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Friday review: 15 September 2023
A Haunting in Venice, Blue Beetle, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, Building Bridges and Flyways are all in cinemas; You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah is on Netflix
Once upon a time, my high school went to Stratford-Upon-Avon to see an RSC production of The Merchant of Venice. It was an evening show so we had the afternoon to amuse ourselves.
Walking around the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, I saw Kenneth Branagh on the terrace outside the green room, in full Henry V regalia, having a quiet smoke during the matinée interval and for a moment our eyes met.
I mention this only so you know that Ken and I go way back.
Branagh has always been an impresario as well as an artist – in the mold of his hero, Laurence Olivier – and by attaching himself to the Agatha Christie company he has found a franchise that he can really make his own.
A Haunting in Venice is his third outing as Christie’s moustachioed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and not only is he really starting to settle in to the part but he’s also stretching out as a director now, too.
Wide angles and dutch angles abound in this adaptation where, typically, everyone has an angle of their own.
Poirot is living in secluded retirement in Venice. The emotional toll of all those murders has finally told but an author of detective stories (Tina Fey) persuades him to witness a seance in order to either expose the medium (Michelle Yeoh) as a fraud or finally acknowledge that there are phenomena beyond his suffocating rationality.
Christie fans will be familiar with the arc of the story, if not the specifics of this one – based loosely on a late Christie novel not previously adapted for the big screen.
It’s Branagh’s direction that elevates this above the previous two and the relocation of the story from English country house to Venetian palazzo gives him plenty of scope for spooky atmospherics.
He even resists the temptation to give himself too many lingering, misty-eyed close-ups.
A daytime double-feature of Blue Beetle and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem reveals the debt they both owe to Spider-Man. Blue Beetle because it’s about a working class youth getting special powers from a creepy crawly thing and TMNT because it has taken the freedom of animation offered by the most recent Spider-verse films and run with it. It also contains a soundtrack full of old school hip-hop needle drops including De La Soul who featured in Spider-Man: No Way Home.
Winning the charm contest is DC’s Blue Beetle. I was unfamiliar with the character but evidently it has a venerable history, going back as far as 1939. This reboot acknowledges that history but brings it up to date.
An alien device resembling a scarab falls into the hands of young LatinX Jaime (Xolo Maridueña) and decides that he should be the new host of all its powers.
This brings the young man into considerable conflict with global multinational military technology manufacturers – and real estate gentrifiers – Kord Industries and its ruthless CEO Susan Sarandon.
It’s rare for films like this to concern themselves with anything like politics but this one has a welcome awareness of issues like class, racism, migration and even American military interference in Latin America.
Jaime’s family are appealing – except perhaps for the one decent-sized star in the group, comedian George Lopez who soon outstays his welcome – and the details of their struggle street lives are well drawn.
In the end, though, the film falls back on the usual mix of guys in flashy suits CGI-flying around punching each other and also sends some mixed moral messages. “I’m not a killer,” Jaime says when he first gets into a fight but the canon-fodder Kord soldiers all seem pretty disposable by the end.
There’s an awful lot of cartoon violence in TMNT: Mutant Mayhem – the fights probably go on too long to keep very young viewers engaged but this reboot doesn’t appear to be aimed at kids at all in any case.
Written by the Superbad duo of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (with others), it seems to be for the now-grown fans of either the original comic books or earlier reboots. There’s plenty of unironic self-referentiality going on here which can get pretty wearing but it does look great. It’s directed by Jeff Rowe who made The Mitchells vs. the Machines, a bright spot in the dim universe of Netflix animation.
Despite a raft of celebrity voices in the cast (including John Cena, Paul Rudd, Ice Cube), the best performance is from Jackie Chan as Splinter.
New Zealand is such a small place that it shouldn’t be surprising that when you meet a high-flying lawyer, innovative farmer, amateur racing driver, oriental art collector or lefty peacenik, they all turn out to be the same person.
Bill Youren was all of those things and more and we should be grateful that he was also an ace archivist. John Christoffels’ documentary Building Bridges: Bill Youren’s Vision of Peace is made up almost entirely of 8mm film and family photos shot by Youren over many decades, helping paint a picture of New Zealand life from the 30s to the 70s.
While I was utterly absorbed by the time capsule, the film is more concerned with Youren’s politics and New Zealand’s long and honourable history of anti-war and nuclear free campaigning. It’s easy to forget as we approach another lurch to the political right, that a great many New Zealanders have wanted us to have an independent (or at least non-aligned) foreign policy that prioritised peace.
Now it feels as if all our principles are up for grabs if someone thinks there might be a quid in it for farmers.
The ability of some species of shorebird to migrate many thousands of miles every year – continental distances – is kind of miraculous, if you think about it.
In the new Australian documentary Flyways we get to see just how miraculous it is – and how global bird citizens need global support if they are to continue existing.
Full of lovely images and disarming facts – godwits can shut down half their brains while they are flying instead of sleeping – Flyways makes clear how perilous the migration/breeding process is and how threatened the ecosystems are that these birds rely on.
Thanks to hero scientists that are finally managing to tag and track these wily creatures we are starting to understand the routes they take and which important locations we need to preserve so the cycle can continue. The answer is ‘pretty much all of them’.
Wetlands, man. Seems to be the answer to almost every environmental question nowadays.
Finally, to Netflix, where Adam Sandler has been comfortably enjoying his exclusive production deal since 2016.
The latest fruit of that arrangement is the young adult novel adaptation You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah. This is a family business now as wife Jackie and kids Sadie and Sunny all take part. Indeed, Adam is just a supporting actor in this picture as 15-year-old Sunny takes the lead.
She’s Stacy Friedman, preparing to become a woman in the eyes of God (and her community), along with her best friend Lydia (Samantha Lorraine). A misunderstanding over a boy means the two fall out, threatening to ruin their dream Bat Mitzvahs.
Strikingly frank about some aspects of teenage girlhood – and much more successfully inhabiting its cultural world than My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3 last week – YASNITMBM is sometimes very funny, often heartfelt and this reviewer senses that it will be very popular with the age group it represents.
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When I was writing these reviews for the Capital Times back between 2007 and 2013 I was proud to say that I watched everything and I assumed that’s what I would do this time around.
However, two films have come across my path in recent days that I simply don’t want to cover. One is a documentary about a New Zealand mixed martial arts star and the other a ‘documentary’ about the Parliament protests of 2022, supposedly from the point of view of the protestors.
The first I don’t want to watch because I don’t care to witness people fighting in cages, no matter how uplifting the background story might be.
The second because I don’t want to give oxygen to that corner of the political spectrum. They’ve done enough damage.
In the old days, it would never have occurred to me that there would be films in cinemas that I would consider so objectionable in advance as to ignore them completely but here we are.