Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Case for Film Fest 2017

Blogging doesn’t really seem to be a thing any more, and I have been extremely slack in my movie reviews for a long time – which is actually something I will probably regret as blogging the reviews was a great way to keep a track of what I saw and whether or not I thought it was worthwhile seeing again.

But I will see how I cope with those regrets.  For now though, and after a few people asked me about my picks for the 2017 International Film Festival, I thought I would at least make the effort to record and review what I end up going to see from all the many wonderful options on offer.

My Filmfest kicked off with an incredibly strange pick: the Love Witch is a love letter to 1960s sexploitation movies, with terrible green screen, hyper intense colours and deliberately terrible framing and obvious changes to film stock (though it was probably all shot digitally). 

The film also has terrible plotting and was insanely slow, with random scenes that were obviously shot with incredible love and dedication but were just a little dull when dragged out to over 10 minutes long.

There are some utterly hilarious scenes though, the sexism and morals of the era coming through even in the supposed liberal intent of the movie,  The Love Witch herself, the embodiment of female power and psychopathy in this movie, has a nefarious plan that seems to have come (in the line I found the most hilarious in the film) from her brain washing by the patriarchy – she will find a man and make him love her and will become more devoted and loving and be completely his for eternity.  This of course contrasts starkly (and murderously) with her intended suitors, as men of course want it all at the beginning but can find utter devotion after the initial romance a bit suffocating.  This is all expressed (and juxtaposed) in a fantastic inner monologue sequence in one of the strangest scenes, and some sort of medieval fair that magically appeared in the forest… much as they would in real films from the 60s.

There are the odd modern touches in between the fabulous 60s fashions: a couple of vehicles are definitely from the 2010s, a beautiful policewoman has a very contemporary uniform on, and the use of a mobile phones all ground the film making in modern days.  But overall, the reverence for the source material and era is total, and the film is the stronger for it.

While I wasn’t belly laughing as much as one member of the audience who found every nod a cue to erupt, and I occasionally found myself drifting off  in slower moments (I was tired!), the movie was a lot of fun, but mainly if you appreciate the film’s influences.  Else, it’s a bit on the slow, deliberately patronising side, and while there is a lot of fun to be had, the film could have been a bit more tightly edited, though that too may have been a deliberate homage to the 1960s inspirations.

Verdict: The Love Witch was a crazy and mad way to start the film.  Made with amazing love, and occasionally hilarious, the joke is perhaps a bit too long and drawn out.  6 hearts out of 10.

The next film on my list did not have that excuse: Call Me By Your Name (not the Japanese animated film, Your Name, which is incredible by the way) is a slow coming of age exploration, with an emphasis on slow.

Set in Italy, the lead actor, Timothee Chalamet, plays Elio, a character its easy to identify with: the only son of wealthy educated parents who own a large villa with servants, and a 17 year old who not only happens to be a musical prodigy but also speaks English, French and Italian fluently (yes, I was jealous) and who is popular with the locals… yeah, I am being a bit sarcastic here as the actor is incredibly talented, the character he plays is just a bit of a d!ck.

Which is unfortunate, as the film follows him around a lot – lazing in the hot summer sun and being a mopey teenager until (and actually quite a lot of time while) a American student, Oliver, played by the insanely handsome Arnie Hammer, shows up to study with Emilio’s father and unleashes feelings within the young man that conflict and torture and yadda yadda him.

If I sound a bit dismissive about all this, it’s not that the emotions aren’t “real”, but just that all the situations are fairly contrived: the parents instantly know their 17 year old is in lust with a 30-odd year old man and seem to be actively rooting for the relationship even before the two men realise there is something there; trips away and around are likewise set ups rather than organic feeling events, random characters are introduced and scenes occur for singular plot purposes only (what was with the “regular nosebleeds” that literally happened once and that was it?) and a rather powerful (and a little ambiguous) speech from Emilio’s father is long, very scripted, and completely out of character with the rest of the film.

There are a lot of good scenes and the actors are all amazing, and the scenery, food, and Italian towns and countryside are all gorgeous and enviable, especially on a cold Wellington winter’s day, but overall I felt the film was overlong, not particularly romantic (as talented as the leads are, there was very little chemistry between them) and relied on the setting rather than the story to lure people in.  Still, while no one clapped at the end (thank heaven), people seemed to enjoy it, and there were definitely good aspects of the film.  But Your Name or Under the Tuscan Sun (ah, Diane Lane!) this is not…

Verdict: Call Me By Your Name has so many great elements working for it, it’s a shame the overall film is a bit dull.  While the main character is fine, he is not the easiest to relate to, making it harder to fully engage with the film, and the duration works against it.  5 days in Tuscany out of 10.

Third on the list was The Farthest, the movie I was anticipating most from this year’s selection, and, as a documentary based on the trip and discoveries of the two Voyager space probes, it did not disappoint.  The movie was shown on the main screen of the Embassy Cinema to a sold out audience, and the size of the projection and the crowd was amazing.  There was silence as the story of the craft was explained by some incredibly engaging talking heads, some surprisingly emotional, and then when they described and showed the discoveries, all projected in huge, colourful images on the screen, you could feel the excitement and the joy.  Music from the era of the launch and a “making of” on the gold disc that was sent out amongst the stars on the vehicle blared loudly (sometimes a little too loudly) for good and ill, but the most touching tales were those of the greetings from Earth, simple messages describing hope and friendship.

And of course, there was Carl Sagan.  As the superstar astronomer of the 20th Century, and someone I have come to respect and admire more and more, he was hovering in the background, and while his emotional look back on the Earth from Voyager 1 just before it turned off its cameras was still incredibly moving, the movie made the Voyager craft the stars of the show.  And it did it super well.

Verdict: The Farthest is amazing, though my own personal bias and interest in the subject probably influences that opinion a lot.  And it’s a documentary.  8 galaxies out of 10.

After an hour break, it was off to Marjorie Prime, a small movie with an amazing cast.  I did not realise that Geena Davis was in this film (as she is always amazing, and was the best thing in this movie), alongside power thespians Tim Robbins, John Hamm and the always luminous Lois Smith.  Overall, the film was not what I was expecting.  I did not read the “based on a play” warning label on the description, and only afterwards did it click and the small, single room setting make sense.  It also made a bit more sense of the plot, a winding, time jumping and not altogether straight forward tale of loss and dealing with grief.  The performances are all excellent, but the ties that bind the scene and the people, and the overall thrust of the story (I am sure it was about the malleability of memory, but not quite sure what) were all fairly obscure.

The pace also lacked a little, and it was not helped by a small preceding feature, For the Light, which was itself very opaque and quite a lot dull – so thematically in keeping with the movie, true, but with a grating, almost bored narration from a very Kiwi accent and it rapidly outstayed it welcome.  As that started the session off in a fairly dulled mood, Marjorie Prime was not able or designed to reinvigorate the audience, so a fairly unfortunate combination there.  But Geena Davis… more please!

Verdict: A play made a movie, Marjorie Prime does not lack for star wattage but does lack for dynamism and an obvious direction.  The individual scenes are amazing, but overall… it’s a movie with something to say about memory and loss, but either I can’t remember exactly what that is, or I lost it somewhere along the way.  6 ghosts out of 10.

A little bit of a pause before my first mid-week fim, The Workshop (l’Atelier), screening in a half full (if that) large Penthouse cinema late on a cold night.  This was an utterly gripping film, despite its small scale, budget, and use of quite a few “un trained actors”.  Some local unemployed youth from a Mediterranean town devastated by the closure of the main ship building yards come together for a training session on creative writing course.  The group is diverse, and one young man in particular to have a fairly morbid and right wing outlook that brings him into clashes with his classmates and with his intrigued teacher. 

The film touches on so many things: multiculturalism in France, the impact of terrorism in France on everyday life and perspectives, the use of social media and what it reveals about people, the disenfranchisement of some of today’s youth, the legacy impacts of the changes in local economies… and when I put it like that, it seems perhaps too heavy and weighty a film, but its really not: these are all just background to the “reality” that these people find themselves in.  The south of France looks warm and inviting, though there is the underlying sadness of the way things used to be and the use of a couple of clips from archival documentary footage explains and illuminates how things used to be.

Suffice to say tensions mount as people clash, even as the scale remains small and low-stakes.  I was intrigued throughout, even if on occasion I thought there were times the movie could have been shortened a bit from the 2 hour run time.  Definitely a highlight.

Verdict: the Workshop seemed a very topical movie covering a lot of ground in very intelligent and insightful ways.  While never condoning racism, it explores why there are people who do feel disassociated from today’s society and isolation even in the age of social media.  8 ships out of 10.

Next was another mid week late night screening of Portuguese thriller, the Ornithologist.  I had totally forgot the premise of the film before I went in to the packed and cosy Embassy Deluxe screening room, and so it took me a little while to orient myself, especially as the first 10 minutes are fairly relaxed shots of Fernando watching birds., 

After an accident, we changed to the perspective of two Chinese tourists, lost in the wilderness and on a pilgrimage in Spain – so being in Portugal comes to them as quite a shock.  They come across Fernando and while things seem okay to start off with, the next morning, everything goes awry – and it just gets more crazy from there.

About two-thirds of the way through, my expectations changed from thriller to Lynchian, a change of perspective that made it much easier to deal with the increasingly bizarre situations.  It also helped me enjoy it more, though at the same time, made the film suffer in the comparison: David Lynch films like Mulholland Drive may not make a huge amount of sense overall, but there are scenes of such beauty and exquisite execution that the parts seem occasionally greater than the sum of the whole.  The Ornithologist did not have those kind of stand out moments – a smaller budget and cast and lack of dialogue probably didn’t help.  Neither did a screeching sound track that definitely disoriented but pushed me out of the film rather than (as in a Lynch film) lulling you in and trying to make you feel a part of the film’s world. 

Verdict: The Ornithologist claims to be an erotic thriller swimming in symbolism – which it is in a very Lynch-lite way.  The lack of dialogue and infuriating use of a mobile phone (if you can receive texts, you can send them!  You don’t need to call!) mean that the film relies on visuals and happenstance to propel the plot and set the scene, which are not terribly memorable or imaginative, and do not always work.  A good edit or two could have helped as well.  6 birds out of 10.

It was a fairly dark and stormy Sunday afternoon when I headed out to the Roxy in Miramar to catch the only film I was seeing on my lonesome, Gabriel and the Mountain.  This was a real life travel journey, recounting the life of a Brazilian man Gabriel and the final 70 days of his round the world adventure, focussing on his time in central Africa. 

From the get go, you know this is a tragic tale: the film starts with the discovery of his body.  It then rewinds back to his time in Kenya, and from there, we see the adventures and experiences that shaped his final months, with the people who actually interacted with Gabriel playing themselves, and summarising their impressions of him from their brief encounters.

The overall picture is one of an easy going but determined character, one who liked to push himself and take chances, a recklessness that ultimately led to him ending up lost and dying from exposure.  He and his girlfriend, who joins him for most of the journey, fight and make up, and there are also interviews with people who didn’t like him very much either.  The balance between showing his bright side and his dark side is really well handled, meaning that the character / person is very sympathetic, despite at times being a total d!ck.

The Brazilian leads are both outstanding, while the locals aren’t professionals but are totally authentic, and the Massai people are absolutely stunning and have unfortunately little screen time.  At two hours though, the film does seem a bit drawn out, despite the fantastic scenery.  Still, I was entertained and engrossed throughout.  Even though Gabriel’s end was increasingly more likely after a series of poor choices and decisions on his part, it was touching to see the effect he had on the lives of those around him.

Verdict: Gabriel and the Mountain tells the tale of a real life guy, brimming with life and energy and overconfidence, whose hubris leads to his early demise.  But seeing his adventures through several African nations was an incredible end enviable journey, as without Gabriel’s laid back and extroverted personality, I could never undertake such a fascinating trip myself.  7 visas out of 10.

Another full session at one of the Embassy’s mini cinemas, and it was time to see Beach Rats, another coming of age drama about a young gay man, though this one was set not in Italy but in the suburbs of New York, where men are tough and awakening does not come in the form or an amiable Arnie Hammer but instead takes place online through gay hook up sites.  The extreme close up shots of almost scene add to the sense of unease and disturbance, as the young protagonist hangs out every day with his thuggish friends then goes out for random hook-ups late at night.  Life is hard, with a sick father and an attempt at staying macho with his mates by hooking up with a beautiful woman, but the lead character (can’t recall his name) is not particularly bright, and in the end, the worlds collide and collapse, the film ending on a very open note with the protagonist’s future unclear. 

Even taking the extreme close ups into consideration, the film is quite an uncomfortable watch, the actors not really talking a lot, the intercourse loud and grunting in dark and uninviting locales, the family home small and claustrophobic.  It is well done, and the acting seems raw and unpolished in a way that adds authenticity rather than distracting from the plot – not that there is much of that, which also probably helps. 

Verdict: a bleak take on modern youth from an American perspective: Beach Rats shows an aimless life filled with drugs and parties and stifling hetero-normality.  I was surprised by the lack of the impact of social media on the movie, even though many selfies are taken for what I presume are publicity purposes, but mostly the film does not offer insights, just events, and leaves it up to the audience to make its own conclusions.  6

The final film of this year’s festival for me was The Young Karl Marx, the film screening in the Paramount, where my 2017 film festival experience began.  The subject matter appealed to my inner commie, and the practically full session indicated there were many people keen to have an insight into Marx’s early life, though I didn’t see anyone wearing a scarf or clothed in red. 

The film itself got off  to a slow start and I have to admit, as I was a  bit tired, my attention wandered a little bit.  The trans-national nature of the movie, with German, French and English all liberally used, meant there were frequent but not continuous subtitles, and it was fascinating to see the actors switch between languages in the same conversation, even sometimes within the same sentence, even if they were only talking with one person with whom they shared a common language.

The film concentrates on the relationship of Marx and his friend and benefactor, Engels, and their interaction with the thinkers and movements of the time.  In one scene that got quite the reaction from the audience, one prominent French thinker warns Marx not to unleash a philosophy for reform that could be twisted, much like the revolution Martin Luthor created in trying to reform the Catholic Church – a nice nod to the audience aware of the oppressive forms of communism tried in the 20th Century.  But Marx mainly stays with the thinkers: his undoubted genius in his examination of the relationship between the working classes and the elites all seems to be based on his readings of others.  The film balances this out by showing Engel’s encounters with workers, but in general, the story stays focussed on the relationship between the men and with their strong, intelligent wives, though whether they were as prominent in the social activist movements as they evidently were behind the scenes may be a bit of artistic licence.

A slow, thoughtful movie, the film really comes alive (and roused me from impending slumber) when discussing the politics, opinions and potential actions of the time.  Some interactions are friendly, some quite fraught, but the concepts discussed are fascinating, even if the egos involved get bruised quite quickly. 

Less successful was the use of music, occasionally interrupting the flow during the film, and a jarring radical rock and roll song finishing up the movie seeming totally out of left field.  For a film concerned mainly about the Marx family, their poverty, joining and creating the Communist party movement and trying to get his work completed, the end of the film tries to shift gear and make it all about the poor working classes, which didn’t really work for me.  Describing the relationships between proletariat and bourgoise is one thing, but (as we all know) connecting that with real life and improving the conditions of workers is quite another.  Still, the language and concepts Marx expressed to describe those relationships was incredibly insightful and profoundly influential, and this film shows how Marx’s thinking was influenced by the social conditions and thinkers to whom he was exposed, and the impact of the incredible friendships and relationships of his closest friends and family.

Verdict: The Young Karl Marx is not the most well put together film, but the subject matter itself is fascinating.  It could probably have done with a bit of trimming and a stronger ending more tied to the man and the movie than to encompassing workers around the world, but the performances are all excellent, the historical context it provides is fascinating, and its great to see marriages and friendships that actually work and male and female relationships where the women are just as smart as the men, if perhaps less able to have that acknowledged in public.  3 stars out of 5.

 And that was it for this year!  A couple of stand outs, and a few goodies - overall then, a success!  Briliant. ::) 

Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Case for the Red White and Blue Dawn

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

The fight of the century of two of the greatest superheroes ever.

Of course, considering the power differential (Batman is a human; Superman’s powers are godlike), there was really only one outcome, and the film forces Supes to hold back to make the match anywhere near “even”.  But then, Supes really didn’t stand much of a chance anyway.

Because the film’s director, Zac Snyder, doesn’t really give Superman (played by Henry Cavill, all muscles and frowns) a hell of a lot to do. This film is nominally a Superman (and I can’t really say “Clark Kent” because there is even less of him) sequel, but the director has a lot more fun and intrigue with Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck is a great Bruce, and Jeremy Irons is all dry and cutting English vowels as Alfred Pennyworth) and then directs the Batman action scenes with style, flair and quite a few deaths.  Likewise, the few times Wonder Woman showed up (Gal Godot still seems a bit too thin for me, but she is definitely a beautiful woman), she is treated more as a James Bond femme fatale than a super hero, and when she finally lets loose in the final fight scene, she is the one smiling and taking down Doomsday, while the boys are off doing their own thing.

The story is a bit of a mess really.  While the aforementioned scenes are great, the overarching story is all over the place, with hints of future storylines (dreary and confusing if you are not fans o the DC Comics universe) and key issues like Superman’s place in the world and his motivations and the reason people might like him not really addressed at all.  The introduction of other potential Justice League members (Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg; you knew this was coming, so its not really a spoiler to say it, though I do hint at something here that may not be evident) is likewise clumsily handled, though props have to be given to those keeping tabs on them for designing logos for each of these future heroes in their mission to document their abilities.  

And then the final “how will Batman and Superman team up?” question is answered and… its really dumb.  Not that it doesn’t make sense, its just that… well, nobody would ever do what either of them did given the circumstances.  And more I can’t say because of spoilers.  But trust me: dumb.

While Batman’s mano a mano fights against baddies are totally awesome, the big fight against Doomsday is a little less successful.  Its still violent and exciting, but Doomsday’s powers of energy pulses (or whatever it is) are a bit overdone.  Doomsday’s origins though… sigh.  

Slightly more successful than I thought it would be was Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor.  Well, he is an ADHD genius with Daddy Issues and a real lack of social skills, which is not quite the Lex Luthor I was expecting.  I was thinking more a suave manipulative super genius, but Eisenberg is going for near Joker levels of ticks and mannerisms.  So, while he is utterly annoying, as a villain, it kind of worked for me.  Not that I want to see any more of that character ever again.

So, I have concentrated above on the bits that didn’t work for me, but it has to be said that during the 2.5 hour running time, the majority of the film was spent following Batman and Bruce Wayne and that actually worked really well.  The opening scenes in particular are incredibly effective, as they illustrate and crystalise Wayne’s distrust of Superman as he runs around the tumbling towers of Metropolis trying to save lives while Superman battles his fellow Kryptonians in a flashback to the final fight in Man of Steel.  And any of the scenes of Batman as “James Bond”, bringing his famous (and oft neglected) detective skills to the fore rather than using hi WayneTech gadgets, are also quite fun.

But as a coherent movie and its overall “goodness”… I am afraid I am less convinced.

Verdict:  Overall, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice had a lot of good points and was far more successful than Man of Steel.  But its still not a great movie.  Roll on the Wonder Woman movie though!  3 peach teas out of 5.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Case for Van Ladies

The Lady in the Van was always going to be a crowd pleaser, with Maggie Smith at her cantankerous old lady best as Miss Shepherd, the woman who parked her vehicle, in which she lived, in the street and refused to leave.  The well to doers of the street humour her and try to help her, but being the contrarian that she is, Margaret refuses to accept their help, insisting she is helping them should she opt to do anything they suggest.

It’s a recipe for much crowd pleasing humour, and Smith can play these kinds of characters with her eyes closed behind her back.  

Less of a known quantity is Alex Jennings playing Shepherd’s “reluctant landlord” Bennett, a playwright and humourist who is kind of torn between using the experiences of his life with Miss Shepherd (and his mother) and keeping his private life private.  Obviously, the former won in the end.

The film employs “two aspects” of Bennett: the writer and the person who interacts with his neighbours, and it’s a little odd to begin with and a little annoying at times, but it does allow Bennett to express his inner thoughts when, in the “real world” there was no one else in the house with whom he could really bounce around these ideas.

For all the humour in the situations, there is also a real sense of sadness and regret that hangs over everything, and some nastiness that really leaves a sour taste in one’s mouth.  So its not quite the non stop laugh fest it may seem from the trailers.

Still, despite the lost opportunities and misunderstandings and the events that led Miss Shepherd to a life on the street (albeit in a van in the driveway), it’s a really entertaining and (with certain caveats) enjoyable film, and not overlong either.

Verdict: The Lady in the Van is a great small, true to life (within reason) comedy drama that doesn’t demand too much from the audience but gives back quite a bit.  7 Hail Marys out of 10.