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The Personal History of David Copperfield

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The third adaptation of a literary classic in recent months, following Little Women and Emma, The Personal History of David Copperfield is based on Charles Dickens’ novel and brought to the screen by Amando Iannucci.

Telling the story of its titular character from birth to middle age, the film follows Copperfield – played as a child by Jairaj Varsani and as an adult by the great Dev Patel – as he moves through life, the protagonist of his own quasi-autobiography.

Charting Copperfield’s journey, the film combines magical moments of childhood excitement, best exemplified by the hull of an upturned boat that has been transformed into the brightly coloured beach home of Peggotty’s extended family, alongside moments of utter misery, such as when young Copperfield finds himself unloved and bullied in the harsh confines of an East End bottle-making factory.

The Personal History of David Copperfield has a strong cast; Tilda Swinton’s Betsy Trotwood, Hugh Laurie’s Mr Dick, Rosalind Eleazar’s Agnes, and Paul Whitehouse’s Mr Peggotty are all well realised, while Ben Whishaw’s suspiciously obsequious Uriah Heep is near perfect. In much the same way as Iannucci’s previous film, The Death of Stalin, cast a variety of actors to play the heads of the Soviet Union without having them deliver their lines in Russian accents, David Copperfield uses a multi-racial cast to tell Dickens’ story. This, like in the director’s previous feature, serves to emphasise characterisation and dialogue, rather than banal naturalism, and it is an effective, striking technique.

There are visual moments, such as a trip in a cart travelling to Peggotty’s home, when the beauty of the British countryside becomes truly sublime. Similarly, the art and costume design are well realised. For fans of the costume part of costume drama the outfits may not be quite as boldly realised as in Emma, although Mr Micawber’s (Peter Capaldi) crimson coat and Copperfield’s suits in later scenes come close.

The narrative is primarily structured around a series of key sequences in our protagonist’s life – Copperfield the child, Copperfield at school, Copperfield in London, and so on – but while each is good, there’s a sense that the film is slightly too sketchy in places, and could benefit from a more focused over-arching and driving narrative. The Death of Stalin was something of a masterwork, and while The Personal History of David Copperfield does not feel as well realised as his previous feature, it should satisfy those who are enjoying the current crop of adaptations of classic novels.

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The Hunt

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As though Trump wasn’t incendiary enough already, headlines and tweets from 2019 would have you believe Blumhouse’s pseudo-horror-satire The Hunt would be the catalyst of America’s undoing.

The Hunt’s originally planned release date in 2019 coincided with numerous US mass shootings, the likes of which the film sets out to denounce, adding fuel to already flammable conversations regarding gun control, immigration, and political division.

Alas, six months later and a VOD release due to another crisis, The Hunt shines not as a piece of scathing left activism, but as a thoughtfully conceived, on-the-nose exploration of American disunity.

The Hunger Games meets Ready or Not as a group of strangers, each of whom have been kidnapped, fight for survival as a murderous threat hunts them down (Lost screenwriter Damon Lindelof, here co-writer and producer, sticking to his tale of isolated strangers bread-and-butter).

Their location and selection, unbeknownst to them, is explored as a series of intersecting narratives that contrasts the decidedly-virtuous antics of liberal figures with those of civilians deemed as ‘deplorables’.

The Hunt stands apart from politically laced genre films before it, by unabashedly leaning into its high-minded moxie. Its dissection of contemporary tensions, revealing of a progressivism rarely witnessed in ‘Liberal Hollywood’, portrays the self-destructive tendencies occurring at both ends of the political spectrum. Contrary to tabloid headlines, The Hunt gazes more critically at leftist attitudes, whose elitism is expressed via priggish PC-ism and perceived moral superiority.

There is no shortage of disparaging comments made in The Hunt that convey the dismay felt by its filmmakers. Director Craig Zobel (of Compliance and Z for Zachariah fame) voices discontent with an astuteness that details the explosive way extremist political views cause societal division.

The Hunt’s modest Blumhouse-style budget is evident, yet works in its favour to paint a raw and vivid picture of the heated political tensions currently experienced in America. Action and gore revel in blood-soaked splendour, but frequently overpowers the mood when it should add to it thematically. This, in particular, impacts the last act of the film, with a climactic spectacle of fisty-cuffs, landing somewhere between John Wick and Atomic Blonde in bloodiness, ham-fistedly positioned as a metaphor for disenfranchisement. (And don’t even go there with the gritty re-imagination of The Tortoise and the Hare…).

The Hunt experiences issues with structure, with the early handballing of narrative. However, commendable for its efforts to defy conventions, it ultimately denies the film the time needed to further explore its main characters. The film comes into motion upon the arrival of Betty Gilpin, who delivers a fine performance as a Rambo-esque figure fighting her way to freedom.

Neither the inflammatory nor chaotic propagation decreed by Trump in an unnecessarily retaliative tweet, The Hunt triumphs against its looming political controversy – the likes of which have stalked the film’s release – thanks to a sharply constructed premise that offers a piercing assessment on the American political divide.

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First Love

Asian Cinema, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Is there a more versatile and prolific director on the planet than Takashi Miike? The Japanese master has lobbed out 100+ films since the early ‘90s and, shockingly, many of them are straight up masterpieces. Don’t believe us? Try Audition (1999), Ichi the Killer (2001), Gozu (2003), Thirteen Assassins (2010) and Blade of the Immortal (2017) for just a sampling of the legend’s work. Put simply: any time there’s a Takashi Miike film to be seen, it’s good news. And his latest effort, First Love, continues the trend of excellence.

First Love weaves a twisted tale featuring multiple characters intersecting in interesting and ironic ways. We’ve got Leo (Masataka Kubota) as an expert boxer who has been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour. There’s Monica (Sakurako Konishi) who is forced into drug addiction and prostitution to pay off her father’s debts. Sneakily ambitious Kase (Shota Sometani) who has a plan to rip off his Yakuza bosses, and corrupt cop Ōtomo (Nao Omori) who decides to help him. Naturally nothing goes to plan for anyone, and Miike delights in throwing these disparate plot strands into a pot and boiling up a heaping helping of violent, fast-paced, blackly comedic magic.

In terms of Miike’s other work, First Love is a much more crowd pleasing affair, eschewing the genuinely shocking gore of Audition or Ichi the Killer for slick, but non-gratuitous blood-letting. Tone-wise, the film feels a bit like a Japanese riff on Quentin Tarantino’s True Romance and a bunch of other ‘90s flicks. Performances are rock solid, with the always reliable Masataka Kubota making a solid lead, and Nao Omori providing a deliciously schlubby turn. However, it’s the recording artist known as Becky who has the most fun as the vengeful Julie, who doesn’t so much chew the scenery as set it alight and snort the ashes.

First Love is Takashi Miike in full-on crowd-pleasing action/thriller mode. Expect twists, turns, surprises, violence, love and Miike’s wry, knowing wit. If a bloke can make films this fun after directing over one hundred of the bloody things, here’s to Takashi knocking out a hundred more.

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Happy New Year, Colin Burstead

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Of all the varyingly arbitrary reasons to bring the likely-estranged family together under one roof, New Year’s Eve might be the most arbitrary. As if the Earth completing yet another revolution around the Sun is some grand signal for change and that, whatever ill happened in the twelve months prior, things will somehow turn out differently this time. It’s a sentiment that sticks out of the treacliest of family dramas, and it’s one that brings out a serious fire in the latest from social satirist Ben Wheatley (A Field In England, High-Rise).

A family being brought together to ring in the New Year isn’t exactly the first thing most would think of in response to the phrase “Shakespeare adaptation”, but Wheatley has found genuine gold in what is essentially a deconstruction of the Bard’s Coriolanus. We truly live in the wrong timeline when the film’s original title, Colin You Anus, isn’t the one they ultimately went with.

Coriolanus dealt with war and the art of conquest, while Colin You Anus (let’s go with this title!) deals with something far scarier for the layman: Having to talk to relatives you only see once a year. Hell, listening to the characters themselves tell it, they aren’t even going to a family gathering; they’re preparing for a war. Plus-ones are treated like diplomatic allies, on-hand in case something nasty breaks out, needing to take an outside breather from the chaos is a “tactical withdrawal”, and while ostensibly an occasion meant to honour one of their own, everyone seems chomping at the bit to start verbal warfare with each other.

It’s a bare-bones flaying of the traditional family holiday flick, amped up by the production values on offer. Along with directing and penning the script, Wheatley also did the editing, which is so sharp and ever-moving that there is no real respite from the tensions within the castle this ‘party’ is taking place. Laurie Rose’s handheld cinematography gives a certain documentary feel to the proceedings, as if we’re watching a real family cave in on itself, and with Clint Mansell’s decidedly rustic folk soundtrack, it bridges the gap between the source material and this newer presentation. It even sounds like war drums preparing for the assault at times.

But beyond looking at the underlying hostility involved in such family exercises, it also engages in the microcosmic commentary of High-Rise. In showing a scenario where a group of people basically feel obliged to go to proverbial war with each other, it creates a larger perspective of what that kind of bloody-mindedness ultimately leads to. At a time when Wheatley’s native England is still in the middle of a pretty volatile separation period, this film’s examination of hostility, but also the need for peace, feels especially needed.

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Military Wives

Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

Military Wives, which is inspired by a true media story, begins with a great deal of opportunity. Based on a real-life tabloid sensation about an unknown choir which gained unlikely fame in 2011, the film centres around the lives of a group of British women on the home front as their husbands are fighting in Afghanistan. Whilst their partners are away serving, the ensemble, led by Kate (Kristin Scott Thomas in a strong performance), decides to form a choir.

It’s a familiar milieu for the musically-inclined filmmaker Peter Cattaneo¸ also behind tune-inspired pics The Full Monty (1997), Lucky Break (2001) and The Rocker (2008). Whilst they’re reluctant at first, driven by the determined and seemingly unflappable Kate and her fiery colleague Lisa (Sharon Horgan), the band comes together to unite as one and make something out of their hobby. Practices are well attended, progress is made quickly, the group is in harmony: success arrives through public performances, friendships are made, media attention follows.

Unfortunately, from there, Military Wives largely becomes a by-the-numbers exercise, which abandons character development. The musical-movie strains viewer credulity by choosing not to delve into the lives of its supporting and lead characters – instead making the film about the pop numbers the group croons and their virtual “instant” fame.

Whilst hits and radio bops comes thick and fast (Yazoo’s Only You, Right Here Waiting), the characters and the story are given little time to develop. This takes away from the film’s impact, as the ensemble’s inner lives, their emotional turmoil, and the impacts of war, are relegated to the side in favour of bits of lengthy, cued and accompanied music video.

The film spends more time on the singers getting The Human League’s Don’t You Want Me down pat, (in one example), than on story development or building the dynamics between its leads – missing an opportunity to offer a relevant picture of people coping with the impacts of conflict and isolation.

Only on occasion are the lives of the group members seen in between uplift and choir time. Moving away from digging into its characters, the film continues to focus on the fame of the group. The result feels superficial and flashy.

Military Wives is a film which disappointingly falls short, providing a poppy playlist and glimpses of entertainment, if little more.

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The Legend of Baron To’a

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Sometimes, it can be difficult to write about a film without devolving into a jabbering pile of fangasm and just shouting “Go see this!” from the closest rooftop. Overhype is one of the quickest ways to kill enthusiasm, and while good-faith recommendations are appreciated, there is such a thing as going too full force. As such, let’s try and keep things triple-C, while at the same time giving this genuinely bad-ass film its due.

The style on offer here is the kind that only comes around when all production hands on deck are on the same page. This wrestling action-comedy takes place in a single New Zealand cul-de-sac, but the dialogue and characterisation are so on-point, it feels like its own micro-universe. The aggressive variety of quotables in the writing, the articulated reverence for the titular wrestling icon, not to mention the numerous side-linings of more Americanised quips to keep things proper local; John Argall gives the film a healthy bedrock with this script. And from there, director Kiel McNaughton and DOP Drew Sturge deliver on the visuals. While the initial Fast & Furious typeface in the opening credits is a bit disconcerting (although, considering John Tui’s turn in Hobbs & Shaw, weirdly appropriate), what proceeds manages to balance very crisp cinematography and Augie Davis’ fantastic fight choreography with the more grounded suburban drama.

Purely as an action film, the level of energetic finesse on-screen is worth the price of admission alone, with a collection of throwdowns that will likely get highly spirited reactions. Especially when backed by Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper’s phenomenal soundtrack work (pretty much every track could be its own glorious wrestling entrance theme), along with outright bangers courtesy of Kiwi hip-hop collective SWIDT.

As for the story at large, while it may share plenty of similarities with other fighting sports films, it follows the rest of the production in how the talent involved and the film’s flavour build on the premise. Uli Latukefu as Fritz and his mission to reclaim his father’s wrestling belt is the kind of hero’s journey that can hold its own alongside the heavier hitters coming out of the US, both in efficacy and in how the character is just that damn cool.

Psychologically astute, finessed as a fighter, and with a vocabulary to rival Gustave H., Latukefu is the magnetic nucleus around which this warrior’s yarn revolves. And when paired with Tui as the Baron himself (whom audiences that grew up on Power Rangers SPD might get a little jazzed about), along with Nathaniel Lees (Captain Mifune from The Matrix sequels) and Jay Laga’aia (Captain Typho from the Star Wars prequels), he brings the best out of some of NZ’s most underrated actors.

The Legend Of Baron To’a is like a bombastic graphic novel brought roaring to cinematic life, where every punch, beat and quotable piece of dialogue is a certified haymaker.

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The Way Back

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After finding surprise success in 2016 with the autistic power fantasy The Accountant, director Gavin O’Connor has reunited with Ben Affleck for a decidedly less specialised feature. Affleck plays the role of Jack Cunningham, a former high school basketball player who, after years of struggling with alcoholism, may have found his means of redemption as he takes up a coaching position at his old school.

Anyone who has kept up with Affleck’s tabloid coverage over the years will see something of the familiar in this character, to the point where he actually relapsed during pre-production for this film. However, while the prospect of spending an hour and forty with drunken Sad Affleck might induce some eye-rolls, the man has shown a knack for turning his public persona into real pathos on-screen; look no further than his career highlight turn in David Fincher’s Gone Girl.

Thankfully, this holds true to that pattern, as Affleck’s persistently sporadic temper and roughed-up visage add melancholic textures to his performance. The cyclical depiction of his day, rotating beer cans between the fridge, the freezer, and to the table, hits the right tone for this kind of sloshed character study. It may lack the depressive energy of a Nic Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, or the existential doubt of Chris Rock in Top Five, but for a more subdued look at a life through a frame of darkened-brown glass, he holds up well.

However, there’s only so much that lived experience can do to cover up how rudimentary this is as a sports drama. The title may be referring to Jack’s redemption, but it might as well be describing the machine that Brad Ingelsby used while writing this, because it is ‘80s sports movie cliché to a tee. The down-on-his-luck loser who gets a new lease on life through coaching a team of sporting misfits, most of whom come from rough homes; the slow-motion shots for the climactic moment of a given game; a character ending up in hospital to give the main character impetus to push forward; the additional fall from grace around two-thirds of the way through; etc. Even when the film tries to buck against some of those trends, particularly with its ‘Zen in the art of shooting three-pointers’ denouement, it still doesn’t break through just how familiar this all is.

While it’s possible to get some kind of gratification out of how bone-chipping the story can get in regards to Affleck’s public life, along with the catharsis he must have gotten from working through it in such a fashion, that only legitimises this as art therapy, rather than art for its own sake. Those with a stronger tolerance for the tropes of the genre, or even those who have stuck closely to the Ben Affleck story so far, might find something worthwhile here, but otherwise, it’s just another average sports drama.

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Citizen K

Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Zero Day, Going Clear: Scientology & The Prison of Belief, The Armstrong Lie, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, Taxi to the Darkside; just a handful of documentaries directed by Alex Gibney, a documentary powerhouse whose latest film, Citizen K, explores Russian plutocrat Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Russian politics and power are touchy subjects, which Gibney does not shy away from here.

Russian businessman Khodorkovsky’s life story is told through a series of significant events and dates from his Soviet upbringing to post-Communism life as an Anti-Putin dissident. In this unwaveringly one-sided documentary, a very calm Khodorkovsky contradicts all events as he reflects on them. Following 1991, Khodorkovsky was seen as Russia’s richest man, owner of the oil company Yukos and an eventual member of the Oligarchs. His take on the creation of Russia’s ‘gangster model of capitalism’ is described in the film.

Utilising a Scorsese-like opening featuring segments from the end of the story, Gibney uses a clever and creative montage representing the key characters and moments in Khodorkovsky’s journey.

As we are being introduced to Khodorkovsky’s version of the story, we understand that the highly intelligent and decisive individual became a threat to Putin.

Gibney displays Putin as a villain, a ruthless and radical dictator through showcasing remarkable raw footage of protestors being attacked, instances where Putin was directly challenged at a public event and the culprit sedated and removed, and astonishing footage of ex-military with regards to the murder of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury.

Premiering at the Venice Film Festival, Citizen K is a long, enigmatic documentary and history lesson, tackling deep social issues in Russia and sparking curiosity around Putin’s motivations. Is this a case of Stalin repeating itself? Gibney does not appear to have resolved the Khodorkovsky story fully, instead merely telling one side of the story. After spending a decade in jail and being exiled from Russia completely, including not being shown on Russian screens or even being able to step foot into a Russian embassy, a changed Khodorkovsky sends a message of hope that one day Russia will become the democratic country it deserves to be.

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Is it too much to expect remakes to be as good, or at least as notable, as the original? In the age of Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born, Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria, and even Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, there’s more reason to think so than one would expect. But then, the typical feelings come rushing in, and when attached to a film with a title that’s basically a kick-me sign for pull-quote-seeking critics, it can feel all too obvious to even point out. So, before getting into the remake issues here, let’s dive into the everything-else-that-is-wrong issues with this thing.

An ostensible black comedy, writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (The Way Way Back) never manage to find the right tonal lane to make the main premise work to their advantage. Julia Louis-Dreyfus far exceeds the material she’s given (which given the plot’s mild resemblance to Seinfeld’s ‘The Fire’, that might be because she’s technically done it already), but she’s the only one who manages to sell the crumbling mood of the core marital friction.

Otherwise, it’s Will Ferrell on his Daddy’s Home kick once again, their sons who look about as psyched to be here as we are, and Mirando Otto as the kind of European caricature that might fill some audiences with the urge to chew through their armrests. It’s difficult to take seriously, and even more difficult to find funny. Especially when the humour is largely derived from talking too loud, talking for too long, not talking loud or long enough, and social cringe that only highlights the discomfort, rather than the social norms that create it in the first place.

It’s a pretty tired affair all on its own, but as a remake of 2014’s Force Majeure, its flaws only grow even deeper. Any resemblance of psychological edge that existed in the original has been essentially babyproofed, lest the actors catch themselves on an actual point to what they’re saying or doing, and whatever genuinely interesting ideas it presented are replaced with middle-aged ennui that is as bland as anything. Both because the dialogue is just that weak, and the characters spouting it are lacking in tangible empathy or even humanity.

The only person here who looks more out of place than Louis-Dreyfus is Jesse Armstrong in the writer’s room, as his work with Mitchell & Webb, Chris Morris and even his stint on Black Mirror show that he can balance dark comedy with an even darker examination of the human animal. But instead, he and everyone else’s talents are wasted on a project that epitomises the worst case scenario for an American remake of a European film: A grating, gentrified mess that reflects Ugly Americanisms, both as a production and as cinematic narrative.

Maybe it’ll convince some audiences to check out the original, but with how much this has hacked it to pieces, all without adding anything of its own worth to the mix, it wouldn’t be surprising if it completely turned people away from ever looking at Force Majeure. And that, quite frankly, is the worst thing that a remake can do.

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Dark Waters

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Mark Ruffalo plays a corporate defense lawyer (Rob Bilott) here, in other words the precise opposite of the sort of person who would normally go in to bat for the little guy’ against a huge environmentally vandalistic company. Yet that is precisely what happens in this true story.

The tale of horrifying conduct, rampant dishonesty and the long struggle to expose them begins in Parkersburg West Virginia – Bilott’s home town – in 1975, and the rather labyrinthine ‘plot’ unfolds over a subsequent period of decades. Basically, it’s all about the scandalous behaviour of the Dupont chemical company, involving massive-scale dumping of landfill containing sky-high levels of the man-made chemicals used to make Teflon. And the nastiness doesn’t stop there.

Bilott is first alerted that something is amiss by some understandably furious and distressed Parkersburg residents who eventually contact him at his workplace in Cincinnati. Their animals are getting sick and dying prematurely, and we soon discover that this is the thin end of a wedge leading to some truly ghastly consequences, both human and ecological. Bilott is initially reluctant to get involved but, of course, he does… It should all be gripping but somehow isn’t particularly so for quite a while, though the level of tension does eventually ratchet up.  Ruffalo’s performance is fine, and Tim Robbins is very good as his boss, Tom Terp.

Dark Waters is likeable not only for what it includes but for what it excludes: excessive swelling strings, histrionic speeches and ‘redemptive’ messages. This leaves it a bit workmanlike and plodding, and feeling somewhat overlong. But those are all lesser evils.