re-watch/evaluate all of their work, because this movie is awesome!

Watching Let The Corpses Tan, one word kept popping into my brain: sensuality. From the sound design to the Super 16 photography to the Morricone-style score, everything about this movie is pungent and idled up to hit all of your senses.

The sound is so foregrounded, you can almost smell the flavour of the meat hanging in the house, the sweat, the cordite from the gun discharges, the leather jackets, the sweat skin...

This movie reeks.

One of my earliest movie memories is the sound of feet on cobblestones in Mary Poppins. This movie's soundscape dialled me into the primal rush of sound and image. And while these aesthetic choices are cranked to the max, they do not feel extraneous, or a stand-in for content. This movie is pure cinema.
The obvious reference point is the Italian police thrillers of the 70s, but stripped down to the bare essentials. It is as if someone took the opening scene of Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West and extended it for 90 minutes.

This is a story of outsiders, motivated by self-regard, greed, violence and sex. The overheated visuals and soundtrack feel keyed into the characters' avarice. There are points during the stand-off where the filmmakers cut away from the claustrophobic interiors to god's eye shots of a model of the house with ants scurrying through it in a primal evocation of the humans' self-involved mediocrity. In the grander scheme of things, these people and their struggle over the gold is fruitless.

If that sounds a little highbrow, never fear. This movie is genre piece as race car, with all the non-essential parts taken off. It is a classic pressure cooker of a thriller, filled with double-crosses and one-upmanship. It also features a deep, rich vein of pitch black humour.

This movie is a blast.



The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Skate Kitchen

Thursday, 30 August 2018

NZIFF 2018 Diary: Skate Kitchen

Starring the real-life group, Skate Kitchen dramatises the introduction of a new member (played by Rachelle Vinberg).

Camille is a lonely teen who is obsessed with skateboarding, much to the disapproval of her mother (Elisabeth Rodriguez). When she stumbles upon the titular crew, she believes she has found a community to be a part of.

One of the recurring themes of a lot of the movies I gravitate towards involve friendship and community between women. Maybe it is the result of being raised by a single mother, the lack of movies involving women/femmes where they are not playing heterosexual love interests, or maybe I just need to join a book club.

Whatever the reason, it is one of my favourite story hooks.

I have no knowledge of - or interest in - skating, but there was something about the premise for this movie that pulled me in. There is something so intriguing about a group dynamic.

Whether it is a movie about a sports team, a group of friends, soldiers or anthropomorphised toys, there is something incredibly satisfying about following a group of characters with a shared sense of identity.

With a non-professional cast made up of a real-life group of skaters, Skate Kitchen is a movie that foregrounds a real group dynamic. Captured in handheld style that evokes documentary, there is a scrappy run-and-gun quality to the photography that captures the youthful fixation on moments ala the Instagram videos the skaters use to memorialise each other's feats.

Some of the performers are a little flat, but as an ensemble, they have an energy and sense of family and community that is infectious. The way they talk, the way they think, and the way they joke is so organic and unpredictable that - by contrast - the professional cast (Elisabeth Rodriguez and Jaden Smith) come off as weirdly fraudulent.

I don't think Jaden Smith is the worst actor in the world, and maybe he just needs to find better parts, but he feels really out of place here. He is meant to be a lothario, an attractive male presence who draws Camille away from the crew, but Smith never projects any of the allure that makes the character such a threat to the group.

He is really the only bum note in the movie. The real draw is the dynamic among the crew, as they ride around New York City, hang out, make jokes, get in fights and come back together. There is a sense of love and community to their scenes which cannot be faked. I watched this movie very late on no sleep and I was completely riveted. Every time he appears, the movie's unique energy dissipates.

There is not really a plot, and it really is not necessary. The focus of the film is this group of young people, and the world they have created for themselves.



The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

NZIFF 2018 Diary: The Miseducation of Cameron Post

America, 1993. After she is caught with her girlfriend at prom, Cameron (Chloe Grace Moretz) is shipped off to a gay conversion camp in the middle of nowhere.

She quickly falls in with a pair of rebels, 'Jane Fonda' (Sasha Lane) and Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck), and together the trio plot their escape.

Man, there is something off about this movie. The performances are good and the overall approach feels rather understated and empathetic. But I left the movie with the nagging feeling that it did not accomplish what it set out to do.

I wonder what the US audience response is, because mine found the movie hilarious. The movie does have its blackly comic moments (the concept of gay conversion is a perfect site for satire), but with the priorities of the current administration, gay conversion is not something from the distant past.

It feels weird to write this but I was a little underwhelmed by the whole thing. The focus on a white female POV feels a bit old-fashioned, and it does not help that the execution of her story lacks dimension. What makes it worse is who Cameron is in juxtaposition with, like Adam (Goodluck), who has to deal with his roommate's castration (a subplot that feels sidelined because the movie is framed from Cameron's perspective); or Erin (Emily Skeggs), her roommate who channels her sexual frustration into following the camp's edicts to the letter.

Chloe Grace Moretz  is solid as the lead - I have never really believed her in the past, but she has finally reached an age where her world-weariness reads. However, while this is intended to be Moretz's movie, if anyone shines it is Sasha Lane. As the worldly Jane Fonda, she is funny, whip-smart and radiates charisma.

I needed more character and conflict from the main character. Cameron does not seem to change or learn that much throughout the movie, and it was hard to track what her conflict was. She is secure in her sexuality, and when she faces pushback, there is no escalation between her rebellion and the repression from the people running this shit show.

It is heartfelt, and treats all of its characters as human beings, but there is a listless, undercooked quality to the story that prevented me from becoming fully invested in it.



Monday, 27 August 2018

NZIFF 2018 Diary: Mandy

Welcome to my rambling thoughts on the NZIFF 2018, starting with the most Nicholas Cage movie ever made!

When his lover Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) is murdered by an evil cult and a hellish gang of bikers, Red (Nicholas Cage) goes on a fiery rampage of vengeance.

To paraphrase How Did This Get Made?, this is the most un-caged Nicholas Cage movie I have seen in years.

It is also a cinematic tribute to Dario Argento and the best Ronnie James Dio video Ronnie James Dio never made.

The second film from Panos Cosmatos (son of genre filmmaker George Pan Cosmatos), this movie is extremely simple in terms of story: a loved one is killed and an enraged man hunts the killers down and kills them.

Andrea Riseborough as Mandy
The film is set in 1983 and there is an audio snippet of a Ronald Reagan address about America's spiritual renewal. The film does feel like it is making a vague point about the end of the 60s, with the story's hippies have becoming self-obsessed spiritualists who use their power to serve themselves.

Trying to work out what to label this movie is pointless. Mandy is set in a cinematic world where bikers take bad drugs and turn into blood-drinking psychos who can be summoned by a rock flute. 

The movie's simplicity is a major boon, but there are points where scenes drag on far longer than they need to (Linus Roache gets one monologue too many). However those moments are balanced by the movie's single-minded need to be the most mythically metal tale of vengeance imaginable. 

Scenes of Cage forging and making his fearsome blade ala Conan the Barbarian; facing off against the biker gang; or engaging in a gnarly chainsaw duel with a burly cultist feel like a fever dream of seventies and eighties pop culture. This is a berserk genre exercise, awash my vivid colour, hyper-real sound design, simple exposures and animated visions.

Despite the energy and viscera of the movie's key sequences, Mandy comes across as rather mournful and melancholic about the past - all the characters feel like they are attempting to deal with unstated past trauma - Red and Mandy have found solace in each other, while the film's villain (Linus Roache) has insulated himself with sycophants and a penchant for the black arts.

Roache is an interesting choice for the antagonist. At first he seemed miscast. He has an everyman quality that feels a bit at odds with both the character he is playing and the overheated diegesis that character exists in.

About midway through, it becomes clear that he is a pathetic loser with no real control over what he is doing. Like our heroes, there is a sense that his time has passed. While the movie feels like a fantasy, there is a sense of loss and age that - weirdly - grounds the movie.

Strange and haunting, Mandy contains many of the tropes of exploitation cinema of one era, but also feels like an oblique commentary about the end of a preceding one. Simple yet complex, over-stylised  yet incredibly functional, histrionic yet subdued, Mandy is as surprising and hard to categorise as its leading man's performance choices.