Wellington Paranormal, Episode 1

Following the hit comedy and mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows (2014), Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) and Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Thor: Ragnarok) have teamed up again to create the hotly anticipated TV spinoff: Wellington Paranormal.

Wellington Paranormal

We first meet the Officers Minogue (Mike Minogue) and O’Leary (Karen O’Leary) in the mocumentary, who are responding to a noise complaint to the vampire household. In a tense scene, the police officers enter to inspect the house. However, due to hypnotism, the police become entirely unobservant of both the dead body in the basement and a levitating vampire, focusing instead on fire hazards and missing smoke detectors.

In Wellington Paranormal, Minogue and O’Leary are enlisted by their captain, Sergeant Maaka (Maaka Pohatu), to solve the Kiwi capital’s supernatural and paranormal cases. Together, they form the Wellington Police Paranormal Unit. In the first episode of the series, they are taking care of a young woman who claims to be Bazu’aal of the Unholy Realm. This time, however, the officers are marginally more observant. While the young woman is projectile vomiting green sulphuric acid in the background, Officer O’Leary narrates matter-of-factly to the camera, that yes, the girl ‘is clearly quite unwell’. The demonic spirit possesses a number of different people in Wellington, and the rest of the episode follows Minogue and O’Leary as they attempt to apprehend the spirit.

Following the tradition of the deadpan humour in Flight of the Conchords and What We Do in the Shadowsthis is a cop comedy in the vein of The Office and reality show parodies. Filming with a hand-held camera, the show revels in understated jokes and puns, and the plot becomes increasingly absurd. The episode works as a stand-alone from the film, and the characters are quickly and easily introduced. O’Leary is the leader and a level-headed rationalist, and Minogue is her slightly dim, but well-meaning, partner. The actors give good performances, and it clear that they have good chemistry.

The first part of the six-part series sets the show up to a good start, and sets a promising precedent for the episodes to come. If the show manages to keep up the pace and avoids having its jokes becoming too repetitive, this can certainly become a comedy classic.

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Addams Family Musical UK Tour

I recently reviewed The Addams Family Musical for Weekend Notes, which premiered in Edinburgh and is currently touring the UK. It deserves a five star rating, and received a standing ovation. Read my full review here:

http://www.weekendnotes.com/the-addams-family-musical-comedy-uk-tour/

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Image: http://www.theaddamsfamily.co.uk

 

CHiPs

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Image: indiewire.com

2 Stars

CHiPs is a revival of a TV series from the late 70s and early 80s, and this action comedy follows the pill-popping, former motorbike rider and rookie cop Jon Baker (Dax Shepard), and hardened undercover FBI agent Frank “Ponch” Poncherello (Michael Peña) as they try to bring down some dirty cops in their California Highway Patrol (CHP) office. The film forgoes high stakes in order to focus on the private lives of the two officers, particularly Jon who is trying to save his marriage with Karen (played by Kristen Bell).

The reboot is written and directed by Dax Shepard, and a lot of the comedy elements in the film stems from issues of fragile masculinity and sexual moments, with Ponch accusing Jon (who has attended couples counselling for the past year) of being “three beers too intimate”. The camera work in the film is especially good, with many interesting shots and dynamic camera work. The music is used effectively too, and a particular highlight is when Whitney Huston’s “I Will Always Love You” is playing as Jon takes a lounge across the road to save Ponch from an oncoming truck. Peña and Shephard play off each other effortlessly, and they’re a joy to watch together. However, it feels as if they enjoyed working together more than the audience enjoys watching them on screen together.

Unfortunately, the film fails at rendering the characters sympathetically and engaging the audience. The plot is too generic and the impressive stunts on the motorbikes hardly make up for it. With decapitations and cut off fingers, the violence seems excessive in such an easy-going movie. It is also unclear whether CHiPs is paying homage to the original TV series, is satirising the genre or genuinely being serious. There are also some sexist undertones and tropes of gay panic and internalised homophobia in the film (particularly from Michael Peña’s character), and seeing as it is Dax Shepard who wrote it, it is surprising and very disappointing. If you want to watch CHiPs, I recommend watching the trailer: it gives you a highlight reel of all the best moments anyway.

 

 

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

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Cinemaposter with Hec and Ricky, Image: Cineworld.com

4 stars

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a ‘majestical’ movie. Based on the novel Wild Pork and Watercress by Barry Crump, the movie is written and directed by Taika Waititi, known for films such as What We Do in the Shadows (2014) and the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok (2017). Like the novel itself, the film is divided into eleven chapters, and this New Zealand comedy is full of heart, laughs and beautiful landscapes.

Telling the story of how foster child Ricky (Julian Dennison) gets a rude awakening when he finds himself with a new foster family in the middle of the New Zealand bush, his wannabe gangster attitude is gradually broken down by the affectionate Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata), his new foster mum. However, Bella’s husband, Hec (Sam Neill), does not warm to Ricky, and remains distant and gruff. After a tragedy befalls them, an accident leaves Hec and Ricky stranded in the forest for weeks (accompanied with their dogs Tupac and Zag), and a misunderstanding, the two form a sort of friendship as they try to avoid the authorities which are hunting them.

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Ricky with mud on his face, Image: cubecinema.com

The film has a great soundtrack, and plenty of pop culture references. Its dialogue is quite quotable, as each character has their own repeated catchphrase which they repeat as they both conform to and defy their own stereotype. In particular, the child welfare worker Paula (Rachel House) repeats the phrase ‘no child left behind’, which alternately makes her look concerned and unhinged. Rhys Darby (famous for his role as band manager Murray in Flight of the Conchords) also makes an appearance as Psycho Sam, a government conspiracy theorist. Although more screen time could have been given to these characters, Waititi’s decision to focus on the relationship Hec and Ricky makes their appearance all the more surprising in the narrative. They also form a red thread which runs throughout the film and provide some comic relief to break up the narrative of Hec and Ricky in the forest.

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Rhys Darby as Psycho Sam, Image: standbyformindcontrol.com

The camera work in the film is interesting, with many helicopter- and panoramic shots. At times Waititi’s visual storytelling is reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s style, particularly when he shows montages of equipment or the passing of time. Hunt for the Wilderpeople also draws a lot of inspiration from American action movies, but transposes it, satirises it and places it in a comedy drama. The film even comes equipped with a car chase and a Lord of the Rings reference. 

Hunt for the Wilderpeople’s laughs are clever, the plot has some unexpected twists, and its emotions are genuine. This film is, fundamentally, a story about family, belonging, perceived masculinity, and how different individuals can come together to form deep personal connections.

Bad Moms

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3 Stars

In the continuation of Hollywood comedies starting with ‘bad’ this or ‘bad’ that, Bad Moms is an entertaining filler which demands that you disengage your brain for an hour and a half.

Following Amy (Mila Kunis) as she rebels against the PTA queen Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate) and her impossible and perfectionist standards for motherhood and maternal responsibility, Amy joins forces with two other overworked and under-appreciated mothers (Kristen Bell, Kathryn Hahn) to take her down.

It is refreshing that, in a Hollywood movie, women unapologetically take take the centre stage without the need of a male supporter or a focus on a romantic interest, and Bad Moms is a film which desperately tries to scream ‘girl power’. However, Bad Moms plays on stereotypes to the extreme and these actresses do not play a character as much as a type. Kunis is the career-focused mother stuck in a loveless marriage and who does absolutely everything for her children, Kristen Bell is the friendless and lonely stay-at-home mum with a controlling husband, and Applegate is the wealthy super-mum who controls both parents and teachers through fear and bullying. The male characters are also subject to stereotypes, existing in the movie either to be objectified or to be viewed as oppressors.  

The comedic timing is often spot on, and it consistently gained chuckles from the audience. Music was used to heighten comic effect, but the excessive combined use of slow motion and club music throughout the film weakened its effect as the film wore on. Some variation of cinematic devices would not have gone amiss in this film.

A message that kept being repeated in the film is that no-one truly knows what they are doing, and perhaps this also applied to its makers. More could have been done to attempt to create a comedy classic, but it is a promising start towards a more gender balanced future in film. With figures such as Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, as well as Amy Schumer, Kirsten Wiig and Melissa McCarthy, one would hope that such a future is not too far away.

Written for The Student newspaper.

Suicide Squad

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For all its promising trailers and casting choices, the hype surrounding this movie left the viewer slightly disappointed after seeing it.

The first half consisted mainly of introductions and exposition, and while it was cleverly done and executed, it felt rushed. Every bad guy needed a background to justify their crimes and attitude, and any explanatory text which appeared on screen disappeared before it could be read. Only two of the villainous cast give a lasting impression of being something more than a two dimensional character: Deadshot (Will Smith) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie). Deadshot is the real ‘hero’ of the story, and the plot tries valiantly to place him as its central character – the good guy among the bad guys. This is mainly achieved through his relationship with his daughter, sold to the audience as his ‘only weakness’. Not exactly a gripping back-story. While Harley Quinn is a fun wild card, lightening up every scene she is in, it could easily be said that the studio exploits Robbie’s physical appearance in order to sell more tickets. In a film with villains facing villains, Cara Delevigne fails to convince in her role as the Enchantress. Whether this is due to the studio failing to give her adequate screen time to establish her as the main villain, or because of lacking acting talent, is up for discussion. Other highly publicised members of the cast were barely in the movie at all, such as Jared Leto’s Joker who formed a sub-plot of a sub-plot.

Director David Ayer made a valiant attempt to give the film a comic book style feel, and the action sequences in particular succeeded in this. Other parts, such as a large folder labelled “top secret”, felt a little outdated and overstated. With a musical score which is reminiscent of the soundtrack for Guardians of the Galaxy, a team forced to work together (much like in Avengers Assemble) and a final showdown similar to the original Ghostbusters film, it feels as if Suicide Squad takes the bits which worked best for other films and capitalises on them. With films like Deadpool demonstrating how good and innovative antihero films can be these days, Suicide Squad just does not make the cut.

Me Before You

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Me Before You is a heartfelt romcom with great performances from its two main actors, Emilia Clarke (Louisa ‘Lou’ Clark) and Sam Claflin (Will Traynor). Lou, the small-town English girl with an individual dress style becomes the carer of, and eventually falls in love with, her quadriplegic employer, Will. Things do not go smoothly, however, and it is endearing to watch the once stoic Traynor gradually open up to Lou and let some happiness into his life. 

The film is not without its problems though, and the press has more than adequately covered Me Before You’s notorious backlash for its depiction of disability. The notion that life is not worth living without the full operation of one’s limbs is both misleading and demeaning, and this is becoming somewhat of a cliché in films with characters suffering from paralysis; Alejandro Ameábar’s The Sea Inside (2004) springs to mind. Furthermore, serious subject matter such as euthanasia and depression become marginalised in favour of the romantic plot, and reactions to (and discussions of) assisted suicide are shown only in a superficial manner. 

What saves this film is the convincing characters and family relations the story has. Every family has its problems, whether they are incredibly wealthy or a struggling working class. The film is not without its comic moments, some of which are helped along by Patrick (Matthew Lewis), Lou’s sporty and self-absorbed boyfriend. Me Before You is a real tearjerker of a movie, and a must see for any Richard Curtis fan.

The Gospel of Loki

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The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M. Harris is an incredibly fun read. Told from the first person perspective of the norse god Loki, it follows him from creation outside of Chaos until Ragnarok, the world’s end.

The novel serves as a good introduction to norse mythology, or a fun retelling for those with some prior knowledge of it. It includes most of its main events, such as the cutting off Sif’s hair, the theft of Thor’s hammer and the death of Balder. Each chapter gives a new “lessons” from the Lokabrenna, Loki’s gospel from the novel’s title, and it includes such fun sayings as: ‘A bird in the hand will leave you with birdshit on your fingers’ and ‘Killing the fans. Never the most efficient way to build on your public image’.

With the popularity of Marvel’s Loki (Tom Hiddleston) the novel could not be more aptly timed. Through his eyes we see the antihero sympathetically, and he often breaks the fourth wall by addressing his readers directly as ‘Yours Truly’. Loki is lonely, universally disliked and he invites us to join him in making the world pay for his mistreatment.

Whether the novel is original is debatable. Apart from making the norse myths more accessible, it does not add any new character dimensions or interpretations. Most of the characters are strikingly one dimensional, and only Thor and Odin feature prominently enough to be noticed. Neither does it expand on any world building beyond that which is strictly necessary. Due to the nature of the narrative, these things may not be necessary, but for those interested in a more expansive fantasy world, this is slightly disappointing.

The novel is fast paced and entertaining, yet Loki will always be known as the trickster god, the liesmith.  Can he be trusted in his own version of history?

Brave New World

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5 stars

Based on the book by Aldous Huxley of the same name, Brave New World has been masterly adapted for the stage by Dawn King. Set in a dystopian future of a constructed society consisting of genetically engineered people, the play raises several emotional, scientific and moral questions about progress and about what it means to be human. In a world where ‘everyone belongs to everyone’, are ‘conditioned’ to act in a certain way and to like and dislike specific things, the play holds back no punches.

The set consists of sharp lines, squares and parallel geometric structures. These emphasise the underlying structure and nature of this futuristic society, where deviants and deviant behaviour from the norm are not tolerated, and anything that sets you apart from the rest of society is possibly catastrophic. It is a sterile world, where individuals have very little individuality. Transitions between scenes are fluid, and the same surfaces are instantly transformed for a new purpose.

Although there is a lot of explaining taking place, particularly in the first half of the play, it does not grow wearisome. Combined with the lighting and sound effects, which are used to perfection, it adds drama and a sinister feel to the New London setting. In fact, the visual and audial representations of the effects of the Soma (a drug that induces feelings of happiness and lust) and the Solidarity Group class (a space for eliminating inhibitions and boundaries between people) enhance the realism and the consuming effect of the reality of the play. The play is incredibly dynamic and physical, with many sensual and provocative moments, yet the characters themselves are emotionally restrained.

William Postlethwaite does a fantastic job of acting the role of John the Savage, a man caught between the two opposing realities in the play: the New Londoners and those on the Savage Reservation. Born naturally by Linda, an abandoned New Londoner among the savages, John is the only character in the play with familial bonds. Because of his heritage, the Savages reject him from their society; in New London, he is educated, but not conditioned. Brought into New London, his attempts to rebel and cause changes to the society he finds himself in fail because he is displaced, being nether a part of nor excluded from their society. Growing up he immersed himself in the world of Shakespeare, and his frequent quotations of the Bard are highly amusing and satirical, mocking the attitudes of those around him. Yet the strict morals and teachings in these works make him unable to respond to, or accept those of, the conditioned people, and this ultimately leads to his shocking end.

The play challenges its audience to engage with issues raised in the play, and its cyclical nature leaves the spectators with an uneasy feeling. Brave New World is an edgy, slick and perfectly executed piece of theatre, and the beauty of Brave New World is its universal and timeless relevance to modern society.

 

Love is Strange

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Love is Strange tells the story of a same-sex couple whose lives become difficult after getting married. As a time which should be filled with joy and happiness, George (Alfred Molina) instead loses his job as music teacher at a catholic school, and he and his financially dependent partner of thirty nine years Ben (John Lithgow), are forced to move out of their apartment. Taking refuge with their family and friends, they must live separately in a type of enforced separation. There is no happily ever after, and there is a distinct feeling of deep humiliation for the later in life couple. It is almost like a love story told in reverse, despite the initial marriage.

The film offers an examination of love and relationships put under stress, not only for Ben and George, but of their family and friends as well. The focus lies on the day-to-day, where the realities of life and of living in love is in focus, rather than the coming together. Ben and George are portrayed as individuals in a relationship, existing without co-dependence, reminding us that which we all are: committed individuals. The film also offers a social commentary on the legalisation of gay-marriage in the US: it may be permitted, but it is still not condoned by all levels of society.

Love is Strange is sweet, sad and humoristic in parts, with the actors giving heartfelt and honest performances. However, the film feels slow and disjointed, and the omission of a key scene (arguably its most dramatic moment), makes the audience feel oddly removed from the action of the plot. The film’s pathos is not realised to its full potential, which is a shame, given the portrayals the actors deliver. Overall, the Love is Strange is perceptive and sophisticated, offering plenty food for thought.