The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari

Release: Friday, December 9, 2022 (limited)

👀 Netflix

Directed by: Rory Kennedy

Starring: Mark Inman; Matt Urey; Lauren Urey; Jesse Langford; Geoff Hopkins; Kelsey Waghorn; Brian Depauw; Ngaroahiahi Patuwai Maangi; Tim Barrow; Mark Law; John Funnell

Distributor: Netflix

 

 

****/*****

The power of Mother Nature is not the only thing on display in Rory Kennedy’s latest documentary, a gripping account that takes viewers up close to the disaster that unfolded off the coast of New Zealand in December 2019 when White Island, an active volcano, erupted with several dozen tourists still on it. In covering the chaotic aftermath as well as the daring, multi-pronged rescue mission in response, The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari captures humanity in a spectacle that’s both inspiring and ugly.

Prior to the 2019 eruption White Island, known to the indigenous Maori as Whakaari, was a popular tourist destination, offering cruise line passengers and locals alike a rare opportunity to get up-close-and-personal with one of the planet’s most active volcanoes. Accessible by a 90-minute boat ride from the town of Whakatāne on New Zealand’s North Island, the martian environment ensconces the curious (and brave-footed) in alien greens and mustard yellows, crystalline streams of superheated water and gaseous pockets. That the vast majority of the volcano is submarine puts it all the more in reach — you could actually walk right up to the edge of the crater and peek into the acid lake (just be sure to wear your mask).

Kennedy is an Oscar-nominated documentarian whose experience dealing with raw and emotional human stories serves her well here. Inspired by an April 2020 article published in Outside Magazine, she depicts the catastrophic event with incredible urgency, grace and empathy, immersing the viewer in a minute-by-minute procedural, and in a place that goes from picturesque to pure hellscape in the blink of an eye. The visuals are both stunning and terrifying, a pulse-pounding mixture of cell phone footage and dramatic aerial shots.

The cinematography is but one element that gives you a sense of the scale and severity of the situation. Adding to that is the perspective offered by the far-flung pilots who dropped what they were doing to fly into a dangerous environment and against government protocol. But it’s hearing from those who lived through the explosion, such as American newlyweds Lauren and Matt Urey, who chose the spot for their honeymoon, that makes The Volcano a moving account of survival and perseverance — a testament to pain but also bravery and selflessness. For some, the decision to help others was a simple calculation.

Yet not everything is so black-and-white. The film becomes more complicated when addressing the bigger picture, the ethical debate surrounding who should be held accountable. The day-trip-turned-nightmare was an international tragedy in which 22 tourists lost their lives and another 25 sustained horrific burns. Availing herself to the expertise and experience of a variety of sources, from the tangata whenua to passionate tour guides, young helicopter pilots to first-aid responders, Kennedy allows the discussion to unfold from a number of perspectives, never inserting her own opinion or putting too fine a point on things.

Her work, as thrilling as it can be sickening, doesn’t need a scapegoat to be effective as a reminder of nature’s cruel indifference to our curiosity.

Moral of the Story: A thoroughly gripping documentary, full of emotional power and acts of bravery, and that can be hard to watch at times. Although director Rory Kennedy remains respectful by largely avoiding graphic imagery, the details shared in interviews are grisly and can be upsetting to hear. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 98 mins. 

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; http://www.outsideonline.com 

The Foreigner

Release: Friday, October 13, 2017

→Theater 

Written by: David Marconi

Directed by: Martin Campbell

Martin Campbell has been behind two of my all-time favorite Bond movies, Casino Royale and Goldeneye (incidentally two films that also saw a changing of the guard amongst the ranks of the 00 elite), and now he’s responsible for one of my favorite Jackie Chan movies ever. The Legend is back, and as The Foreigner he’s kicking ass and taking names in ways we haven’t seen before.

Before going any further, before my bias toward the Kiwi’s new movie renders me a totally unreliable resource, I should point out that this is the same director who made Vertical Limit, the face-palming result of woefully apparent and inadequate research that turned the rock climbing community into the laughingstock of audiences everywhere. The critical and commercial failure that was Green Lantern in 2011 further sullied the good Campbell name. Fortunately those are stains that have come out in the wash. The Foreigner is his first theatrical release since then, and it’s one of his best.

The New Zealand-born filmmaker is arguably an entertainer first and a director second, as not even his lesser output — Vertical frikkin’ Limit included — fail to provide at least some degree of escapism. The Foreigner offers something a little different in that regard. Though the movie does at some point become farcical, the viewer can’t afford to completely detach, much less get comfortable, for it is the gnarly landscape of our present reality over which the narrative cautiously treads. Steeped in the world of dastardly complex politics in an age of global terrorism, the story tells of a retired Vietnam War special forces op named Quan (Chan) who seeks justice for his daughter who is killed in a London department store bombing.

Hong Kong’s biggest action star subverts roughly 30 years of expectation by portraying a father pushed to the brink of sanity, a man who tiptoes the line of morality in his quest to expose the identities of the culprits — a group who call themselves “The Authentic IRA.” In The Foreigner, Chan goes full-on Liam Neeson, a brute force awakened from slumber whose very particular set of skills, shaped by his survival of Vietnamese internment camps as well as a life overflowing with personal tragedy, are called upon when he finally loses everything. So, yeah. Rush Hour this ain’t. Reportedly Campbell had to make two separate trips to China in order to convince Chan this is a role he should take.

Not everything is unfamiliar. At 63, and in post-Lifetime Achievement Award territory, Chan is still risking life and limb for the sake of bona fide performance art. The stunts aren’t as spectacular as they once were, that’s true, but I’ll run that number by you again. He’s 63 and still jumping out of second-floor windows, narrowly avoiding death like a parkour expert in their early 20s. It’s as if death wishes are part of some non-negotiable clause in Chan’s career contract. Separating this role from most, however, is that added edge of emotion that sees that mischievous grin of his traded in for a face twisted in grief and pain.

Chan’s not the only one turning in a surprisingly impactful performance. Quan’s queries, which in the language of these familiar action movies become obsessions, eventually lead him into the office of Irish deputy minister Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan). He’s an intimidating man with a dark history to match, one made public by his own admission but the true extent to which it remains relevant becomes a mystery only Quan seems prepared (or desperate enough) to investigate. Aging suits Brosnan well, particularly in a more complex role like this where he appears to be bad at keeping the peace — let all The Troubles be forgot — but better at playing the sadistic puppeteer.

As the story unfolds it relies increasingly on these performances. Throughout we become bombarded with subplots detailing the total lack of trust between the Irish and the British, where acts of terrorism are perpetrated in the name of government favors and special interests. There’s a lot of orchestration going on behind the scenes, most memorably highlighted in an intensely heated exchange between Hennessy and a rogue IRA member played by Dermot Crowley. In the end, it’s the cat-and-mouse game between the film’s two stars that gives us reason to invest. The politics may become a bit silly, but these guys really aren’t fucking around. I enjoyed The Foreigner probably more than I should have, for that reason alone.

Recommendation: Fans of The Legend and the James Bond that M once lovingly called “a relic of the Cold War” should have a lot of time for a movie like The Foreigner. As a story it’s familiar, but Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan challenge the assertion that a cliché movie is a bad movie.

Rated: R

Running Time: 114 mins.

Quoted: “Politicians and terrorists, they are just two ends of the same snake. What’s the difference?”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Deathgasm

'Deathgasm' movie poster

Release: Friday, October 2, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Jason Lei Howden

Directed by: Jason Lei Howden

Visual effects artist Jason Lei Howden’s blood-splattered horror-comedy debut may operate within some fairly limited confines but budgetary constraints seemingly have no effect on the creativity of his project and its metal-as-f**k attitude.

So you come to expect a few things with a title like Deathgasm. Those who can’t handle copious amounts of red syrup blood, here’s your exit door. Don’t let it hit you on the way out. Three-parts grindhouse gore-fest, one-part supernatural thriller with just a sprinkling of awkward humor to keep a narrative of grossness lubricated just enough, this New Zealand-produced film is, yes, absolutely ridiculous. It is so over-the-top violent I don’t know where to begin.

Let’s start at the beginning. Set in the fictional sleepy town of Greypoint, Brodie (Milo Cawthorne) is forced to move in with his religious fanatic uncle and bullying cousin after his mother is carted off to an asylum. His dad’s dead. Life is miserable for Brodie, even at school. His friends, much like himself, are clinging to the fringes of high school society and so he often finds himself diving into music to escape the humdrum of his every day existence, while keeping an eye on the cute girl, Medina (Kimberley Crossman), of course. Also of course: she is the girlfriend of none other than Brodie’s cousin.

One of the positives in Brodie’s life is the local record store. There he happens to come across Zakk (James Blake), whose unconditional love for violent-sounding but ultimately galvanizing death metal is evidenced by his all-black attire. The two decide to pour their mutual love for music into forming a band that Zakk will christen ‘DEATHGASM.’ All capital letters, because that’s f-ing metal man. One day Zakk talks Brodie into breaking-and-entering into an abandoned-looking home rumored to be where metal legend Rikki Daggers (Stephen Ure, looking somewhat more human than he did in his contributions to both the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit franchises) still lives.

It’s here where they come into possession of some sheet music that’s simultaneously being protected by Daggers and coveted by a local cult. Soon enough the metalheads, along with dorksters Dion (Sam Berkley) and Giles (Daniel Cresswell), are experiencing first-hand the power of the music they’ve just stumbled upon. If played, what’s on the page will summon demons from the underworld. They rock out, and sure enough the world as they know it becomes overtaken by bloodthirsty creatures. The biggest problem though, is that they’re being targeted by the very cult that was originally after that sheet music.

Here’s where I should probably make mention of how much more bloodthirsty Howden is, his direction spinning off into some crazy territory where once-living humans turn into ghouls that meet some very, very messy fates. One guy gets his face removed by a belt sander. Another accepts a chainsaw where the sun don’t shine. Gorehounds and metalheads are sure to come together to champion the film for its sweet, sweet brutality and unapologetically cheesy escapist frills. The movie is pretty goddamn metal. It’s also, sadly, too sloppy for it’s own good.

Everything boils down to a confidence issue. Brodie is still learning how to jam like a bonafide rockstar and he wants to be with Medina (but only because she showed an interest first). When push comes to shove, will he be able to send those pesky demon bastards back to where they belong? Will his playing save the girl before it’s too late? Okay so I admit I just made the premise sound worse in writing but in execution there’s a lot to like, even if you just can’t avoid addressing what’s painfully obvious: learning how to play the right chords at the right moment makes for a kinda lame horror finale.

And that’s certainly not the only weak spot; half-baked logic abounds when it comes to how they plan on solving the issue (which I won’t spoil) and the usual wooden performances. And perhaps most surprising of all, there’s actually not a great deal of music. Deathgasm holds so much potential to be better, and I’ll even forgive it for it’s occasional shameless elitism (see how Brodie and Zakk introduce themselves to one another for a prime example). It’s all too easy to lay out all of the ways in which this film is just . . . plain . . . silly, but let’s not overthink things too much. Let’s take it for what it is: pretty bloody fun.

deathgasm-2

Recommendation: Bonafide guilty pleasure material, Deathgasm doesn’t quite capitalize on its whacky premise but it’s worth a watch for genre fans and it might even entice anyone who calls themselves “not much of a metal fan” because they believe they’re communicating with the Devil through their music — just to see these kids do literally just that. If you want certain stereotypes confirmed in a suitably twisted and hilarious fashion, this is totally your jam. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 86 mins.

Quoted: “Three AM Pacific . . . or three AM Eastern time? Do demons recognize daylight savings?” 

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.ilgiornodeglizombi.wordpress.com

People Places Things

People Places Things movie poster

Release: Friday, August 15, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: James C. Strouse

Directed by: James C. Strouse

Bittersweet comedy features Jemaine Clement calibrating his typical absurdist humor to bring warmth and tenderness to a story that both pleases and frustrates in almost equal measure.

People Places Things won’t be the next career-defining gig for the Kiwi but it’s such an affable film little doubt remains as to whether the Flight of the Conchords performer is multitalented as well as a genuinely good guy.

In it he plays Will Henry, a 30-something-year-old comic book creator and teacher who discovers his longtime girlfriend has cheated on him on the day of their twin daughters’ birthdays. He subsequently moves into a one-bedroom apartment and must learn to juggle the emotional turmoil with his daily responsibilities such as being a good father and inspiring his students to become better artists.

Will also finds himself having to put himself back out on the market, a proposition he isn’t so quick to embrace until he meets the mother of one of his students, a Columbia University professor who doesn’t initially share Will’s passion for comics, uncertain they are an integral part of American literature. Diane (Regina Hall) is a beautiful woman well-versed in heartbreak. Her daughter Kat (Jessica Williams) highly regards Will as an artist. But what about him as a person?

People Places Things doesn’t set out to rewrite the rules of romantic comedy. But then, it has no obligation to do so when it’s this damn enjoyable. Clement turns in a brilliantly understated performance that effects a fully realized portrait of a father whose love for his children never comes into question. That’s not to say he’s the perfect role model. He struggles with falling into routine, and that’s particularly problematic when he convinces the ex to let him spend more time with the kids.

Stephanie Allynne plays Charlie, the other half of the equation. Her life hasn’t turned out to be what she envisioned. Call the opening scene the manifestation of a midlife crisis from which the film may or may not ever recover. What was once presumably a stable relationship disintegrates in a single scene, although some backstory would have given the revelatory moment the oomph it clearly lacks.

Writer/director James C. Strouse compensates for the awkward cold open by developing the father-daughter relationship in the middle third. The majority of the film finds Will trying to adjust to a life in a new environment, where he tries to impress Clio and Colette (real life twin sisters Aundrea and Gia Gadsby) with his laid-back parenting, a strategy that soon breaks down and calls into question his ability to do all that is necessary to be a truly responsible parent. Meanwhile, Charlie claims she’s been doing that all along. It would have been nice to actually see her being the more matured adult rather than getting glimpses of her having a nervous breakdown.

Despite some hiccups, Strouse constructs a simple tale of mature relationships that certainly could benefit from some expansion but it’s the emotional depth that lifts the film several feet above forgettable.

Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 7.55.13 PM

Recommendation: Performances are key. Jemaine Clement is wonderful, as is his support. Most notable are Regina Hall and Jessica Williams as Will’s student whose mother he ends up seeing. Story is slight but heartwarming and incredibly re-watchable. Fans of Clement and ‘realistic’ romantic comedies need apply. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 85 mins.

Quoted: “Yeah, I’m fine. I’m just having a bad life. It’ll be over eventually.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Housebound

Housebound movie poster

Release: Friday, October 17, 2014 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Gerard Johnstone

Directed by: Gerard Johnstone

Housebound heralds the arrival of a creative new talent in Gerard Johnstone, and though not always the most confident, his feature film debut functions as a perfectly harmless distraction that adds a few amusing wrinkles in the fabric of haunted house horror.

It centers around a young, moody twentysomething — Kylie Bucknell (Morgana O’Reilly) — who gets caught in the act of trying to relieve an ATM of its contents. Because of her recidivistic tendencies she’s sentenced to eight months of house arrest, a light punishment all things considered. But this means she’ll have to put up with her irritating mother Miriam (Rima Te Wiata) and step-father Graeme (Ross Harper) — gasp, the horror! The former seems to think the house is possessed by spirits, while the latter utters nary a word as he’s never been a talkative fellow.

Added to Kylie’s suffering is the fact she’s been fitted with an anklet that will alert authorities, the seemingly lone wolf Amos (Glen-Paul Waru), if she tries to leave the premises. What’s a girl to do if she can’t go out every night and burglarize the shit out of everything with her wayward friends? I guess just sit there and pout.

Credit Johnstone for casting an atypical lead in his first film, and O’Reilly for selling her character’s detachment from society. Unfortunately she’s too good at it; it’s a little hard to root for her when she begins experiencing some of the things that has recently sent her mother into hysterics. Completely insensitive to the needs of others, Kylie isn’t someone who seems ready to change their ways and would rather mope around for the next few months until the shackles have been lifted. Or am I just overlooking the fact that perhaps her cloudy disposition is part of the comedic appeal?

One thing that’s more frustrating than Kylie’s selfish behavior is the dynamic between her and Amos. As she slowly comes into an understanding that the house she finds herself in has a dark history — it once served as a halfway house and was the site of a grisly murder — she has trouble convincing anyone else of what’s going on. But . . . wasn’t her mother the one phoning in to a radio show to publicize her paranoias? And why isn’t Amos believing her? He oscillates between being overly protective of the young woman and skeptical to the point of accusing her of lying about everything she’s going through.

Alas, Housebound becomes one of “those” movies — the kind where everything we witness apparently comes at the expense of our protagonist’s credibility. Her frustration becomes our frustration. That is, until things take a turn for the worse when Kylie and Amos together turn their attention toward a suspicious neighbor, whom they believe could be responsible for things going bump in the night. As we’ve expected all along there’s more to this scene than what meets the eye.

Johnstone’s debut is fascinated with the concept of seclusion and secrecy, applying it to elements both physical and conceptual. As I’m obligated to keep spoilers out of my reviews to keep my readers from turning on me in a quick and hostile manner, suffice it to say his technique is what sustains the entertainment rather than the actual, tangible elements themselves. Even if Housebound gets a little too overexcited in its grander reveals — people living inside walls notwithstanding — perhaps it’s best to resist the urge to overanalyze. Like Kylie, maybe it’s in our best interests to sit back and just let this phase run its course.

things get a bit messy for Morgana O'Reilly and Rima Te Wiata in 'Housebound'

Recommendation: Housebound serves as another welcomed entry into the steadily growing marriage between comedy and horror. It does enough to satisfy casual horror fans who like their stuff more on the light-hearted side though it features a few grisly scenes and enough blood to satiate more serious horror watchers. Not a perfect film but it’s solid enough to make me want to come back for more. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 107 mins.

Quoted: “I am not the only one who thought there was a ghost in this house, Kylie. In fact, you used to be so terrified you could not sleep.” / “Yeah, I also used to think the Moon was made of cheese. It is called childhood.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

What We Do in the Shadows

wwdits-movie-poster

Release: Friday, February 13, 2015 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Jemaine Clement; Taika Waititi

Directed by: Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi

It’s once again cool to bust out your vampire get-up for the next Halloween party because these guys have just made being an ugly, putrefying member of the undead so totally hip. Even I, one of Dracula‘s biggest naysayers, wants a sweet cape.

If you’ve been entranced by musicomedy duo Flight of the Conchords, a televised show/live performance featuring the inseparable Kiwis Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie this film has your name written (in blood) all over it. Their brand of humor runs amok in this mockumentary about several vampires struggling to just get by in the 21st Century, all while anticipating and preparing to attend the annual Unholy Masquerade hosted in their fair town of Wellington, New Zealand. This film is such an amusing spin on the vampire legend that being a dedicated fan isn’t a matter of eternal life and death.

What We Do in the Shadows sucks-eeds on a number of levels. Aside from that being possibly this blog’s worst pun yet, it’s also paramount to understanding why you’ll walk away from this fangtastic comedy feeling completely refreshed and satisfied with how you’ve spent your money. Consistency is difficult to find in comedies, much less those of the contemporary variety, but there is no better word to describe Shadows, apart from echoing critics’ chosen adjective: hilarious. From the performances to the frightful wardrobe; the subversion of vampiric lore to the commitment to being ridiculous, this is a product that delivers on its promises from the opening frame of being a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

The film invites you in with a frank discussion between two roommates attempting a diplomatic approach with a third, much lazier roommate, the 183-year-old Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), who hasn’t done the dishes in at least five years. Clement’s Vladislav and Taika Waititi’s Viago, both several centuries Deacon’s senior, are understandably upset. Tensions have literally risen to the ceiling and added to this the fact that their fourth roommate, 8,000-year-old Petyr (Ben Fransham) doesn’t exactly try to voice his concerns. Quickly the tone of the film is set, although direction is a little harder to nail down.

Shadows, while thoroughly ridiculous, knows not to forsake tradition, however. Some of its funniest moments come from demonstrating the “mild inconveniences” of having to suck blood to stay alive. Because they cannot expose themselves to sunlight the gang has to prowl the streets at night looking for new “friends,” and also because of other technicalities, they often find themselves denied the chance to enter night clubs since they’re never invited in. A friend of Deacon (a human female, as it so happens) tricks her ex-boyfriend Nick into coming over to their house to eat what he thinks is a hearty bowl of spaghetti. Uh, it’s not. It’s actually pasghetti, thank you very much, and it looks remarkably similar to a bowl of live worms. A chase ensues when the guest refuses to eat and Nick, despite his best efforts, may never be the same again.

Several other humorous vignettes transpire before we get to the main event: the Unholy Masquerade, and I refuse to reveal anything more about those sequences. While tensions among the roommates are being documented in each scene, this is where things really start to unravel for Vladislav in particular. As he’s expecting to become the featured guest of this year’s Unholy Masquerade, it’s no surprise he is crushed when he hears that not only is he not the guest of honor but instead it’s none other than his ex, whom he describes — in a scene that had me crying from laughter — as “that damn Beast.” All hell breaks loose at the dance when Pauline (a.ka. “The Beast”) quickly sniffs out the human members among Vladislav’s crew — Nick’s computer engineer/dorky friend Stu is one such individual, as are the people filming the documentary — but luckily enough our gang escapes the angry mob of undead.

Shadows may be loosely strung together in terms of plot, but when the gags come in such rapid succession and the characters are this entertaining, basic structure fades into the background. It’s easy to sit back and eagerly anticipate the next twist in the adventure. The addition of human Stu is a brilliant reflection of our own wide-eyed reactions to these bloodthirsty drama queens. He’s also someone the vampires actually take kindly to, as he introduces them to the conveniences of Skype and smart phones, assimilating these creatures slowly into the modern age.

It’s a pretty difficult world to get by in if you’re a mere mortal, but if you’re a vampire good luck trying not to go insane figuring out what the point is of things like Twitter and Instagram.

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4-5Recommendation: What We Do in the Shadows pulls off an impressive feat of remaining funny, engaging and clever from beginning to end while creating several interesting riffs on the vampire genre. For fans of anything Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi have done this inspired documentary is an absolute must. It basically is for anyone in search of one of the year’s better comedies. The sun hasn’t come up yet, but this has a good chance of staying alive for a long, long time. Fantastic bit of creative energy out of New Zealand. Check it out.

Rated: N/R

Running Time: 86 mins.

Quoted: “What are we?” / “Werewolves, not swear-wolves . . .”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com