Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Cobain: Montage of Heck: Film Review

Cobain: Montage of Heck: Film Review

Stars: Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love, Krist Novoselic
Director: Brett Morgen

Kurt Cobain - legend, junkie, father, suicide victim.

There's already so much which has been said about Cobain's brief 27 years on the earth and so much charted about the rise of Nirvana. So you could be forgiven for thinking this documentary had nothing new to cover, except to rake over the coals of long simmering resentments, reigniting old discussions about whether Courtney was the Yoko of the band and remember the tragedy of his passing.

But Brett Morgen (director of The Kid Stays in the Picture) manages to do something that rejuvenates the musical doco genre and breathes new life into a subject, long presumed fully researched.

Morgen was granted access to home movie footage from the Cobain family, access to Kurt's journals, drawings and tape recordings (which he didn't know existed); it's a wealth of information and one which gives an all access pass to the man's life, fears, hopes, dreams and consequently gets the most intimate insight into Cobain ever committed to celluloid.

Choosing to tell Cobain's story right from the start of his childhood years of misery in Aberdeen, Washington where he was a child of divorce (a rarity of the time) through to the bullying at school before the struggles and ultimate success of the band, this is the classic and time often told story of a tortured genius.

But Morgen chooses to use audio recordings from Cobain come vividly to life with animation, a move that borders on genuinely inspirational.  Animations in the style of Waking Life / Waltz With Bashir flesh out the past, leap off the screen and bring to life what could have simply been dry talking heads. Morgen also opts for a very small number of interviewees (no Dave Grohl though)  - including Cobain's first girlfriend who's never spoken before - which lends further intimacy to the proceedings (though it would have been beneficial to have heard more from Cobain Sr) and means the usual spouting talking heads who've been so outspoken on Cobain are kept quiet.

Pulling together footage from the band's early days through to Cobain's bizarre performance at the Reading Festival where he emerged in a wheelchair, the music is front and centre, guaranteed to give any Nirvana fan the aural thrill they seek.

The exhaustive nature of the doco and the wealth of material occasionally means that Morgen's direction sometimes feels a little overwhelmed, but the narrative thread is nicely woven through; however, it hits a minor stumbling block with a lag at about 90 minutes which is a surprise. Then home video footage from Kurt and Courtney's drug-addled time in their apartment stuns you into realising what was happening to the rocker and it's captivating in its weirdness as the pair loll around like Sid and Nancy before a damning Vanity Fair article takes aim.

Confessions from Love of a potential near-miss affair add new light to Cobain's first suicide attempt and a long bow is drawn to an inference that Cobain's fear of humiliation could have led to suicide (an implication that could have been probed further), but there's never any vilification here of any parties, merely an access to all the materials to help you draw your own conclusions. Eqaully, footage of a clearly drug-addled Cobain with his daughter Frances Bean is upsetting and harrowing, a sign that a father was losing his way.

With the lights out, it's no less dangerous - and Cobain: Montage of Heck, which will become the bar to which all future musical documentaries will be held up, certainly does entertain us. Perhaps in ways that really almost feel a little too close to the subject.

Cobain: Montage of Heck (based on a title from a mixtape Morgen found) is both exhaustive and exhausting (it could have stood to lose maybe 20 minutes) but it's a raw, unflinching, surprisingly intimate portrait of a hyper-sensitive artist and an unwilling spokesman for a generation, who will find new fans some 20 years after his death.


Monday, 27 April 2015

Paddington: Blu Ray Review

Paddington: Blu Ray Review

Rating: G
Released by Sony Home Ent

Marmalade sandwiches, an inquisitive nature and a duffle coat.

These are the quintessentials of Paddington Bear, a quintessentially English story from Michael Bond that's been updated for the big screen for 2015.

James Bond's Q aka Ben Whishaw is the voice of the bear, who's forced to abandon darkest Peru after an earthquake destroys the home where he lives with his aunt and uncle. Having been discovered years ago by a quintessentially English explorer, Paddington's been imbued with a love of all things English and believes that's where his future lies.

Abandoned at Paddington station (the metaphor for the displaced children of World War II freshly ensconced in your mind), the bear finds solace with the Brown family - its soft matriarch (Sally Hawkins, in endearing form) and its rather unimpressed patriarch (Downton Abbey's Hugh Bonneville in frowningly frumpy mode).

But within hours of arriving in London, Paddington catches the eye of Millicent (an icy and somewhat wooden Nicole Kidman) who's got plans for this little bear...

Paddington loses some of the sweet sophistication that blessed the books and the 1970s TV series narrated by Michael Horden in its transition to the 21st Century. In one scene in a bathroom the bear goes into full-on comedy scapegoat that would have been blessed with naivety back then but is now a series of CGI silliness aimed squarely at the youngsters.

It's a shame because King's uses some truly stunning directorial flourishes to great effect - in one, to illustrate the passing of time the Brown's downstairs is decorated with trees and blossom on their walls which wafts away leaving winter-time branches. Elsewhere Paddington watches a black and white film of his home and walks into the image, meshing with the Peruvian rainforests. These are truly remarkable touches in an otherwise relatively normal film.

The much-derided innuendo that caused an uproar in the UK smacks merely of traditional pantomime and seems a trite accusation to level at it.

Whishaw proves the perfect casting choice for the bear with his vocals mixing up innocence, childish naivety and misunderstanding that may have stood out more with the original choice ofColin Firth who consciously uncoupled from the movie. Equally Bonneville channels the usual depiction of an uptight Londoner in a city which always rains but somehow looks beautiful in the continual cinematic stereotyping of the capital, but he's likeable enough.

However, Kidman's icy wooden presence is an unwelcome addition to the bland family movie - while there has to be a villain in this origin story, she sticks out like a sore thumb thanks to some awful writing and lack of anything. Certainly, the denouement at the British museum feels formulaic and betrays some of the sparkle of what goes before.

Overall, this new Paddington may offend some fans of the original series and its innocent ways, but there's a reverence to the source material and a pleasant warmth in this unmistakably British bland flick that will ensure it's the go-to-movie for families over the holiday period.


Sunday, 26 April 2015

God Help The Girl: DVD Review

God Help The Girl: DVD Review

Rating: M
Released by Universal Home Ent

A crowd-funded musical about a depressed girl struggling to get her life back on track sounds on paper like a good idea.

In practice, the movie God Help the Girl comes across as a bubblegum mix of whimsical fey. Every scene is like a perfectly choreographed music video, with characters being somewhat secondary to the story.

Emily Browning is the strongest link in this cinematic chain as Eve, who's undergoing treatment in Glasgow, but who escapes to gigs through a window at her hospital. One day she meets James (a weedy Olly Alexander) a guitar player who's without a band and real inspiration. They decide to start playing and writing together, co-opting a third member, Cassie (Hannah Murray) a student of James' who's bored, rich and able to do whatever she wants.

Together, the trio make music and try to negotiate one summer of burgeoning romance, music and life.

God Help The Girl is a hard film to love if you're pre-disposed to be a cynic or not perhaps a hipster.

While Emily Browning is radiant as the lead sad sallow faced Eve, the consciously quirky and infectious music proves somewhat of an irritant and too much of a light hearted distraction throughout.

Directed by Stuart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian, with songs he wrote for the film, is partially the problem; way too close to the material and with an eye for a perfect pop blast and musical interlude, his narrative stumbles as Eve sings and dances her way through life's major issues from beginning to end. An entirely predictable sub-plot sees James fall for Eve and then watch her croon her love for others and end up with them. Therapy happens by way of musical interlude time and time again - and unfortunately, the cumulative effect proves to be more asphyxiating than intoxicating.

The whole effect is like a musical Michel Gondry, with Murdoch infusing so much of everything on the screen with music that despite the colourful interludes, it just feels all a little too much unless you're that way inclined.

It's perfectly pleasant blast of musical escapism and a mix of happy / sad that's a perfect accoutrement to Belle and Sebastian's musical folksy-ness - but it just wasn't for me, thanks to weak characters and a conceit that was too in your face rather than a little bit more subtle. 

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Two Night Stand: Blu Ray Review

Two Night Stand: Blu Ray Review

Rating: M
Released by Roadshow Home Ent

Pairing together two of the hottest young actors at the moment, Miles Teller and Analeigh Tipton, this rom-com offers a bit more than you'd perhaps expect.

Tipton plays Megan a frustrated single who joins a dating website and ends up meeting Teller's Alec and sharing a connection. But after a one-night stand the duo ends up trapped in the Alec's apartment when a snow storm hits.

But the snow storm could have more than just a few implications for the duo.

Initially pacy and zingy, Two Night Stand ends up losing its way as the truth comes out; Teller and Tipton make an engaging couple but the film just isn't up to par with them. Cyber dating and an engaging duo make it stand out, but they struggle to keep the piece moving despite the 85 mins run time.

It may have charm and be a little quirky, Two Night Stand is guilty of squandering its promise; it could have been a smart little film about cyber one night stands but ends up being a piece that panders to the tropes of the rom com genre. A pleasant enough viewing experience with some nicely written moments, but it feels like it could so easily have been more.


Friday, 24 April 2015

Two Days, One Night: DVD Review

Two Days, One Night: DVD Review

Rating: M
Released by Madman Home Ent

The little mouse begins to roar in this take on redundancy in the Dardenne brothers' latest socially aware outing.

Marion Cotillard is Sandra, a worker due back after a prolonged illness, but who finds herself facing the life on the dole after the mainly faceless bosses force her co-workers to vote on her future.

The choice? A 1000 Euro bonus or Sandra to keep her job. The first ballot has gone against our downtrodden heroine, but thanks to a friend, a second ballot has been forced on a Monday morning. So, Sandra has two days to convince her co-workers to vote for her future by visiting them one by one and trying to persuade them.

So, the clock is ticking...

Two Days, One Night has a quiet power, largely thanks to the restrained and moving performance of Cotillard. With an ethos that "I don't exist", Sandra is the human face of a corporate by-product, a soldier of a social situation. But, as she gets knocked down, she gets up again with a frailty that makes you wonder how much more she can take in this take on the old quest movie.

While some of the encounters could feel a little forced as she pleads her case, everyone has their reasons for voting for the bonus - from just scraping by and staving off the demons to indulging in luxuries like a patio installation. There's no judgement placed on any of these reasons and that gives some of the power to the performance and the aching to the desperation that Sandra feels as she claws at the possibility of self-respect and self worth.

With a supportive yet insistent hubbie, Sandra's journey is more than about saving her job. It's also about regaining her own self and sense of worth in a world that's cruel and sees those struggling forced to make decisions that seem cruel and unusual punishment.

So it's sad to report that a final dramatic twist when all hope appears lost and the self-medicating Sandra is at rock bottom is a jump too far thanks to how quickly it's resolved. It's the one dramatic bum note that's sounded in this tale of a broken and beaten woman.

Final questions about how nefarious the boss has been are left unresolved and the largely faceless enemy appears too late in the piece and could provoke further debate, but Sandra's arc is the main raison d'ĂȘtre here.

Quietly moving, Two Days, One Night is a testament to Cotillard's screen presence and The Dardennes' prowess in tackling social reality in an unassuming and disarming way.


Thursday, 23 April 2015

The Dead Lands: Blu Ray Review

The Dead Lands: Blu Ray Review

Rating: M
Released by Transmission Films

With praise ringing in its ears from the Toronto International Film FestivalToa Fraser's The Dead Lands hits cinemas, completing a veritable belter of a year for Kiwi fare at the multiplex.

Entirely in Te Reo, Boy and Dark Horse star James Rolleston is Hongi, a Maori chieftain's son whose witnessing of a desecration of ancient descendants by rival chief son Wirepa (Tuhaka) sparks a rift in pre-colonial times.

When Wirepa and his men attack Hongi's tribe in the night, slaughtering all the men and killing Hongi's father Tane, Hongi swears revenge on Wirepa, despite not being fully versed in the ways of the warrior. Hongi sets out to get his vengeance, and with Wirepa crossing the abandoned Dead Lands, he sees his chance to use the spirits of the land and the ancient ways of the warrior to achieve victory.

In among the lush, verdant land so beautifully captured by Fraser and his team, there's a potent mix of spirituality and brutality on show in The Dead Lands.

Rolleston cements his place as a national treasure by pulling in a performance that's a subtle blend of ferocious anger during the quick cut fight scenes and sensitively scared maudlin boy on a coming-of-age journey, teetering on the verge of manhood. Equally, Makoare as the Monster in the Dead Lands is also a frightening presence, a reminder of the simmering rage and yet sadness that lurks in the violence of the past within this taniwha.

But it's Fraser who's the real star of this piece, for pulling together an epic genre film that blends martial arts style fight scenes that spit over with brutality, spirituality, Greek tragedy (via Wirepa's hubris - which is cunningly subverted at the end), 80s action movies (quick zoom ins, an atmospheric synthesiser score from Don McGlashan) and full on te reo. The soundscape's also impressive too, with bone-crunching fight scenes sizzling among the violence of this old fashioned revenge flick.

The te reo is also a masterstroke, with the colourful enunciations delivering an evocatively emotional edge to the spiky dialect and dialogue when practically spat by some of the cast - it's a touch which wouldn't have worked as well were it in English or dubbed.

Presence is key here and Fraser crackles with it with his cast and behind the camera, even as the vengeance story goes on - and leads to a finale that somewhat lacks in final act showdown showmanship after plenty of posturing has filled out the screenplay and screen time. (And given that the haka is more menacing here than on any rugby field)

It's an interesting end where Fraser looks to bridge the violence that's gone on previously and has so wrecked Hongi's life and other tribes with the signs of a dawning of a new sensitivity in the dawning of a new age. Perhaps, a more mature response to what's gone on before.

The Dead Lands proves to be creatively fertile ground for New Zealand cinema in a year that's been unprecedented for Kiwi product - and a sign that when required, we can offer an unique spin on events.


Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron: Film Review

Avengers: Age of Ultron: Film Review

Cast: Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, James Spader, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Hemsworth, Elisabeth Olsen, Jeremy Renner
Director: Joss Whedon

Peace in our time, existential angst and a lot of setting up for Phase 3 of Marvel's Cinematic Universe are the big issues explored in the latest Avengers' movie, helmed by Joss Whedon.

Following on from events in Manhattan where the Chitauri invaded under Loki's malevolence, the film begins with a raid on a fortress to secure Loki's Sceptre.

But when Robert Downey Jr's Tony Stark and his hubris tries to jumpstart a dormant peacekeeping program by using the tech from the sceptre, things go badly awry, birthing the villainous Ultron (James Spader) and threatening the safety of the universe due to his malign God complex.

Foregoing his usual style of quippiness and ditching his lighter touch in favour of a darker psychological movie with character in amid the chaos, The Avengers: Age Of Ultron strives to make the superhuman gang a little more exposed to their human foibles with the introduction of fan-fave, the insidious and devious Ultron (brilliantly brought to life by James Spader, whose tones swing between outright disdain and anger at a moment's notice).

In fact, the whole movie feels darker and broodier in tone to previous outings, with more emphasis on the relationships and the human scale of the team providing the, at times, underdeveloped drama.

From the fractious dynamic of the apple pie Captain America squaring off against the cocky and cocksure Tony Stark to the burgeoning will they / won't they of Romanov and Banner's Beauty and The Beast relationship - and a surprising turn of events for Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye (who was a relative blank slate in the previous film). New additions to the fold include Aaron Taylor-Johnson's lightning fast Quicksilver and Elisabeth Olsen's Scarlet Witch, who both harbour a resentment and connection to Stark's military past.

This mournful movie isn't perfect though it has to be said; at times, Whedon feels constrained from his customary quip and wit - and the one inclusion of it sticks out like a sore thumb.

Equally the film's "Coulson moment" lacks the resonance of the first time around in The Avengers, even if it does come with a self-referential line for the character involved. A scene where Hulk and Iron Man go at it reeks of 9/11 allusions, right down to the dust and cuts on victims' faces and it packs a power that's nervously divisive. It feels as if ironically Whedon is more a puppet within the road map that Marvel's laid out rather than free-wheeling.

In fact, I'd go as far as to say this doesn't feel like Joss Whedon film in many ways (which, I admit, I respect it for).

There's a quiet dissonance throughout the at times dour The Avengers: Age Of Ultron, a feeling of endings and of set up for pay-offs further down the franchise, which may lead some to feel latest Avengers' film isn't quite the air-punching blockbuster and calibre of the first, with some probably feeling a little too much time is given to semantics and discussion about whether you should or shouldn't enact the Avengers' equivalent of the Patriot Act as well as delaying pay-off until the ominously titled Captain America 3- Civil War.

Still, at least Marvel's offered up an old school good guys vs the bad guy scenario in this transitional piece rather than the usual Infinity Stone MacGuffin fuelling the action (but still rely on the same style endings as befits all their films); there are some impressive action sequences and the usual space to let them breathe; and the end where the broken team reacts to their own ideologies, their fracturing and a different future is mapped out is an intriguing one.

Avengers: Age of Ultron will still be incredibly popular, though I suspect this darker, more introspective and slightly over-long piece won't be raved about in the same breath as the previous entry, but it may serve a long tail life; it's a film to be appreciated and applauded for Whedon's refusal to repeat the formula the second time around and proffers up a tantalising, if not entirely gripping or engaging, peek at what lies ahead for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.