Friday, 16 August 2019

Film Review: "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" (2019).

"The 9th Film from Quentin Tarantino." This is Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. This period comedy-drama film written and directed by Tarantino. The film visits 1969 Los Angeles, where everything is changing, as TV star Rick Dalton and his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth make their way around an industry they hardly recognize anymore. The ninth film from the writer-director features a large ensemble cast and multiple storylines in a tribute to the final moments of Hollywood’s golden age.

In early July 2017, it was announced that Tarantino had written a screenplay about the Manson Family murders, which would be his next film. Tarantino spent five years writing it as a novel before realising a film script would better suit the material. Tarantino stated that the story consists of multiple parallel stories and is the closest thing to his earlier film Pulp Fiction (1994). Tarantino considers the screenplay as "probably his most personal", as well as his "Magnum Opus" and his love letter to LA. In addition, Tarantino thinks of it as "his memory piece". He even compared it to Alfonso Cuaron's Roma (2018). Tarantino stated in an interview that the director whose work most resembles this film is that of French filmmaker Claude Lelouch. It was unknown at the time whether the The Weinstein Company would distribute the film as Tarantino sought to cast the film before sending out a package to studios. Tarantino had approached Brad Pitt, Jennifer Lawrence, Margot Robbie and Samuel L. Jackson to star in the film. In October, after the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse allegations, Tarantino severed his ties with producer Weinstein and sought a new distributor. This would mark the first time that a Tarantino film would not be distributed by the Weinsteins unlike all of his other films. Leonardo DiCaprio was revealed to be among a short list of actors Tarantino was considering for the film. A short time later, there were reports that the studios, including Warner Bros., Universal Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Annapurna Pictures and Lionsgate, were still bidding for the film that Tom Cruise was also in talks for one of two lead male roles. In early November, Sony Pictures announced they would be distributing the film, having beaten all the other studios for the rights. To secure the rights to distribute the film, Sony Pictures had to agree to Tarantino's demands, which included "a $95 million production budget, final cut and 'extraordinary creative controls'", plus 25% of first-dollar gross. Another demand was that the rights to the movie revert to him after 10 to 20 years. This brings Tarantino full circle with Sony Pictures over two decades after TriStar put Pulp Fiction into turnaround, due to its supposed glamorisation of violence and drugs. In January 2018, DiCaprio signed to star in the film, taking a pay cut to collaborate with Tarantino again. It was also revealed that Al Pacino was being eyed for a role. In late February, the film was officially titled Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, with Pitt cast in the role Cruise was also up for. The title is an homage to both Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and Once Upon a Time in America (1984). For Tarantino, the title of the film, in one regard, has "a fairy-tale aspect". On another level, the film is "a Hollywood of reality-but a Hollywood of the mind at the same time". In March, Robbie and Zoë Bell were confirmed to be in the film. In May, Burt Reynolds, Kurt Russell, Timothy Olyphant and Michael Madsen joined the cast. In June, Damian Lewis, Luke Perry, Emile Hirsch, Dakota Fanning, Clifton Collins Jr., Keith Jefferson, Nicholas Hammond, Pacino, and Scoot McNairy joined the cast. Around the same time, with a budget of $100 million, principal photography commenced and wrapped in early November. Filming took place in Los Angeles, California and was shot on Tarantino's preferred 35 mm film. In July, Spencer Garrett, James Remar, Brenda Vaccaro, and Mike Moh were cast. In August, Damon Herriman, Lena Dunham, Austin Butler, Danny Strong, Rumer Willis, Dreama Walker, and Margaret Qualley were cast. In September, Reynolds died before filming any of his scenes; Bruce Dern replaced him. Many famous Los Angeles area locations, archival footage from many films, as well as audio and digital alteration, were utilised for the authentic recreation of 1960s/70s Hollywood. This is the last film to feature Luke Perry, who died in March 2019. The first assembly cut of the film was four hours, 20 minutes. This film was originally scheduled to be released on August 9, 2019, the 50th anniversary of the murder of Sharon Tate, before Sony changed the release date to July 26, 2019.

The film features an ensemble cast that includes DiCaprio, Pitt, Robbie, Hirsch, Qualley, Olyphant, Butters, Butler, Fanning, Dern, Moh, Perry, Lewis, Vaccaro, Hammond, Herriman, Dunham, McNairy, Collins Jr., Walker, Willis, Russell, Bell, Madsen, Remar, Strong, Jefferson, Garrett, and Pacino. The cast gave wonderfully electric and Tarantino-esque performances that further populate Tarantino's amazing universe. DiCaprio's comedically manic and Pitt's stoically cool performances perfectly compliment each other and do make "the most exciting star dynamic duo since Robert Redford and Paul Newman", as Tarantino perfectly put it. Robbie brought an angelic presence that Tarantino described her as "an angelic ghost on earth... to some degree, she's not in the movie, she's in our hearts".

One of the best films of the year, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a delirious post-modern mix of neo-noir thrills, pitch-black humour, and pop-culture touchstones. It towers over the year's other movies as majestically and menacingly as a gang lord at a preschool. It dares Hollywood films to be this original. If good directors accept Tarantino's implicit challenge, the movie theater could again be a great place to live in. Tarantino gets lost in a fictional Los Angeles. It is great fun to watch, but the movie is just a bit too long. Nevertheless, it is a classic Tarantino genre-blending thrill ride, it is violent, unrestrained, and thoroughly entertaining. 

Simon says Once Upon a Time in Hollywood receives:

Also, see my review for The Hateful Eight.

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Film Review: "Diego Maradona" (2019).

"Rebel. Hero. Hustler. God" This is Diego Maradona. This British documentary film written and directed by Asif Kapadia. The film is a look at the career of celebrated football player Diego Armando Maradona. On 5th July 1984, Diego Maradona arrived in Naples for a world-record fee. The world's most celebrated football icon and the most passionate but dangerous city in Europe were a perfect match for each other. The film is constructed from over 500 hours of never-before-seen footage.

Maradona was the first player in football history to set the world record transfer fee twice, first when he transferred to Barcelona for a then world record £5 million, and second, when he transferred to Napoli for another record fee £6.9 million. He played for Argentinos Juniors, Boca Juniors, Barcelona, Napoli, Sevilla and Newell's Old Boys during his club career, and is most famous for his time at Napoli and Barcelona where he won numerous accolades. In his international career with Argentina, he earned 91 caps and scored 34 goals. Maradona played in four FIFA World Cups, including the 1986 World Cup in Mexico where he captained Argentina and led them to victory over West Germany in the final. In the 1986 World Cup quarter final, he scored both goals in a 2–1 victory over England that entered football history for two different reasons. The first goal was an unpenalized handling foul known as the "Hand of God", while the second goal followed a 60 m (66 yd) dribble past five England players.

Maradona is widely regarded as one of the greatest football players of all time, this is thanks to his vision, passing, ball control and dribbling skills were combined with his small stature (1.65 m or 5 ft 5 in). This gave him a low center of gravity allowing him to maneuver better than most other football players. A precocious talent, Maradona was given the nickname "El Pibe de Oro" ("The Golden Boy"), a name that stuck with him throughout his career. This was due to his presence and leadership on the field had a great effect on his team's general performance. In November 2008, Maradona became coach of Argentina. He was in charge of the team at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa before leaving at the end of the tournament. He coached Dubai-based club Al Wasl in the UAE Pro-League for the 2011–12 season. In 2017, Maradona became the coach of Fujairah before leaving at the end of the season. In May 2018, Maradona was announced as the new chairman of Belarusian club Dynamo Brest. He arrived in Brest and was presented by the club to start his duties in July. From September 2018 to June 2019, Maradona was coach of Mexican club Dorados.

As riveting as it is sad, Diego Maradona is a powerfully honest look at the twisted relationship between sport and celebrity—and the lethal spiral of addiction. Maradona's glorious rise and heartbreaking fall is movingly documented by Kapadia.

Simon says Diego Maradona receives:

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

NZIIA Seminar: 'A New Cold War: Assessing the Current U.S.-Russia Relationship.'

A New Cold War is characterised by the increasing US-Russia relationship, which was the topic of tonight’s seminar. Tonight’s speaker, Nicolas Ross Smith used a neoclassical realist framework to argue that such an analogy is significantly misleading. With four crucial dimensions, structural, ideological, psychological and technological, he helped us understand why the original Cold war became a global existential contest between the USA and the Soviet Union.

Firstly, with structural, the Cold War saw the emergence of a bipolar system, with high levels of bipolarization in the 1950s, with bipolarity becoming particularly dangerous due to it leading into an unhealthy fixation. Where as with the current relationship, the current system is probably described best as a uni-multipolar system, the U.S. reached its hegemonic zenith with Iraq, and the US-Russia relationship is regional, not global in scope. Secondly, with ideological, two ideologies remained after World War II; Soviet Union's Marxism-Leninism vs. U.S.'s Democratic Capitalism. The two ideologies were both perceived (by their championing nations) as "universal." As opposed to now where the U.S. has had its liberal hegemony ideology, while Russia, over time, developed an anti-U.S. hegemony ideology. Even though there are clear ideological differences but neither universalist.

Thirdly, with psychological, anxiety, fear and paranoia between U.S. and Russia became more pessimistic by the 1950s, and a mirror image of distorted perceptions emerged with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Where as now positive psychological conditions of initial post-Cold War setting had dissipated altogether in the 2000s. Even though Russia has interpreted Western expansion as imperialistic while U.S. has grown fearful of Russian meddling. The current psychological setting resembles the early days of the Cold War with significant amount of mutual distrust. Finally, with technological, the Cold War saw technological fixation on nuclear weapons, where they were thought of, at first, as offensive weapons then defensive over time. Once nuclear weapons parity was, more or less, achieved, and technological competition moved elsewhere, e.g. space. Now, technological change has continued to an exponential rate, where the digital revolution had moved international politics to new frontiers, such as cyberspace. Though the current relationship is most fiercely contested online, the fears of nuclear war still looms in the background.

Through a comparative examination of the fifteen-year period of the Cold War, and of the current US-Russia relationship, he concluded that despite cooling of the US-Russia relationship, the term New Cold War mistakes the reality of the relationship. The Cold War became a content of global significance because of the underpinning geopolitical structure. As well, ideological differences and strong threat perceptions were present on both sides. The technological dimension – especially nuclear arms – significantly affected international politics. The world is structurally transitioning towards multipolarity. A period of US-China bipolarity is likely, with Russia positioned as a declining power. Unlike the Cold War, ideological differences are not as stark, and the threat perceptions are not as bleak. Technology has shifted the competition to new frontiers, e.g. cyberspace. Potential for a New Cold War of global significance remains. The source would potentially be the Sino-US relationship, not the US-Russia relationship.

Smith is an Assistant Professor of International Studies at the University of Nottingham (Ningbo Campus). His Main research interests coalesce around great power competition, with a particular focus on Eastern Europe. He is the author of the book EU-Russian Relations and the Ukraine Crisis (Edward Elgar 2016), as well as articles in journals.

Also, see the previous seminar here.

Monday, 5 August 2019

Film Review: "Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw" (2019).

"This time there is no team." This is Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw. This action film directed by David Leitch and written by Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce. It is a spin-off of The Fast & the Furious franchise. Ever since Hobbs and Shaw first faced off in Furious 7 (2015), the duo have swapped smack talk and body blows as they’ve tried to take each other down. But when an cyber-genetically enhanced anarchist gains control of an insidious bio-threat that could alter humanity forever — and bests a brilliant and fearless rogue MI6 agent, who just happens to be Shaw’s sister — these two sworn enemies will have to partner up to bring down the only guy who might be badder than themselves.

In November 2015, series star and producer Vin Diesel first said that possible spin-offs were in early development. The idea of a spin-off featuring Hobbs and Shaw first emerged during filming of The Fate of the Furious (2017), after producers and studios execs took note of the comedic chemistry between the two throughout their scenes together. Plans to actually develop the spin-off were informally green-lit towards the end of filming. In October 2017, Universal Pictures officially announced the spin-off film. In addition, the film was set a with a July 26, 2019 release date, which would ultimately be moved to August 2, 2019, with Chris Morgan returning to write the script. Shane Black was being considered to direct the film before Leitch was confirmed in April 2018. By early September, Idris Elba, Vanessa Kirby, Eiza González, Eddie Marsan, Cliff Curtis, and Helen Mirren rounded out the cast. At the same time, principal photography began and wrapped in late January 2019. Filming took place in London, Glasgow and Kaua'i. This is the first Fast & the Furious chapter to be shot with anamorphic lenses unlike the previous eight films which were shot primarily in the Super 35 format on film and digital. In May 2019, it was announced that Tyler Bates would compose the film's score.

The film stars Johnson, Statham, Elba, Kirby, González, Marsan, Curtis, and Mirren. Despite the oozing star quality, in particular Johnson and Statham, the cast struggle to rise above the limitations of the nonsensical script. Johnson and Statham are far more appealing when they're playing more charming and loveable characters, as they did so winningly in Moana (2016) and Spy (2015). Their antagonism and manly abilities make for an unlikely duo, and we are supposed to feel this. Instead, we're feeling something else for having to sit through this silly movie.

Johnson and Statham inhabit their roles with earnest gusto, but Hobbs & Shaw's tone-deaf script is too self-deprecating and bereft of intelligent dialogue to provide real engaging thrills. The film plays like a collision between leftover bits and pieces of the Fast & the Furious stories. It can't decide what tone to strike. The film proves no more than fitfully satisfying, a character-driven action yarn whose flurry of lazy writing shows in a disjointed plot.

Simon says Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw receives:

Also, see my reviews for Atomic Blonde and The Fate of the Furious.

Sunday, 4 August 2019

NZIFF Classic Film Review: "The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog" (1927).

"Tall he was - and his face all wrapped up." This is the story of The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog. This 1927 British silent film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, adapted by Eliot Stannard, based on the novel The Lodger and the play Who Is He? co-written by Marie Belloc Lowndes. When a landlady and her husband take in a new lodger, they're overjoyed: He's quiet, humble and pays a month's rent in advance. But his mysterious and suspicious behaviour soon has them wondering if he's the killer terrorising local blond girls. Their daughter, Daisy, a cocky model, is far less concerned, her attraction obvious. Her police-detective boyfriend, in a pique of jealousy, seeks to uncover the lodger's true identity.

Published in 1913, the novel was the first book to offer a solution to the Jack The Ripper killings. The book is supposedly based on an anecdote told to the painter Walter Sickert by the landlady when renting a room. She said that the previous tenant had been Jack the Ripper. The book was quite popular in its day, with a comic stage adaptation, co-written by Lowndes and Horace Annesley Vachell, produced. In 1915, Hitchcock saw the play. In 1924, during his tenure at Gainsborough Pictures, Hitchcock was sent to Babelsberg Studios in Potsdam, Germany for the production of F. W. Murnau's The Last Laugh (1924). There, he was exposed to German Expressionism and was keen to incorporate this into his films. Upon his return, he made The Pleasure Garden (1925) and The Mountain Eagle (1926) back-to-back, both were critical and commercial failures. The Lodger was Hitchcock's third feature film. The film marked the first of the celebrated Hitchcock cameo appearances. Hitchcock appears as "Extra in Newspaper Office". Hitchcock's cameo as an extra came by accident when he didn't have enough people for extras in a scene, he decided to help by appearing in the scene. As a result, he decided to turn his appearance into one of his trademarks, with him performing silent walk-on bits in most of his later movies appearing as uncredited extras. The film was released on 14 February 1927 in London and on 10 June 1928 in New York City. It became Hitchcock's first critical and commercial hit. 

Originally, like the novel, the film was intended to end with ambiguity as to whether or not the lodger was innocent. Reportedly, Hitchcock wanted to film it that way, however, when Ivor Novello was cast in the role, the studio demanded alterations to the script. As the studio felt that audiences wouldn't like a popular star like Ivor Novello to be shown as a possible killer. Hitchcock recalled: "They wouldn't let Novello even be considered as a villain. The publicity angle carried the day, and we had to change the script to show that without a doubt he was innocent." Ultimately, Hitchcock followed these instructions, but avoided showing the true villain onscreen. Upon seeing Hitchcock's finished film, producer Michael Balcon was horrified and furious by Hitchcock's progressive style of filming, not to mention the implications of homosexuality and incest. Ultimately, Balcon nearly shelved it (and Hitchcock's career). After considerable bickering, a compromise was reached and film critic Ivor Montagu was hired to salvage the film. Hitchcock was initially resentful of the intrusion, but Montagu recognised the director's technical skill and artistry and made only minor suggestions, mostly concerning the reduction of the title cards from four hundred to eighty, as well as reshooting a few minor scenes. 

The film, described by Hitchcock scholar Donald Spoto, is "the first time Hitchcock has revealed his psychological attraction to the association between sex and murder, between ecstasy and death." It would pave the way for his later work. The film introduced themes that would run through much of Hitchcock's later work: the innocent man on the run for something he didn't do. Hitchcock had clearly been watching contemporary films by Murnau and Lang, whose influence can be seen in the ominous camera angles and claustrophobic lighting. During his famous interview with François Truffaut, Hitchcock told him that, though he had made two movies prior, but he considered The Lodger his first true suspense film and the first true "Hitchcock film". Beginning with The Lodger, Hitchcock helped shape the modern-day thriller genre in film.

The film Marie Ault, Arthur Chesney, June Tripp, Malcolm Keen, and Ivor Novello. Stellar performances by the talented cast, given the fact that they were silent film stars. Kudos goes to Tripp and Novello especially. Tripp's portrayal of Daisy, like Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps (1935), gave birth to the archetypal Hitchcock blonde. A similar sentiment can be said for Novello's portrayal of the titular character, which spawned the archetypal Hitchcock innocent leading man who's on the run for a crime he did not commit.

The Lodger marked Hitchcock's first critical and commercial hit, and it remains famous for its innovations. But it's now more stimulating for its experiment with stylistic visuals and future Hitchcockian themes. Like most of his British films, the film is a sign of things to come rather than Hitchcock at his height, but it shouldn't be missed. It's an early British production by Hitchcock that is truly entertaining. The themes and visual flourishes that we associate with the mature director are already at play. A Teutonic experiment in visual storytelling, Hitchcock's first hit film offers scene upon scene of ingenious synergy of camera and meaning. It's a more than adequate though its primitive murder mystery story that's enhanced by a series of marvelous technical innovations for its time. The film is a better combination of German Expressionist and British sensibilities than any other film of its type we have seen. Hitchcock's first hit is a little clunky, slight and creaky for contemporary audiences, but still manages to truly perturb, play well, enjoyable and entertaining, as well as being a suitable precursor to the master director's later work. Hitchcock's first hit is today largely a historical curiosity, but still worth seeing.

Simon says The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog receives:

Also, see my reviews for Dial M for Murder 3D and The Realm.

NZIFF Film Review: "The Realm" ("El reino") (2018).

"Kings fall. Kingdom survive." This is The Realm (El reino). This Spanish political thriller film directed and written by Rodrigo Sorogoyen. Manuel López-Vidal is a beloved politician in his region: he enjoys a good social position, has a loving family, friends everywhere and plenty of natural charisma. He is also a corrupt man who has been enriching himself with public funds for years. After attempting to cover up for an associate, Manuel is left exposed. To his surprise, the Party’s members seek to place the blame for the entire plot on his shoulders. But he will not surrender. How far is a person willing to go in order to hold on to power?

The film stars Antonio de la Torre, Mónica López, Josep Maria Pou, Bárbara Lennie, Nacho Fresneda, Ana Wagener, Luis Zahera, Francisco Reyes, and María de Nati. The strong cast gave magnificent performances and presented an ethical portrait of politicians; protagonists of corruption, arrogance, vindictiveness, filth and moral decrepitude. Del la Torre particularly gave an exciting performance, where the protagonist really stands out. The film pits him against the world, with only his character's wit. The movie is virtually an anthology of good small character performances. The large gallery of characters makes the film into a convincing canvas, but with a screenplay that developed the story more clearly, this might have been a superior movie, instead of just a good one with some fine performances. It's the performances that make up for a largely uninspired, overly complex, and long movie that nonetheless maintains audience interest.

 With The Realm, Sorogoyen presents an unsettling, minimalist meditation on the hidden dangers of politics, which signals its director as someone who's already marked out his own distinctive style. It's The Firm (1993), but more political and Spanish. Although, the film is soft and lumpy in its plotting and almost silly at times. What starts out as interesting becomes increasingly hokey and silly - where it should be intense and suspenseful. The plot brings up a lot of question that are never really answered.  This is a professional machine of a movie that compresses huge amounts of information into its two and a half hours of screen time. But it's so weighed down by detail, it fails to generate any real suspense. Is this a thriller? You've never scene a 'suspense film' drag its heels so deplorably, enlivened only by some colourful character acting. The film is never boring, but it never really sparkles either. Sorogoyen makes a solid job of it, as does De la Torre  But solid isn't enough when it comes to political thrillers for that matter. Solid is great when it comes to the sets. Nonetheless, it is a moderately entertaining thriller that is well made and exciting with some thought-provoking morality play, even though it does not cover tremendously new territory, nor does it have a lot of substance. It's an everyday political thriller, but a pure and asphyxiating thriller that portrays Spain as a stifling and tormented country.

Simon says The Realm (El reino) receives:

Also, see my NZIFF review for The Nightingale.

Saturday, 3 August 2019

NZIFF Film Review: "The Nightingale" (2018).

"Her song will not be silenced." This is The Nightingale. This Australian period thriller film written, co-produced, and directed by Jennifer Kent. The film centres on Clare, a young Irish convict, who chases a British officer through the rugged Tasmanian wilderness and is bent on revenge for a terrible act of violence the man committed against her family. On the way, she enlists the services of Aboriginal tracker Billy, who is marked by trauma from his own violence-filled past.

According to The Sydney Morning Herald, "deluged" by the film scripts she was sent from Hollywood after the success of her debut film, The Babadook (2014), Kent decided to focus on writing and directing her own projects, this included The Nightingale. In late March 2017, IndieWire reported the principal photography on the film began on location in Tasmania, and wrapped in early June. In early September 2018, the film premiered at the Venice International Film Festival. The film was met with controversy due to its extreme depictions of rape and murder. At its initial screenings at The Sydney Film Festival, approximately thirty audience members walked out of the theatre in disgust. Kent defended the decision to depict such violence, claiming that the film contains historically accurate depictions of the colonial violence and racism that took place against the Australian Indigenous people of that time. The film was produced in collaboration with Tasmanian Aboriginal elders who feel that this is an honest and necessary depiction of their history and a story that needs to be told. While Kent understands why some people reacted in a negative way, believing that they have every right to, she remains enormously proud of the film and stressed to audiences that this film is about a need for love, compassion and kindness in dark times. She said that her commitment to cinema is to make people feel something, even if that's anger at her or the situation.

The film stars Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Damon Herriman, Ewen Leslie, Michael Sheasby, and Baykali Ganambarr. So amazingly intense and unnerving the performances were that the film's villains and victims are still running amok in my brain. I think they might be there for some time.

The Nightingale is the best rape-revenge creation since Camille Keaton systematically hunted down the four men one by one to exact a terrible vengeance after she was brutally raped and left for dead in I Spit on Your Grave (1978). The film relies on real emotions rather than cheap exploitation—and boasts a heartfelt, genuinely moving story to boot. This is a film that mixes strong-minded storytelling with a clear dedication to craft. It is a non-stop ball of tension from beginning to end, the acting is freaking amazing, and the violence is ghastly. I can't even express how surprised I was by this movie. Almost everything about Kent's film is powerful: the haunting music, the sharp visual sensibility, the tightening tension as Clare's vengeance grows. It is mature and patient and it is, without a doubt, one of the best films this year.

Simon says The Nightingale receives:

Also, see my reviews for The Babadook and Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound.

Friday, 2 August 2019

NZIFF Film Review: "Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound" (2019).

'"Sound is 50% of the cinematic experience."' This is Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound. This documentary film directed by Midge Costin and written by Bobette Buster. The film examines how sound designers create the most exciting cinematic experiences. Also, the film features the latest discoveries and advances in sound technology to learn how sounds transform the cinematic experience.

Films such as The Jazz Singer (1927), King Kong (1933) and Citizen Kane (1941) were the major examples of films shown to be the earliest pioneers of sound. Directors such as Orson Welles (the radio wunderkind), Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean and Stanley Kubrick stamped their individual creative style on the sound as well as the visuals. They showed how sound (and the lack of it) could enhance the drama. It wasn’t until the 1970s, however, that experimental and adventurous use of sound crept into the mainstream. In particular, the film highlights the stories of the three pioneers of cinematic sound: Walter Murch, Ben Burtt and Gary Rydstrom. Murch began began editing sound on Francis Ford Coppola's The Rain People (1969). He won his first Academy Award nomination for The Conversation (1974) and his first Academy Award for Apocalypse Now (1979). And then an unprecedented double Academy Award® for Best Sound and Best Film Editing on The English Patient (1996). On Apocalypse Now, Murch coined the term sound designer, and along with colleagues such as Burtt and Rydstrom, helped to elevate the art and impact of film sound to a new level. Burtt began his career creating and editing sound on George Lucas' Star Wars (1977), for which he received an Academy Award for his effort. Burtt would go later go on to win more Oscars on films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). Rydstrom began his career creating sound on Backdraft (1991). He would later go on to design and mix sound for many films, including Terminator 2 (1991), Jurassic Park (1993), Titanic (1997), and Saving Private Ryan (1998). All of which he won Academy Awards for in both Best Sound and Best Sound Editing. Steven Spielberg, Barbra Streisand, George Lucas, Ryan Coogler, Sofia Coppola, David Lynch, Ang Lee and Robert Redford all underline just how crucial sound is to our experience of cinema.

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound is a valentine to the sounds of cinema, a reminder of why we continue returning to the multiplex, and an abiding faith in the power of film sound to immerse us in the films themselves. It is an important part of the cinematic landscape and the documentary details exactly why that is. It is a riveting, under-the-hood distillation of over a hundred years of Hollywood experimentation, innovation and expensive bravery. The film offers a long-overdue look at an integral component of cinema whose abbreviated overview of the subject should only leave viewers ready for more. It is a celebration of the artists who create the soundboxes of the movies we love.

Simon says Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound receives:

Also, see my NZIFF review for Mr Jones.

NZIFF Film Review: "Mr Jones" (2019).

"The untold story of the man who risked his life for the truth." This is Mr. Jones. This drama film directed by Agnieszka Holland and written by Andrea Chalupa. The film follows a Welsh journalist who breaks the news of the famine in the Soviet Union in the western media in the early 1930s.

One of the two great shadows the threatened the mythology of "Socialist achievement" was none other than The Holodomor (derived from the Ukrainian phrase of "to kill by starvation"). This was a man-made famine that killed approximately seven million in Soviet Ukraine in 1932 and 1933. The famine saw villages wiped out, people eating domestic pets, grass, next year's crops, and even fresh corpses. Today, despite even after official commemorations were made in 1993 for the sixtieth anniversary, the Russian government continues to acknowledge the Famine only as a minor 'national' tragedy. Many Ukrainians have sought to characterise the Famine as an act of mass genocide. The Famine inevitably destroyed the social and cultural reservoir of the Ukrainian identity and left a weak traditional populist Ukrainian nationalism. Some scholars believe that the famine was planned by Joseph Stalin to eliminate a Ukrainian independence movement.

The first journalist to publicise the existence of the Famine in the Western world was the Welsh journalist Gareth Richard Vaughn Jones (13/08/1905 - 12/08/1935). On his return to Berlin on 29 March 1933, he issued his press release. His report was met with controversy, as the intelligentsia of the time was still in sympathy with the Soviet regime. On 13 May, Jones published a strong rebuttal, standing by his report. This resulted in Jones being informed that he was banned from ever visiting the Soviet Union again. Banned from the Soviet Union, Jones embarked to the Far East on a "Round-the-World Fact-Finding Tour" in late 1934. Upon travelling through Kalgan, after being detained and instructed by Japanese forces in Manchuko, He and a German journalist were captured by bandits for ransom. The German journalist was released after two days, but 16 days later the bandits shot Jones on the eve of his 30th birthday. It was strongly suspected that Jones' murder was engineered by the Soviet NKVD, as revenge for the international embarrassment created by Jones.

The film stars James Norton as Jones, Vanessa Kirby as Ada Brooks, Peter Sarsgaard as Walter Duranty, Joseph Mawle as George Orwell, and Kenneth Cranham as Lloyd George. Taut performances were elicited from the strong cast. The distinguished and hardworking cast is one of the film's greatest strength.

Mr. Jones is a harrowing stomach-churning of a film. It satisfies thanks to the intensity of the performances and for the objective criticism of the atrocities committed by Stalin and the Soviet Union. This harrowing, engrossing, claustrophobic, robust and arduous drama is often dramatically disturbing and literally hard to watch. It is a harrowing tale, but one that speaks to humankind's capacity for truth and justice, to fight on in the face of terrible cruelty.

Simon says Mr. Jones receives:

Also, see my NZIFF review for Meeting Gorbachev.

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

NZIIA Seminar: 'The North Korean State and the Kim Family Dynasty.'

North Korea, officially known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, has many times been the subject of fascination. A subject which had fascinated tonight's speaker, Ms. Jean H. Lee. Tonight, Ms. Lee helped us explore the Hermit Kingdom state-wise and policy-wise. The study of North Korea’s state and policy could not be discussed without exploring the Kim Family. Understanding the role of the Kim family, and in particular the current generation of Kim Jong Un, provided a context for the events currently being reported in the Western world. Across three generations, the dynasty has formed the core government, using history and culture to build the cult of personality. 

First was Kim Il Sung, who was the first leader of North Korea in which he ruled from the country's establishment in 1948 until his death in 1994. He rose to power after the end of the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula and the end of World War II. In 1950, he was authorised by the Soviet Union to invade South Korea, triggering an intervention in defence of South Korea by the United Nations led by the United States. Kim Il Sung and his army was ultimately forced to retreat, and this resulted in a ceasefire, which is still ongoing. Under his rule, North Korea was established as a communist state with a publicly owned and planned economy. It had close political and economic relations with the Soviet Union. By the 1960s, North Korea briefly enjoyed a standard of living higher than the South, which was fraught with political instability and economic crises. The situation however reversed in the 1970s, as a newly stable South Korea became an economic powerhouse fuelled by Japanese and American investment, military aid and internal economic development while North Korea stagnated and then declined in the 1980s. Differences emerged between North Korea and the Soviet Union, chief among them being Kim Il-sung's philosophy of Juche, which focused on Korean nationalism, self-reliance, and socialism. Despite this, the country received funds, subsidies and aid from the USSR (and the Eastern Bloc) until the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. The resulting loss of economic aid adversely affected the North's economy, causing widespread famine in 1994. During this period, North Korea also remained critical of the United States defence force's presence in the region, which it considered imperialism, having seized the American ship USS Pueblo in 1968, which was part of an infiltration and subversion campaign to reunify the peninsula under North Korea's rule.

Then came Kim Jong Il, who served as the second leader and ruled from the death of his father until his own death in 2011. By the early 1980s, Kim had become the heir apparent for the leadership of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) and assumed important posts in the party and army organs. He first served as the country's minster of propaganda and agitation, which fuelled one of his future devouring passion: film. His rule was the first dynastic succession in a communist country. During his rule, the country suffered famine and had a poor human rights record. Kim involved his country in state terrorism and strengthened the role of the military by his Songun ("military-first") politics. Kim's rule also saw tentative economic reforms, including the opening of the Kaesong Industrial Park in 2003. In April 2009, North Korea's constitution was amended to refer to him and his successors as the "supreme leader of the DPRK". The most common colloquial title given to Kim was "Dear Leader" to distinguish him from his father Kim Il-sung, the "Great Leader". Following Kim's failure to appear at important public events in 2008, foreign observers assumed that Kim had either fallen seriously ill or died. On 19 December 2011, the North Korean government announced that he had died two days earlier, whereupon his third son, Kim Jong-un, was promoted to a senior position in the ruling WPK and succeeded him.

Finally came Kim Jong Un, who now serves as the third leader of North Korea since 2012. From late 2010, he was viewed as heir apparent to the leadership of the DPRK, and following the death of his father, North Korean state television announced him as the "Great Successor". Under his rule, the regime has implemented a more brutal, oppressive and totalitarian rule than under his grandfather and father before him. On 12 December 2013, Kim ordered the execution of his uncle Jang Song-thaek for "treachery". Kim is widely believed to have ordered the assassination of his half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, in Malaysia in February 2017. On 12 June 2018, Kim and US President Donald Trump met for a summit in Singapore, the first-ever talks held between a North Korean leader and a sitting US President, to discuss the North Korean nuclear program. A follow-up meeting in Hanoi in February 2019 ended abruptly without an agreement. By 30 June 2019, Kim met with both South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US President Donald Trump at the Korean Demilitarised Zone. Now he faces economic and political pressures. Outside North Korea, he is engaged in direct diplomatic manoeuvring with Trump. According to Ms. Lee, Kim Jong Un is willing to make transactional actions rather than transformative actions in regards to regime and its relationship with both South Korea and the United States.

Ms. Lee is a graduate of Columbia University and its Graduate School of Journalism, with a Bachelor’s degree in East Asian and English Literature and a Master’s degree. After graduation, she worked as a reporter for the Korea Herald in Seoul, South Korea. She then moved to Associated Press, where she worked in Maryland, California, New York, and London. In 2008, she started in Seoul, South Korea as Bureau Chief. In 2011, she became the first American journalist to gain extensive access on the ground in North Korea, covering the passing of Kim Jong Il in that year. In 2012, she opened the AP’s bureau in Pyongyang. During her tenure, she had travelled to numerous farms, factories, schools, military academies and homes. Moreover, she has appeared frequently on the BBC, CNN and other broadcasters. In addition, she contributes to the New York Times and Esquire. Furthermore, she has taught courses in North Korean Studies at both Yonsei University’s Underwood International College and Korea University’s Graduate School of International Studies, both in Seoul. After leaving the AP, she is currently serving as Director of the Hyundai Motor Korea Foundation Centre for Korea History and Public Policy at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars.

Also, see the previous seminar here.

NZIFF Film Review: "Meeting Gorbachev" (2018).

"A film by Werner Herzog and André Singer." This is Meeting Gorbachev. This biographical documentary film directed by Herzog and Singer about the life of Mikhail Gorbachev. The film consists of interviews between Herzog and Gorbachev, conducted over the span of six months.

On 2 March, 1931, the eighth and last leader of the Soviet Union was born to a poor peasant family, of Russian and Ukrainian heritage, in the village of Privolnoye, Stavropol Krai, under the rule of Joseph Stalin. In his youth, he, along with his father, operated combine harvesters on a collective farm. Like his grandfather and father, he later joined the Communist Party. He was later emitted into Moscow State University, where he was studying law. During this time, he met and married fellow student Raisa Titarenko in 1953. In 1955, he graduated and received his law degree. He moved back to Stavropol, where he worked for the Komsomol youth organisation and became a keen proponent of the de-Stalinization reforms of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. In 1970, he was appointed the First Party Secretary of the Stavropol Regional Committee, in which he oversaw construction of the Great Stavropol Canal. In 1978, he returned to Moscow to become a Secretary of the party's Central Committee and, in 1979, joined its governing Politburo. After the deaths of Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, the Politburo elected Gorbachev as General Secretary, the de facto head of government, in 1985.

Although committed to preserving the Soviet state and to its socialist ideals, Gorbachev believed significant reform was necessary, particularly after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. These reforms included the withdrawl of the Soviet army from the Soviet–Afghan War, nuclear purification and ending the Cold War. Domestically, his policy of glasnost ("openness") allowed for enhanced freedom of speech and press, while his perestroika ("restructuring") sought to decentralise economic decision making to improve efficiency. His democratisation measures and formation of the elected Congress of People's Deputies undermined the one-party state. Gorbachev declined to intervene militarily when various Eastern Bloc countries abandoned Marxist-Leninist governance in 1989–90. Internally, growing nationalist sentiment threatened to break up the Soviet Union, leading Marxist-Leninist hardliners to launch the unsuccessful August Coup against Gorbachev. In the wake of this, the Soviet Union dissolved against Gorbachev's wishes and he resigned in December. Widely considered one of the most significant figures of the second half of the 20th century, Gorbachev remains the subject of controversy. The recipient of a wide range of awards—including the Nobel Peace Prize—he was widely praised for his pivotal role in ending the Cold War, curtailing human rights abuses in the Soviet Union, and tolerating both the fall of Marxist–Leninist administrations in eastern and central Europe and the reunification of Germany. Conversely, in Russia he is often derided for not stopping the Soviet collapse, an event which brought a decline in Russia's global influence and precipitated an economic crisis.

Whatever your opinion of the eighth and last leader of the Soviet Union is, Herzog has once again found a fascinating subject with Meeting Gorbachev.

Simon says Meeting Gorbachev receives:

Also, see my reviews for Into the Inferno and Koyaanisqatsi.

Sunday, 28 July 2019

NZIFF Classic Film Review: "Koyaanisqatsi" (1982).

"Until now, you've never really seen the world you live in." That is until you've seen Koyaanisqatsi. This experimental film directed by Godfrey Reggio with music composed by Philip Glass and cinematography by Ron Fricke. Drawing its title, this renowned documentary examines modern civilisation and technology. From the Hopi language, Koyaanisqatsi means "crazy life", "life in turmoil", "life out of balance", "life disintegrating", and "a state of life that calls for another way of living."

In 1972, Reggio, with Fricke, created a series of short films for the Institute for Regional Education (IRE), communicating the theme of invasion of privacy through a stream of images. With the failure to bring the films to national attention, and $40,000 remaining from the budget, Fricke convinced Reggio to produce a feature film as the next logical step. This led to the production of Koyaanisqatsi, marking Reggio's directorial debut. In 1975, principal photography began, with filming taking place throughout the United States in St. Louis, Los Angeles, New York City, and Santa Fe. Reggio and Fricke chose to shoot unscripted footage and edit it into an hour-long film. Reggio and Fricke used 16 mm film due to budget constraints, despite their preference to shoot with 35 mm film. As there was no formal script, Fricke shot whatever he felt would "look good on film". Reggio and Fricke utilised aerial photography, portrait photography, hand-held photography, and time-lapse photography. The footage was processed with a special chemical to enhance the film's shadows and details, as all footage was shot only with existing lighting. Halfway through filming, the film's budget was exhausted. The unedited footage was screened in Santa Fe to Fricke's dismay. Fricke then edited the footage into a twenty-minute reel, but "without regard for message or political content", whilst he was working in Los Angeles. In 1976, production resumed as the IRE was continuously receiving funding and was able to then shoot on 35 mm film. Additional photography was provided by Hilary Harris and Louis Schwartzberg, with stock footage provided by MacGillivray Freeman Films. The film utilised images and music instead of dialogue and/or vocalised narration. Reggio explained the lack of dialogue by stating "it's not for lack of love of the language that these films have no words. It's because, from my point of view, our language is in a state of vast humiliation. It no longer describes the world in which we live." The film took almost six years to complete, with three years dedicated to the score alone as a continually evolving process. Reggio originally wanted an uninterpretable symbol as the title of the film, but instead settled on Koyaanisqatsi. As he felt it "had no emotional baggage attached to it" due to its obscurity.

Koyaanisqatsi is an exquisite combination of sound and vision. The film shows the consequences of what we have done in the past and the danger of where we are heading. You'd be hard-pressed to find another movie that conveys the contrasts of life in the modern world more effectively.

Simon says Koyaanisqatsi receives:

Also, see my NZIFF review for Maria by Callas.

Tuesday, 23 July 2019

NZIFF Film Review: "Maria by Callas" (2017).

"The life story of the legend told completely in her own words." This is Maria by Callas. This French documentary film directed by Tom Volf. The film details an intimate look at the life and work of Greek-American opera singer Maria Callas, as told in her own words.

Leonard Bernstein called her "pure electricity", she was Maria Callas (December 2,1923 - September 16, 1977). The American-born Greek soprano was one of the most renowned and influential opera singers of the 20th century. Many critics praised her bel canto technique, wide-ranging voice and dramatic interpretations. Her repertoire ranged from classical opera seria to the bel canto operas of Donizetti, Bellini and Rossini and, further, to the works of Verdi and Puccini; and, in her early career, to the music dramas of Wagner. Her musical and dramatic talents led to her being hailed as La Divina. Born in New York City to Greek immigrant parents, she was raised by an overbearing mother who had wanted a son. Maria received her musical education in Greece at age 13 and later established her career in Italy. Forced to deal with the exigencies of 1940s wartime poverty and with near-sightedness that left her nearly blind onstage, she endured struggles and scandal over the course of her career. She turned herself from a heavy woman into a svelte and glamorous one after a mid-career weight loss, which might have contributed to her vocal decline and the premature end of her career. The press exulted in publicising Callas's temperamental behaviour, her supposed rivalry with Renata Tebaldi and her love affair with Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. Although her dramatic life and personal tragedy have often overshadowed Callas the artist in the popular press, her artistic achievements and her influence have endured. In 2006, Opera News wrote of her: "Nearly thirty years after her death, she's still the definition of the diva as artist - and still one of classical music's best-selling vocalists."

Maria by Callas pays entertaining tribute to a towering cultural figure with a documentary whose evident affection for its subject proves contagious. The film serves as a vivid reminder of just how huge a role the great soprano played for a generation. The film paints a picture of a complicated woman, but it hits the high notes: the performances, the cheers, the adulation. Consider it a greatest hits. As the film demonstrates, while the music was mesmerising, so was the woman. A standard documentary about a famous person, but oh my gosh the singing is just incredible and I like the way they let the singing go for a long time. The film shows us why she was such a cultural force, and why nobody has filled the void she left behind. See it, if for no other reason than to learn the significance of her magnificent voice. The film confirms, but doesn't much augment, what we already know, it was a heck of a life and Volf traces it reverently.

Simon says Maria by Callas receives:

Also, see my NZIFF review for Andrei Rublev.

Monday, 22 July 2019

NZIIA Seminar: 'The Origins of the New Cold War.'

For over a decade, the US and China have made weekly headlines with their ongoing dispute across many areas, particularly economic and military. With tonight’s lecturer, Dr Charles Edel, we have reviewed the current dynamics of this Sino-American competition.

From 1945 to 47, the relationship between the US and the Soviet Union went from being a productive, if not, tense wartime alliance to a geo-political and ideological rivalry which would go on to span for multiple decades. Thus the Cold War was born. This was largely thanks to the Soviet Union’s desire to encompass large portions of both Europe and Asia. This was due to their expansionist, Marxist/Leninist mindset, as well as Stalin’s own insecurities. This thus led to the US’s efforts for continuing cooperation to be continuously rejected and rebuffed, with very little effort the US could make to appease Stalin. This is referred as the Neo Orthodox Interpretation. On the other hand, some have blamed the downturn on the US for their own desire to push their ideology, and blatantly ignoring Russian concerns and interests. But a third view argued that this was simply inevitable as two superpowers, with different histories, systems and concepts for world peace, were never going to meet eye-to-eye, especially after an event such as World War II.

As tensions rise between Beijing and Washington DC, there has been a growing fear of a new Cold War on the horizon. "A multi-decade contest to shape an international order", in Dr Edel's words. With this, questions have been mounting, especially who and/or what is responsible for this downslope in relations. But it is not an easy nor is it a simple answer. Because depending on your understanding on the policies involved, there are multiple answers or interpretations. One interpretation is that Washington should stop provoking Beijing. Another is that Xi Jinping’s government has become increasingly ambitious, aggressive and authoritarian. Which then leads to comparing Xi Jinping’s to Stalin in regards to personality and policies. Thirdly, and finally, that this contest was ultimately inevitable due to the fall of the Soviet Union and China’s growing fears of the US’s desire for ideological influence over Southeast Asia as China’s power grows. Thus making it impossible for China’s government to feel secure, and for the Washington to appease Beijing.

Though the similarities and differences between US’s relationship between Russia and China are vast, Dr Edel argues that the analogy presented holds a key for policy makers today. Dr Edel iterated that strong security arrangements, backed up by full military power, are likely to harden any feelings of antagonism and suspicion, and preserving peace. Furthermore, all politicians must understand the nature of the competition being geo-political and ideological. Dr Edel asserted that Xi Jinping’s China is not Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, but he asserted that China is continuing to undermine democracy with its authoritarian regime. An authoritarian, oppressive and technologically adept state such as China will always continue to protect its ideologies from the US and its allies.

Dr Edel is a Yale College and Yale University graduate with a BA in Classics and a PhD in History. At the US Naval War College, he was associate professor of strategy and policy. Moreover, he served on the US Secretary of State’s policy planning staff from 2015 to 2017. In that role, he advised Secretary of State John Kerry on political and security issues in the Asia Pacific region. Currently, he is a senior Fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, Australia. He is the author of Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic, as well as The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order. In addition to his scholarly publications, his writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The American Interest, and various other outlets.

Also, see the previous seminar here.

Sunday, 21 July 2019

NZIFF Classic Film Review: "Andrei Rublev" ("Андрей Рублёв") (1969).

From Andrei Tarkovsky, comes his sophomore effort, Andrei Rublev (Андрей Рублёв). This Soviet biographical historical drama film directed by Tarkovsky, co-written by Tarkovsky and Andrei Konchalovsky, and loosely based on the life of the 15th-century Russian icon painter of the same name. The film explores the life, times and afflictions of the fifteen century Russian painter of religious icons.

In 1961, during the making of his debut film Ivan's Childhood (1962), Tarkovsky pitched the film to Mosfilm. In December 1963, the treatment was approved. Tarkovsky and Konchalovsky then spent more than two years on the script, studying medieval writings, history and art with Savva Yamshchikov, a famous Russian restorer and art historian, as the film's consultant. Tarkovsky did not intend the film to be a historical or a biographical film. Instead, he was motivated by the idea of showing the connection between a creative character's personality and the times through which he lives. He wanted to show an artist's maturing and the development of his talent. He chose Andrei Rublev for his importance in the history of Russian culture. In April 1964 the script was approved and Tarkovsky began working on the film. Livanov was ultimately cast in the title role. In April 1965, with a budget of 1 million Rubles, principal photography commenced. Filming took place in Vladimir/Suzdal, Pskov, Izborsk and Pechory, as well as the Nerl River. The production was plagued with budget restrictions and turbulent weather. This resulted in several scenes from the script being cut, the shoot being disrupted from November 1965 to April 1966, and the budget ballooned to 1.3 million Rubles. In July 1966, the first cut of the film, known as The Passion According to Andrei (Страсти по Андрею, Strasty po Andryeyo), which ran over three hours and fifteen minutes, was completed. However, due to its length, negativity, violence, nudity and themes, cuts were demanded by the Soviet Union and was ultimately not released domestically until five years later. It was finally shown at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival. The released cut was trimmed down to three hours and six minutes and was retitled. Several versions of the film were made, including a U.S. version and a censored by the Soviet Union. Although censorship obscured and truncated the film for many years following its release, the film was soon recognised by many critics and filmmakers as a highly original and accomplished work. Since being restored to its original version, the film has come to be regarded as one of the greatest films of all time.

The film stars Anatoly Solonitsyn, Nikolai Grinko, Ivan Lapikov, Nikolai Sergeyev, Nikolai Burlyayev, and Irma Raush. Profound performances were given by the cast despite their dialogue being delivered in a deadpan manner.

Even though the story was sparse, the drama gloomy, the length of the film long as eternity, Tarkovsky has mixed daring with poetry in making Andrei Rublev. He shows the Russian figure as an individual troubled with the doubts and complexities of life and religion.

Simon says Andrei Rublev receives:

Also, see my NZIFF review for Apocalypse Now: Final Cut.

NZIFF Film Review: "Apocalypse Now: Final Cut" (2019).

"The Horror. . . The Horror. . ." This is Apocalypse Now: Final Cut. This epic war film produced and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, co-written by Coppola and John Milius, and loosely based on the 1899 novella Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. The setting was changed from late 19th-century Congo to the Vietnam War (1969–70). The film follows Captain Benjamin L. Willard, who is on a secret mission to assassinate Colonel Kurtz, a renegade Army officer accused of murder and who is presumed insane.

In the late 1960s, inspired by Heart of Darkness and encouraged by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, Milius became interested in writing a Vietnam War film. He had read the novel when he was a teenager and was reminded about it by one of his college lecturers who had mentioned the several unsuccessful attempts to adapt it into a movie. He wanted to use Conrad's novel as "a sort of allegory. It would have been too simple to have followed the book completely." Milius wrote ten drafts, amounting to over a thousand pages, and changed the title from The Psychedelic Soldier to Apocalypse Now. He was influenced by the article The Battle for Khe Sanh written by Michael Herr, which referred to drugs, rock 'n' roll, and people calling airstrikes down on themselves, and Dr. Strangelove (1964). Milius felt that Lucas was the right person to direct. Lucas worked with him for four years developing the film. Lucas approached the script as a black comedy, and intended to shoot the film after THX 1138 (1971). Location scouts began in the Philippines, Vietnam and California. Lucas envisioned the film to be shot on a $2 million budget cinéma vérité style, using 16 mm cameras, and real soldiers, while the war was still going on. However, due to Warner Bros' concerns, the failure of THX 1138, and Lucas' involvement with American Graffiti (1973) and Star Wars (1977), the project was ultimately shelved. In the early 1970s, Coppola expressed interest and eventually decided to take on the project. He envisioned the film as a definitive statement on the nature of modern war, the difference between good and evil, and the impact of American society on the rest of the world. 

In 1975, Coppola began scouting locations in northern Queensland, Australia, but ultimately settled on the Philippines. Coppola revised the script with Milius and began negotiated with United Artists to secure financing. In early 1976, Coppola had persuaded Marlon Brando to play Kurtz for an enormous fee of $3.5 million. Coppola then secured a $15.5 million budget with Marlon Brando and Harvey Keitel attached to star. Robert Duvall, Frederic Forrest, Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Laurence Fishburne, G. D. Spradlin, Harrison Ford, and Dennis Hopper rounded out the cast. In early March 1976, principal photography commenced for a five month shoot. Filming took place in Manila and Iba, and was plagued with problems. Firstly, within a few days, Coppola was dissatisfied with Keitel, and ultimately replaced Keitel with Martin Sheen. In late May, Typhoon Olga hit the sets in Iba, and the production was closed down. This resulted in the shoot being six weeks behind schedule and $2 million over budget, with most of the cast and crew returning to the United States for six to eight weeks until issues were resolved. Coppola had to offer his car, house, Napa Valley winery, and The Godfather profits as security to finish the film. Afterwards, Brando arrived in Manila very overweight and completely unprepared. Coppola began working with Brando to shoot around his weight gain and rewrite the ending. In early 1977, production resumed. In early March, Sheen suffered a heart attack, and struggled for a quarter of a mile to reach help, but returned to work in late April. During the interim, his brother Joe Estevez filled in for him and provided voice overs needed for his character. In late May, a problematic sixteen-month production, principal photography finally wrapped. 

Problems continued after production as Coppola edited a million-two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand feet / two-hundred-and-thirty hours of film. In January 1978, Herr was asked to work on the film's narration due to Coppola's dissatisfaction of the original narration. In May, Coppola postponed the opening until Spiring 1979. In April 1979, "a work in progress" was screen to a lukewarm reception. That same year, he was invited to screen the film at the Cannes Film Festival. Despite objections from United Artists, Coppola agreed to screen the film. On May 10, 1979, the incomplete film premiered at Cannes to a lukewarm reception, but was honoured with the Palme d'Or. On August 15, 1979, the film was released. The film was a commercial success, grossing $78 million domestically and over $150 million worldwide. The initial reviews were mixed. Today the film is considered to be one of the greatest films ever made. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards at the 52nd Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and went on to win for Best Cinematography and Best Sound. In 2000, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant". An extended cut of the film was released in 2001 as Apocalypse Now Redux. Redux restores forty-nine minutes cut from the original cut. For the 40th anniversary, the film was restored in spectacular 4K resolution personally supervised by Coppola. The Final Cut has a runtime of three hours and two minutes, with Coppola having cut 20 minutes of the added material from Redux. It is also the first time the film has been restored from the original camera negative. In April 2019, the film screened at the Tribeca Film Festival.

The film stars Brando, Sheen, Duvall, Forrest, Hall, Bottoms, Fishburne Hopper, Spradlin, and Ford. Tour de force performances were given by the cast, especially Brando and Sheen, who both personified the film's theme of descent into madness.

Apocalypse Now: Final Cut presents Coppola at his finest—and makes some remarkably advanced arguments about the Vietnam War's role in society that still resonate today.

Simon says Apocalypse Now: Final Cut receives:

Also, see my NZIFF review for The Farewell.

Friday, 19 July 2019

NZIFF Film Review: "The Farewell" (2019).

"Based on an Actual Lie." This is The Farewell. This comedy-drama film written and directed by Lulu Wang. Chinese-born, U.S.-raised Billi reluctantly returns to Changchun to find that, although the whole family knows their beloved matriarch, Nai-Nai, has been given mere weeks to live, everyone has decided not to tell Nai Nai herself. To assure her happiness, they gather under the joyful guise of an expedited wedding, uniting family members scattered among new homes abroad. As Billi navigates a minefield of family expectations and proprieties, she finds there’s a lot to celebrate: a chance to rediscover the country she left as a child, her grandmother’s wondrous spirit, and the ties that keep on binding even when so much goes unspoken. 

The film was based on an story initially shared on This American Life. Wang said that the film was based on her grandmother's illness, stating that "I always felt the divide in my relationship to my family versus my relationship to my classmates and to my colleagues and to the world that I inhabit. That's just the nature of being an immigrant and straddling two cultures." In June 2018, principal photography commenced and wrapped after twenty-four days, with filming taking place in Changchun, China and New York. In an interview with Filmmaker, cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano stated that the references for the film included Force Majeure (2014) and Still Walking (2008). However, she added that her main source of inspiration came from "spending time with Lulu's family at their home in Changchun, during pre-production."

The film stars Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Han, and Aoi Mizuhara. The Acting is uniformly great, the players conveying as much of their struggles using body language as with words. But the most mind-blowing performance came from Awkwafina, who has come a long way since her days of making amateur music videos like My Vag.

With The Farewell, Wang has created a heartfelt celebration of both the way we perform family and the way we live it, masterfully interweaving a gently humorous depiction of the good lie in action with a richly moving story of how family can unite and strengthen us, often in spite of ourselves. Wang's darkly comedic family drama, set mainly in China, is a farewell to a family member without a farewell. The film is a gripping and deftly observed drama that adds caustic condemnation through its embracing of humour. Ultimately, the film becomes a thoughtful examination, through Billi, of the person who lives inside each of us, emerging only in the most unguarded moments - and not always a person we want to acknowledge. The film is incredibly thought-provoking and a frequently funny study of the Asian family dynamic. Wang's almost sage-like understanding of what makes modern families tick places her and this wonderful film in the league of Asian-American grand master, Ang Lee, and you can't ask for higher praise than that. Wang and her superb cast have made an odd, yet surprisingly relatable movie. Let it rock your world.

Simon says The Farewell receives:

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Film Review: "The Lion King" (2019).

"The king has returned" in The Lion King. This musical drama film directed by Jon Favreau, adapted by Jeff Nathanson, based on 1994 Disney animated classic. In the African savanna, a future king is born. Simba idolises his father, King Mufasa, and takes to heart his own royal destiny. But not everyone in the kingdom celebrates the new cub’s arrival. Scar, Mufasa’s brother—and former heir to the throne—has plans of his own. The battle for Pride Rock is ravaged with betrayal, tragedy and drama, ultimately resulting in Simba’s exile. With help from a curious pair of newfound friends, Simba will have to figure out how to grow up and take back what is rightfully his.

In late September 2016, following the success of The Jungle Book, plans for a remake of The Lion King was announced by Disney with Favreau in the director's chair, and would feature songs from the original film by Elton John and Tim Rice. In early October, Disney brought on Nathanson to pen the script. In November, Disney and Favreau stated that the film will utilise the "technologically groundbreaking" approach used for The Jungle Book. In addition to the 1994 film, the film was also inspired by the Broadway adaptation. Favreau aimed to develop his own take with what he said was "the spectacle of a BBC wildlife documentary". In mid 2017, production commended on a blue screen soundstage in Los Angeles. By early November, Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, John Kani, John Oliver, JD McCrary, Shahadi Wright Joseph and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter rounded out the film's cast as Simba, Pumbaa, Scar, Sarabi, Timon, Rafiki, Zazu, Young Simba, Young Nala and Nala, with James Earl Jones reprising his original role as Mufasa. It was also announced that the original film's composer, Hans Zimmer would return to score the film. The Moving Picture Company, who previously worked on The Jungle Book, provided the visual effects, under the supervision of Robert Legato, Elliot Newman and Adam Valdez. In late November 2018, the first teaser trailer and the official teaser poster debuted during the annual Dallas Cowboys' Thanksgiving day game. The trailer was viewed 224.6 million times in its first 24 hours.

The film stars the voice talents of Glover, Rogen, Ejiofor, Woodard, Eichner, Kani, Oliver, Knowles-Carter, and Jones. Despite the stellar new cast, they are no match against the original, and more powerful, cast. Jones' performance this time round seemed rather phoned-in and just did it for the hefty pay cheque.

The Lion King stumbles as it is too committed to being a near-shot-for-shot remake instead of going in a new and different direction. Favreau relies too heavily on the film's animated predecessor for plot, characterisation, songs, and set pieces, when he should have concentrated more on his own coherent vision. The better these talking animals look, the more the film resembles a gorgeous screen saver. You can admire it, but you can't lose yourself in it.

Simon says The Lion King (2019) receives:

Also, see my review for The Jungle Book (2016) and Aladdin (2019).

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Film Review: "Spider-Man: Far From Home" (2019).

"The world needs the next Iron Man." Well, here he comes in Spider-Man: Far From Home. This superhero film directed by Jon Watts, written by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, based on the Marvel Comics character created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. It is the sequel to Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), the twenty-third film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and the final film of Phase Three. Following the events of Avengers: Endgame (2019), Spider-Man must step up to take on new threats in a world that has changed forever.

In June 2016, Sony Pictures chairman Tom Rothman stated that Sony and Marvel Studios were committed to making future Spider-Man films after Homecoming. In December 2016, after the release of the first trailer of the first film, Sony announced a sequel for a July 5, 2019 release date. In July 2017, Tom Holland was confirmed to reprise his role as the titular superhero. By December, Watts, as well as McKenna and Sommers, returned as director and writers, and had entered pre-production. In May 2018, Jake Gyllenhaal was cast as Mysterio after Matt Damon turned down the role. In late June, Holland announced via an Instagram post the film's title as Spider: Far From Home. By early July, Samuel L. Jackson, Zendaya, Cobie Smulders, Jon Favreau, J. B. Smoove, Jacob Batalon, Martin Starr, Marisa Tomei, Tony Revolori, and Angourie Rice rounded out the cast. At the same time, principal photography commenced and wrapped in mid October, under the working title Fall of George. Filming took place in England, the the Czech Republic, Italy, New York, and New Jersey. In October, Homecoming composer Michael Giacchino was confirmed to return to score the film. In April 2019, Sony moved the film's release date up to July 2, 2019.

The film stars Tom Holland, Samuel L. Jackson, Zendaya, Cobie Smulders, Jon Favreau, J. B. Smoove, Jacob Batalon, Martin Starr, Marisa Tomei, Tony Revolori, Angourie Rice, and Jake Gyllenhaal. Gyllenhaal makes a more supervillain than Michael Keaton's Vulture, Holland (as always) effortlessly suggests a heroic adolescent presence, whilst the rest of the cast seem happy giving us more of the same. 

Boasting an entertaining villain and deeper emotional focus, Spider-Man: Far From Home improves upon its predecessor in almost every way. The film effortlessly combines spectacular action set pieces with a human story. The filmmakers have delivered an iconic and compelling version of Spider-Man's lesser-known foe. We almost wish there was a way to retroactively add some of these to the original character. The web-slinging sequences are bigger-better-brighter-faster than the already spectacular ones in Homecoming, and at the same time, the film's smaller emotional moments are denser and more resonant than those in the first. The film displays the kind of poise and confidence that can only happen when you're following on from a smash hit that is also a part of one of the most successful franchises of all time. It is the best Spider-Man movie since Spider-Man 2 (2004).

Simon says Spider-Man: Far From Home receives:

Also, see my reviews for Spider-Man: Homecoming and Avengers: Endgame.