Sunday, 9 August 2020

Film Review: "Peninsula" ("반도") (2020).


"Four years after Train to Busan" comes Peninsula (반도). This South Korean action horror film directed by Yeon Sang-ho and written by Yeon and Park Joo-Suk. It is a standalone sequel to Train to Busan (부산행) (2016). Four years after South Korea’s total decimation in Train to Busan comes the next nail-biting second chapter in this post-apocalyptic world. Jung-seok, a soldier who previously escaped the diseased wasteland, relives the horror when assigned to a covert operation with two simple objectives: retrieve and survive. When his team unexpectedly stumbles upon survivors, their lives will depend on whether the best - or worst - of human nature prevails in the direst of circumstances.

Immediately after the success of Train to Busan, an animated prequel, Seoul Station, also directed by Yeon, was released and a follow-up film was announced. Yeon has stated that, "Peninsula is not a sequel to Train to Busan because it's not a continuation of the story, but it happens in the same universe." The film was selected to be shown at the 2020 Cannes Film Festival, however, the festival was eventually cancelled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The film stars Gang Dong-won, Lee Jung-hyun, Lee Re, Kwon Hae-hyo, Kim Min-jae and Koo Kyo-hwan. Though not as strong as the previous cast, the cast here also come to realize that selfish short-sighted attention is inherently inhuman. Metaphorically, it's what separates us from the zombies. During the harrowing ordeal, you're hunkered down with a likable group of survivors who jump resourcefully from one trap to the next, with the real monsters being the executive types.

The film doesn't blaze any new trails, but it transcends the tricks and tropes of a genre that so often feels it has nothing more to offer. This South Korean thrill-ride doesn't quite feels as fresh -- not because it doesn't do anything new, but because it doesn't greases the wheels of the old machine, and delivers an unending series of emotional-less gut-punches at a tedious pace. In visual terms, the film is mesmerising. The actual horror scenes are not overly gory, and the chase scenes are excellently choreographed and filled with pure adrenaline, however, it leaves you waiting for the film to be over and leave with a tired yawn. The bad stuff can be ignored and the good stuff, if there is any, is good enough. The terror is nuanced and visceral enough, a gut reaction to the scale and speed of the attacks on screen. There is much to enjoy here, but is there ever really any justification for a two-hour long zombie movie? The film argues not. However, the amount of energy that director Yeon Sang-ho is able to infuse into the film is a welcome change from the stop and go nature of recent entries in the genre. Part horror and part satire, this is an exceptional movie that drags you screaming along at bullet-train speed. Extraordinary tension is counterbalanced with eerie calm, as survivors embark and disembark in quiet fear.

Simon says Peninsula (반도) receives:



Also, see my review for Train to Busan (부산행).

Tuesday, 4 August 2020

Film Review: "Where'd You Go, Bernadette" (2019).


"Bernadette Fox has it all. A loving husband, and a brilliant daughter. But the one thing missing, is her." This is Where'd You Go, Bernadette. This mystery comedy-drama film directed by Richard Linklater, adapted by Linklater, Holly Gent, and Vince Palmo, and based on the novel of the same name by Maria Semple. Based on the runaway bestseller, this inspiring comedy centres on Bernadette Fox, a loving mom who becomes compelled to reconnect with her creative passions after years of sacrificing herself for her family. Bernadette's leap of faith takes her on an epic adventure that jump-starts her life and leads to her triumphant rediscovery.

In January 2013, Annapurna Pictures and Color Force acquired the film rights to Semple's novel, with Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber to pen the adaptation. In February 2015, Linklater was announced to direct the adaptation. Linklater was attracted to the story because of the strong mother/daughter relationship, he being the father of three daughters and brother of two older sisters. In April 2016, It was announced that Linklater, Holly Palmo and Vince Palmo had taken over writing duties from Neustadter and Weber. By early July 2017, Billy Crudup, Emma Nelson, Kristen Wiig, Judy Greer, Laurence Fishburne, James Urbaniak, Troian Bellisario, Steve Zahn, and Megan Mullally. At the same time, principal photography commenced, and took place in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Seattle, Washington; British Columbia, Canada; and Greenland. While on location in Greenland, the production was hampered by a hurricane that lasted for thirty-six hours. Rather than wait it out, the crew went ahead and filmed the hurricane and included it in the final cut.

The film stars Blanchett, Crudup, Nelson, Wiig, Greer, Fishburne, Urbaniak, Bellisario, Zahn, and Mullally. It's a spell-binding display of wonderful acting with what looks like occasional skilled improvisation. Linklater allows Blanchett and the cast to give performances of a richness and depth that you won't find in their more obviously crowd-pleasing movies. 

Where'd You Go, Bernadette balances raw drama against refreshing moments of humor in an impeccably cast film that wrestles with questions of patriotism, family, and grief. It's good fun and has a warm heart, but there's nothing of real substance on offer in the film. Blanchett is still immensely watchable, however, in one of his best film roles to date. Linklater can't protect them from all the script's potholes, including sentiment, contrivance and a galling mixed-message ending. But spending time in the company of Blanchett and cast? That truly is a pleasure. It is an uneven film, that succeeds best when it focuses on the spiritual journey of its protagonist. The film may feel like it is meandering at times, but once it gets to its destination it leaves you with a powerful final punch. The film may not be completely smart and challenging, but it contains great performances and writing that may tug hard at the heart. It's gently and marvellously unpacked for our viewing pleasure. It's as funny as it is moving.

Simon says Where'd You Go, Bernadette receives:



Also, see my review for Last Flag Flying.

NZIFF Film Review: "The Perfect Candidate" (2019).


From the trailblazing director of Wadida (وجدة) comes The Perfect Candidate. This Saudi Arabian drama film directed by Haifaa al-Mansour and written by al-Mansour and Brad Niemann. A determined young Saudi doctor’s surprise run for office in the local city elections sweeps up her family and community as they struggle to accept their town's first female candidate.

Like the film's central heroine, al-Mansour's journey to becoming Saudi Arabia's first female filmmaker, on top of being one of the country's best-known and controversial directors, was a long and arduous one. Born on August 10, 1974, al-Mansour was born as the eighth (out of twelve) children to poet Abdul Rahman Mansour, who introduced her to films by video, there being no movie theaters in Saudi Arabia between 1983 and 2018. With her father's encouragement, she studied comparative literature at The American University in Cairo. She later completed a master's degree in Film Studies from University of Sydney, Australia. She began her filmmaking career with three shorts, Who?, The Bitter Journey and The Only Way Out. The latter won prizes in the United Arab Emirates and in the Netherlands. She followed these with the documentary Women Without Shadows, which deals with the hidden lives of women in Arab States of the Persian Gulf. It was shown at seventeen international festivals. The film received the Golden Dagger for Best Documentary in the Muscat Film Festival and a special jury mention in the fourth Arab Film Festival in Rotterdam. Her feature debut, Wadjda, which she wrote as well as directed, made its world premiere at the 2012 Venice Film Festival; it is the first full-length feature to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and as of 2013, the only feature-length film made in Saudi Arabia by a female director. The film tells the story of a ten-year-old girl growing up in the suburbs of Riyadh, who dreams of owning and riding a green bicycle. The film was selected as the Saudi Arabian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 86th Academy Awards, which is the first time Saudi Arabia has submitted a film for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. In 2014 it was reported that Al-Mansour was to direct A Storm in the Stars, an upcoming romantic drama film about the early life of writer Mary Shelley. The film was later retitled Mary Shelley and premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. Al-Mansour next film was Nappily Ever After, a Netflix adaptation of the book of the same name by Trisha R. Thomas. In April of 2020 it was announced that she would direct another Netflix film The Selection, based on the first entry in Kiera Cass’ popular book series.

The film stars Mila Al Zahrani, Dae Al Hilali, Nora Al Awad, Khalid Abdulraheem, Shafi Alharthy, Tareq Al Khaldi, and Khadeeja Mua'th. Al Zahrani as the protagonist gives a great performance. She's uncompromising and compassionate depending on what the situation calls for.

In presenting political agenda whilst focusing on her character, Al-Mansour has created a 'perfect' little film that just happens to be set against an imperfect and deeply misogynistic society.

Simon says The Perfect Candidate receives:

NZIFF Film Review: "Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band" (2019).


From executive producers Martin Scorsese, Brian Grazer and Ron Howard comes Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band. This Canadian documentary film, directed by Daniel Roher and based in part on Robertson's 2017 memoir Testimony. The film is a confessional, cautionary, and occasionally humorous tale of Robertson's young life and the creation of one of the most enduring groups in the history of popular music, The Band.

Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm would go on to form the roots rock group, The Band. Between 1958 and 1963, they originally formed as The Hawks, a backing band for rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins. In 1964, they separated from Hawkins, after which they toured and released a few singles as Levon and the Hawks and the Canadian Squires. In the mid-1960s they gained recognition backing Bob Dylan, and the 1966 tour was notable as Dylan’s first with an electric band. After leaving Dylan and changing their name to the Band, and with help from Dylan and his manager, they moved to Saugerties, New York and released several albums to critical and popular acclaim. Their influence on several generations of musicians has been substantial. Dylan continued to collaborate with the Band over the course of their career, including a joint 1974 tour. In 1976, the original configuration of The Band ended its touring career with an elaborate performance at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, California, that featured numerous musical celebrities of the era. This performance was filmed for Scorsese's 1978 documentary The Last Waltz. Although the members of the group intended to continue working on studio projects, they drifted apart after the release of Islands in March 1977. The Band resumed touring in 1983 without Robertson, who had found success with a solo career and as a Hollywood music producer. As a result of their diminished popularity, they performed in theaters and clubs as headliners and took support slots in larger venues for onetime peers such as the Grateful Dead and Crosby, Stills and Nash. Following a 1986 concert, Manuel committed suicide in his hotel room. The remaining three members continued to tour and record albums with a succession of musicians filling Manuel's and Robertson's roles. The final configuration of the group included Richard Bell, Randy Ciarlante, and Jim Weider. In 1999, Danko died of heart failure, after which the group broke up for good. In 1998, Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer and was unable to sing for several years but he eventually regained the use of his voice. He continued to perform and released several albums until he died in 2012.

The great thing about Once Were Brothers is that the documentary enables a new-found respect and regard for an incredibly energetic and creative band that recognize their strength as the sum of their talented parts. Conveying information and insight without artifice, the film uses every frame to wittily and touchingly convey a story that had yet to be properly told -- about a band and their tumultuous journey.

Simon says Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band receives:



Also, see my NZIFF review for The Last Wave.

Sunday, 2 August 2020

NZIFF Classic Film Review: "The Last Wave" (1977).


"Hasn't the weather been strange... Could it be a warning? From the makers of 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' comes another terrifying and disturbing story" comes The Last Wave. This Australian mystery drama film directed by Peter Weir and written by Weir, Tony Morphett and Petru Popescu. A lawyer whose seemingly normal life is turned upside-down when he takes on a murder case and discovers that he shares a strange and unexplained mystical connection to the Australian aboriginals.

In an interview on the Criterion Collection DVD release, Weir explained that the film explores the question, "What if someone with a very pragmatic approach to life experienced a premonition?" By late February 1977, Richard Chamberlain, Olivia Hamnett, David Gulpilil, Fred Parslow, Vivean Gray, Peter Carroll, Wallas Eaton and Nandjiwarra Amagula were cast. Prior to Chamberlain's casting, two Australian actors were considered. One was rejected and the other wasn't available. A short-list was made of six actors who had international recognition. Chamberlain was sent the script which he thought interesting but was at first cautious about making a film in a foreign country and with a director he was unfamiliar with. Peter Weir visited Chamberlain at the Broadway Theatre where he was starring in Night of the Iguana and the two clicked. Chamberlain was then screened Weir's previous film Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) where the film had yet to be shown at all in the USA. Chamberlain liked this film and at some time soon after this, Chamberlain was signed. Weir asked Gulpilil and Amagula about the script and incorporated their reactions to the finished dialogue. At the same time, principal photography commenced and took place in Sydney and Adelaide. During filming, Sydney experienced harsh weather conditions with constant heavy rain. The production then moved to Adelaide which doubled for Sydney. Ironically, the weather in Sydney had to be recreated in Adelaide, which was sunny and pleasant during filming. The dark and black, stormy and rainy weather conditions were created by using wind machines and gigantic hoses, the latter being operated from a number of fire engines. Finance was provided by the Australian Film Commission ($120,000), the South Australian Film Corporation ($120,000), Janus Films (US$50,000) and United Artists ($350,000). Reportedly, producers Hal McElroy and Jim McElroy mortgaged their homes and their business interests in Picnic at Hanging Rock so this picture could maintain its cash flow and continue production.

The film stars Chamberlain, Hamnett, Gulpilil, Parslow, Gray, Carroll, Eaton and Amagula. Skilfully enigmatic, reserved and raw performances were given by the cast, especially by Chamberlain, Gulpilil and Amagula.

Technically well shot and edited, as well as carefully paced, Weir's The Last Wave has a dreamlike quality that sets it apart even among his fellow Australian New Wavers. The film's slow pacing can detract from and defuse what is in other respects, one of the more interesting screen imaginations at work today. However, the film works at various levels and certainly sparks discussion, as people attempt to figure out what they've just seen.

Simon says The Last Wave receives:



Also, see my NZIFF review for Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist.

NZIFF Film Review: "Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist" (2019).


From the director of Memory: The Origins of Alien comes Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The ExorcistThis documentary film directed by Alexandre O. Philippe. The film is a lyrical and spiritual cinematic essay on The Exorcist, it explores the uncharted depths of William Friedkin’s mind’s eye, the nuances of his filmmaking process, and the mysteries of faith and fate that have shaped his life and filmography.

On December 26, 1973, the supernatural horror film was unleashed to audiences and went on to gross $441.3 million (adjusted for inflation). The film was directed by Friedkin and produced and adapted by William Peter Blatty, based on his 1971 novel of the same name. The film stars Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran (in his final film role), Jason Miller, and Linda Blair. The film follows the demonic possession of a twelve-year-old girl and her mother's attempt to rescue her through an exorcism conducted by two priests. Although the book had been a bestseller, Blatty, his choice for director, had difficulty casting the film. After turning down, or being turned down, by major stars of the era, they cast in the lead roles the relatively little-known Burstyn, the unknown Blair, and Miller, the author of a hit play who had never acted in movies before, casting choices that were vigorously opposed by Warner Bros. executives. Principal photography was also difficult. Most of the set burned down, and Blair and Burstyn suffered long-term injuries in accidents. Ultimately the film took twice as long to shoot as scheduled and cost more than twice its initial budget. The film was released in twenty-four theaters throughout the United States and Canada. Audiences flocked to it. Some viewers had adverse physical reactions, often fainting or vomiting. There were reports of heart attacks and miscarriages; a psychiatric journal carried a paper on "cinematic neurosis" triggered by the film. Many children were taken to see the film, leading to charges that the MPAA ratings board had accommodated Warner Bros. by giving the film an R-rating instead of the X they thought it deserved in order to ensure its commercial success. The cultural conversation around the film, which also encompassed its treatment of Roman Catholicism, helped it become the first horror film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, one of ten Academy Awards it was nominated for, winning for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound Mixing. The Exorcist has had a significant influence on popular culture and has received critical acclaim, with several publications having regarded it as one of the greatest horror films of all time. In 2010, the Library of Congress selected the film to be preserved as part of its National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

Amid the steady outpouring of Exorcistmania, the 105-minute-long Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist may be the least exotic, but it still gives any Exorcist fan a heady share of morsels to chew on.

Simon says Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist receives:



Also, see my NZIFF review for While at War (Mientras dure la guerra).

NZIFF Film Review: "While at War" ("Mientras dure la guerra") (2019).


"Sometimes silence is the worst lie" in While at War (Mientras dure la guerra). This Spanish historical drama film directed by Alejandro Amenábar and co-written by Amenábar and
Alejandro Hernández. Set in the first months of the Spanish Civil War, this riveting and timely chamber drama tracks the country’s slide into nearly four decades of fascism under dictator Francisco Franco.

By late May 2018, Karra Elejalde, Eduard Fernández, Santi Prego, Nathalie Poza, Luis Bermejo, Mireia Rey, Tito Valverde, Luis Callejo, Pep Tosar, and Miquel García Borda were cast. At the same, principal photography commenced and took place in Castilla y León, Biscay and Madrid, Spain. An important part of the movie is set in the town of Salamanca, being the Main or Major Square (Plaza Mayor) widely relevant. It was actually shot in that very square, although the vegetation shown had to be added as in the moment of shooting the square had none. On September 6, 2019, the film had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. The Plataforma Patriótica Millán-Astray, an organization of veterans of the Spanish Legion, accused the script writers of plagiarism of the 1941 work Unamuno's Last Lecture by Luis Portillo, a text the organization claims is defamatory towards José Millán-Astray, founder of the Spanish Legion. The accusation was based on the content of the official trailers. The organization demanded the public funds received for the making of the film be returned.

The film stars Elejalde, Fernández, Prego, Poza, Bermejo, Rey, Valverde, Callejo, Tosar, and Borda. The acting in the film is superb, especially by Elejalde, who richly deserved the notoriety that he has received.

A humourless historical political drama that fascinates with its intelligence and its abhorrence of the birth of Spanish nationalist culture. The film is intelligent, stirring and, as the cultural devastation wrought by political zealots plays out on screen, heartbreaking. Ambitious, sprawling and melodramatic, this historical political drama lacks subtlety and struggles to provide much charm - ultimately dissolving into a rather obvious morality tale about the rise of Spanish nationalism. The film could have been a powerfully subversive political film, but while it does have its moments it never truly lives up to its ambitious potential. Amenábar creates a palpable sense of place and never strays too far from his duty to stage big, sense-filling set pieces. Well researched, and anchored by Elejalde's impressive lead performance, this is a fascinating film that avoids the Hollywood route. A contentious piece of history in which we see how the most primitive aspects of fundamental religious beliefs drove public life and generated hatreds. Although the film's history is spotty, its dialogue is sometimes clunky, and time frames are telescoped, its overall impact packs a powerful punch. An interesting but often frustrating effort by the director of The Sea Inside, who proves that ambition and talent aren't enough to ensure a compelling drama. It's still more than watchable thanks to the ministrations of talented Spanish director Amenábar, but the politics seem to have brought out the stiff, declamatory earnestness in everyone.

Simon says While at War (Mientras dure la guerra) receives:



Also, see my NZIFF review for Kubrick by Kubrick.

NZIFF Film Review: "Kubrick by Kubrick" (2020).


From the director of Monsieur de Funès and Racing Through Life: Toulouse-Lautrec, and based on Michel Ciment's interviews comes Kubrick by Kubrick. This documentary film directed by Gregory Monro. The film is a rare and transcendent journey into the life and films of the legendary Stanley Kubrick like we've never seen before, featuring a treasure trove of unearthed interview recordings from the master himself.

"A film is - or should be - more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what's behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later." These are the words of a photographer, a filmmaker and an artist. On July 26, 1928, the renowned American filmmaker and photographer was born, and has been frequently cited as one of the most influential filmmakers in cinematic history. Born and raised in the Bronx, New York City, he attended William Howard Taft High School from 1941 to 1945. He received average grades, but displayed a keen interest in literature, photography, and film from a young age, and taught himself all aspects of film production and directing after graduating from high school. From the late 1940s to the early 1950s, he worked as a photographer for Look Magazine. Afterwards, he began making short and feature films on shoestring budgets, such as Day of the Fight (1951), Flying Padre (1951), Fear and Desire (1953), The Seafarers (1953) and Killer's Kiss (1955), and made his first major Hollywood film, The Killing (1956). This was followed by Paths of Glory (1957) and Spartacus (1960). In 1961, after creative differences arising from his work with Kirk Douglas and the film studios, a dislike of the Hollywood industry, and a growing concern about crime in America prompted Kubrick to move to the United Kingdom, where he spent most of the remainder of his life and career. His home at Childwickbury Manor in Hertfordshire became his workplace, where he did his writing, research, editing, and management of production details on top of his personal home with his wife Christiane and their three children, Katharina, Anya and Vivian. This allowed him to have almost complete artistic control over his films, but with the rare advantage of having financial support from major Hollywood studios. His latter productions in Britain consisted of Lolita (1962), Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Barry Lyndon (1975), The Shining (1980), Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Though mostly adaptations of novels or short stories, his cinematic body of work cover a wide range of genres, and are noted for their realism, dark humour, unique cinematography, extensive set designs, and evocative use of music. A demanding perfectionist, Kubrick assumed control over most aspects of the filmmaking process, from direction and writing to editing, and took painstaking care with researching his films and staging scenes, working in close coordination with his actors and other collaborators. He often asked for several dozen retakes of the same shot in a movie, which resulted in many conflicts with his casts. Despite the resulting notoriety among actors, many of Kubrick's films broke new ground in cinematography. The scientific realism and innovative special effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey were without precedent in the history of cinema, and the film earned him his only personal Oscar, for Best Visual Effects. The film is regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. For Barry Lyndon, Kubrick obtained lenses developed by Zeiss for NASA, to film scenes under natural candlelight. With The Shining, he became one of the first directors to make use of a Steadicam for stabilized and fluid tracking shots. While many of Kubrick's films were controversial and initially received mixed reviews upon release—particularly A Clockwork Orange, which Kubrick pulled from circulation in the UK following a mass media frenzy—most were nominated for Oscars, Golden Globes, or BAFTA Awards, and underwent critical reevaluations. On March 7, 1999, at the age of seventy and shortly after the completion of his last film Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick died.

The real reason to watch it is to observe a filmmaker examining one of the most popular and one of the most enigmatic filmmakers of all time, and to see what he's learned in the intervening years between Kubrick and Ciment. Notable French critic and author, Michel Ciment, is in a fine position to have the inside skinnny on the enigmatic director. Monro alternates theory with production specifics to give a fully rounded and fleshed-out account of the singular achievements that is Kubrick's filmography. Not influenced by ego or career, Kubrick is sincere and matter of fact as he gives the definitive oral history of his entire body of work. While some of the stories have been told elsewhere from other people, you get the feeling here that Kubrick's truly an open book and relishing the opportunity to dig into his work between 1975 and 1987. Insightful, thought-provoking, and candid in a matter that's befitting of Kubrick's own enigmatic personality, the film is a must-see for anyone who loves Kubrick. Monro gives us a Kubrick master class on the creative process of film and a set of expertly told stories that thrill and inform. It just doesn't get better than this. Not lacking any presentational flash whatsoever, the film also proves the show-stopping power of a transfixing interview subject. These are not astonishing anecdotes, but they are, by and large, entertaining ones: Kubrick is as deft a storyteller on record as he is behind the camera. Monro believes that the only thing more fascinating than a Stanley Kubrick film is Stanley Kubrick himself and the legendary filmmaker is a great documentary. The legendary filmmaker remains an articulate and forceful presence on record, refreshingly unburdened by modesty and clearly keen to display his highbrow cultural smarts. While hardcore fans of the auteur will be au fait with pretty much all the topics on the discussion here, the film is still a riveting masterclass from a great filmmaker.

Simon says Kubrick by Kubrick receives:



Also, see my NZIFF review for State Funeral.

NZIFF Film Review: "State Funeral" ("Прощание со Сталиным") (2019).


From the director of Donbass (Донбас) comes State Funeral (Прощание со Сталиным). This Russian documentary film directed by Sergei Loznitsa. This Unique, mostly unseen before, archive footage from March 1953, presents the funeral of Joseph Stalin as the culmination of the dictator's personality cult. The news of Stalin's death on March 5, 1953, shocked the entire Soviet Union. The burial ceremony was attended by tens of thousands of mourners. We observe every stage of the funeral spectacle, described by Pravda newspaper, as the Great Farewell, and receive an unprecedented access to the dramatic and absurd experience of life and death under Stalin's reign. The film addresses the issue of Stalin's personality cult as a form of terror-induced delusion. It gives an insight into the nature of the regime and its legacy, still haunting the contemporary world.

In early March 1953, after three decades of tyranny and terror, Stalin's staff found him semi-conscious on the bedroom floor of his Volynskoe dacha. He had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. He was moved onto a couch and remained there for three days. On March 5, 1953, Stalin died. An autopsy revealed that he had died of a cerebral hemorrhage and that he also suffered from severe damage to his cerebral arteries due to atherosclerosis. It was rumoured that Stalin was murdered. On March 6, Stalin's death was announced. The body was embalmed, and then placed on display in Moscow's House of Unions for three days. Crowds were such that a crush killed around a hundred people. On March 9, the funeral culminated in the body being laid to rest in Lenin's Mausoleum in Red Square; hundreds of thousands attended. That month featured a surge in arrests for "anti-Soviet agitation" as those celebrating Stalin's death came to police attention. The Chinese government instituted a period of official mourning for Stalin's death.

The film is relatively silent - there is no added commentary, no titles, no extra sound - capturing an emotional detachment that is hard to shake, all the more so because of its prevalence. It is precisely the director's economy and calm before this loaded historical subject that makes Austerlitz all the more powerful. The film's visual and spatial incongruities impose tacit condemnation-a kind of guilt-by-participation determination-but, more plaintively, the contrasts allow for a sustained contemplation of the elegiac, of memorialization. Exhibiting a simplicity and intellectual acuity that is far too rare in the field of documentary, Loznitsa has created a film whose cumulative impact will stay with you long after you watch it. Prepare to draw plenty of conclusions about and insights into human nature from their ordinary exploits, including many that you won't expect. What one collects by the end is a rounded portrait of humanity, and, somehow, one of hope, despite the ghastliness of the controversial ideology and the need to revisit them. The present-day worth of preserved Soviet relics is tacitly addressed in Sergei Loznitsa's brilliant observational doc. While the film explores an important thesis, its presentation is all but enticing.

Simon says State Funeral (Прощание со Сталиным) receives:



Also, see my reviews for Donbass (Донбас) and Ema.

NZIFF Film Review: "Ema" (2019).


From the director of Jackie comes Ema. This Chilean drama film directed by Pablo Larraín, and written by Guillermo Calderón and Alejandro Moreno. The film centres on a couple who deal with the aftermath of an adoption that goes awry as their household falls apart.

By August 2018, Mariana di Girolamo, Gael García Bernal, Santiago Cabrera, and Catalina Saavedra were cast in a film with Larraín as director. In preparation for the role, di Girolamo took dancing lessons. She also went to ballet and pilates classes to improve her posture and make her look like a professional dancer. At the same time, principal photography commenced and took place throughout Valparaíso, Región de Valparaíso, Chile.

The film stars di Girolamo, Bernal, Cabrera, and Saavedra. The performances are ones that don't quite transcend. I never felt like I was watching them become their characters, but more of they just played their characters, but they were still stirring in their own right. Di Girolamo gave a virtuoso performance as Ema, capturing her breathy feminine tones and the fashion-plate image that hides inner devastation, hinting at a contained breakdown in the privacy of her own empty household.

A uniquely constructed psychological character study, Chilean director Pablo Larrain tackles it all with unconventional aesthetics and non-sequential editing. A complex portrait of a personality drowning in personal turmoil can be very speculative. The portrait that Chilean director Pablo Larraín painted with Ema has so much color and life and emotion that it may be one of the intriguing dramas ever committed to film. The film has a note worthy performance from di Girolamo and a truly unconventional score but it's a series of well done events that doesn't form a cohesive whole. It's enlightening and insightful, using unusually creative filming, to experience Ema's life and perspective firsthand. While many small details are profoundly beautiful, Larraín's attempt feels weighed down by self-importance, as if history were a wet blanket of one's own making that is ultimately inescapable. Although the film suffers from complacency, it is still a visual spectacle, full of emotions, great performances, an impressive production design and above all, much intimacy within the pain. And yet, for every element in the film that's obvious and overplayed, there are stray, marginal details that manage to resonate, moments during which the pretense falls away and its amorphous stew of ideas finally coalesce. The film is a self-serious affair, and despite its dedication to getting under the skin of its titular character, it remains largely on the surface of things - glossy, sleek, and to a certain extent oddly detached. Larraín's drama is soaked in atmosphere, bleeding emotion, life, death, happiness, sadness and anxiety. It's easy to recognize some of the shared elements between Ema and Jackie. But it's still striking to see Larraín tackle such quintessentially Chilean material and managing to hit the mark so cleanly once again. Not your typical biopic, the film is an extraordinary exploration of a complex woman navigating her loss.

Simon says Ema receives:



Also, see my review for Jackie.