Wednesday, 28 August 2019

NZIIA Seminar: 'Canaries and Coalmines: Foreign Interference, Political Resilience, and the Changing Global Order.'


A global order is emerging. New Zealand must work hard to adjust to the shift in global politics. This was at the heart of Professor Anne-Marie Brady’s lecture entitled Canaries and Coalmines: Foreign Interference, Political Resilience, and the Changing Global Order. Her lecture serves as a template/checklist for creating strategies for the New Zealand-China relationship based on her three-year research into the former totalitarian/communist and now mature fascist/capitalist nation. The title of her lecture alludes to the fear that a proudly independent such as New Zealand will find itself in deep trouble if it cannot find ways to develop a constructive, respectful and healthy relationship with China.

China aspires to be a global super power, and is already seeking change in the global order. Getting the China relationship right is going to be one of New Zealand’s greatest foreign policy challenges in the next few decades. This talk surveys China’s global foreign policy agenda and assesses how it affects New Zealand’s interests. She stressed that it was imperative for New Zealand to fiercely protect its political system. Just like Ms. Jean Lee’s lecture, one cannot understand China and its system without examining its history, philosophies and leaders (past and present). China, in particular, has evolved exponentially during the course of its history, especially under Xi Jinping’s administration. The subject of China and its foreign policies begins with naval officer, Sir Alfred Mahan, who served as one of the major influences on China’s new foreign policy strategy. Mahan was a U.S. naval historian and a specialist on the rivalry between France and Great Britain. His books The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783 and The Influence of Sea Power Upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793-1812 suggested what a rising power must do to achieve domination. Mahan suggested that a nation must develop its own army and navy and to develop its own global trade policies. Along with Soviet/Leninist ideologies, China latched onto Mahan’s philosophies, but was unable to put them into effect due to the behest of the Soviets until the 1980s. With Mahan’s philosophies applied into China’s own policies, this helped China double in growth by 2012 when Xi Jinping came into power.

Like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping remains an enigma to the west. But what is known is that Xi Jinping is leading much more ambitious foreign policies in recent years, like Japan in the 1930s and 40s. Since the late 70s, under the doctrine of Deng Xiaoping, China abided its strength and time in regards to its policies. Like Russia, China has believed, to this day, that the west is weak and will continue to weaken, and China’s chance for glory will come one day. In 2017, Xi Jinping expressed to the Chinese population that "they were in a new era. China is in a new era and the world is in a new era." With this, China’s chance has come and has taken extreme lengths to become more assertive. This is also thanks to Xi Jinping’s strong belief in the ancient concept of "rich country, strong military", which believes that China will return to its rightful place as a dominant super power. Xi Jinping is a product of his upbringing and the philosophies created by the United Front, founded by Mao Zedong, which led to the rise of the Communist Party of China (CPC). Mao strongly referred to the United Front and their work as "one of the three magic weapons of the Communist Party of China." Living through the Cultural Revolution in China, Xi is strongly interested in following the groundwork laid out by Mao, and has raised the status of the United Front to heights that has never been witnessed before. The party is now leading China in its foreign policies. This has resulted in the party going global and its main goal is to maintain its Chinese population both inside and outside of China. This is largely in regards to its fear of western influence and the rise of democracy, as well as the creation of opposition against the party. Under Xi Jinping’s government, China has severely taken a step backwards in regards to domestic policies. Which saw criticism towards the party met with enormous censorship, and its propaganda being treated as "the life blood" of the party. Enormous efforts are being made by the party to shape the country’s domestic and international views. This extends to Chinese cinema in relation to Hollywood, in which sensitive films such as Kundun (1997) and Seven Years in Tibet (1997) can no longer be released in Chinese theatres.

These are some aspects, expressed by Professor Brady, that provide an understanding of contemporary China, and why China should be of interest to New Zealand. It is with this that Professor Brady stressed that New Zealand needs to have the conversation (both privately and publically) and a change in mindset as how to we approach China in regards to topics such as cyber attacks. Hopefully, just as Professor Brady hopes, New Zealand’s fate will not mirror that of Albania with their relationship to China. Professor Brady also hopes that New Zealand will not take its values, e.g. democracy, for granted.

Professor Brady specialises in Chinese domestic and foreign policy, Pacific politics and New Zealand foreign policy. She is a fluent Mandarin speaker with dual majors in Chinese, Political Science and International Relations. She received her BA and Ma from the University of Auckland and her PhD from Australian National University. Among many things, she is a Professor at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, as well as being a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington DC, a non-resident Senior Fellow at the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, and a member of the Council on Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific. In addition, she is the editor-in-chief of The Polar Journal. She has published ten books and more than fifty scholarly articles on a range of issues including China’s strategic interests in the Arctic and Antarctic, China’s modernised propaganda system, and New Zealand-China relations. Her op eds have appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, and The Australian. China as a Polar Great Power, and Small States and the Changing Global Order: New Zealand Faces the Future are her most recent books. Her other books include China’s Thought Management, and Marketing Dictatorship: Propaganda and Thought Work in Contemporary China.


Also, see the previous seminar here.

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Film Review: "Weathering with You" ("天気の子") (2019).


"This is the story of the world's secret that only she and I know." This is Weathering with You (天気の子). This Japanese animated romantic fantasy film written and directed by Makoto Shinkai. A high-school boy who has run away to Tokyo befriends a girl who appears to be able to manipulate the weather.

In early August 2018, two years after the success of Your Name (君の名は), Shinkai announced that he was making a new feature film that would be released the following year. A year prior, after completing the script, Shinkai sent the script to Yojiro Noda for his opinions before Noda composed and sent the song Is there still anything that love can do? (愛にできることはまだあるかい), which is used as the film's theme song, as well as the songs Grand Escape (グランドエスケープ) (which features Toko Miura's vocals), Voice of Wind (風たちの声), Celebration (祝祭) and We'll Be Alright (大丈夫). More than 2,000 people auditioned for the roles of the film's two protagonists; Ultimately, Kotaro Daigo and Nana Mori were chosen for Hodaka Morishima and Hina Amano. By late May 2019, Shun Oguri, Tsubasa Honda, Chieko Baisho, Sakura Kiryuu, Sei Hiraizumi, Yuki Kaji, Ayane Sakura, Kana Hanazawa, Mone Kamishiraishi, and Ryunosuke Kamiki. In late April 2019, Shinkai announced through Twitter he had finished writing a novel adaptation of the film. It was released in print and in digital format by Kadokawa Sneaker Bunko on July 18, 2019. In addition, a manga adaptation drawn by Watari Kubota began serialization on July 25, 2019, in Kodansha's Afternoon magazine.

The film features the voice talents of Daigo, Mori, Oguri, Honda, Baisho, Kiryuu, Hiraizumi, Kaji, Sakura, Hanazawa, Kamishiraishi, and Kamiki. The film does boast great vocal talent indeed, especially that of its two leads. Daigo and Mori gave terrifically touching performances as two youngsters transcending backgrounds to connect is an inspiring story no matter what country you hail from.

Weathering with You adds another outstanding chapter to writer-director Makoto Shinkai's filmography. The film's animation is a seamless blend of gorgeous, realistic detail and emotionally grounded fantasy. Though the film's over-delivery, its comedy of adolescent embarrassment and awkwardness, and its ending comes to the surprise of no one who has ever seen a Japanese seishun eiga (youth drama). There are plenty of cinematic touchstones for which Your Name is comparable, but the end result still feels like the rarest find of all: a truly original work of mainstream cinema. The film is Shinkai's most satisfying and complete film to date thanks to its amazingly beautiful animation, a fun yet familiar fantasy premise, a great melding of genres (fantasy and teen romance) and great vocal talent. Plot hiccups aside, it's a visually impressive experience with endearing characters and a unique story. It is a wistfully lovely Japanese tale that is a dazzling new work of anime. It's both gorgeous enough and emotionally engaging enough to be worth seeking out. It's a beautiful Japanese animation fantasy with an other-worldly feel.

Simon says Weathering with You (天気の子) receives:



Also, see my review for Your Name (君の名は).

Monday, 26 August 2019

Film Review: "Ma" (2019).


"Get Home Safe" in Ma. This psychological horror film directed by Tate Taylor, written by Taylor and Scotty Landes, and produced by Blumhouse Productions. The film centres on a lonely middle-aged woman who befriends some teenagers and decides to let them party in the basement of her home. But there are some house rules: One of the kids has to stay sober, don't curse, and never go upstairs. They must also refer to her as Ma. But as Ma's hospitality starts to curdle into obsession, what began as a teenage dream turns into a terrorizing nightmare, and Ma's place goes from the best place in town to the worst place on Earth.

Ma came together as a result of Taylor's desire to direct a film about "something fucked up", and a conversation he had with Octavia Spencer in which she told him that she was "sick of only being offered the same role and never getting to be a lead." Taylor then went to pitch his desire to Jason Blum. Blum then introduced Landes' script to Taylor, which Blum had bought the day before. Although the original draft was written with a white woman in the title role, Taylor immediately thought about Spencer. He immediately called Spencer, and asked her if she would like to be in a horror film; without reading the script, Spencer boarded the project. There was no backstory for the title character in the original script, which made her "a complete monster that no audience member could sympathize with." The filmmakers made it a priority to give the character an authentic backstory for the role. By February 2018, Juliette Lewis, Diana Silvers, McKaley Miller, Corey Fogelmanis, Gianni Paolo, Dante Brown, Luke Evans, Missi Pyle, and Allison Janney rounded out the film's cast. At the same time, with a budget of $5 million, principal photography commenced, and wrapped in March. Filming took place in Natchez, Mississippi.

The film stars Spencer, in the title role, Lewis, Silvers, Miller, Fogelmanis, Paolo, Brown, Evans, Pyle, and Janney. Spencer's talent as an actress has been evident for a quite while, but this film announces her as a genuine versatile actress.

Ma may not be wickedly smart and playfully subversive, nor does it challenge the audience's expectations, but it does leave audiences leaning on the edges of their seats. The film's reveal isn't worthy of the apprehension it creates, which is chiefly down to Spencer's surprising lead performance. Thriller fans may be reasonably sated but the film lacks distinct juju. Yet, the film is darkly unnerving, it's deft, controlled maneuvering of plot, character, style, and tone is damn near perfect for Taylor's Blumhouse debut—even if it is in service of a very standard genre piece. The film chillingly illustrates what happens when a group of teenagers have to deal with an unsuspecting yet unrelenting adult who they partied with. Clever and atmospheric, the film has enough twists to keep the average viewer guessing. The violence is always emotional and psychological, not bloody and physical, which makes the film that much more disconcerting.

Simon says Ma receives:



Also, see my review for The Girl on the Train.

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Film Review: "American Factory" (2019).


"Cultures collide. Hope survives" in American Factory. This documentary film directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert. In this documentary, hopes soar when a Chinese company reopens a shuttered factory in Ohio. But a culture clash threatens to shatter an American dream.

After their 2009 Oscar-nominated documentary short The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant, Reichert and Bognar aimed to make a film that would depict what took place place in the same Moraine Assembly plant once occupied by General Motors. It was not until during the post-production process that the filmmakers decided to centralize the experiences of workers themselves during the Fuyao plant take-over, which they describe as the "beating heart of the story". In February 2015, principal photography commenced, and wrapped in late 2017. Fuyao granted Reichert and Bognar access to both their Dayton, Ohio and Chinese plant locations. The filmmakers implemented a fly-on-the-wall documentary filmmaking approach, in which no dialogue external to the subjects of the film is included, and the sounds of the factory and the dialogue of the workers is prioritized. In order to make focal such an audio/visual approach, the filmmakers implemented the use of lavalier microphones to effectively balance worker dialogue amid noise emanating from the factory's machinery. The voice-over narration provided by the factory workers was often recorded at their respective homes, independently from the factory setting. According to Bognar, implementing the film's narration in this way to create an effect of depicting a worker's inner monologue. Chinese filmmakers, Yiqian Zhang and Mijie Li, facilitated the Mandarin Chinese language portions of the film, with one or both of whom would travel to Ohio monthly. The directors credit these two as essential in providing a connection to the Chinese subjects depicted in the film.

Bognar and Reichert's film is intelligent, in-depth, and touching, all executed with a gripping hands-on approach to the material that helps engage the audience more than you're standard talking heads documentary. The film rails against corporate greed and asks what happened to the American Dream and its promise of middle-class prosperity. The film itself remains a hard kick in the head-a funny, angry inquiry into what the hell happened to the American dream. Despite some tempering with the chronological sequence of events, this is a scathingly biting satire of modern economics that captures the zeitgeist of the late 2010s and early 2020s much more poignantly than most Hollywood movies. Regardless of Bognar and Reichert's conceitedness and simple-mindedness, they still made a good movie, and without inventing so many facts as they did with A Lion in the House and The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant. The film demonstrates that this genre can be as hilarious as any comedy on the market and provide some sharp political muckraking to boot. The film is an inventive, darkly comic, and prophetic documentary about corporate America and unemployement. Though much of what's in the film isn't new information, seeing it all compiled in one place and building to its damning argument against Bognar and Reichert is effective and disturbing.

Simon says American Factory receives:


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 (El reino).

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.