Thursday, 31 July 2014

NZIFF Film Review: "The Babadook" (2014).

"Where there is imagination, there is darkness and from within that darkness lurks a being of unfathomable terror ... close to home." That being is The Babadook. This Australian psychological horror film written and directed by Jennifer Kent, in her directorial debut, and based on Kent's 2005 short film Monster. A widowed mother, plagued by the violent death of her husband, battles with her son's fear of a monster lurking in the house, but soon discovers a sinister presence all around her.

In 2009, Kent began writing a feature-length screenplay of her 2005 short film that sought to tell a story about facing up to the darkness within ourselves, the "fear of going mad" and an exploration of parenting from a "real perspective". In terms of the characters, Kent said that it was important that both characters are loving and lovable - Kent wanted to portray human relationships in a positive light. In total, Kent completed five drafts of the script. Kent cited 1950s, '60s, '70s and '80s horror films, including The Thing (1982), Halloween (1978), Eyes Without a Face (1960), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Carnival of Souls (1962), The Shining (1980), Vampyr (1932), Nosferatu (1922), Let The Right One In (2008), The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), and Häxan (1922). Principal Photography took place in Adelaide, South Australia with a budget of $2 million. Kent originally wanted to film solely in black-and-white, as she wanted to create a "heightened feel" that is still believable. But Kent later lost interest in the black-and-white idea and worked closely with production designer Alex Holmes and Radek to create a "very cool", "very claustrophobic" interior environment with "meticulously designed" sets. Kent cited filmmakers David Lynch and Roman Polanski as key influences during the filming stage. For the titular monster and the scary effects, Kent was adamant from the outset of production that a low-fi and handmade approach would be used. Stop-motion effects were used for the monster and a large amount of smoothening was completed in post-production. Kent also took inspiration from The Man in the Beaver Hat from London After Midnight (1927) for the design of the Babadook.

The film stars Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Hayley McElhinney, Barbara West, and Ben Winspear. Terrifyingly strong performances were given by the cast, especially from Davies and Wiseman, whose dark portrayal of mother and son was the true monster of the film.

Occasionally a feature film emerges from outside the United States, although this is the first ever out of Australia, where a group of inexperienced and independent film pros veered off into a try at producing truly terrifying and disturbing entertainment. The Babadook is a bold film that plays like a perfect nightmare for everyone who's used to standard structures in genre cinema. One of those unique horror movies where the low budget, gritty footage and rough performances combine to create not only an unsettling atmosphere of dread but also a study of existential angst in the face of unimaginable horror.

Simon says The Babadook receives:

Also, see my NZIFF review for Our Sunhi (우리 선희)

NZIFF Film Review: "Our Sunhi" ("우리 선희") (2013).

The new film by Hong Sang-soo comes Our Sunhi (우리 선희). This South Korean film written and directed by Hong Sang-soo. Sunhi graduated from college, majoring in film. In order to ask about a recommendation letter from Professor Choi to study in the US, she visits her university after a long time. Sunhi expects Professor Choi to give her a good recommendation letter because he likes her. She also meets two other men she knew: Moon-Soo, who just became a film director, and Jae-Hak, who is a well established film director.

Given the fact that the film is director Hong's fifteenth directorial effort, it is another great addition to director Hong's study on human relationships that has been synonymous to the director's career since his 1996 debut film The Day a Pig Fell into the Well (돼지가 우물에 빠진 날).

The film stars Jung Yu-mi, Kim Sang-joong, Lee Sun-kyun, Jung Jae-young, Lee Min-woo, and Ye Ji-won. The cast gave solid yet fleeting performances that fall right into director Hong Sang-soo's gallery of characters. The cast, like every other Hong Sang-soo cast, are tasked with portraying real Koreans living in modern South Korea. This can come off as both genuine and mundane. The film is not without its charm and three of the characters themselves being a film student, a film professor and filmmaker explicitly aids its thematic concern with the struggle between the ways we represent ourselves and the ways we truly behave.

As always with Hong's films, Our Sunhi goes through stretches where it seems aimless and self-indulgent, followed by stretches where it's sharp, funny, and poetic. A curious oddity worthy of multiple viewings and lengthy contemplation, but its tricky formalism makes it less overtly satisfying on an emotional level. Director Hong's casually brilliant feat of storytelling, akin to an ingeniously wrought suite of literary short fiction. You'll find yourself wanting to immediately go back to the beginning and reassess every conversation, every gesture, every long-held grudge. Hong Sang-soo once again corroborates auteurist theory at the same time that he reveals the potential shortcomings of its practice. Through a series of vignettes that keep moving backward in time as the narrative progresses, Hong coldly addresses the increasingly fragile love story between a film student and her professor. If the characterizations are fleeting, the recessive mood is not: Hong's signature observational style is at once offhanded and astute, romantic and lightly chilled. There is nonetheless a feeling of having completed the routines the film has set out and, perhaps, achieved a sort of understanding. Happily, the film not only sustains the pertinence of Hong's cinema but refracts it through an extra-cinematic device. The film's original and clever premise, charming execution and memorable performances come together beautifully to create a picture that's both captivating and emotional. Here is another opportunity to acquire a taste for director Hong Sang-soo, or having acquired it, to cultivate it.

Simon says Our Sunhi (우리 선희) receives:

NZIFF Film Review: "Maidan" ("Майдан") (2014).

"A film by Sergei Loznitsa" comes Maidan (Майдан). This documentary film directed by Loznitsa. The film is a chronicle of the civil uprising against the regime of President Viktor Yanukovych that took place in Kyiv, Ukraine in the winter of 2013/14. The film follows the progress of the revolution: from peaceful rallies, half a million strong, in the Maidan square, to the bloody street battles between protesters and riot police.

Ukraine had always been a nation wedged between the east and west. Similar forms of what constitutes the current territorial borders of Ukraine have existed in the past, but, in 1991, they achieved independence from the Soviet Union which had collapsed. Despite their independence, the country was never fully free from the grasp of the Kremlin. During the 1990s and early 2000s, Ukrainian politics was a no-brainer contest between the powerful former Communist party elites and the hapless intellectuals/Ukrainian freedom fighters. In the 2004 elections, Yanukovych was fraudulently declared the winner which resulted in peaceful protests at the Maidan (Independence Square in Kyiv). This led to the changing of the guard in an event also known as The Orange Revolution. After the Viktor Yushchenko/Yulia Tymoshenko coalition was sworn in, Ukraine had a very difficult time finding its feet. This led to a poor-performing economy but most importantly, bickering between the new President and Prime Minister. In 2010, Yanukovych narrowly defeated Tymoshenko in a bitterly-contested election cycle and after he took office, he began to settle scores with his political enemies. Most notable was the former Prime Minister being handed a prison sentence on corruption charges.

By 2013, discontent with Yanukovych and his cronies had grown (they had stolen a substantial amount of Ukraine's national assets for their personal gain). When the President did a u-turn on his election promise to have closer ties with the European Union by rejecting an E.U. Association Agreement in favour of joining the Customs Union with Russia, the Ukrainian people took to the streets in a peaceful protest to demonstrate their desire to join the western world. This resulted in the Yanukovych Administration reacting in a violent manner by sending the Berkut to brutally suppress the protestors. What would later follow was a prolonged period of bloodshed over the brutal winter with more than seven-hundred deaths and thousands injured. After President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia, a more pro-western government was formed and many stated that the Ukrainian nation went through a process of rebirth. The joys of ousting an extremely corrupt group of elites would not last long as the Crimean peninsula was annexed by Russia and pro-Russian separatist forces sparked a deadly war in the Donbass, Eastern Ukraine. The latter has been called Europe's forgotten war with more than thirteen-thousand deaths and more than a million displaced. Currently, the pro-Russian forces occupy approximately 7% of Ukraine's territory.

While Maidan's emotional knobs are turned up to the max, the film's informational value is almost non-existent. This is an inferior Paul Greengrass approach to documenting the revolution.

Simon says Maidan (Майдан) receives:

Also, see my NZIFF review for Enemy.

NZIFF Film Review: "Enemy" (2013).

For my ninth entry for the NZIFF, I have watched the strikingly eerie and mind-twisting movie Enemy. “The last thing you need is meeting strange men in hotel rooms. You already have enough trouble sticking with one woman, don't you?” This sums up the whole premise of this Canadian psychological thriller film directed by Denis Villeneuve; loosely adapted by Javier Gullón from José Saramago's 2002 novel The Double. The story follws a man who seeks out his exact look-alike after spotting him in a movie.

Gyllenhaal meets Gyllenhaal in this eerie and hypnotically baffling doppelganger tale from the director of Incendies (2010) and Prisoners (2013). Adam (Gyllenhaal) is a Toronto history professor, a bit frayed around the edges and apt to drift in and out of focus, whether with his students and/or his girlfriend (Laurent). Much like Jesse Eisenberg's character in The Double. One night, Adam dreams that he saw himself in a movie he watched earlier that evening. He takes a closer look, and sure enough, there he is in a tiny part, identified as Daniel, his real name being Anthony. We follow Adam as he stalks and eventually confronts the actor. It turns out, he is not just a look-alike but an exact replicant as well, one who's differently abled. Sleek, vital and with a heavily pregnant wife (Gadon), Anthony might be Adam's opposite. Mutual by comparison, in which the two women become unwitting adjudicators, soon thickens into mutual intolerance and dread. The mind games that ensue are played out in an eerily stylized near-future city where the very air seems pumped in from an alien planet.

The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal as two characters, Mélanie Laurent, Isabella Rossellini and Sarah Gadon. The performances in this film were all superbly portrayed, especially the two roles of Gyllenhaal are just as brilliant as they feel so individual. He was captivating as Adam and Anthony. He captures the confusion of a timid man thrown into a world of danger, paranoia and temptation with frightening veracity. Gyllenhaal may have been the highlight, but I felt as though the women in this film, as unique and as brilliantly played as they are, they were underused and were merely the unwilling and tortured adjudicators of this game between Adam and Anthony.

Bracingly intense, enticing, and wildly melodramatic, Enemy glides on Denis Villeneuve’s smart direction—and a strong performance from Jake Gyllenhaal. The film is already set to be one of the year's most love-it-or-hate-it movies. It’s wonderfully creepy, But it's not entirely satisfying; but it's infused with the director's usual creative brio, and it has a great dark gleaming look. It's a mesmerising psychological ride that builds to a gloriously theatrical tragic finale as both men’s worlds collide and crash. It is somewhat a lovely companion-piece to The Double (2014), in which both films explore two (or should I say four) characters in a mind-bending world in the search for identity and logical explanations. But unlike The Double, I would exactly classify this film as a work of art.

Simon says Enemy receives:

Also, see my review for Prisoners and The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness.

NZIFF Film Review: "The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness" (2013).

For my eighth entry for the NZIFF, I watched the fascinating and intimate documentary about the two legendary figures in Anime, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (夢と狂気の王国  Yume to Kyouki no Oukoku). “A year inside the world of Studio Ghibli”, this is what you’re going to get in this Japanese documentary directed by Japanese filmmaker Mami Sunada about Studio Ghibli’s two founding directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. The documentary shows us the lives of the two directors over the span of a year during the production of their two films, The Wind Rises (風立ちぬ Kaze Tachinu) and The Tale of Princess Kaguya (かぐや姫の物語  Kaguya Hime no Monogatari).

This visit to Studio Ghibli proves gratifying as it is to have the pleasure to watch the films produced there. The place even looks like a Miyazaki movie, with its natural imagery, ship-styled windows, all-knowing cat and rooftop billowing lawn. In the film, we see Miyazaki himself working on, what is sadly now known as his last film, The Wind Rises. The film takes a look at the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the man who designed Japanese fighter planes during World War II. We see Ghibli as a studio where he personally storyboards the entire film from beginning to end, and where is dedicated and talented group of artists painstakingly draw each frame by hand, is cluttered, open and conspicuously lacking any new modern technologies. Meanwhile, in the south, Ghibli's other maestro Takahata is struggling with his fifth and latest film, his first film in thirteen years, The Tale of Princess Kaguya. The film explores the story of the title character from when found inside a shining stalk of bamboo by an old bamboo cutter and his wife, to when she grows rapidly into an exquisite young princess. Their producer and co-founder Toshio Suzuki shuttles between the two, managing their distinct styles and approaches with the same amount of obvious love and a shrewd appreciation of the challenges he faced. Relationships among these three men lie at the heart and soul of Japan's most creative and successful enterprise, and director Mami Sunada traces Ghibli's evolution accordingly. Miyazaki himself is fascinating and irresistible, impish at one moment, the next moment melancholic - notably when contemplating the meanings of his film. His insistence on traditional decorum proves no impediment to spiky candour. He is a completely captivating genius.    

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness does probe as deep and tells as many hard truths as it should, but Mami Sunda's look at Studio Ghibli's two legendary founders offers a fascinating and surprisingly intimate and personal glimpse into their lives as well as the studio's. There is nothing short of a giddy delight in watching the fine folks who founded Studio Ghibli living out their dreams in ways much larger than even they could ever have imagined. Sunada had the gumption to pop open Studio Ghibli's hood and explore the mechanics, and ultimately created something warmly nostalgic, uplifting and modern at the same time.

Simon says The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness receives:

Also, see my NZIFF review for The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Film Review: "Deliver Us from Evil" (2014).

"Inspired by the actual accounts of an NYPD sergeant." This is Deliver Us from Evil. This supernatural horror film directed by Scott Derrickson, adapted by Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman, and based on Beware the Night by Ralph Sarchie and Lisa Collier Cool. The film follows New York police officer Ralph Sarchie, struggling with his own personal issues, begins investigating a series of disturbing and inexplicable crimes. He joins forces with an unconventional priest, schooled in the rituals of exorcism, to combat the frightening and demonic possessions that are terrorizing their city.

Sarchie served eighteen years as a NYPD sergeant in the South Bronx precinct, and was a member of the Street Crimes Unit working undercover stopping crimes in progress. Although he was raised in a Roman Catholic Christian family, Sarchie's faith waned "but it's now fully restored." As such, Sarchie describes himself as a "committed Christian"; he possesses a relic of the True Cross. Sarchie, along with his partner Mark Stabinski, carry with them wooden Christian crosses and holy water when called to tackle "demonic infestation around the city." He assists in Christian exorcisms. His career as a Catholic Christian demonologist has included regularly meeting with and accompanying Ed and Lorraine Warren on their cases. Sarchie states that demonic possession can be identified by signs "including unnatural strength, speaking in different languages, having knowledge of events that one would have no way of knowing, a woman speaking in a man’s voice and a person making animal sounds." He states that he prays everyday and among these prayers are the Dominican rosary. When interviewed by TheBlaze, he stated that he has "never accepted a penny for his assistance" and has to fund travelling expenses himself when he takes on cases.

In early September 2012, Derrickson signed on to direct an adaptation of Sarchie and Collier Cool's book, co-written by Derrickson and Harris Boardman. Initially, Mark Wahlberg was set to star as Sarchie, but he declined. In early April 2013, Eric Bana was ultimately cast in the lead role. By early June, Édgar Ramírez, Olivia Munn, Sean Harris, Joel McHale, Chris Coy, and Lulu Wilson rounded out the film's cast. At the same time, principal photography commenced, and wrapped in August. Filming took place in New York City, New York, and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. In early November 2013, Sony Pictures changed the release date from January 16, 2015 to July 2, 2014.

The film stars Bana, Ramírez, Munn, Harris, McHale, Coy, and Wilson. The film is a high-octane schlock that occasionally works your nerves, thanks to committed performances from Bana, Ramírez, and Harris.

Loosely based on a true story, Deliver Us from Evil mixes compelling cop drama with generally gore-free scares in a ho-hum take on demonic cinema. The film is intriguing and perplexing, the screenplay is intelligent and open to occasional refreshing wit. Viewed as a horror movie, it isn't much scarier than the average, but combined with intelligent and balanced cop drama it has more to offer than your usual big-lunged, big-breasted screamer.

Simon says Deliver Us from Evil receives:

Also, see my review for Sinister.

Monday, 28 July 2014

NZIFF Film Review: "The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet" (2013).

For my seventh entry for the NZIFF, I have watched the quirky and charming adventure from Frances most imaginative director The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet. “Dear Spivet family, I have gone for a while to do some work. Don’t worry. I’ll be fine. I didn’t want to bother you by telling about it ahead of time. Thank you for taking care of me. You are one of the best families in the world. Love, TS.” This what you’re going to expect when watching this is fantasy adventure by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, based on the book The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, written by Reif Larsen.

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet is the debut novel by American author Reif Larsen, first published in 2009. The book follows the exploits of a 12-year old mapmaker named T.S. Spivet, who lives on a ranch near Divide, Montana, as he receives a prestigious award and accepts it, hitch-hiking on a freight train for the acceptance speech in Washington D.C.. The book is noteworthy for its unique design; the plot-line is illustrated with images which further the narrative by providing charts, lists, sketches, and maps accompanying each page, mirroring T.S.'s cartographic interests and his minute attention to detail.

The film stars Kyle Catlett, Helena Bonham Carter, Judy Davis, Callum Keith Rennie and Dominique Pinon. The performances in this film were all quirky, comical, individual and dramatic as it is typical of a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film. Carter gives a brilliantly quirky performance, reminiscent to her roles in Tim Burton’s films. Rennie gives a brilliant performance reminiscent of the classical cowboy archetype associated in Western movies: stoic and silent. And a great little cameo from one of Jeunet’s collaborators Pinon. Who gives an eccentric, whimsical yet terrific performance as always. But the true credit goes to new-comer Kyle Catlett who carried this picture forward as the film's plot focused mostly on him. If TS had been played by any other little boy, he would not have affected us as mightily as it did.

The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet is a sprightly confection of oddities, attractively eccentric, witty and strangely clothed. It captures the texture of childhood, the sense of yearning to do adventurous things. It is one of the year’s best, with crossover potential along the lines of Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and Micmacs (2009). Given its quirky heart, it might well surpass them all. Its whimsical, free-ranging nature is often enchanting; the first hour, in particular, is brimming with amiable, sardonic laughs. The film is a winning blend of sophistication and silliness. It is also a feel-good film, perhaps for moviegoers who have bamboo under their fingernails. If you are miserable, then this is the film for you. The film is Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s best live-action feature because it takes as its primary subject matter of an odd, genius child, rather than the damaged and dissatisfied adult that he will one day become.

Simon says The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet receives:

Also, see my NZIFF review for The Tale of Princess Kaguya.

NZIFF Film Review: "The Tale of Princess Kaguya" (2013).

For my sixth entry for the NZIFF, I have watched the beautifully striking animated film from the great Isao Takahata, The Tale of Princess Kaguya (かぐや姫の物語 Kaguya-hime no Monogatari). “From the creators of The Wind Rises, Grave of the Fireflies and Spirited Away” brings you this unique Japanese animated film produced by Studio Ghibli, and directed and co-written by Isao Takahata, based on the folktale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. This is Takahata's fifth film for Studio Ghibli, and his first in 14 years since his 1999 feature, My Neighbors the Yamadas.

The film is based on a 10th-century Japanese folktale. It is considered the oldest extant Japanese narrative and an early example of proto-science fiction. The story goes like this:

One day, while walking in the bamboo forest, an old, childless bamboo cutter called Taketori no Okina (竹取翁, "the Old Man who Harvests Bamboo") came across a mysterious, shining stalk of bamboo. After cutting it open, he found inside it an infant the size of his thumb. He rejoiced to find such a beautiful girl and took her home. He and his wife raised her as their own child and named her Kaguya-hime (かぐや姫 accurately, Nayotake-no-Kaguya-hime "princess of flexible bamboos scattering light"). Thereafter, Taketori no Okina found that whenever he cut down a stalk of bamboo, inside would be a small nugget of gold. Soon he became rich. Kaguya-hime grew from a small baby into a woman of ordinary size and extraordinary beauty. At first, Taketori no Okina tried to keep her away from outsiders, but over time the news of her beauty spread.

Eventually, five princes came to Taketori no Okina's residence to ask for Kaguya-hime's hand in marriage. The princes eventually persuaded Taketori no Okina to tell a reluctant Kaguya-hime to choose from among them. Kaguya-hime concocted impossible tasks for the princes, agreeing to marry the one who managed to bring her his specified item. That night, Taketori no Okina told the five princes what each must bring. The first was told to bring her the stone begging bowl of the Buddha from Nepal, the second a jeweled branch from the island of Hōrai, the third the legendary robe of the fire-rat of China, the fourth a colored jewel from a dragon's neck, and the final prince the cowrie which was born from swallows.

Realizing that it was an impossible task, the first prince returned with an expensive bowl, but after noticing that the bowl did not glow with holy light, Kaguya-hime saw through his deception. Likewise, two other princes attempted to deceive her with fakes, but also failed. The fourth gave up after encountering a storm, while the final prince lost his life in his attempt.

After this, the Emperor of Japan, Mikado, came to see the strangely beautiful Kaguya-hime and, upon falling in love, asked her to marry him. Although he was not subjected to the impossible trials that had thwarted the princes, Kaguya-hime rejected his request for marriage as well, telling him that she was not of his country and thus could not go to the palace with him. She stayed in contact with the Emperor, but continued to rebuff his requests and marriage proposals.

That summer, whenever Kaguya-hime saw the full moon, her eyes filled with tears. Though her adoptive parents worried greatly and questioned her, she was unable to tell them what was wrong. Her behaviour became increasingly erratic until she revealed that she was not of this world and must return to her people on the Moon. In some versions of this tale, it is said that she was sent to the Earth as a temporary punishment for some crime, while in others, she was sent to Earth for her own safety during a celestial war. The gold that Taketori no Okina had been finding had in fact been a stipend from the people of the Moon, sent down to pay for Kaguya-hime's upkeep. Kaguya-hime goes back to the Moon

As the day of her return approached, the Emperor sent many guards around her house to protect her from the Moon people, but when an embassy of "Heavenly Beings" arrived at the door of Taketori no Okina's house, the guards were blinded by a strange light. Kaguya-hime announced that, though she loved her many friends on Earth, she must return with the Moon people to her true home. She wrote sad notes of apology to her parents and to the Emperor, then gave her parents her own robe as a memento. She then took a small taste of the elixir of life, attached it to her letter to the Emperor, and gave it to a guard officer. As she handed it to him, the feather robe was placed on her shoulders, and all of her sadness and compassion for the people of the Earth were forgotten. The heavenly entourage took Kaguya-hime back to Tsuki-no-Miyako (lit. "the Capital of the Moon"), leaving her earthly foster parents in tears.

The parents became very sad and were soon put to bed sick. The officer returned to the Emperor with the items Kaguya-hime had given him as her last mortal act, and reported what had happened. The Emperor read her letter and was overcome with sadness. He asked his servants, "Which mountain is the closest place to Heaven?", to which one replied the Great Mountain of Suruga Province. The Emperor ordered his men to take the letter to the summit of the mountain and burn it, in the hope that his message would reach the distant princess. The men were also commanded to burn the elixir of immortality since the Emperor did not wish to live forever without being able to see her. The legend has it that the word immortality (不死 fushi, or fuji) became the name of the mountain, Mount Fuji. It is also said that the kanji for the mountain, 富士山 (literally "Mountain Abounding with Warriors"), is derived from the Emperor's army ascending the slopes of the mountain to carry out his order. It is said that the smoke from the burning still rises to this day.

An achingly sad fairy-tale fantasy film, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is one of Studio Ghibli’s and Isao Takahata’s most profoundly beautiful, haunting works. It is an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation. Along with The Wind Rises, it is the best animated film of the year!

Simon says The Tale of Princess Kaguya receives:

Also, see my NZIFF review for The Wonders (Le meraviglie).

Sunday, 27 July 2014

NZIFF Film Review: "The Wonders" ("Le meraviglie") (2014).

From the director of Heavenly Body comes The Wonders (Le meraviglie). This drama film written and directed by Alice Rohrwacher. Nothing will be the same at the end of this summer for Gelsomina and her three younger sisters. She is the designated heir of the strange, secluded kingdom that her father constructed around them to protect his family from "the end of the world". An extraordinary summer, when the strict rules that hold the family together, are beginning to break: in part due to the arrival of Martin, a German boy on a youth rehabilitation program, and in part the local community's participation in a TV competition for big prizes "Village Wonders", presented by the mysterious Milly Catena.

Rohrwacher based the movie on her memories of her childhood working for her parents, who were beekeepers. Rohrwacher stated that some parts of the film were filmed illegally, particularly the parts with the bees which they were not supposed to film for insurance purposes and which she filmed anyway on a national holiday when no one was around to stop her. 

The film stars Alba Rohrwacher, André Hennicke, Monica Bellucci, Sabine Timoteo and Sam Louwyck. Rohrwacher gives a lovely, unforced performance as Gelsomina, a young woman who is convinced to achieve anything but mediocrity and mundanity.

Though at times heavy-handed in its imagery and slow-paced, Rohrwacher's sophomore feature is remarkably unadorned and touching, putting forth a realistic portrait of modern Italy at a time when the country faces economic hardship as well as cultural changes.  For those willing to overlook its few slips into heavy-handedness, the film tells a compelling story of a young woman thrust into a strange new world. Rohrwacher's debut fictional feature is an uncommonly insightful portrait of nascent womanhood, assisted in no small measure by Alba's disarmingly naturalistic performance. The film's acute sense of place, feel for adolescent confusion and miraculous resolution suggest that Rohrwacher is a talent to watch. Rohrwacher's sophomore feature exhibits the sort of mannerisms a certain stripe of cinephile tends to dread, on or off the festival circuit. Grittily real but somehow dreamlike at the same time, coming of age tale the film is a quietly impressive feature debut for documentary maker Alice Rohrwacher. Minor tonal inconsistencies are overcome by this intimate tale's naturalistic thesping and loose lensing style. Almost every moment feels real and unrehearsed because the characters' specific qualities work inward rather than outward. The film is a coming-of-age tale unbound from the expectations of a genre that it remains undeniably hooked to at its heart, so that it's also a revelatory portrait of a family, a region, and a way of life. Rohrwacher has a gentle, unassuming touch through most of the film, quietly observing the beekeepers' hard work and pre-modern lifestyle without condescension, and her leads are effectively natural. The film manages to examine its entire cast of characters, male and female, in a loving but clear and pitiless light. Overall, The Wonders is an example of insightful, though-provoking filmmaking but is let down by its bizarre change of tone.

Simon says The Wonders (Le meraviglie) receives:

Also, see my NZIFF review for Maps to the Stars.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

NZIFF Film Review: "Maps to the Stars" (2014).

"Eventually stars burn out" in Maps to the Stars. This satirical drama film directed by David Cronenberg, adapted by Bruce Wagner, based upon his novel entitled Dead Stars. The Weiss family are making their way in a sun-soaked Southern California rife with money, fame, yearning and relentless hauntings. Sanford Weiss is a famed TV self-help therapist, whose Hour of Personal Power has brought him an A-list celebrity clientele. Meanwhile, Cristina Weiss has her work cut out managing the career of their disaffected child-star son, Benjie, a fresh graduate of rehab at age 13. Yet unbeknownst to any of them, another member of the Weiss family has arrived in town: mysteriously scarred and tormented Agatha, just released from a psych ward and ready to start again.

 For six years, the film had been in development and hit financial difficulties time and time again, with original Viggo Mortensen and Rachel Weisz left due to scheduling difficulties. Ultimately, John Cusack and Julianne Moore replaced them. Cronenberg commented that "It's not a "go" picture. We have a script that I love that Bruce wrote, it's a very difficult film to get made as was 'Cosmopolis' actually. Whether I can get this movie to happen, I tried it five years ago, I couldn't get it made, so I still might not be able to get it made." He also added that "Maps To The Stars is very extreme. It's not obviously a very big commercial movie, and even as an independent film it's difficult. 'Maps To the Stars' is completely different [from 'Cosmopolis'], but it's very acerbic and satirical, it's a hard sell." Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson, Olivia Williams, Sarah Gadon, and Evan Bird ultimately rounded out the film's cast. In early July 2013, principal photography commenced, and wrapped in late August. Filming took place in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and Lost Angeles, California. This marked the first time in his fifty-year career that Cronenberg ever filmed anything in the United States, although most of it was shot, like his other films, in his native country of Canada.

The film stars Moore, Wasikowska, Cusack, Pattinson, Williams, Gadon, and Bird. Terrifically disturbing performances were given by the cast. With each individual characters contributing to the seedy, ugly, perverse and monstrous image of Hollywood.

Though some may find it cold and didactic, Maps to the Stars benefits from Cronenberg's precise direction, resulting in a psychologically complex and satirical adaptation of Wagner's novel. An eerily precise match of filmmaker and material, the film probes the soullessness of Hollywood and its celebrities with the cinematic equivalent of latex gloves. If, like me, you're in-tune with the tone, style and direction of the film then it provides for a fascinating and intellectually nourishing experience. The film is as an exercise in outlandish dialogue and bone-dry humor, a contemporary allegory that is also a sustained riff on the idea of Hollywood. The fact is, Cronenberg made a movie about Hollywood. The insular universe and culture. A movie that reflects, comments on, satirizes and parodies our time.

Simon says Maps to the Stars receives:

Also, see my reviews for Cosmopolis and Boyhood.

Friday, 25 July 2014

NZIFF Film Review: "Boyhood" (2014).

"12 years in the making." This is Boyhood. This coming-of-age drama film written and directed by Richard Linklater. The film charts the rocky terrain of childhood like no other film has before. Snapshots of adolescence from road trips and family dinners to birthdays and graduations and all the moments in between become transcendent, set to a soundtrack spanning the years from Coldplay's Yellow to Arcade Fire's Deep Blue.

In May 2002, Linklater said that he would begin shooting an untitled film in his home state of Texas that summer. He planned to assemble the cast and crew for a few weeks' filming annually for twelve years. IFC, the film's distributor, committed to a film budget of US $200,000 per year, or $2.4 million over the twelve-year shooting period. By May 2002, Linklater cast Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater, and Libby Villari were cast. The cast could not sign contracts for the film due to the De Havilland Law, which makes it illegal to contract someone for more than seven years of work. Linklater told Hawke that he would have to finish the film if Linklater died. At the same time, principal photography commenced, and wrapped in October 2013. Filming took place throughout Texas, and was shot on 35mm film. Filming began without a completed script. Linklater had prepared each character's basic plot points, and the ending, but otherwise wrote the script for the next year's filming after rewatching the previous year's footage, incorporating the changes he saw in each actor. All major actors participated in the writing process, contributing their life experiences. Despite the unconventional screenwriting process, Linklater stated that he had a general storyline in mind, and that the actors did not change the general direction of the story. Despite the risks, Linklater was allowed an unusual level of freedom with the production, never having to show IFC the work as it progressed. Although Linklater had referred to the project as Boyhood during the early years of production, in 2013 he settled on the title 12 Years, but was forced to rename it due to the release of 12 Years a Slave in the same year.

The film stars Arquette, Coltrane, Linklater, Hawke, and Villari. The cast is an absolute marvel, showcasing the very best dialogue and capturing the sheer essence of acting brilliance from Arquette, Hawke and Coltrane.

Building on Linklater's previous works, Boyhood offers intelligent, powerfully acted perspectives on the ups and downs, pros and cons of childhood and eventual adulthood. Painfully honest, refreshing with wonderful lead performances, the film is an intimate and charming coming-of-age drama. Unleashing a stream of humanist consciousness that is both outraged and outrageous-and cathartic because we are laughing with Coltrane's character. There's drama, truth, poignancy and joy on display here. As Linklater knows all to well, it's a potent, engrossing combination. The film has all the best qualities of Linklater's previous films (a love of natural dialogue, and long takes that value the joy of performance and interaction), yet it is a grander and more complicated achievement.

Simon says Boyhood receives:

Also, see my reviews for Before Midnight and The Lady from Shanghai.

NZIFF Classic Film Review: "The Lady from Shanghai" (1947).

For my fourth entry for the NZIFF, I have watched the Orson Welles classic The Lady from Shanghai. The opening lines “When I start out to make a fool of myself, there's very little can stop me. If I'd known where it would end, I'd never let anything start... if I'd been in my right mind, that is. But once I'd seen her, I was not in my right mind for some time” sums up this 1947 film noir, directed by and starring Welles. As well as his estranged wife Rita Hayworth and Everett Sloane. It is based on the novel If I Die Before I Wake by Sherwood King.

In the summer of 1946, Welles was directing a musical stage version of Around the World in Eighty Days, with a comedic and ironic rewriting of the Jules Verne novel by Welles, incidental music and songs by Cole Porter, and production by Mike Todd, who would later produce the successful film version with David Niven. When Todd pulled out from the lavish and expensive production, Welles financed it. When he ran out of money and urgently needed $55,000 to release costumes which were being held, he convinced Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn to send him the money to continue the show and in exchange Welles promised to write, produce and direct a film for Cohn for no further fee. As Welles tells it, on the spur of the moment, he suggested the film be based on the book a girl in the theatre box office happened to be reading at the time he was calling Cohn, which Welles had never read. However, according to the daughter of William Castle, it was her father who had purchased the film adaptation rights for the novel and who then asked Welles to pitch it to Cohn, with Castle hoping to receive the directoral assignment himself. She described her father as greatly respecting Welles' talents, but feeling nonetheless disappointed at being relegated to serve merely as Welles' assistant director on the film. 

The Lady from Shanghai began filming on 2 October 1946, and originally finished filming on 27 February 1947, with studio-ordered retakes continuing through March 1947 - but it was not released in the U.S. until 9 June 1948. Cohn strongly disliked Welles's rough-cut, particularly what he considered to be a confusing plot and lack of close-ups (Welles had deliberately avoided these, as a stylistic device), and was not in sympathy with Welles's Brechtian use of irony and black comedy, especially in a farcical courtroom scene. He also objected to the appearance of the film - Welles had aimed for documentary-style authenticity by shooting one of the first major Hollywood pictures almost entirely on location (in Acapulco, Pie de la Cuesta, Sausalito and San Francisco) using long takes, and Cohn preferred the more tightly-controlled look of footage lit and shot in a studio. Release was delayed due to Cohn ordering extensive editing and re-shoots by his assistants at Columbia, who insisted on cutting about an hour from Welles's final cut. Whereas Welles had delivered his cut of the film on time and under budget, the reshoots he was ordered to do meant that the film ended up over budget by a third, contributing to the director's reputation for going over budget. Once reshoots were over, the heavy editing ordered by Cohn took over a year to complete. Welles was appalled at the musical score and particularly aggrieved by the cuts to the climactic confrontation scene in an amusement park funhouse at the end of the film. Intended as a climactic tour-de-force of editing and production design, the scene was cut to fewer than three minutes out of an intended running time of twenty. As with many of Welles's films over which he did not have control over the final cut, the missing footage has not been found and is presumed to have been destroyed. Surviving production stills show elaborate and expensive sets built for the sequence which were entirely cut from the film.

Welles cast his wife Rita Hayworth as Elsa and caused controversy when he made her cut her famous long red hair and bleach it blonde for the role. In addition to the Columbia Pictures studios, the film was partly shot on location in San Francisco. It features the Sausalito waterfront and Sally Stanford's Valhalla waterfront bar and cafe, the front, interior, and a courtroom scene of the old Kearny Street Hall of Justice, and shots of Welles running across Portsmouth Square, escaping to a long scene in a theater in Chinatown, then the Steinhart Aquarium in Golden Gate Park, and Whitney's Playland-at-the-Beach amusement park at Ocean Beach for the famous hall of mirrors scene, for which interiors were shot on a soundstage. Other scenes were filmed in Acapulco. The yacht Zaca, on which many scenes take place, was owned by actor Errol Flynn, who skippered the yacht in between takes and can also be seen in the background in one scene at a cantina in Acapulco. The film was considered a disaster in America at the time of its release, though the closing shootout in a hall of mirrors has since become one of the touchstones of film noir.

The performances in this film were all superbly acted. The cast gave some of the greatest performances of their careers, especially with its two main stars - Welles and Hayworth. Welles gave a brilliant performance as Michael "Black Irish" O'Hara. Overwhelmingly and endlessly, Orson Welles shows fragments of his character, Michael "Black Irish" O'Hara, and invites us to examine him and see the entire story through his eyes. For Hayworth, her performance as Elsa "Rosalie" Bannister was one of the most interesting portrayals of the Femme Fatale architype. These two together on screen were a match made in heaven. However, sadly, not long after release, Welles and Hayworth finalized their divorce.

The Lady from Shanghai is one of the most interesting and technically superior films that has ever come out of the classic Hollywood system. It is staggering and belongs at once among the greatest screen achievements. However the rambling style used by Orson Welles has occasional bashes on the imagination, particularly in the tricky backgrounds he uses to unfold the yarn, but effects, while good on their own, are distracting to the murder plot. It is one of the most unusual films I have ever seen. Yet it is one of the most brilliant films I have ever seen.

Simon says The Lady from Shanghai receives:

Also, see my NZIFF review for Dior and I.