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.

Saturday, 25 August 2018

IN THEATRES: The Meg & The Darkest Minds

It's the long-awaited return of the double bill review!

The Meg
When a scientific expedition to the bottom of the ocean accidentally releases a prehistoric shark, an oddball team led by Jason Statham try to hunt it down before it eats 200 bathing tourists. 

This movie is exactly what you think it is, if it was a co-production with China, from the director of National Treasure.

Jon Turtletaub is a journeyman filmmaker who never really brings anything of interest, either visually, or in terms of performances, to make his genre offerings sing. On paper, The Meg could go any number of ways. There is no 'right' way to make a movie - the problem with The Meg is that it tries to play between two different versions of what it could be.

This movie suffers for trying to hew a midway between horror and goofy, and ends up not really satisfying as either. It is watchable, but because it never figures out what kind of movie it wants to be, it ends up a little dull.

The other problem is that the filmmakers completely forget where their leading man's capabilities lie. In his book Blockbuster, Tom Shone had a great line about Arnold Schwarzenegger, and how his forte was physics not chemistry.

Jason Statham works in a similar way - he does not have the capacity for a great palette of emotions. He has a very specific skillset and outside of a few cases - someone is going to yelling Hummingbird/Redemption - he flounders when he is not allowed to use it.

Statham's forte is grizzled stoicism which - when combined with his physical talents - make him great as an action hero, or a comic foil (The Transporter, Crank and Spy).

This is a long way of saying any movie that tries to spark romantic chemistry with Jason Statham is up a blind alley. There is more chemistry between the Stath and that decapitated head in Crank 2 than there is between him and Bingbing Li. I am not familiar with her work, but she has an impossible task - acting in another language against a guy who is better at fighting a room full of dudes with a fire house is a no-win scenario.

While it is never outright terrible, The Meg is kind of dull and repetitive. Ranin Wilson has some moments as the smarmy billionaire trying to cover his own ass, but the movie never really finds its sea legs.

If you are looking for a goofy giant shark movie, you're better off sticking with Deep Blue Sea - or just go watch Jaws.

The Darkest Minds
Kids gain powers. Government gets scared and imprisons kids. Our protagonist discovers she is the most rare and unique of the super-powered kids and goes on the run to try and get back to her family.

Ugh, that sounds more exciting than it actually is.


This movie is the worst thing I have seen this year.

It was also the longest-feeling movie I saw this year. I spent three hours on my feet ushering a documentary about the New York Public Library, and that movie was so much more interesting than this pile of garbage.

I don't want to waste time on it, so I'll run through the list of the things I did not hate:

a) The little girl who played Young Amandla was pretty good.

b) These two good lines: "It's a mini-van, not a Viking" and "You caught me starring at a lake. I am turning into my own grandmother"

This is a movie where the problems are obvious from the jump: a combination of a bad script with too small a budget to realise its massive canvas. 

Thursday, 23 August 2018

IN THEATRES: BlacKkKlansman

Torn between his desire to be a cop and to help his community, rookie officer Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) comes up with a scheme to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. With the help of fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), he successfully poses as a prospective member.

But as Ron's success at penetrating the Klan grows, so does the danger of his cover being blown...  

It is only August, but this might be the best movie of the year. 

Funny, caustic and totally contemporary, BlacKkKlansman is the movie for these times. What elevates it is that its commentary on race is not restricted to its period setting, nor the concerns of today. 

The film is filled with portents of the future - David Duke's belief in getting the KKK into public office; Richard Nixon campaign posters in the back of a KKK initiation - that feel like a convergence of Duke's political ambitions and the Republican Party's race-baiting of the last 40 years.

Harry Belafonte shows up as an elder statesman to talk about civil rights struggles from when he was young in the 1910s. Having Belafonte, an actual elder statesman of the Civil Rights movement, as the spokesperson in this scene, gives the scene a power and sense of history that it would otherwise lack.

That interweaving of meta-narratives carries throughout the film, as the filmmakers weave in elements of American racism, from Birth of a Nation through Trump, that grounds BlacKkKlansman not just in the context of race relations in the seventies, but in the broader context of structural racism as an enduring, evolving institution.

The greatest irony of this movie is that the racism the main character is fighting cannot be contained to the opponents in front of him. He never effects structural change in the police department, and he does not derail the KKK.

The movie's ending is incredibly bittersweet - although he has stopped the villains, his case is closed and Patrice breaks up with him.  

The final scene is so haunting - I watched the movie on Friday night, but it is still burned into my mind's eye. Ron hears a noise outside the apartment. He and Patrice both leave and walk down the hallway - at the end of the hall is a window. In the distance, but perfectly framed through the window, is a burning cross. Ron's ultimate goal remains out of his grasp.

The filmmakers then cut to a montage of the Charlottesville protests, Trump's 'both sides' equivalence and the real David Duke asserting Trump's desire to make America great again aligns with his goals.

In the lead role, John David Washington is really good. Ron is a man caught between different worlds, the police who see him as merely a token, and his community, who treat with suspicion for representing the institution that oppresses them. Washington manages to balance between Ron's pride in being a part of the force, with his growing disenchantment with the bigotry of his colleagues. He's also a great straight man to the BS around him.

As far as the other leads go, they are all good - Adam Driver is good as Ron's partner, and Topher Grace is also great as the completely gormless David Duke - it is always exciting to see an actor with a set image get an opportunity to really break out.

If the movie has standouts, they are supporting players Paul Walter Hauser and Ashlie Atkinson. Hauser plays one of the sleepy-eyed Klansmen, and Atkinson as a female member of the Klan chapter who is constantly trying to prove her worth to her husband and the other members of the cell, despite the misogyny she faces. 

A pointed critique at the chasm between white women and other women of colour, her character feels like the embodiment of this aspect of white supremacy (considering 53% of white women voted for Trump, it feeds into the film's broader relevance to the current moment).

An urgent call to action, BlacKkKlansman is the first movie that really feels keyed in to the existential crisis facing the United States. One of the best movies of the year.

Friday, 17 August 2018

IN THEATRES: Mission: Impossible - Fallout

Following the events of Rogue Nation, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his IMF team are on the hunt for the remnants of the Syndicate, a group of unaffiliated intelligence agents hellbent on sowing chaos around the world.

After Hunt puts the safety of his team above completing a mission to take possession of two rogue nukes, the CIA take over the operation, pairing Hunt with bagman August Walker (Henry Cavill). As Hunt goes on the hunt for the anonymous cabal of 'Apostles' before they can unleash these weapons on the world...

It is still unbelievable now this series has progressed. For the first three entries, it felt like a franchise built on star-power, whatever was popular at the time, and whatever the particular interests of the filmmaker are. With Ghost Protocol, the filmmakers started to actually do some world-building.

Cruise's Ethan Hunt has been a placeholder hero with no real history or personality. The first attempt to add backstory, Mission: Impossible III, signalled a shift with the addition of a serious love interest, but its sequel is where Hunt begins to exhibit something resembling a human personality.

Whereas M:I I-III's Hunt is ready to jump into action at a moment's notice, with Ghost Protocol he becomes more weary of what he is getting into. As the veteran of the team - with a history of dare-devilry - his teammates expect him to handle the most physically daunting tasks, no matter what his feelings are. The best example of this is Benji (Simon Pegg) taking Hunt's lung-power for granted when coming up with the aquatic heist in Rogue Nation.

This gives the films' signature stunts a level suspense and drama that they have previously lacked, beyond the thrill of seeing the star in real danger. Unlike previous directors, Chris McQuarrie has made this feature of the character, and uses it as the basis for delving into Ethan's psyche: why is he so willing to risk his life for others?

McQuarrie's Hunt is the first iteration of the character who feels like a part of the team - he is the squad leader, the team captain. He wants to get the job done, and he does not want to lose any of his team-mates in the process. This Hunt does not see people as expendable, and is driven to make sure that this is never the case. The brilliance of this shading is that McQuarrie does not offer some cod explanation or backstory - instead it ties in perfectly with Hunt's ridiculous actions from the previous movies.

Rebecca Ferguson's Ilsa Faust returns, and kudos again to McQuarrie for bringing back an interesting character and not negating what makes them interesting - thankfully, her relationship with Hunt does not turn romantic. It never feels like she is being wedged in, and the film gives a neat resolution to her (and Hunt's) running battle with the villain of Rogue Nation, Solomon Lane.

This is also the first movie where Henry Cavill fits in. As a leading man, he never shows the charisma or weight to hold attention. But as the defacto second lead (and - spoilers - antagonist), he is really good. Without the need to shoulder the movie, and as a counterweight to Cruise, he fits. Even his character, August Walker, feels like an inversion of Cruise. He does not care about the destruction and deaths he will cause.

McQuarrie does great job of marrying the con-focused spy craft of the original TV show with the more action-based hijinks of the film series. The action here is clever, funny and immersive.

McQuarrie has a great facility for pilling the pressures on Hunt and his team.

The fight between Hunt, Walker and 'Mr Lark' in the bathroom is wonderful. Playing out in sustained wide shots, it is paced like a great dance scene or pratfall, with plenty of reversals as the IMF agents struggle to figure each other out while also trying to get a hold of their opponent.

The other highlight is the third act, which involves three different scenarios in three different locations. It is truly jaw-dropping, above and beyond Cruise's commitment to doing his own stunts. The finale throws in so many spinning plates so deftly it deserves to be studied as an example of maintaining and building tension.

As far as pure enjoyment goes, I don't know if this one hits the same highs as its predecessor, but it is a great movie regardless. Fallout has thrown down a gauntlet for action movies going forward. From star vehicles that cribbed from other movies, Mission: Impossible has moved to the front of the pack.

But what is the pack? The landscape is awash with superhero properties. The closest competition are Fast and Furious and James Bond, but even those examples don't fit. F&F is past parody now, and Bond is stuck in the same perpetual loop of reaction to itself that the franchise has been in for decades.

Fallout reaffirms indisputably that Mission: Impossible really stands alone as the best action spectacle franchise of the last decade.  

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Mumble noir: Aaron Katz's Gemini (2017)

Jill (Lola Kirke) works as the personal assistant/confidant to starlet Heather (Zoe Kravitz), curbing her excesses and keeping her career on track. After breaking up with her boyfriend and dropping out of a big project, Heather is starting to spiral.

Before Jill can get a handle on what is troubling her friend/employer, she finds Heather shot to death.

As the last person to see Heather, Jill quickly comes under suspicion from police. In an effort to clear her name, Jill goes off the grid to figure out who killed her friend.

I was a big fan of director Aaron Katz's last genre effort, Cold Weather. That movie married a fairly simple detective plot to the subtle untangling of a sibling relationship. It was a wonderfully compact little movie that found a way to re-contextualise a genre within the frame of an indie-dramedy.

Eight years later, Katz has returned to genre cinema with Gemini, a noir-tinged murder mystery that feels like an attempt to expand upon Cold Weather's modest canvas, with a more ambitious aesthetic and big name actors (Lola Kirke and Zoe Kravitz).

Though it has many qualities to recommend it, Gemini does not quite have the same lo-fi thrill as his earlier film. While its pacing is measured, and there are no generic plot conventions (e.g. a villain, a chase, an (onscreen) murder) to make it predictable, there is something weirdly rote and shambolic about the story that makes it somewhat frustrating.

Gemini feels like an aesthetic exercise in search of a strong cinematic idea: by that I don't specifically mean narrative, but the movie does not add up to anything. It is disappointing because for about the first hour I was digging the characters and the overall vibe.

I enjoyed the time Katz took to build the rapport between Jill and her self-involved employer, Heather (Kravitz). The actresses have a neat dynamic where each character has power over the other in a series of overlapping relationships: employer-employee; friends; mother-daughter; big-little sister.

Frankly, if the movie had been about their relationship rather than a mystery it might have worked as a small character piece about a spoilt movie star and her assistant/confidant trying to navigate the cesspits of LA.

Visually, Katz does not try to recreate classic noir - his approach vaguely reminded me of Soderbergh, in that he did not go for visual or aural cues that provoke an emotional response. The camerawork is pretty restrained - there are many scenes which take place in extended wide shots, with few high or low angles that would betray an obvious affinity with classic noir.

The most interesting part of the movie from a visual standpoint is the use of colour - Katz makes subtle use of chiaroscuro and splashes of neon that cast LA as a flashy, empty wasteland of broken dreams. It is a great visual evocation of Heather's desensitised reaction to her life and career.

The real standout element is Keegan DeWitt's (Heart Beats Loud) score, a contemporary riff on mid-century noir that combines trap-like beats to a lonely saxophone. It is so atmospheric and mournful, while avoiding obvious emotional cues, that it gives the movie a cohesion and pathos that it would otherwise lack.

With its focus on building the relationship between its leads, this movie is the definition of a slow-burn. The movie takes its time, and the two actresses - particularly Kirke as the no-nonsense Jill - make it worth watching.

In the early going, the mystery is kind of interesting. There is the kernel of an interesting idea in Jill's (Kirke) sleuthing, as she follows Heather's various associates, trying to figure out which one is the guilty party. The fact that she is effectively on the run from the cops adds an additional layer of danger that makes the middle section of the movie rather engrossing.

But when - spoilers - it turns out that Heather is not dead, the movie falls off a cliff. With a movie like this, slow burn tension is great  if it has a payoff.

To be honest, the final twist is easy to catch, but the way the movie resolves is such a non-event that it  retroactively lowered my enjoyment of the movie until that point. The main problem is that after the reveal, we get a basic confession of motive, and then cut to some time later, with heather being interviewed by Ricki Lake (not playing herself) about her disappearance.

While Gemini  has included some narrative ellipses up to this point, the choice to cut away with no real explanation comes off as a cheat (especially considering Heather technically killed somebody who looked like herself), and the disconnect between the story and the style becomes detrimental to the movie: after creating all this chaos for our protagonist, to have it all swept away in an edit does not come off like an attempt to re-work dramatic resolution, but an easy way to get around having to figure out how our heroines sort out the legal and personal fallout of their actions (well, it's really Heather's fault, but still).

The movie ends up feeling incredibly silly and unsatisfying.

BUT, and this might sound strange, despite its failings, I will admit that I was really taken in by the first two thirds of this movie. The combination of noir and mumblecore makes sense here, with the fatalism of the former blending with the latter's struggle for purpose. It is an odd marriage that - in the end - does not go the distance, but as an attempt to bring a genre into contemporary times, both literally and stylistically, Gemini is an intriguing watch.


Cold Weather

Sunday, 5 August 2018


A look at the life of superstar singer-actress Whitney Houston (1963-2012), Whitney is directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Kevin MacDonald.

The official counterpoint to last year's Can I Be Me, this documentary adds more voices and context, but still leaves its subject in shadow.

Once again, the big omission is Houston's best friend/offsider/potential lover(?) Robyn Crawford looms over the story but is not present to offer her story. Like Whitney, she is compiled from the recollections of other people. Considering the place she had in the first half of Houston's life and career, her non-appearance here immediately hobbles the claim in the film's tagline that this story is 'untold'.

The one big reveal is the alleged child abuse that the movie points to as the catalyst that defined Houston's behaviour for the rest of her life. It is the movie's trump card, and it adds a layer of shading to the speculations of the other documentary - whether that adds to our understanding Houston the woman, is another story.

While it is interesting, and MacDonald avoids making Houston (and the supporting players in her life) look squeaky clean, there is something light and superficial about it.

While it is rougher, Nick Broomfield's documentary was built on the bones of an unfinished concert documentary. That limitation ended up being a benefit, as it forced Broomfield into focusing on a specific point in Houston's life, which - whatever its fidelity to the subject - made it feel like a stronger portrait of the singer at a point in time.

MacDonald goes the full biographical route, which results in a vague lack of focus.

Bracketed by montages of pivotal world events during Houston's life, there are great sequences scattered throughout the movie - the breakdown of her Star Spangled Banner performance is a standout - but cumulatively, there is a sense of over-simplification. Maybe this is an effect of comparing Whitney to its unofficial predecessor, but the abundance of content seems to work against creating a coherent, focused portrait of its subject.

When the Broomfield documentary ended, the question marks surrounding Houston felt like parts of the text. Here the sense of incompleteness feels like a flaw.

Every now and then the film hits a critical point - like the Dee Dee Warwick revelations - that feels like the filmmakers hitting a dramatic turn that solidifies their portrait of Houston, and her motivations. But these moments do not stick because - once again - the filmmakers lack the input of its subject.

Like Can I Be Me, there are aspects of Houston's emotional life that are compiled from the assumptions of other people. And while that is not in itself bad (it's hard to avoid here), the way the filmmakers present it gives it a weight that these testimonies should not have to take. For the filmmakers to be so definitive when the key players - Houston, Warwick or Robyn Crawford - are absent (either in-person or on the record), feels sloppy and works against the film's presentation as the 'true story.' It feels like a sliver of truth built on assumption and conjecture.

After watching the two documentaries, I am still left wondering about who she was. To compress anyone's whole life into a movie's runtime feels simplistic and reductive.

Is Whitney worth watching?

For a relative neophyte like me, it is interesting, and MacDonald does provide some emotional punches - the tours of Houston's homes, intercut with home views of Houston in the same spaces - is powerful. However, overall it feels scattershot in focus, and fails to craft a portrait of its subject that feels true to the person, or her talent as a musician.


Whitney: Can I Be Me