Lina Lamont

"What do you think I am, dumb or something?"

Green Room 


95 glorious minutes

5 stars

Four days into January I made the rather brash claim that The Revenant would be my Film of the Year (as in this year, 2016 – I know, you might think I was jumping the gun somewhat). Halfway through Green Room, knuckles white as I gripped my notebook and couldn’t tear my eyes from the screen, I put this exhilarating, gasp-out-loud thriller right up there alongside the Leonardo DiCaprio Oscar winner.

Sadly, Green Room probably isn’t Academy Award fodder, but it is the best kind of independent movie: brilliantly written, perfectly performed and utterly enthralling. The simple story begins with a young punk rock band travelling to a poorly-paid gig in the middle of Nowheresville, USA, where they become embroiled in criminal behaviour and wind up fighting for their lives against a gang of skinheads. It’s incredibly violent and frequently gruesome, but Green Room ascends far above Hollywood’s gratuitously brutal and increasingly unoriginal forays into “edgy” territory thanks to its terrific young cast and a nail-biting plot.

Central among our heroes (because my goodness are we rooting for these kids to survive) is the recently tragically deceased Star Trek star, Anton Yelchin, although this is actually a very fairly-distributed ensemble piece which includes Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development) and British actress Imogen Poots, all of them up against an unexpectedly frightening and utterly superb Patrick Stewart, whose pitch-perfect disingenuity keeps us on our toes as much as it does the youngsters.

The other reason to rave about Green Room is that it comes from the brain of writer-director Jeremy Saulnier, whose second feature, the quirky thriller Blue Ruin, won film festival prizes from Marrakech to Cannes. Saulnier traditionally casts his childhood friend, the deceptively gormless Macon Blair, and has a knack for creating realistically ordinary characters who wind up in desperate situations which descend into outrageous but engrossing chaos.

You can usually tell if a film is worth five stars by whether you’re entirely lost in its machinations and not suddenly thinking about dinner afterwards. All I know is occasionally I realised my jaw was agape in wide-eyed horror. Green Room is sensational.



Sing Street

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, June 2016

4 stars

Sing Street is an unassumingly charming evocation of 1980s Dublin which charts the romantic tribulations of Connor, an articulate fish out of water at a rough high school, whose efforts to impress a mysterious girl result in his forming a band. Written and directed by John “Once” Carney, it is guaranteed to be another hit among its middle-aged, music-loving audience, but it should also appeal to the youth of today, for whom preoccupations with first love and music are just as central.

One of several period pieces currently on at the flicks, rather than merely Look Like the 80s, Sing Street actually feels like it was written, cast and shot in the era of big hair and stone-washed jeans; that glorious time when bullying happened out in the open of the schoolyard and not snidely over the internet. In his first acting role, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo plays Connor as gutsy and vulnerable, while Lucy Boynton’s portrayal of the girl of his dreams (and music videos) is sympathetic rather than cautionary. There’s a great script, the supporting cast of pale-faced, smoking schoolboys is uniformly excellent, and rising star Jack Reynor (What Richard Did and latterly Macbeth) steals all his scenes as the layabout big brother.

The film’s high Nostalgia Quotient will satisfy an audience hankering for its lost youth (Connor and his gang induce thrills of recognition every time they enter the school gates sporting the latest pop-cultural fad, accompanied by a soundtrack which veers from A-ha to The Cure to Duran Duran), as Sing Street provides a heart-warming, contemporary view of how ground-breaking music videos were back in the day. Even Carney’s original songs are particularly impressive and have you toe-tapping along.

Sing Street deals in a few clichés but mostly of the type you quickly forgive, just because you’re having such a good time. Unconditionally recommended.





Finding Dory

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, June 2016

4 stars

Set narratively one year after Nemo got lost and then found, his surrogate sister/mother Dory suffers a similar plot trajectory in this delightful, family-friendly, follow-up.

For those who don’t remember much of 2003, Dory is the cute blue fish with Ellen DeGeneres’ voice, who “suffers from short-term memory loss”, as her patiently caring parents have taught her to explain to each stranger she meets. Which, given she can’t retain a thought for more than six seconds, means she says it a lot.

The ridiculously simple premise is just as beguiling as its predecessor, whereby Dory (superbly embodied by DeGeneres such that the fish’s facial expressions perfectly reflect the adorable lilt of her pathologically apologetic dialogue) goes on a quest to find her own family, and meets a plethora of well-rendered, aquatic characters on the way. What’s not to love about Hank, the cynical old septopus (Ed O’Neill) and a dopey beluga whale named Bailey, voiced by Modern Family’s Ty Burrell? I’m not even tired of hearing Idris Elba’s wry English tones in yet another children’s movie (after Zootopia and The Jungle Book).

Finding Dory doesn’t deliver the hearty laughs as much as Zootopia did, and it mostly eschews the now-customary adult level of meaning written into children’s movies, in order to concentrate on wowing us with some beautifully cinematic photography and neatly clever flashbacks.

But it’s nonetheless an entertaining, often moving, story with a moral. Employing junior assistants for this particular reviewing mission, I’m grateful for the critical considerations of Miss Eight, who explained that the film’s message is “To just keep going, no matter what”, and Miss Five-and-a-quarter whose reply to “What do you think the film wanted us to know?” was the commercially astute: “It wants you to watch it heaps of times”.

The Conjuring 2

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, June 2016

I admit to not being a massive fan of horror movies, but this is largely because I can’t handle the tension and I don’t want to have disturbing pictures seared into my brain for inconvenient flashbacks during that middle-of-the-night dash to the toilet.

So I suppose the fact that The Conjuring 2 didn’t scare me even a quarter to death probably means it’s a less-than-effective example of the genre. That said, director James Wan’s latest foray into smart, un-slashy, horror does make for an often intriguing, indisputably sincere and mostly well-produced sequel.

Purveyors of the previous Conjuring will know that the movies’ stories retell the real-life experiences of a couple, Lorraine and Ed Warren, who were famously called to solve paranormal mysteries during the 1970s and 80s (Lorraine is still alive, aged 89, and acts as consultant on the films). Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson reprise their roles and pay tribute to the Warrens by avoiding any opportunity to mock or send up either their earnest Catholic beliefs or their patent love for one another. To this end, The Conjuring 2 works hard to ground us in truth and, in doing so, gathers its audience close for an often eerie, occasionally horrifying, hug.

This sequel is set in North London, replete with pasty-faced kids with pommy accents and incessant rain, where the true tale of the Enfield Poltergeist unfolded in 1977. Although Wan ensures everything from the wallpaper to the children’s toys reeks of miserable, working class Britain, the feeling of its being a set somehow dilutes the fear factor. However, his trademark tracking shots are fascinating and immersive, and mark him out as a filmmaker of intelligence.

OK, so I said I wasn’t scared; truth be told, while the culprit at the heart of the main story rather loses his power to horrify as soon as his backstory is revealed, the other plot thread’s demon is genuinely terrifying, with its alarming resemblance to Marilyn Manson. Overlong but well-paced and involved, The Conjuring 2 won’t supplant A Nightmare on Elm Street in my dreams but it’s bound to satisfy its loyal fans.

Money Monster

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, May 2016

3.5 stars

Considering Oscar nominees The Big Short and Spotlight and festival hit 99 Homes, it’s clear we’re in the era of the “social issue” blockbuster. Be it about financial woes, systemic child abuse or the housing crisis, the silver screen is becoming the place to go for audiences to gain some sort of cathartic redress for the ills of our current world.

Money Monster capitalises on the contemporary outrage at banks and finance companies whose directors earn bonuses in the millions while ordinary Joes lose their homes, pensions and livelihoods. The film charts the misadventures of a smarmy, egotistical TV show host, Lee Gates, (a very convincing George Clooney) who is held hostage on live television by a disgruntled viewer who has lost his life’s fortune. Clooney’s real-life mate, Julia Roberts, is the soothing directorial voice in his ear-piece as tensions heighten on set and the finger of blame whirls.

Initially, Money Monster feels like it might be a misadventure for its well-meaning and earnest director, the two-time Oscar-winning actress Jodie Foster, whose promotional interviews belie her serious, intellectual personality (the woman used the word “exigencies” on The Graeme Norton Show for goodness sake). As working class New Yorker Kyle Budwell (the excellent Jack O’Connell from Unbroken) waves his gun about and condemns Gates’ collusion in a game of stocks and shares where innocent people lose, the story feels far-fetched, not in its subject as much as its delivery. (Between them, the film’s three writers have credits as diverse as National Treasure, Rush Hour and Dear John, and as a result it takes a while for a taut, compelling thriller to emerge.)

But a third of the way in, things suddenly get interesting as the two-hander in the studio reverberates around the world. Meanwhile, an audience of captivated viewers tunes in, whether to see a man get his money back or take a bullet, it may not matter. For every cliché in the script there’s an enjoyably unexpected character revelation, and although the film’s moral won’t be an epiphany for anyone, Money Monster might be a show worth watching.




The Nice Guys

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, May 2016

4 1/2 stars

Yep, you read that right. 4 and a half stars for a crime caper comedy set in the 1970s, with a paunchy Russell Crowe and a ditzy Ryan Gosling eating up the cinema screen and causing more hearty laugh-out-louds than any comedy in recent years. And I mean funnier than Deadpool.

The pair play low-grade private investigators hired to solve the case of a murdered porn star, who find themselves fighting for their own lives around the winding roads and flash parties of the Los Angeles hills. Gosling’s loser solo dad, Holland March, is a treat to watch, with Crowe’s iron-fisted bully boy the perfect (smarter) foil. Best of all, these men of society’s underbelly aren’t all about the dames – the film’s love interest is March’s precocious teenage daughter (a sensational break-out performance by Angourie Rice) who becomes an unofficial third wheel on their wobbly, crime-solving bicycle.

Writer-director Shane Black clearly has a golden touch and should be in charge of all funny, clever movies to come out of Tinseltown from now on. It’s little wonder his Hollywood career became established (after he’d blessed the 1980s with his script for Lethal Weapon) during a subsequent production line of rewritten scripts as the studios called upon his panache with witty dialogue and pacy action to save their films. Then, in 2005 he inveigled his way into every film-nerd’s heart with his directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, starring a charismatic Robert Downey Jr. (newly sober and signalling the brilliant career that was to follow) and epitomising the fast-paced meta-commentary that has become Black’s calling card.

Black was latterly given the reins to the enjoyable-enough Iron Man 3 but, although somewhat delirious, The Nice Guys is firmly of the Kiss Kiss genre – a send-up of buddy cop movies with the wittiest of dialogue, impeccable acting by two actors we know can do serious (and here just seem to be having a whale of a time) and all the meta-jokes you can handle – without having to resort to Deadpool’s on-the-nose “Hey, look, I was being self-referential!”ness.

Violent, sweary, but above all clever and satisfying, these Guys are more Awesome than Nice.



Where to Invade Next

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, May 2016

Michael Moore, that agent provocateur who stuck it to George W. Bush’s administration in the incisive, award-winning documentaries Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, sticks the knife into his own country at the beginning of his latest diatribe, itemising all the wars the USA has made itself party to and subsequently lost since WWII.

On the basis of its failings when it comes to “knowing what’s best” for other nations, Moore decides to “invade” predominantly European countries in order to appropriate their best ideas, instead. What follows is a fascinating jaunt around the world which will make your mouth water for many of the progressive practices demonstrated.

Moore (now 62 and not looking well at all) shambles his way into Prime Ministers’ offices and school canteens, but while he’s not the most charismatic interviewer on the block, he is sufficiently warm and encouraging towards his subjects to garner some fantastic observations. Our ideal world, it would seem, should adopt Finland’s education system (where homework is outlawed and children are encouraged to play), Italy’s 8-weeks’ paid annual holiday, and France’s 4-course lunches provided to primary school students no matter their socio-economic status.

At two hours, Moore’s island-hopping does start to feel long-winded, but he packs in as many revelations as he can from Tunisia to Slovenia, interposing the earnest but engrossing talking heads interviews with apposite (usually humorous) clips. And while he directs his criticisms homeward, local viewers will find them uncomfortably relevant.

The title Where to Invade Next may feel trivial or provocative, but in fact Moore opens our eyes to many wonders of the modern world.

X-Men: Apocalypse

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, May 2016

There are many reasons why this X-Men movie should have been better than it is. For starters, there’s the cast of genuinely fine actors (myriad Academy Awards and nominations between them) who are deserving, just by dint of turning up on set I’d have said, of a much better script. Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) returns as Magneto, James McAvoy dons 1980s pastel sweaters and shoulder pads as the now wheelchair-bound Xavier, while Jennifer Lawrence gets to retain her more fetching human shape than Mystique’s peculiar azure physique. Most importantly, Oscar Isaac makes his Marvel debut as the eponymous villain (wait, what?? That’s right – “Apocalypse” refers not to the state of the world ending, but the guy who attempts to make it happen.) Isaac has been the Next Big Thing for a couple of years now.

Secondly, Bryan Singer is still in the director’s chair of the movies he propelled to comic book superstardom back in the early 2000s. The guy gave us The Usual Suspects, for goodness sake! He handled Tom Cruise in Valkyrie! This man’s no slouch in the smart-blockbuster department.

But while it has some snazzy set-pieces – top honours going, as in X-Men: Days of Future Past, to Quicksilver’s clever, Eurythmics-accompanied scene – X-Men: Apocalypse is mainly notable for the worst dialogue you’ve heard since, well, the 1980s. In setting the film in that seminal era, presumably to capture and thrill its target audience of long-time comic fans, the movie’s writers do things very on-the-nose: visual gags are pointed out by close-up camera work; hairstyles and clothing feel self-consciously worn; and the Egyptian-set scenes feel like a nod to Indiana Jones and other teen movies of the 80s with all the mystical chanting and ritualistic shenanigans. Rather than pleasing, it’s simply dated. (Despite this, it’s apparently a decade where the CIA could get photos developed in less than 24 hours.)

As the clunky narrative battles to include too many concurrent threads, X-Men: Apocalypse often feels like two movies – the well-acted, serious one with Fassbender speaking convincing Polish, and a throwback to the 80s gate-crashed by a Sith Lord. Entertaining in parts, unfortunately it makes for a less than satisfying whole.



This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, May 2016

You’ve probably already heard and read a lot about David Farrier’s documentary on “competitive endurance tickling” (who knew?…) which began as a proposed 3-minute segment in the Kiwi journalist’s “it’s a crazy old world” section of Newsworthy and rapidly blossomed into a full-blown, feature-length indictment of bullying and deceit.

But what you won’t know until you watch it, is how deeply troubling the story turns out, and how heart-pounding and stomach-clenching it is for the enthralled viewer.

The notion of grown men being paid to tickle one another, on camera, to satisfy the fetish of I’m-not-sure-who may be enticing enough, and the film (co-directed with Dylan Reeve, a jack of myriad filmmaking trades) begins lightheartedly with Farrier’s warmly familiar voiceover before the rabbit hole rapidly gets deeper and darker. Soon he and Reeve are travelling to the United States on the hunt for an online bully, a homophobic PR company and “victims” of this seemingly bizarre sport.

Quite aside from the gripping narrative, having Farrier himself at the helm is doubtless one of the film’s trump cards – never have I met a media personality with more sincere warmth and interest in those he encounters, and throughout some torturously awkward scenes he is never less than relentless, professional and courteous. But the film isn’t just about threats and cruelty visited upon hapless interviewees: Farrier himself becomes the hunted as the scent gets stronger and the mysterious characters (for, as so often in documentaries, these people come off more as caricatures than real humans) grow more defensive.

There are moments when, from my cosy cinema seat, my heart thudded at least as heavily as Farrier’s and Reeve’s must have while filming, and the insights garnered will make your blood boil before leaving you with pause for thought. This completely unexpected journey is a miracle of documentary filmmaking (rave reviews around the world have already acknowledged the “So bizarre you couldn’t make it up” truism) but more importantly it’s a brave and crucial investigation into an insidious attempt to ruin people’s lives.


This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, May 2016

Neerja is an unexpected overturning of Bollywood cliché, eschewing a song-and-dance love story for the biographical tale of an air hostess caught up in the terrifying terrorist hijacking of a Pan Am flight in 1986. It is also one of the most gripping and gut-wrenching thrillers you’ll see all year, from any country’s studio.

Our interest is seized from the opening scenes, with slick editing which switches between Karachi, as the terrorists prepare for their mission, and Mumbai, where a young and beautiful stewardess sets off from her parents’ house for her first journey as head purser. As the two parties swiftly converge, the narrative, despite its being mostly confined within an aircraft cabin, intensifies the tension to an almost unwatchable climax.

Sonam Kapoor (daughter of Anil Kapoor who has successfully crossed over into Hollywood with Slumdog Millionaire and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) plays the titular heroine whose clear-headedness and gutsy actions propel both the story and our growing investment in her safety.

Reminiscent of the superb (and equally devastating) United 93, which dramatized the ill-fated flight from 9/11, Neerja brilliantly combines white-knuckle drama with personal concerns which leave you shattered by its end.


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