Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Mission: Impossible - Fallout: Film Review

Mission: Impossible - Fallout: Film Review

Cast: Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, Henry Cavill, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Alec Baldwin, Angela Bassett, Vanessa Kirby

Director: Christopher McQuarrie

It's already been lavished with breathless praise, and it's fair to say that the sixth Mission: Impossible film goes some way to presenting a superlative piece of action blockbuster material, thanks to some truly breath-taking action sequences and Tom Cruise's commitment to live-action stunts.
Mission: Impossible - Fallout: Film Review

But in parts, Mission: Impossible - Fallout falters with dialogue and wooden characters barking out seeming like something out of the 1970s spy genre.

Plus, one of its twists can be sign-posted a mile off, thanks to an off-the-cuff line of dialogue that anyone familiar with the genre would slap themselves if missed.

However, all of that matters little when put in the context of spectacle, masterfully orchestrated by Christopher McQuarrie, as he manipulates the pieces of the overly-familiar plot into a knotty Rubik's cube of action.

This time around, Cruise's Ethan Hunt is facing the ramifications of a decision to save one of his team members and losing three pieces of plutonium to a terrorist organisation, The Apostles. With the group looking to purge the world, Hunt faces a race against time, against his past and also against a conspiracy to save the day.
Mission: Impossible - Fallout: Film Review

It may be a none-too-original plot (terrorists want to blow up the world), but what engenders Mission: Impossible - Fallout with such blockbuster chutzpah is a sense of scale, a sense of never letting the foot off the action, and some hints into the personal world of Cruise's hitherto blank slate Hunt.

For the most part, the women in this get level-pegging, a chance to hold their own with Ferguson stepping up majorly and Kirby playing the femme fatale role in a manner reminiscent of past film noir. In truth, Cavill flounders a little preferring in parts to chew the scenery as the agent sent to keep tabs on Hunt's team, and is maybe the weaker link in the chain. Coupled with a couple of narrative issues, some wooden dialogue barked in exposition fashion, it's not quite the slam dunk at times.

However, it's the set pieces that sparkle with bravura throughout - from a bathroom fight sequence executed with bone-crunching brevity and bravura to the Queenstown-set finale in the skies, McQuarrie's made sure that the tension is there when it needs to be, and the thrilling delivers when it needs to.
Mission: Impossible - Fallout: Film Review

In truth, as ever, this is still the Tom Cruise show, and while the hints of the personal make the plot a little more engaging (any top notch spy film needs to juggle the mix of the two, leading to the inevitable final act clash), some of the characters on the peripherary don't quite get their time to shine - a shame for both Pegg and Rhames' IMF agents who get breadcrumbs of time in the limelight.

While the IMF team feels unstoppable in their sixth iteration, and perhaps going even more personal may work for any further outings with a death of one their own, lest they become ever more closer to the superheroes of the spy world, Mission: Impossible - Fallout's utter commitment to scene-dazzling shenanigans and spectacle can't be denied.

Easily the best action film of the year, Mission: Impossible - Fallout offers a thrilling and occasionally emotionally grounded alternative to other blockbusters' flights of fancy.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to head to the cinema to see this. In truth, it's potentially one of the easiest decisions you're likely to make - and as long as future installments look to fix some of the narrative niggles presented here, the Mission: Impossible series will likely be in rude health for years to come.

Little Woods: NZIFF Review

Little Woods: NZIFF Review

The one last job before I retire trope is as old as the hills themselves, but what director Nia DaCosta and actress Tessa Thompson bring to the hoary cliche is a degree of humanity and empathy in Little Woods.

Thompson is Ollie, a one time opioid dealer to the North Dakota fracking workers. Caught after a border run went wrong and under probation with just 10 days to go, Ollie finds herself facing desperate measures and multiple financial hardships.

But when her struggling adopted sister and solo mother Deb (Lily James) finds she's about to give birth again and needs a place to live, the clock's ticking to get together $3,000 cash to ensure their house isn't foreclosed on.
Little Woods: NZIFF Review

So, despite wanting a clean break, Ollie is forced back into the one thing she knows well, but doesn't want to do.

As mentioned, the plot isn't exactly original, but what DaCosta and Thompson - and to a large degree, James - bring to the table is a female perspective on middle America, the struggles of those under pressure, and the face of the Opioid crisis.

This is no Breaking Bad though, with Thompson providing subtle contrasts in her Ollie as she debates the morals of the right thing to do. It's very much a story of the times, and told in an unfussy manner, with tension being ratcheted up in a smaller, more intimate setting on the screen.

There's a great deal of empathy radiating from these characters, and while some of the dialogue doesn't feel natural, there's no denying Thompson's natural charm and appeal that she imbues Ollie with.

Refusing to give in, Ollie finds every path possible to explore, and the desperate scrabble to stay afloat has you in her camp from the get go.

The film's ambiguous end is a smart touch too - unsure of who gets a happy end, it's very much a crime tale told under a different lens - and all the better for it. Little Woods may hit a few of the cliche branches as it unspools, but with two extremely solid and plausible leads, it remains watchable from beginning to end.

Monday, 30 July 2018

And Breathe Normally: NZIFF Review

And Breathe Normally: NZIFF Review

In lieu of a Dardenne Brothers New Zealand International Film Festival flick, this year's slice of social realism comes in the shape of Iceland's And Breathe Normally.

In the desolate wastelands of Iceland, single mother Lara is struggling - opening in a supermarket, we see her worrying about groceries, yet not accepting of a stranger's offer of financial help. Given a lifeline in the shape of a border security job, Lara's first week sees her excel when she spots a dodgy passport from someone in the queue.

That passport is owned by Adja, who's quickly shipped off to a refugee centre, prone to having people removed in the middle of the night for minimum fuss.
And Breathe Normally: NZIFF Review

However, Nina's actions sees the pair reunited in the most unexpected of ways, as she plunges further into hardship.

And Breathe Normally's debut by director Ísold Uggadóttir clearly has Ken Loach style aspirations, but as Nina spirals down into a world of just getting by and then starting to flounder, it has an all-too familiar global feel, one of reality for many.

Details are teased out of Lara's issues, and while Adja's problems may be more clear cut in terms of their familiarity, it doesn't make the journey any the less predictable, and those involved wisely keep the film from lapsing into melodrama or over-egging some of the more obvious elements.

And Breathe Normally's winning points come in the forms of what it says with subtlety - it adds fuel to the fire that social welfare and help still comes with a stigma, in that Lara refuses to accept the kindness of strangers, even when it's clearly the best thing to do - and only when misdeeds and mistakes point her in that direction.

With degrees of desperation setting in in this three-hander (four, if you count the occasional appearances by Musi, a cat rescued by Lara for her son), the performances are all evenly executed and subtly interesting enough to get under your skin.

It also adds much debate - mostly familiar, it has to be said - to the refugee discussion in Adja's treatment and while some of the latter third of the film strains a degree of plausibility (most certainly, its ending), And Breathe Normally's deeply rooted and grounded execution evokes plenty of empathy from the audience.

Sunday, 29 July 2018

Interview with Debra Granik, director of Leave No Trace

Interview with Debra Granik, director of Leave No Trace

Interview with Debra Granik, director of Leave No TraceDirector Debra Granik received accolades when she launched Jennifer Lawrence into the collective consciousness with Winter's Bone.
She's now back with new film Leave No Trace, a tale of a father-daughter who live in the woods and whose co-existence is shattered when they're discovered. 
Debra was in New Zealand for the premiere of Leave No Trace, and was generous enough to spend some time discussing the film, the actors, and her desire to pursue social realism in cinema - and the problems that causes with a system that doesn't always know how to promote it.

Eight years between feature films is a long time, how does it feel to be "back" with the accolades levelled at Leave No Trace?
Debra - I did a documentary in between so I consider it more like 4 out; I was deep in trenches with filming, but I'm really pleased that people respond to Leave No Trace. It's a quiet film, but it's exciting to see that there's still some space for a quiet film and audiences respond to that, because it makes me really happy as that's the natural style that I gravitate to; I'm relieved and happy.

In the blockbuster climate we live in, and the arthouse scene being under more threat than before, is it hard to get films like this made? The landscape is starved of original content.
Right, because I labour outside of the industry, subject matters I'm interested in, and ways I like to make my film don't dovetail well with the industry model. I'm interested in working with new emerging actors and I'm interested in films out of the social realism genre, everyday life, they don't have high stakes in the traditional manner. They're high stakes to me, it's values you aspire to, it's whether you live undetected and not be detected, whether you go against the grain, whether you can pay the rent - those are high stakes to me. Those are the ingredients that make it hard for me; financiers are frequently looking for things that fit a certain rubrik or a certain set of ingredients they can count on. A certain sort of popular jolt; they may have a threat of violence, or have really narrow definition of what hetero-normative sexiness would be, they frequently rely on a very known entity, like an auction block, so they can say that Actor A is worth this much in New Zealand, Australia or Asia, Actor B can bring in this much; there's a price tag around actors' necks and how much they're worth. I was trying to get out of that human evaluation money thing; just so we can see stories like in the old realist tradition, you're picking people to represent story because you think they have some grist, some life experience, some association with it.

Talking of actors, with the leads Ben Foster, who delivers a very internalised performance and Thomasin Mckenzie, how did you nurture the two actors as a pair to form the bond we see on screen?
Yeah, they had some really good rehearsals together, and they developed their traction in their collaboration. They were both given some tools in their training, a skills trainer taught them a variety of things they could do on screen and they practised them. They made a meal together, they did a lot of things in the woods together so that they could learn to interact with things together, build a fire, cook a meal, build the feathersticks, real tasks, really make their home feel like a place they had together. Traipse in the woods, that kind of thing, do these activities that enabled them to be a pair on screen.
Interview with Debra Granik, director of Leave No Trace

I'm torn on the ending because Ben's character goes into the woods, never to be seen again and you have no idea when or whether he and his daughter will reconnect - how do you see the bittersweet ending?
Without being evasive or trying to be aloof about this, I love that I've enjoyed the conversation with audiences and me being part of it after the end. Almost half of the audiences I've seen it with think that when she puts the bag on the tree, it means that somehow he's nearby - when people recognise that bag from earlier in the film when it was left for the man in the woods.
For us, it was a simply a moment of eerie filmmaking because when Ben disappeared, we didn't use any trick photography there, he simply disappeared. He became no longer visible to our lens when we were filming that sequence; when he went off the road and walked into the scrub, we could not see him anymore - and that was only on one take; we used that take. It felt like a very serendipitous poetic thing to put in there. A very bittersweet ending, but people interpret it either way - people think they shall meet again, you know? Others think he couldn't find his way on this particular path he was on; he was seeking something he couldn't find and he knew to let her be; there is no doubt about it being bittersweet because any of those interpretations are bittersweet; it's about the divergent paths that people take when they realise that they aren't naturally wired the same and don't necessarily require the same things.

What was it you saw in Thomasin for the lead role?
I can never know that chemistry thing, I can't predict or know that but I did know that she was providing so much rich conversation when we would talk by Skype and in the improvs we did, she did some riffs on the script, and she showed initiative. And that was it; she was giving back; what she was sending back to me was incredible and I said "Wow, this is the stellar collaborator". So I didn't know; she took it on herself to be really present and provide in the way that Ben could really respond to.
Interview with Debra Granik, director of Leave No Trace

You hadn't heard of the story before, what was it that attracted you to it?
The novel was a really interesting read, the premise was really interesting as well; from the real article on. You know the fact that in Portland, a father and daughter had been found and had lived undetected successfully - that's just an interesting premise; in a municipal park, with a mid-size city nearby. I was already drawn in by just the premise. From there, I immediately said "What happens to people like that once they're discovered, can they ever return to what things they were seeking, ways of life, will they be flipped, up-ended and find it really hard to re-calibrate, would they find they can still live against the grain?"

It's interesting that these characters are not leading problematic lives in the woods; they're not harming anybody, and they are only perceived as doing so by society looking at them...
Yes, that's a very rich point; I agree with you. That's what makes the film so philosophical is because part of their story ignites or initiates a feeling of contemplation, right? Because we know anyone who wants to live on public land, they can't because the public land would fill up and people would despoil it, people wouldn't live as scrupulously or as carefully; so because there's something about their methodology that's so specific and required a discipline. It was not a willy-nilly lifestyle, but then as a social worker points out in the film, there's just this blanket law that applies to everyone supposedly. To me, it became very relentless questioning in my mind as I was writing the screenplay, it just dawned on me something which is like such a basic concept - you only get to choose your lifestyle if you've got property. You have to own something in any contemporary society in order to choose your lifestyle. Should you have a parcel of land, you can go there and put your solar receptors there, build your fire and live any way you want - that's your piece of land you supposedly own. But without that you're not entitled to leave anywhere.

Globally we're coming to a point in life where living like that should not be seen as a problem; everyone's got problems of property and land ownership - and we have a rich way of using resources which we're not exploring.
That's fascinating - I would say that was one thing that was both confusing and heartbreaking, even investigating the tiny house, the big movement in the Pacific North West. Big swathes of Americans wanting to downsize; the money they are capable of earning, the way the economy distributes them, or permits distribution - they've deemed what they can afford to live in, out of elements, with hygiene is a tiny house. Not much bigger than this interview enclosure, and the headline is 'Many people seek tiny houses, nowhere to put them'. Where are you entitled to pull up your tiny house? Living in a tiny house in a very big asphalt car park would be no-one's idea of an ongoing picnic you know? We're faced with that question that's knocking on the door of every organised society right now, which is Where are we entitled to be? All of us, every single human beings has the same set of basic needs - Food, clothing, shelter and companionship. The question is 10,000 years why is it phenomenally, that we cannot solve or facilitate how people get their basic needs. There are people saying I don't need more than my basic needs - I'm willing to do without material possessions.
Interview with Debra Granik, director of Leave No Trace

But in a weird way as well, those people aren't willing to share their possessions with other people. They're willing to downsize for themselves rather than to look to open up their land at the back of their house to let a community in, we are still quite selfish in many ways.
I don't want to overstate it, but I'd like to think those questions come up from Leave No Trace, but I can't guarantee that for any body, but I like that you're asking that; I love being in any of films, be it in my own or my colleagues or in a rich festival such as the New Zealand International Film Festival and to be asked to think, be invited to think - if any thoughts like that circulate while watching this, I'd be pleased. Especially in a film like this, when it's not a tentpole film, a bombardment of superpowers and ultra-violence.

Do you feel we're losing films like this these days in the superhero cinema world?
My goodness, of course I feel disappointed if there's no room for the smaller quieter films. If the arthouse system can kind of continue and stay robust enough that people who seek other films have a place to go. To me, it's like flexitarian - I would never want that everything in the world has to be meat and potatoes, but I love a restaurant that can offer both. I love a restaurant that can offer a whole load of vegetarian options as well as meat one; same things with blockbusters - big pieces of big raw meat, but then can also be peaceful co-existence. Co-existence, that would be my idea of a good time.
Interview with Debra Granik, director of Leave No Trace

Where do you want to go next after Leave No Trace?
That's a valid question - it's always on my mind! I'm trying to do an adaptation of a non-fiction book actually, but trying to make it into fiction. Filming it as a narrative fiction, and it's a book about surviving in the post-financial crisis economy as it collapses around workers who have been trying to eek out a living in the service industry and economy and seeing that contract quite a bit - the brick and mortars disappearing quite a bit. It's hard for people trying to earn a living to keep up with an ever-pyramiding capitalism, peaking so narrowly at the top, and losing its ability to provide work opportunities for those not at the top. This obscene flaunting of privilege of richness that became so much more acceptable in this era, it's just blustery me-ism of what this era represents. It's just deafening. I would love to try and show examples of good ole days when people wanted to be nice to each other and be in this together. I would love to think that some of us are just cultivating some stories that show this is possible.

Leave No Trace is playing at The New Zealand International Film Festival.

Apostasy: NZIFF Review

Apostasy: NZIFF Review

With its title talking of abandonment and the central setting being about a family of three women in the thrall of Jevohah's Witnesses, it's easy to see where this film is heading.

But what's different about Daniel Kokotajlo's drama is just quietly it unfolds - no remedial soundtrack outside of actuality, this Brit-set story of Alex (Molly Wright), a Jevohah who was given a blood transfusion when she was young and whose anaemia throughout her life has been problematic.

Turning 18, Alex's world changes when she finds her beliefs challenged by her older sister's romance with a college boy uninterested in their religion and by a mother (Happy Valley's Siobhan Finneran) whose unswerving devotion is at the cost of everything.
Apostasy: NZIFF Review

Without giving too much away, Apostasy's close up framing of Alex, its shots of prayers and of doubts given voice do much to take you into the largely unknown world of the Jevohah's Witnesses, and the challenges the younger elements probably face daily.

Questioning religious doctrine, and shining a light on an elusive community, it would be easy to cast judgement, but what Kokotajlo's film does, aside from pulling back the curtain on his own experiences within the church, is to provide much insight into the complexities of some religions, beliefs and doctrines that seem like madness to those on the outside.

Wisely, Kokotajlo manages to hold off from judgement, leaving the audience to make those leaps while providing reasons why things are done the way they are within - it's a sensitive approach to what could be a tricky subject, and it's carefully and deliberately executed.

Crossing the boundaries of a coming-of-age story where the children register their doubts and fight back against their parents with a sensitive tale of keeping faith when everything around you changes, Apostasy is made up of two mightily impressive performances. Firstly, Molly Wright's inwardly unsure Alex, whose close ups reveal the problems of her doubts on the doctrine; and secondly Siobahn Finneran's Ivanna, the mother whose life has been dictated to by her beliefs - there's tragedy in each of these performances, delivered with calculated precision by both actresses.

Ultimately, Apostasy, while trying not to do so, does pass judgement, but it's only through the projections of the audience - one final take-your-breath-away moment aside, the drama is internalised and viewed from external perceptions. It's a clever and fascinating way to approach a largely unknown community and its revelations and insights give light to the human struggles of faith.

The Kindergarten Teacher: NZIFF Review

The Kindergarten Teacher: NZIFF Review

Based on the film Haganenet by Nadav Lapid, Maggie Gyllenhaal stars as Lisa Spinelli, an adrift kindergarten teacher in this rather odd piece that veers creepily into territory that's unsettling.

Unhappy with her kids refusing to eat dinner as family, with one who would rather use Instagram to further her once burgeoning photo career and flailing in her poetry class, Spinelli finds her life changed one day thanks to five-year-old Joe (Parker Sevak).

Joe appears to spontaneously erupt into poetry, and Spinelli, sensing there's more here, decides to nurture him after taking one of his poems, reciting it in class and receiving accolades.

But she spirals further into pursuing his talent, what emerges is dangerously close to obsession.
The Kindergarten Teacher: NZIFF Review

The Kindergarten Teacher is an odd watch at times, with Spinelli's behaviour seeming borderline unsettling in its naivete and its execution.

And while there are definitely questions over Spinelli's actions, there are no questions over Gyllenhaal's performance as she descends. Committed, human and with subtle changes as the film goes on, Gyllenhaal imbues her character with the signs of some kind of breakdown and innate sadness.

It's hard to keep a film like this ambiguous without the audience becoming ambivalent, and while some moments border very closely to steering the film in a direction where you don't want it to go, Gyllenhaal and to a lesser extent, Sevak, manage to keep it just on the right side of uncertain.

"This world is going to erase you" is just heartbreaking to hear and when the frustration behind this is expanded further, Gyllenhaal gives Spinelli soul and a reason for her growing insanity - sadly, it's all too reflected in the modern world and in Spinelli's children.

In a weird way, The Kindergarten Teacher does feel like a psychological horror wrapped up in a drama, as the edges and lines become blurred - but as a subtle portrait of a breakdown and potentially, abuse, it perhaps works better.

Saturday, 28 July 2018

Dogman: NZIFF Review

Dogman: NZIFF Review

A brutal yet intensely intimate piece about the corruption of crime, male friendships and the pecking order of society, Matteo Garrone's thriller Dogman is about as far from the glamour of crime as you can get.

Marcello Fonte plays Marcello, a dog groomer in the middle of a seaside estate that never really came to fruition. In among the uncompleted construction and the grim vistas, Marcello's a popular man with his shopworker colleagues.

But the area has a problem in the form of towering man mountain, Simone (a hulking Edoardo Pesce), who terrorises the neighbourhood and is a volatile presence. However, Marcello, used to taming ferocious animals in his grooming parlour (as witnessed by an opening sequence where a snarling pitbull refuses his washing advances before ultimately submitting to a shampoo, followed by a blow dry of the jowls) believes Simone to be his friend. It's a relationship of subjugation and domination, that's corrosive yet compulsive for both parties.
Dogman: NZIFF Review

It's an assumption fed by Simone's cocaine habit, and Marcello's desire to feed it, despite the money for the transactions stopping long ago, and Simone's use of bullying to get what he wants.

With the neighbourhood determined to rid themselves of Simone, Marcello finds his relationship with the brute pushed into more dangerous territory than expected.

Dogman's feel is one of a simmering powderkeg, as you wait tensely for the eruptions to come.

But Garrone (Gomorrah) wisely piles the stakes high, while keeping the drama low. The explosion never comes in the way you'd expect, and yet throughout the audience spends its time willing Marcello to tear of the shackles of this oppression and strike back.

Here's the thing with Dogman though - it's all about a wry examination of relationships.
From Marcello's bond with Simone, to his loving relationship with his estranged daughter via the bonhmie dealt upon him by his fellow shopkeepers, Marcello appears to be aware of what the order of things is and also inherently what the right thing to do is.

When Simone is attacked, Marcello's instinct is to do what he can to save him, fundamentally knowing this is what is to be done, even though the right thing would be to let him die. Equally, when Simone suggests a plan that's fuelled by greed and will impact others, Marcello's reticent fearing for his friends, and also his place in that society.

Fonte imbues his scrawny and weedy Marcello with a tragic pathos throughout - as Garrone lingers on his face (a cross between Peter Lorre, Klinger from M*A*S*H and Steve Buscemi), the conflict is etched deeply within. Physicality plays a large part here from Fonte's almost weedy like posture and appearance to Pesce's towering brute, the contrast could not be more evident - likewise with outlooks.

However, what Garrone does well in Dogman, is to show a man wrestling with his place in the system, a man who shouldn't really take any more and a man whose loyalties are stretched in ways unexpected. This is the tragedy of the slow-burning piece, the price of personal corruption, and the personal cost of crime - it's a searing look where no one is perfect, nobody is innocent, and ultimately, everyone pays the price.

‘Star Wars: Episode IX’ Announces Cast - Carrie Fisher will be involved

‘Star Wars: Episode IX’ Announces Cast - Carrie Fisher will be involved

‘Star Wars: Episode IX’ Announces Cast - Carrie Fisher will be involved

The cast for ‘Star Wars: Episode IX’  has been unveiled.

And despite Carrie Fisher passing away in 2016 before work on it had been completed, director JJ Abrams has revealed she will return, with unused footage from the previous film to be used.

It's also been revealed Mark Hamill will return (despite dying apparently in The Last Jedi).

And the big news is that Lando Calrissian is back, with Billy Dee Williams returning to the role that made him famous.
‘Star Wars: Episode IX’ Announces Cast - Carrie Fisher will be involved

Also confirmed in the cast are Anthony Daniels, who  will reprise his role at C-3PO. Naomi Ackie and Richard E. Grant have also joined the cast.

Variety previously reported that Keri Russell was in talks to join the cast for “Episode IX.” Sources confirmed on Friday that Russell has just closed her deal to join the film.

“Finding a truly satisfying conclusion to the Skywalker saga without her eluded us. We were never going to recast, or use a CG character,” director J.J. Abrams said in a statement. “With the support and blessing from her daughter, Billie, we have found a way to honour Carrie’s legacy and role as Leia in Episode IX by using unseen footage we shot together in Episode VII.”
‘Star Wars: Episode IX’ Announces Cast - Carrie Fisher will be involved

Returning cast members include Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Kelly Marie Tran, Joonas Suotamo, and Billie Lourd. John Williams will return to score the film.

Star Wars: Episode IX” is set to be released December 2019.

Friday, 27 July 2018

Occupation: Film Review

Occupation: Film Review

Cast: Temuera Morrison, Dan Ewing, Stephanie Jacobsen
Director: Luke Sparke

There's a great deal of set-up present in Occupation, a B-movie film that in truth, feels more suited as a pilot for a low budget cable channel, rather than a proposed franchise.

With a sequel in the works already, this alien invasion film does little to rise above its early aspirations - the opening 15 minutes set up the protagonists in Australia who will come under attack.
Occupation: Film Review

There's the nuclear family, headed by Tem's just-out-of-prison dad (let's side step why the brown fella in the white cast had to be the former crim); there's the comeback rugby captain whose last tackle saw him in a coma; there's the just-found-out-I'm-going-to-be-a-dad jock, and a whole cast of other cliches coming together in a small Aussie town.

But when the town comes under attack, the disparate group must throw aside its problems and conflicts (for now, until the narrative demands they be rebirthed later) to face off against the aliens.

Occupation has some pretty damn impressive FX for the B-movie budget.

Certainly, the first scenes where the lights are glimpsed across the hills plays on the likes of Close Encounters before segueing into Independence Day as the attack begins.

While the invaders appear to be nothing more than a space-age version of Knights with some truly awful stock-standard alien heads beneath their masks, the film's motives for their invasion are so rote they date back to the likes of The Invaders TV show.
Occupation: Film Review

But Sparke's less interested in reinventing the wheel, preferring to set up a franchise and further the films than provide depth to the characters. In fairness, Morrison has genuine warmth as the stepdad who wants to protect his brood, but he, like the rest of the cast, can do little to lift the script from its depths.

With corny cheeseball one-liners and a feeling there's nothing new here to say (even the Aussie flag hoisted high as the one-last-desperate-push into battle takes place is more laughable than stirring), Occupation unfortunately makes little case for a film series.

Despite its high gloss FX and scope, the familiar is what drags Occupation down to ground - sure, B Movie aspirations are fine, but either fully embrace them or aim higher. Sadly, Occupation does neither of these and flounders as a result.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post: NZIFF Review

The Miseducation of Cameron Post: NZIFF Review

An impressive performance from Chloe Grace Moretz helps lift The Miseducation of Cameron Post from the middle of the road, seen-it-all-before mire it seems determined to plow.

Set in 1993, this adaptation of the 2012 novel by Emily M Danforth centres on Moretz's Cameron Post, who's discovered at prom getting hot and heavy with her girlfriend in the back seat of a car.

Shipped off to God's Promise camp, Post is subjected to attempts to steer her away from the sin of Same Sex Attraction.

Initially resistant to life within the camp, Post befriends fellow incarcerated teens Jane Fonda (American Honey's Sasha Lane) and Adam (Forrest Goodluck) as she tries to negotiate her way through.

If you want a tween version of gay conversion that dance around the big issues and is more interested in making the whole thing hip and attractive to teens, then this is for you.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post: NZIFF Review

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is very Hollywood fare, mixing in some elements of Dead Poets Society and a laissez-faire mocking of religious doctrine.

It helps little that those in charge are figures to be mocked, meaning the conflict, such as it is, never feels anything but against the fighting of the therapies.

With lines like " Cameron is already a masculine name, to abbreviate it further only exacerbates your gender confusion" delivered by camp mistress Dr Marsh (Jennifer Ehle, in severe form) and the fact the pastor is a grinning moustachioed man, the film tries little to bring subtlety to those in charge, which in turn ensures sentiment is never but in the kids' corner.

Fortunately, at the centre of all of this is easily a career best from Chloe Grace Moretz, who gives the film heart where there deserved to be none. Delivering a nuanced performance, with the empathy needed for someone in this position, and with someone searching inwardly to truly be themselves, Moretz raises Post to levels of reality that are hard to ignore.

Actually, the teens in the film are perhaps the best thing, but it's Moretz whose subtle facials and withdrawn underplaying of Post does much to increase the conflict that lies beneath the surface. There are genuinely heartbreaking moments for Post as she reflects on her life, and Moretz gives them much sincerity throughout.

While there are no "shocking" scenes as such, The Miseducation of Cameron Post never feels like a balanced film, a flat adaptation of what could be a spiky genre-defining piece.

Its simplistic approach to the situation is saved only by Moretz's life breathed into her self-questioning character - cliches abound among the compassionate touches. Perhaps it's an age thing, and this film is aimed squarely at the younger generation, destined to give them a torch heroine they may want. For those who've lived life and seen much, The Miseducation of Cameron Post feels like a squandered light attempt to breathe life into a big topic.

Sure, it's likely to offer some hope given these centres still exist, but by avoiding any real debate or discussion within the film, The Miseducation of Cameron Post feels like just another drama that barely rises above its tween intentions, and fails to escape its twee execution.

Thursday, 26 July 2018

Mandy: NZIFF Review

Mandy: NZIFF Review

Placing the psycho among the psychotropic, Panos Cosmatos' Mandy is a curious beast, likely to satiate an Incredibly Strange audience, but unlikely to burst out of its cult bubble.

Starting with Nic Cage in full lumberjack mode felling a tree (not a euphemism), Cosmatos's under siege piece takes its 80s vibe and fully runs with it.

Cage is Red, who lives with Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) in a remote cabin. Their dream existence is granted a rude awakening when the Children of the New Dawn pass Mandy on a path one day, determining that she should be with them.
Mandy: NZIFF Review

Their leader (Linus Roach, in full messianic mode) orders his followers to steal her away - needless to say Red ain't having that.

It's a case of 80s style over substance with Mandy, which is no bad thing if that's what you're looking for. Drenched in a Johann Johannsson score, the film's atmospherics hit every level they're intending to, but it's a case of genre style ahead of anything else in effect here.

Cosmatos makes his piece a masterclass in lighting, soaking many scenes in red and backlighting the fight scenes with spotlights - it's a visual lunacy that's worth embracing.

Mandy may drag a little in parts, a fever dream that's extended beyond need, but Cage's fans will be happy to see their hero, in his tighty-whiteys, doing what he does best - chewing up the scenery (and doing a large amount of cocaine at the end of one scene).

Mandy fulfills its exploitation vibe well, but beyond the deaths and gore it proffers up, it offers little more.

However, if it's perfect for the Incredibly Strange section, and will serve a Timpson-fuelled Hollywood Theatre audience expertly well.

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

The Harvesters: NZIFF Review

The Harvesters: NZIFF Review

The Cain and Abel of the bucolic world, South African drama The Harvesters gets its power more from what's not said, than what is.

Writer / director Etienne Kallos' modern day parable concerns itself with teenage Janno, who as the film starts is stalking through the fields herding cattle while his mother prays for strength for him, and for his seed.

As the farming life routines become evident, Janno's place in it all seems secure, but not fully fortified. As is his connection to the other farming boys around - he's isolated, but also part of what goes on.
The Harvesters: NZIFF Review

However, into this religiously devout family, comes Pieter, a halfway house boy with a troubled past, a sullen temperament and an innate ability to rock them to their core. Tensions arise between the mother and the father of the embattled ranch (the death of farmers all around is continually hinted at) as she wants to save him and he wants him gone.

But it's Janno for whom the bell tolls in The Harvesters, as his foundations look like they could be gradually, yet permanently, eroded.

The Harvesters is an intriguing look at trauma, the psychology of "brothers" and male role models, and the perils faced within family units.

In many ways, it feels like a horror, particularly with its very last shot, but Kallos' desire to pull away from these trappings and leave the interpretations to the viewer shows how well the whole thing is orchestrated.

Last reel reveals place earlier interactions in different defiant lights, and are unguessable early on.

Bernt Vermeulen delivers a vulnerable turn as Janno, uncertainty etched on his innocent face throughout, and a masterfully underplayed turn helps greatly.
Equally, Alex van Dyk's cold Pieter swings wonderfully between lost boy damaged in the past to master manipulator fuelled by self-survival. There's much to dissect and engage in these two leads and much to luxuriate in in Kallos' cruelly different take on the farming world.

Scathing resentments simmer all around in all the protagonists - from the damaged Pieter apparently looking for retribution to the farmer father, his family unit discombobulated by threats from all sides.

The Harvesters is psychological terror from all angles, but hidden in plain sight. It's a stark, sparing portrait of farming life in post Apartheid South Africa, and it's laden with menace. But Kallos wisely never overplays that angle, meaning The Harvesters plays first and foremost as a compelling human drama, a cautionary tale about male insecurities that's riveting from beginning to end.

The Field Guide To Evil: NZIFF Review

The Field Guide To Evil: NZIFF Review

Anthology films are always a tricky bunch.

Usually mixed in tone, and with one segment standing out above all others, the films generally suffer from indifference which mars part of the rest of the viewing experience.

Sadly, The Field Guide To Evil also falls into that category - a wild mix of tones, with some repeated undercurrent themes, and some successful, some not so successful celluloid miniatures.

It's fair to say that The Field Guide To Evil will probably hit genre fans more than the average audience, but that's not to dismiss the film's desire to explore folklore which has helped seed roots in horror throughout the years.

It's easy to pick a superlative entrant into this octet of creepy folklore tales- it would be Peter Strickland's final segment, The Cobbler's Lot, which mixes fairytale myth, silent film aesthetics, some truly wonderful imagery and colour, and elements of The Cure / Radiohead's There There for its tale about two brothers smitten by the same woman.
The Field Guide To Evil: NZIFF Review

It's a stylistically bravura end to a rollercoaster ride that does some things well, and others not as well. And it's also one that doesn't quite feel like you know what's coming next, something that hits others in the anthology.

Some of the tales end either abruptly or obtusely, with no real time to dwell on what's transpired or what it all means - though there's plenty of fodder for discussion afterwards.

Themes are interlaced throughout - with visuals like woods appearing in most, and even animals like goats appearing repeatedly. Interwoven are common themes like greed, avarice, sin, guilt, takes on post partum depression, and the supernatural. There's a lot to commend The Field Guide To Evil's scope and desire to cover the bases, but perhaps this crowd-funded flick should have settled on some and expanded them out more, chopping the chaff from the wheat.

Opener Die Trud has a totally intriguing start to proceedings, with the tale of forbidden love and consequence working well. And the segment Die Rote Maus involving a possessed creature leaving a body to kill at its host's well-being is stunningly evocative, cleverly promising more if it were to be expanded out.

Perhaps less successful is the comic Melonheads, which mixes cannabilism and coneheads to varying effect. Tonally, it stands out from the volume, but coming midway, there's an argument to say that this palette refresher has its own purpose.

Overall, the uneven edges to The Field Guide To Evil make it an anthology that promises potential and never quite manages to build on it.

That said, some of its standalone tales make a solid case for further development  - and the short storytelling element shouldn't be dismissed, with the global cast of directors doing much work with soundscapes to evoke feelings in such short spaces of time.

Midnight Oil 1984: Film Review

Midnight Oil 1984: Film Review

Director: Ray Argall

A mix of social commentary and searing concert footage, Midnight Oil 1984 captures a moment in the history of the band, and a moment in the history of the world of our Trans-Tasman cuzzies.

Midnight Oil 1984: Film Review
Lain dormant for some 30 years, the unearthed footage that makes up Argall's documentary is fascinating for those with a passing late interest in the band, and a vital one to those who were inspired by them.
It helps greatly that 1984 was a political touch paper moment for Australia, with global concerns we'd all die in a nuclear furnace enveloping all of us. Thank goodness, that will never concern us again, eh?

But Midnight Oil 1984 is an odd mix, and in some ways, it very much feels like the Peter Garrett show, as the enigmatic frontman's tilt at a Senate position and his involvement with the Nuclear Disarmament Party consumes much of the film.

Once the revelation of how that bid went is revealed, the film races towards a conclusion, feeling a tad rushed and almost dismissive of what the band did next. (Their mega-hit Beds Are Burning only appears on the credits of the film.)
Midnight Oil 1984: Film Review

It's interesting that Argall's assembled the band in separate talking heads formats, primarily appearing to be shot in either bedrooms or back yards as they reflect on how the swell of political awakening both galvanised their music but also led to fears of how the band would cope with their frontman's potential change of career, how it would affect their music etc.

It's a shame this isn't investigated further as the potential split is only hinted at, and briefly explored by conversations with guitarist Jim Moginie and drummer Rob Hirst. A deeper probing may have helped, but it's probably not what the documentary wanted to be, preferring isntead for viewers to take their own opinions on what's happened and why.

Midnight Oil 1984 firmly showcases Peter Garrett, putting him front and centre of its spotlight, whether it's footage of him meeting school kids and talking to them or dealing with press in a park at a photocall; it's clear he's got the charisma the band needed and collectively the drive they all shared.
It makes for interesting viewing - and particularly when the band discuss Garrett's infamous dancing, there's a genuine warmth and humour that envelops them all. (In truth, the film could do with a few more looser moments.)

Midnight Oil 1984: Film Review

Elsewhere the film concentrates on using footage from the band's searing performances - and it's here the cinema soundsystem will work best, channeling their electricity and crackling live gigs into something exceptional.

It's stirring, searing stuff, but it's also at odds with what Midnight Oil 1984 is trying to do.

At times, the documentary feels like it's torn between social document, political history and musical catalogue - it's not always successful, but what it does do is lay out the reasons why Midnight Oil was such a flashpoint in 1984 and makes a case for why they've endured in the years after.

Three Identical Strangers: NZIFF Review

Three Identical Strangers: NZIFF Review

Slick and surprising, Three Identical Strangers benefits from the less-you-know approach going in.

Opening with a talking head saying "When I tell people my story, they don't quite believe it", there's very much the feeling of a shaggy dog approach as it first begins.

Essentially, it's the story of how Bobby a freshman at a US college in 1970 showed up on his first day and was told he was someone else - repeatedly by other people on campus.

Deciding to meet with this "other person", a world opens up to Bobby he could never have expected -and it gets stranger from there.
Three Identical Strangers: NZIFF Review

There's a certain amount of zip from Three Identical Strangers as it progresses initially with such gusto you wonder how director Tim Wardle will continue its pace. It has the feel of a viral tale writ large, a hoax gone mad, and a truth long buried with implications from the beginning - but in the latter stages of the piece, there's more to chew on than the headline-grabbing opening, a sense that something is dreadfully unfinished.

Themes are explored and with degrees of sensitivity throughout - apart from one galling sequence towards the end, much too spoilery to discuss, but which presents accusations that are not even close to being backed up and which sit at odds with the rest of what transpires.

There's a feeling that Three Identical Strangers slows a little in the back third, as it becomes weighed down in its bigger issues - it forgets and loses the humanity that keeps it so grounded and informative early on. However, Wardle has fashioned a story that keeps the viewer so engaged at the outset, that you're willing to overlook such transgressions toward the end.

Ultimately, Three Identical Strangers presents a story well told, with a kernel of something more within - it feels like it raises more questions than it asks, and brings to mind The Imposter, from a New Zealand International Film Festival a few years back. It's likely to be a talking point of the festival for anyone who views it, and certainly, the ramifications demand more exploration.

It's just a shame that final 10 minutes feel so baseless in their aim - certainly after what's transpired, there's no reason to be anything other than riveted throughout.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Sign O' the Times joins the NZIFF line-up

 Sign O' the Times joins the NZIFF line-up

Sign O' the Times joins the NZIFF line-up
Thirty years after its Auckland International Film Festival debut, Prince’s legendary concert movie Sign O' the Times escapes music rights limbo just in time to make the perfect late addition to our 50th birthday celebration.
“To watch Sign O’ the Times now, in the wake of Prince’s shocking death, is to experience all of his gifts at once, with an intensity so fierce it tempts the boundary between pleasure and neural shutdown. Here, in 85 incandescent minutes, is proof that all those otherworldly talents – that voice, that guitar playing, that style – somehow all fit inside the same physical being, a circumstance that would have been implausible had he been eight feet tall instead of just a hair over five. Although it was filmed in different locations and Prince’s frequent costume changes suggest significant breaks between songs – it takes time to switch from Spandex overalls and a white fur coat to a jean jacket and a policeman’s cap – it nonetheless feels live in a way concert movies rarely… You’re not just watching a performance; you’re seeing music being made.” — Sam Adams, Slate

Sign O' the Times screens Sunday 5 August, 8.30 pm at the Civic.
Tickets are on sale now online and in-person from the NZIFF box office.

Bludgeon NZIFF Review

Bludgeon NZIFF Review

Carrying on the trend ploughed by Florian Habicht et al, Ryan Heron and Andy Deere's Bludgeon is a small treasure on the NZIFF programme, a doco that has elements of the Office and the heart of an against-the-odds competition.

It follows a group of modern knights looking to represent NZ in the sport of 'medieval combat', something one competitor intones should be an Olympic sport.

Starting with a montage of knights fighting and cutting to the reality of the Steel Thorns running drills in a deserted carpark, Heron and Deere's self-effacing, yet affectionate, doco has stardom writ large upon it.
Bludgeon NZIFF Review

Taking us through the journey are various members of the realm. From rookie Nick Waiariki, his mullet as strong as his desire to knight and whose helmet resides securely fastened on the back seat of his car to Martainn "The Machine" Cuff, Captain of the Thorns, who has a fear of wolves and whose tendency toward David Brentism is revealed early on by a line "We've got around 290 likes on Facebook today, by the end of the day, I hope to make 297 or maybe 300", this is your usual gaggle of awkwardness writ large.

But rather than mock those Geeks meets Jocks fighters, Deere and Heron's funny doco gets to the bottom of a sub-set in middle Earth for whom honour and code of conduct forms the basis of much.

In many ways, like Pecking Order did, Bludgeon threatens to expose a rift that seems unnecessary to bridge, before wisely pulling back into a character piece and celebration of what New Zealanders truly are.

Deere and Heron's camera lingers unobtrusively throughout, and catches fleeting moments that reveal much - certainly "The Machine"'s fear of wolves gives much fodder and payback later on.

Packed with humour and heart, with a genial outlook and large swathes of humanity, Bludgeon is yet another celebration of what truly makes New Zealand tick, and another demonstration that all walks of life deserve celebration, even when their unswerving devotion to their cause bemuses and amuses.

I Used to be normal - A Boyband Fangirl Story: NZIFF Film Review

I Used to be Normal - A Boyband Fangirl Story: NZIFF Film Review

The pantheon of boybands is never ending.

Screaming girls, packed together in throngs, crying and loudly adoring their wannabes.

They're an easy target for mocking, for those outside of the current obsessions of the popworld.

And yet, director Jessica Leski's affectionate doco, which began life on Kickstarter, seems to douse its subjects in a universal appeal that it makes their obsessions seem normal.

Centring on four different fans - 16 year-old Elif, who's a One Directioner, Dara, 33, who's a proclaimed Take That fan, 25 year old Sadia, a US Backstreet Boys fan and 64-year-old Susan who was there at the start of the trend with her Beatles love - Leski's piece becomes more of a rounded piece as it goes on.

It begins with the obvious, with all of the quartet explaining their loves for their musical heartthrobs, but yet as it continues, I Used to be normal - A Boyband Fangirl Story actually shows the dichotomy of society and what these women face thanks to their obsession.
I Used to be Normal - A Boyband Fangirl Story: NZIFF Film Review

For Sadia, it's moments of self-examination after going on a Backstreet Boys' cruise; for Dara, it's self-reflection on who she is, why she still needs boybands; for Elif, it's a sign of her growing and tragic divide with her life choices and her family and for Susan, it's a reminder of good times had and friends lost.

It's a clever touch deployed by Leski, who could so easily have over-indulged in the cheesiness proffered by such subjects of adoration. However, even though Sadia's practically drooling at Backstreet's video Quit Playing Games with My Heart, what you begin to see is her coming-of-age via her idols in a Muslim world that's strict.

And the conflict Elif faces with her family is heartbreaking as the chasm opens.

Leski's strength lies in never mocking her subjects, and never mocking the crucial growing up experience that is fan adoration.

As a result, the success of the pace, coupled with the nicely put together archive footage and open moments of their subjects means I Used to be normal - A Boyband Fangirl Story proffers an inclusive exploration of Boybands, their eternal appeal and their fans' formative experiences.

Whitney: Film Review

Whitney: Film Review

Director: Kevin Macdonald

At first glance, there's no reason why Kevin Macdonald's Whitney doco should work.
Whitney Houston's demons were more or less covered in Nick Broomfield's 2017 documentary Whitney: Can I Be Me, leading the casual viewer to the feeling that another couldn't really add much more to the mix.
Whitney: Film Review

But what Macdonald's doco has is more access to family archives, in among the inevitable talking heads, and it's made the world of difference in the 120 minute running time.

The chronicles of Whitney's problems are not new, and while Macdonald's addition to her story is accusations of sexual abuse of Whitney in her childhood, a lot of the ground covered will be familiar to those who've seen the prior doco.

That said, what Macdonald (Last King of Scotland, State of Play) does is craft together a biographical piece that gleams in the spotlight of familiarity. Assembling together a veritable trove of archive material and interviews only of the closest members of Houston's remaining clan, Macdonald creates a portrait of a woman whose dreams and desires were gradually eroded by the industry and familial greed.
Whitney: Film Review

From the success of Houston's trailblazing musical ways in the mid 80s to the nondescript demise in a bathtub in 2012, Macdonald's packed the 2 hours with more than enough material to offer a full picture, and with a view to tautly editing proceedings, he's ensured there's never anything less than compelling material on screen.

The drugs Whitney fell into are widely discussed in the latter part of the piece, but Bobby Brown shuts down any talk of this in one of the few moments that frustrates. Macdonald prods further, but a lack of any level of engagement makes it difficult, and also demonstrates some of the problems Whitney Houston faced, with no one really willing or able to discuss her demons for fear of derailing her pop train.

Several scenes have Houston's soulful voice ring out, and it still provides goosebumps, even to the non-fans. Earlier insights such as Houston's nickname Nippy, and mother Cissy Houston's discussions add much to the doco's joie de vivre before the inevitable maudlin last 20 minutes or so kick in.

Macdonald keeps proceedings simple, letting others do the talking - but there are moments of flair.
Whitney: Film Review

Montages of Houston's music are intercut with 80s pop culture references (from Pepsi ads to space shuttle launches, presidents and fellow pop stars), an intermingling reminder of how of the time Houston was and how prevalent her music was in the cultural collective consciousness.

Aside from all of that, what Whitney does, and does exceedingly well, is provide a compellingly complete portrait of what happened, and how it happened. Occasionally, the why becomes a little lost in the telling of the story, and the intuitive touches Macdonald brings helps lift the weaker touches out of any mire.

Willing to explore both the good and bad of Houston, the personal and the all-American tragedy,
Whitney: Film Review

Whitney is a fascinating narrative, a warts-and-all exploration of where the dream went wrong, a distillation of a clutch of complex issues that all collided in one person.

Whitney is a thrilling and deeply engaging documentary that deserves to be up there with the best of the genre - a true exploration of a troubled genius, and an at times, damning indictment of the greed and abuse of others within the industry, and more upsettingly, within the should-be-safe circle of family.

Talking Jirga with Sam Smith and director Ben Gilmour

Talking Jirga with actor Sam Smith and director Ben Gilmour

Jirga is playing the New Zealand International Film Festival.
At the film's opening in Australia during the Sydney Film Festival, actor Sam Smith and director Ben Gilmour very generously gave of their time to offer some insight into the film, the various problems it faced with filming (after permissions were withdrawn and funding removed, the production had to shoot undercover) and the reason for its redemption arc.

Benjamin Gilmour will present his film in person at its NZIFF screenings.

Tell us a bit about your film
BEN: The film Jirga is about a foreign soldier, an Australian soldier, who goes back to Afghanistan as a tourist – he’s left the army – to track down the family of a civilian that he killed in the heat of battle a few years earlier and to beg their forgiveness. It’s a redemption film. It’s about the ongoing war there that has been… you know, we’re in our 17th year, and the strategy’s not changing, and Afghans are fed up. They’re tired of the war. So it’s addressing those issues; it’s addressing the impact of war on civilians and soldiers and anyone who’s affected by the war. And it’s looking at the real damage that war does across the board and really asks us to be a little bit more careful in sending soldiers thousands of kilometres away to fight on other people’s land against people who are defending their homes.
Talking Jirga with actor Sam Smith and director Ben Gilmour

What was your aim with the redemption arc?
BEN: Well, I’ve always been drawn to the concept of forgiveness and mercy. I think of that – probably my religious upbringing – but I believe there is something in the opposite of revenge that is a key to breaking a cycle of violence and leading to peace. And some of the great pacifists spoke about that. I think Gandhi said ‘An eye for an eye makes both parties blind’ or something along those lines. If tit for tat carries on, then it will lead to the destruction of the planet ultimately. So I think at some point, one party has to stop. People have to stop and evaluate and change the tactic, change the strategy. And so I think redemption is part of that, forgiveness is part of that, and that’s the way we can move towards peace.

We're forever exploring the ramifications of conflict on film, what is it about this role that makes  Jirga different?
BEN: The difference between Jirga and a lot of the war films that are coming out of Hollywood, in my opinion, is that in Jirga, you have a soldier that is going back with humility, that is going back with genuine remorse and is putting himself at the feet of the locals. It’s respectful to Afghans, to Muslims on the ground there. Whereas if you pay closer attention to some of these films from Hollywood like American Sniper, for example, that sniper who was responsible for killing up to 200 Iraqis had no remorse about what he did. He suffered because of the tension and the pressure and the difficulties in integrating back into American life. But it has widely been reported that he had no remorse. And the audience is being asked to feel sorry for the soldier alone while the Muslims have been cast as either pathetic or villainous people that are being fought against. So I think there’s a combination of things, but ultimately… I think in Jirga it’s quite different.
SAM: The thing with Jirga, I suppose, is that you’re looking at both sides of the damage as opposed to taking a side in a film and following that line. You kind of go, well, it’s equal— It’s not necessarily equal. Both people feel, you know… And it’s not like one side is wrong, one side is right, one is black and white. It’s…
BEN: There are no winners, and it has sympathy for all. I mean, we’re not asking the audience to feel sorry for the Western soldier who’s killed a Muslim or an Afghan only. It’s the soldier that becomes that vehicle for us to enter the world of how the Afghans feel about that.
Talking Jirga with actor Sam Smith and director Ben Gilmour

What were the challenges making the film?
SAM: That’s long. Where do you start?
BEN: The challenges in making this film is a very long list of challenges.
SAM: That’s actually a difficult question because there’s so many to choose from, you know? Do you start where the funding falls out or we rewrite it or we get blocked one day because they think that there are IEDs planted in the cave where we’re gonna film. I mean, it goes on, you know.
BEN: From no money to the security element to the lack of security to the language barrier. Trying to work out what’s going on on the set.
SAM: Also the fact that at the end of the day when we come back to check the footage, we had only Ben’s computer and they’d be full of movies or whatever, and we’d try to watch them, cos we could only watch it in four to five second glitches. So we’d be looking at it and going, ‘Oh, I think that’s in focus there.’ That’s how we would check we had the footage.
BEN: Yeah, it wasn’t good reviewing, and backing up. And after a long day of shooting, you’re trying to…
SAM: Well, you deleted- Remember we shot those scenes…?
BEN: Oh, sure. I accidentally deleted all those takes. I am sure.
SAM: I was furious. I’m sure as well.
BEN: Yeah, you performed and then it was gone.
SAM: It was a dark breakfast that morning.
BEN: I know. It was very hard to break that news to you. I’m terribly sorry about that. Look, after a full day’s shoot, you’re there and you’re filming. You’re trying to deal with the footage and you’re tired, and you just wanna go to sleep and you’re trying to make sure that you’re not messing up the transfer of the data and all the footage and managing that. You know, they’ve got people on proper film sets who’s job it is just to do that. Data wrangling.
SAM: We didn’t have a data wrangler.
BEN: We didn’t have a data wrangler and data went missing as a result, which was a shame.
Talking Jirga with actor Sam Smith and director Ben Gilmour

What's the one moment in the film which stands out to you as an actor and as a director that you hope will resonate with others?
BEN: I hope that people who’ve seen Jirga will question the way we send our soldiers into wars and question the way they deal with conflict in their own lives.
SAM: I hadn’t really thought too much into that line. I just hope people enjoy the film.

Monday, 23 July 2018

Breath: NZIFF Review

Breath: NZIFF Review

A typical coming-of-age tale told in a slightly atypical fashion, former The Mentalist actor Simon Baker steps behind (and in front of) the camera for this adaptation of Tim Winton's book.

Centring on two kids, Pikelet and Loonie (Samson Coulter, sensitive and thoughtful and Ben Spence, instinctive and amusing) growing up in Western Australia in the 70s, Baker's Sando serves as mentor to the duo, helping them take in the waves.

But Sando keeps pushing them to go further, despite the condemnation of his other half Eva (Elizabeth Debicki, in waif and distant form) - however, Pikelet's reticence tests the boundaries of friendship with Loonie and his mentorship with Sando, as well as his own family unit.

Breath is an intriguing piece, simultaneously feeling distant in some of its narrative parts and yet frighteningly cohesive in others, and after reflection.

Perhaps consisting of one too many slow mo surfing or at water shots, Breath can be forgiven its indulgence in the waves of the ocean, thanks to some truly impressive water shots by cinematographer Rick Rifici. Pulsing waves are shot from below the surface, each one bubbling by and each showing the tumult in the relationships; the symbolism is not lost.

Elsewhere, some narrative threads feel a little unexplored; a potential school girlfriend for Pikelet is more dalliance and distraction and family tensions are hinted at rather than endorsed further.
Breath: NZIFF Review

But it's herein that lies the rub for Breath. On reflection after the lights have gone up, these relationships are explored in the way a teenager may approach them - distance helps evaluate what's transpired and why it's that way. Certainly, the relationship between Eva and Sando appears an odd one, a couple of lost souls who've found each other and are ebbing in and out like the flow of the ocean - there's much in Winton's prose that hints and there's much in Baker's restrained direction that offers deeper connections when probed.

In the relationship between the sensitive Pikelet and the gregarious Loonie, Coulter and Spence gel well, each pushing and pulling the tensions where necessary; feeling naturalistic in many ways, and evocative in others, this is a relationship that needs no deeper dissection; it breathes on its own and works well because of it.

"I've never seen men do something so beautiful, so pointless and so elegant" intones Pikelet in his later years - but in many ways, he could be hinting at the relationships that come from growing up; in caressing the tensions, and the triumphs of youth and friendships, Breath inhales deeply on its intensity and strips away its own profundity in places.

Breath is at once a complex beast at times, and yet one that feels familiar and simple, elegiacally executed - in many ways, it's one NZIFF film that demands further introspection and re-examination.

Disobedience: NZIFF Review

Disobedience: NZIFF Review

For all the theology opening and the deep soaking of Jewish tradition in Disobedience, it has to be said there's scant depth to what Disobedience unspools in terms of character.

Rachel Weisz is Ronit, the black sheep of the Jewish family whose return is necessitated by the death of her father. But many are unhappy to see her back in England's drab and dreariness including Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) and his new wife Esti (Rachel McAdams).

But Ronit's return rekindles something in Esti - and soon the perils of the outsider are thrust deep within the community, threatening to reignite both old passions and even deeper hatreds.
Disobedience: NZIFF Review

Drab, dreary backgrounds pepper the dour proceedings to start off with - London's backdrops stultify and threaten to overcome Ronit's natural incandescences, a woman who threw off the shackles of tradition to the disappointment of all around her.

Certainly, the hints are laid early on, in some naturalistic dialogue that drops emotional bombs later on as the intense recoupling rebirths.

Director Sebastien Lelio gives life to the struggles of the outsider, but Disobedience rarely feels more than a chamber piece between Esti and Ronit; and with the third wheel of Dovid thrown in for good measure. It lives and breathes like a play, as it piles up small emotional stakes building them into greater barriers as time goes on.

Largely restrained, Disobedience benefits from tasteful touches, and passionate clinches - even if occasionally, they feel borderline to voyeuristic, something which in truth is more the fault of an audience investment in the outcasts storyline. The sense of longing, the sense of connection and the sense of duty all swirl in one potent mix, and while Disobedience's palette is one of dour dismal skylines, what bubbles beneath is fiery and difficult to quell.

But Disobedience never fully breaks out to rage against the patriarchal society, the Jewish clasp thrown down upon these women - it's a frustration muted into a quiet scream as events transpire, and while the film is perfectly adequately explored and extolled, it never once finds the emotion to send it soaring high and beyond - despite the threesome offering some truly strong performances.

Jirga: NZIFF Review

Jirga: NZIFF Review

Although it begins with soldiers taking a compound by storm in Afghanistan through the viewing lens of night time vision, Jirga's less a film about soldier bravura and more a film that's about one soldier wrestling with a conscience.

Former Home and Away alumnus Sam Smith plays Mike Wheeler, who, as the film begins, can be seen heading back to Afghanistan with a money belt secreted around his body.

It's no secret to reveal he's off to make amends for what happened in the raid mentioned above, but what Jirga is more interested in doing is a sort of parable about atonement and guilt - the religious allusions of which aren't lost by director Benjamin Gilmour sending his lead shambling through the desert at one point.

But if the path trodden by this clandestine drama (it was shot on the quiet in Afghanistan after permits were denied in Pakistan) is all too familiar in terms of its themes, its quiet splendour is obvious as the journey plays out.

It's sparse in extremis, but Gilmour makes good fist of the landscape, even finding a way to incorporate a pink flamingo pedalo into proceedings that contrasts nicely with the stark arid deserts all around.
Jirga: NZIFF Review

"Forgiveness is better than revenge" is uttered at one point in the film, and Smith provides the internal conflict with a human face as the guilt becomes evident. There's a sense here that this is about giving voice to the human side of conflict, and as such, while admirable, aside from how the film is presented and shot, it's not a new conceit.

There are some narrative leaps - Wheeler manages to persuade his apparently violent captors of his benevolent journey when cornered, but Jirga never loses face or furore when the end comes. Granted, its profundity is more of the smaller variety than anything bigger, but that's perhaps Gilmour's intentions.

The power and the rawness of the eventual meeting between Wheeler and the family he's wronged may ache with reality, but by resisting a desire to overplay it, Gilmour and Smith make the film something a little different.

Not entirely successful in its execution (perhaps a sense of the denial of permits and the clandestine nature of filming muted some of the plans) and with very familiar themes, Jirga manages to achieve more than you'd expect with an almost spiritual level of commitment and debate all round.

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