Lina Lamont

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

The remaining films of 2016

Public Service Announcement

Due to a large time-lag in this writer posting her reviews contemporaneously, and with a promise to be more efficient in 2017, the remaining film reviews of 2016 (listed below) can be found by searching “Sarah Watt film review” at http://www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment/film

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

The Girl on the Train

Deep Water Horizon

Café Society

The Daughter

Hell or High Water

The Light Between Oceans

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

Doctor Strange

Arrival

The Accountant

Julieta

Nocturnal Animals

The Founder

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

The Neon Demon

Allied

Sunset Song

Dancer

Elle

Le Ride

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

The Magnificent Seven

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

M
133 mins
3 stars

Another day in Hollywood, another pitch for a remake of some classic that probably needn’t have been messed with. (Perhaps they said this in 1960 with regard to Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, but at least that was translating a Japanese classic into American.) In contrast, this updated Magnificent Seven opts to stick to its original time and place and merely update its casting with some brave/unusual/ uninspiring choices. Magnificent? More like Middling.

The straightforward story, always one of the successful hallmarks of a Western, involves the victimisation of a small American frontier town in the 1870s by an evil industrialist (a terrific Peter Sarsgaard, who has the invidious talent of appearing really sinister even when he’s not). Pillaged and left with the threat of his return, who are the townspeople gonna call? Luckily, wandering bounty hunter Sam Chisholm tips up at the right time, and in turns conscripts a band of mostly merry men to protect and serve.

This time, Yul Brynner’s bald-pated leader is played by Denzel Washington, heralding the first of the curious casting choices – while certainly progressive it’s historically unlikely that uncivilised white folk would have followed a black man – but in any event, Washington’s colour is not mentioned. Similarly, the taciturn “Oriental” counterpart (actually a Korean actor though spoken of as “found in China”) is a specialist in knives and an accepted member of the team, and although the Mexican has a teasing relationship with Chris Pratt’s cheerful buffoon, one can hardly cry “racist!”.

From the superb Training Day which got him attention, to the average The Equalizer and flawed Southpaw, director Antoine Fuqua’s ability to meet my excited expectations is certainly waning. As far as Westerns go, this one is unremarkable – boasting neither Tarantinian dialogue nor the exquisite photography of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. But it’s largely well-executed, maintaining a smart pace and delivering a nicely choreographed battle scene which is less tiresome than most Marvel fights. Perhaps if one manages one’s expectations of magnificence, these seven will still entertain.

The First Monday in May

M
91 mins
4.5 stars

I used to own a pair of sparkly pink uncomfortably high heels I wistfully called my “photoshoot shoes” – hoping, as you do, that one day Vanity Fair magazine might need me for its cover, and that I would look stylish in some outlandish outfit, without having to walk or move about.

If I had you at “uncomfortably high heels” then this latest fashion documentary (for there seems to be at least one a year nowadays) has you embroidered all over it. The First Monday in May follows the curation of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual costume exhibition, and the corresponding lead-up to the event’s annual fundraising shindig: the Met Gala. (It’s little wonder the intoxicating combination of Hollywood starlet and wrinkled camp designer can bring in $12.5 million to support the museum.)

There’s not a lot of drama plot-wise, but the behind-the-scenes footage of the exquisite ensembles and in particular the juicy almost-gossip of Who Can’t Sit With Whom on the celebrity tables is more than compelling.

And the clothes. Oh my. Not just “fashion” but “clothing as artworks” say the exhibition’s insiders and the documentary’s only downside is that the camera often glides too quickly for you to absorb the incredible detail and breath-taking beauty.

Vogue editor Anna Wintour has a starring role (she is surprisingly restrained when questioned about The Devil Wears Prada), and the interviews with famous designers, although fairly safe in their content, are fascinating purely as an opportunity to get so close as to admire the handiwork of the interviewee’s surgeon. Compulsive viewing for wannabe fashionistas.

Captain Fantastic

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

M
119 mins
4.5 stars

This unexpectedly marvellous indie flick was written and directed by Matt Ross who plays the narcissistic Gavin Belson in TV’s marvellous Silicon Valley. Means nothing to you? OK, this is only his fourth directorial outing after two shorts and an under-the-radar feature. And he won a directing prize at Cannes this year. Still so what?

Well, the So What revolves largely around Ross’s superb script which feels fresh and original for the first three quarters at least. It is bolstered by the canny casting of the exceptional Viggo Mortensen as a disarmingly straight-talking father to six characterful children whose adventurous upbringing in the bush is disrupted by a family tragedy that sees them having to encounter “the real world” for the first time ever.

That world is, of course, the consumerist, capitalist, comparatively ignorant one that we all live in (it’s safe to say if you live the way of this family, you won’t be reading this online or in the paper). And Ross sells us this alternative reality as black and white, setting up an enchanting landscape where health and well-being comes from playing music around the campfire and reading improving books, along with knowing how to protect yourself in hand-to-hand combat.

Mortensen (fine in the LOTR films but always at his best when flexing a morally ambiguous muscle, as in A History of Violence and festival fare Far from Men) is enormously entertaining and compellingly authentic as a politically idealistic dad teaching his offspring survival skills and self-sustenance in a gloriously tech-free enclave. “Interesting is a non-word – be specific,” he instructs these eccentric, emotionally secure and extraordinarily well-read youngsters, and when they are thrown into counterpoint against dull-headed cousins, you can’t help but think he’s got it right.

As the ethics get more complex, however, the plot becomes a little predictable even though the ideas turn a thought-provoking grey. Like its protagonists, Captain Fantastic is flawed but nonetheless bewitching.

Bridget Jones’ Baby

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

M
122 mins
3 stars

To be fair to Bridget Jones, this sequel presents a valid justification for reviving her brand. Unlike the recent “Absolutely Fabulous: Regeneration” movie (absolutely unnecessary, more like), and the recast update on the decades old Dad’s Army, the latest installment of Bridget’s Slings and Arrows of the Terminally Unmarried comes with a great conceit: at 43, she finds herself unexpectedly up the duff, but doesn’t know whether the father is the former love of her life, Mark Darcy (Colin Firth), or a dashing algorithm billionaire played by Patrick Dempsey.

Which should she bet on? The Fresh Start or the Old Times’ Sake? Director Sharon Maguire’s follow-up has myriad problems, from some lame jokes to the excruciatingly awkward slapstick, but the characterisation of the would-be (nay, positively wanna-be) dads is actually one of the film’s strengths. Firth and Dempsey produce such polar opposite yet equally appealing options that the script manages to toy with us until the very end, making the story unusually engrossing.

It helps a lot that as Firth climbs back on that straight-faced horse in his pin-striped suit, we are magicked back to those heady days when Bridget Jones counted calories and fumbled her lines and we loved her romantic ineptitude as it mirrored our own. Of course, we’ve moved on in the last 12 years and even Bridget has, sort-of, working as a TV news producer and maintaining her goal weight. (One imagines Renee Zellweger being express in her contract that she would not be puffing up again for this sequel.) And Zellweger’s still got it, too – that trill British accent, the pout, the hair which always looks like it has cake and children’s toys stuck in it, even when it hasn’t.

So if this was a bit of you back then, it’ll be a bit of you now. Predictably, the usual supporting suspects reappear (dotty mum, understanding dad, sweary friends) and there are the obligatory call-backs to the earlier flicks.

But the film doesn’t dwell too much on history. Bridget has a very present predicament, and with any luck she won’t have to sort it out all by herself.

Blood Father

R16
88 mins
4 stars

At first glance, Blood Father threatens to serve up all the clichés of the action genre; however, there’s a refreshing twist on each. The grizzled old loner, living an abstemious life in a trailer in literally the middle of nowhere, may be an ex-con but when trouble comes a-knockin’, he’s surprisingly slow to pick up his erstwhile, criminal ways. Meanwhile, his troubled runaway daughter, sullen and ungrateful in any other movie of this ilk, is cute, very smart, and speaks her politics with eloquence (she also exhibits perfect manners with strangers). So when they wind up on the run from some unsavoury characters, the chemistry between Mel Gibson and relative newcomer Erin Moriarty makes this pair’s peril a real treat.

Gibson has been taking it slow in recent years, his one-film-a-year trajectory less memorable than his drunken outbursts and obnoxious behaviour off-camera. Perhaps this absence makes the heart grow fonder, but indisputably Gibson’s natural charisma contributes to a storming performance here which proves the actor’s talent never went away. (One scene so precisely evokes Jack Nicholson, if you close your eyes you can hear the older man on screen.)

French director Jean-François Richet dipped his toe in Hollywood waters a decade ago with the underwhelming Fishburne and Hawke cop thriller remake of Assault on Precinct 13, but his far superior work includes the violent two-part biopic of legendary French gangster, Mesrine. Richet’s European touch may account for why some of Blood Father’s moments feel subtle for an American flick – one particularly nuanced conversation about mosquitoes between said daughter and her dad’s old colleague is staggering for its brutal insights.

At times the witty repartée between Gibson and Moriarty doesn’t always sound the most likely to issue from their characters’ lips, but although the overarching plot is what you’d expect, the intricacies are often unpredictable. Mainly, Gibson is great and would whip that Neeson in a dad-off any day of the week.

Pleasingly understated and including a low-key William H. Macy in support, Blood Father is considerably more interesting, and thus enjoyable, than many a recent action thriller.

David Brent: Life on the Road

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

M
96 mins
4 stars

The Office may have ended in 2003, but its creator and star, Ricky Gervais, seems hardly to have disappeared in the intervening decade. There were a couple of underwhelming comedic forays into Hollywood (Ghost Town, The Invention of Lying) and he’s a vehement animal rights activist on Twitter, but notably Gervais reared his head in recent years to offend the Hollywood Foreign Press at the Golden Globes. Say what you like about his frequently line-crossing crassness (OK, I will – Ricky, rein it in a little, mate), ambling on stage with a pint is a nice touch, and I defy anyone to say the man isn’t a brave comic genius.

Of course, to most of us Ricky Gervais is David Brent, the excruciating office manager of a small paper business in Slough who never quite realised how others saw him with rather more disdain than respect. And thanks once again to Gervais’ pitch-perfect blend of edgy humour and devastating pathos, Brent is back: no longer The Man but now working for The Man as a sales rep for sanitary products.

With four hearty laughs in the first two minutes, David Brent: Life on the Road starts with promise and goes on to be an immensely satisfying, sometimes uncomfortable, return to form. Brent, who fronts a soft-rock band in his spare time, takes leave without pay and a group of reluctant session musicians on an expensive tour of his local area. Staying at bland suburban hotels while teeing up under-subscribed gigs, the rockstar experience this middle-aged man has always longed for becomes hard-earned and at times frankly embarrassing.

Brent is also a changed man: he still makes racist jokes but stresses “it’s from the Chinaman’s perspective – for once”, aided and abetted in his gasp-inducing audacity by Love & Friendship’s standout Tom Bennett (taking the dopey Mackenzie Crook role here). Brent even has a black friend (a young rapper whose deadpan is wonderfully natural and believable).

Amidst the film’s quieter, less hysterical moments there is a deeper ache than The Office belied, and his performance frequently proves Gervais as a genuinely terrific actor. Love for David Brent may hurt, but it’s worth it.

War Dogs

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

R16
114 mins
2 stars

War Dogs stars Jonah Hill and Miles Teller as, improbably, arms dealers in their mid-20s making dodgy deals between corrupted war-torn countries and the US Military.

It’s not awful; it just isn’t any good. And this is disappointing – not because War Dogs is by the director of The Hangovers (a man with such comedy chops has no place trying to branch out into drama, as demonstrated by his casting of an over-bronzed, giggling Hill). It’s just a shame because it’s based on a true story (published in a Rolling Stone article) and that tale is so fantastical you’d expect the screenwriter’s job had been half done for him.

It wants so badly to be Goodfellas; from voiceover to freeze-frames, it copies every Scorsese-ism in the book, but for all this it is doomed by an under-written, lacklustre, and at times banal, script. “Chapters” are punctuated by self-explanatory quotations, while the bursts of delight-inducing songs (from House of Pain to the Beastie Boys to, um, UB40) feel like a manipulative cover-up of how lame the actual movie is beneath.

By the end it’s clear that War Dogs is actually trying to be a Wolf of Wall Street but while its protagonists’ morals don’t sink to quite those levels of depravity and excess, War Dogs simply lacks the panache of Scorsese’s darkest hour, and to that end isn’t even fun to watch in a guilty pleasure sort of way.

Kubo and the Two Strings

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

PG
92 mins
3.5 stars

This latest feature from the makers of Coraline and ParaNorman is notable less for its story and more for the stop-motion animation that delivers an aesthetic which at once feels fresh and exciting, while also comfortingly old-fashioned. (I say this as someone who marvels at the technical wizardry of modern animation, remembering vividly gasping at the rendering of individual hairs in Final Fantasy and loving the sheer vibrancy of Zootopia, with not a clue as to how it all happens.)

So when our young hero, Kubo, sets the scene for his impending quest by narrating adventure stories to his fellow villagers, it is the spectacle of fluttering origami paper that captivates us – “so real it looks like paper!” I whisper, only to be told that’s because it is paper – and the ensuing beauty of each scene that marks it out from the raft of CGI-created movies churned out every year.

Less compelling, however, is Kubo’s tale, although it touches on issues of familial bonds, orphanhood and ancestral worship (albeit through characters beholden to American accents, including the great Brit, Ralph Fiennes). But the messages get lost among fight scenes festooned with autumn leaves and the shiniest armour you’ve ever seen in a cartoon (that’s because it probably is armour – I don’t know!).

Note: the censor’s rating wisely mentions violence and scary scenes, so consider your little person’s capacity for dark stories before taking them to experience exquisite technical skill and a charming glimpse of Japanese culture.

The Shallows

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

M
86 mins
3.5 stars

Shark attack thriller The Shallows exploits our universal fear of being eaten alive on a day at the beach by dangling a tasty piece of female flesh in the path of a great white and silently positing that eternal question: in her position, what would you do?

Blake Lively goes surfing in bikini bottoms and a wetsuit top – (OK, let’s not get up in arms about it because that is what female surfers wear – although I’m not entirely convinced all the body-grazing derrière-cam is purely documentary) – only to be knocked off her board and stranded on a small rock. Injured and alone, Nancy must use her medical student’s wits (of course!) to navigate the hours ahead, otherwise she risks becoming nothing more than the imperilled blonde in some poor surfer’s found footage.

Lively is best known for her role as a socialite in TV’s utterly superficial and entirely engrossing Gossip Girl, but has recently been breaking that mould with grittier roles as “The Girlfriend” in Savages and The Town. It’s good to see her carry a whole film – and she literally carries it, as Robert Redford had to in his own man-at-sea solo show, All is Lost (though there was significantly less tanned skin in his film). Lively may not get to extend her acting range much beyond frightened and exhausted, but her plight is certainly captivating (and to be honest, if you succumb to the inevitable male gaze of the direction and camerawork, she looks sensational).

In a career that includes three solid Liam Neeson actioners that don’t have Taken in the title, director Jaume Collet-Serra never aims for highbrow but he knows his genre, and with airplane thriller Non-Stop in particular he proved he’s accomplished at creating fairly gripping action in a single location. Inexplicably he muddies those waters in The Shallows by flashing up irritating screenshots of Nancy’s cellphone photos and narratively uninspired Skype calls, and drowning us in oonst-oonst music and intermittent slo-mo before a pensive close-up of Lively eating an apple.

But the sharkier moments are nevertheless well-handled, and if your heart isn’t pounding for most of the film, you’re not alive.

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