Wednesday, 3 August 2022

You Won't Be Alone: NZIFF Review

You Won't Be Alone: NZIFF Review

Don't be fooled by You Won't Be Alone's pitch of a shapeshifting witch.

Goran Stolevski's almost meditative take on what eternal life means is actually a thought-provoking piece that some are comparing to Terrence Malick's Tree of Life.

Set in Macedonia in the 19th century, it follows a witch who uses her one "witching spit" on a baby that grows up within a community and takes on various lives when it realises how it can become others. What follows is less a horror slasher of someone stalking a village, but a meditation on what life can be like for others, what aspirations there are, and where the journey can take you.

You Won't Be Alone: NZIFF Review

There's no lying that this is slow cinema in extremis, and with a near mute protagonist there are moments that it feels like an artsy-Witch infused version of Nell, but with a lyrical bent and a determination to get to its end, Stolevski's You Won't Be Alone does feel like the payoff is worth it.

In the latter third of the film, there's much to be said about toxic male behaviours, and an idea that manhood is something to be aimed for in life's progression is perhaps the wrong message to take from it all, but it's an inescapable feeling that rises from the film as it plays out.

But equally this section offers fascinating insights into society's expectations for women, gender expectations and the parenting role.

There are moments of brutality within, but there are never moments of deliberate exploitation, thanks to the alluring nature of the story and how its rhythms can wash over you.

Questions of language, civilisation and growth all come to the fore as this season of the witch plays out. You'll be surprised by how its lyrical qualities leave many seeds implanted in you long after it's done. A compelling debut for sure, and a refreshingly different and engaging take on what it takes to be a witch.

Shut Eye: NZIFF Review

Shut Eye: NZIFF Review

There's a woozy vibe to Tom Levesque's story of a disconnected student who becomes friends with an ASMR streamer - but there's not quite enough of a narrative to pull it fully through towards the end.

Thankfully, the Auckland-shot sets and the performances of the leads Mille Van Kol and Sarah May are compelling enough to get you to the finish line.

Van Kol is Sierra, a charity street worker who, to be frank, lacks the presence needed to pull in the punters in her organisation's quest to save the marine life. A lack of sleep and extreme insomnia forces Sierra to the doctor's, where she drifts off unexpectedly by focusing on the atmosphere of the room and the sound of the mint in the GP's mouth.

Shut Eye: NZIFF Review

Prescribing her a course of ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response), Sierra falls in the thrall of Sarah May's Kate, a streamer whose channel is popular enough and whose outgoing personality is the antithesis of Sierra's awkward attempts at connection.

Auckland's never really looked more different and vibrant than in Levesque's camera. Locations scarcely photographed or used have an energy and do much to convey the vibe of the film, which lulls you in with its rhythms. At its heart, it's a story of grief, and Van Kol makes great fist of the internal conflicts and the dreamlike world she exists in - the script brings you dangerously close to disaffection over the story, but thankfully her performance makes it worth clinging into.

There's a dreamlike aesthetic here and in a world increasingly rocked by a lack of connection, Shut Eye comes close to evoking a sense of sadness, disconnection and also the joy of a deep and warranted friendship.

The Forgiven: NZIFF Review

The Forgiven: NZIFF Review

It's hard to believe The Forgiven comes from the same pen of the man who gave us the biting The Guard and also Calvary.

In this latest from John Michael McDonagh, there's still a degree of bite from the story, but the screenplay lacks the precision to scythe through its targets this time, leaving the viewer feeling somewhat muted by the end.

The Forgiven: NZIFF Review

Based on a 2012 Lawrence Osborne novel, it centres around a party being thrown by Doctor Who and Game of Thrones star Matt Smith's Richard Galloway in the mountains of Morocco.

Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain star as bickering couple David and Jo Henninger, who've been invited to the party. On the way to their destination, an increasingly drunken David, resentful of both Jo and her friendship with Richard, puts them into dangerous territory after a distracted driving moment causes him to kill a boy in the road.

As the party gets in to full swing, the Henningers' world unravels as the price of their actions comes for them.

There are delicious barbs to be had early on in The Forgiven, and many of them hit home perfectly on target. But as the film goes through its 2 hour run time, there's a feeling the creative well has run dry, a takedown of the bourgeoise feeling more indifferent than anything else.

The ensemble is impressive. Fiennes goes from ghastly to recalcitrant with ease, and ends up with a degree of sympathy despite all the odds. Smith's lounge lizard approach is also welcome, and Chastain's growing disdain and character change are potent fuel to a fire that's simmering away.

But among all the stellar locations and the moral quandary cum journey into acceptance, there's a feeling that McDonagh's somehow lost some of the fire he's been known for. A final frame shock is perhaps aimed at jolting us out of our indifference, but all it really does is reiterate the fact this film could have been so much more.




Tuesday, 2 August 2022

My Old School: NZIFF Review

My Old School: NZIFF Review

Buoyed by some great energy and an unfolding tale that's firmly in the WTF territory, Jono McLeod's documentary benefits greatly from the spiralling onion of revelations from its subject.

One of those films that it's best going into with no prior knowledge, it's the story of Brandon Lee, a young student who became an international name for reasons that are too spoilery to reveal - if you don't already know.

My Old School: NZIFF Review

Some may have in mind the NZIFF hit The Imposter when viewing this, but McLeod's strengths in the film come from the deft way he uses talking heads from the school at the time (himself one of them) and a non-varying line of empathy to its subject.

While Lee said he wouldn't be interviewed on camera, the filmmakers' use of Alan Cumming to lip sync along to a few interview bites proves to be a clever twist. But in truth, it's the other participants of this who are worthy of the attention, immortalised as they are in cartoon characters similar to 1990s MTV hit show Daria.

But what emerges from My Old School is something more than a simple twists and turns story - it turns the incredulous into the tragic with aplomb, and manages to also condemn pressure from society as being a factor in what plays out. (Again, to say more is to spoil it, but there's much fertile ground for discussion afterwards here).

There may be a great deal of light-hearted playful touches deployed throughout My Old School, but if you have any humanity, you'll leave viewing it with a strong vein of sadness coursing through - at its heart, it's a tragic circumstance made marvellously entertaining by a docomaker who has the levity needed to handle all angles of this engrossing story.

Family Dinner: NZIFF Review

Family Dinner: NZIFF Review

Packing in the discomfort over a slow boil proves to be reasonably effective for this German take on a family reunion.

German director Peter Hengl provides a simmering discord between obese teen Simi (Nina Katlein) and her cookbook-writing aunt Claudia (Pia Hierzegger) as she visits ahead of an Easter weekend.

Family Dinner: NZIFF Review

Despite Simi's mum warning her that published author Claudia is a "bit esoteric", Simi is troubled by the dynamics at play, and the conflict between herself and her cousin Filipp, who's both withdrawn and sullen, yet angry at Simi's arrival.

When Simi approaches her aunt to help her lose some weight, a chain of events is set in motion...

Family Dinner is not a film that's in any rush to get to its destination.

By providing a slow-burn, Hengl manages to ratchet up the discomfort throughout the build up to the Easter weekend events, and also manages to cook up the awkwardness throughout.

While the material at times feels a little thin, it's in the smaller moments and interactions that Hengl's more interested in angling the film. From side looks to a relatively emotionless lead whose bewilderment becomes more obvious, the film's strength is in the subtleties, not the showiness.

Connoisseurs of folk-horror may harbour an inkling of where this is going, and the appearance of a bonfire pile in the middle of a field may ring some bells, but Hengl's movie isn't interested in ploughing through familiar territory, preferring instead to go its own path.

It's in the relationships that this frosty film is interested, and while it may take a while to inveigle its way under your skin, and leave you feeling the denouement lacks a little lasting power, it's cinema of unease in extremis.

Monday, 1 August 2022

Fire of Love: NZIFF Review

Fire of Love: NZIFF Review

There are a lot of cliched ways to present volcanoes on screen.

Disaster movies make great fist of their explosive power, sending out rumbling waves of destruction destined to wipe out many; and documentaries slow down exploding lava shots as they shoot high in the sky.

So you'd be certainly right to feel that a documentary about a pair of volcanologists probably couldn't really offer anything new to the genre.

But you'd be wrong - horrendously, utterly wrong.

Fire of Love: NZIFF Review

Fire of Love, directed by Sara Dosa, concerns itself with a pair of French volcanologists who met, fell in love and chased volcanos together - and it's mesmerising stuff.

Thanks largely to a swoon-worthy French OST and obligatory shots of explosions, Dosa threads together a narrative about Maurice and Katia Krafft that shows how their love grew through their work. It may be tinged with tragedy (as they died while exploring a volcano that had erupted) but there's nothing morose or mordant about Fire of Love.

With sequences of volcanos that show rocks falling from the skies while a pair of silver-suited explorers look on, the film crafts something that's utterly compelling and cinematically thrilling. It may be the duo look like some kind of extras from a bad BBC 1970s sci fi drama, but Dosa gets under their skin (and suits) by using their original footage and thoughts on volcanos.

Initially only interested in red volcanoes (the ones whose lava flows and bubbles), the film demonstrates how their interests shifted more into exploring "grey" volcanoes, the more deadly and volatile magma beasts, which would ultimately tragically consume them.

But what Dosa does is to tell a story that celebrates their life, praises their work and elevates the duo into people you desperately want to know more about. With humble footage carefully constructed and elegaically presented, Fire of Love is an unmissably original experience that manages to be spectacularly moving.

Muru: NZIFF Review

Muru: NZIFF Review

Billed as a "response", not a recreation of raids on the TÅ«hoe tribe through the years, director Tearepa Kahi's charged journey into the action of October 2007 is as volatile a powderkeg as ever you're going to see.

Centring on Cliff Curtis' Community support police officer Sergeant Taffy’ Tawharau, the film builds up a picture of a community under the watchful eye of its masters, and also in the sights of a government determined to take out its leader Tame Iti and his disciples in the wake of seditious comments.

Muru: NZIFF Review

Against a backdrop of anti-terrorism laws, some political climbing and career opportunities within the police's armed teams and a frustration that outside forces don't understand the internal politics and human faces of the region, Taffy finds himself caught squarely in the middle of what will turn out to be an extraordinarily bad day.

From driving around his community in a bus, transporting school kids and aunties to health appointments, as well as trying to deal with a loose cannon in the community, Taffy has it all to juggle - and Curtis delivers it all with superior aplomb.

Seizing in on the humanity of the situation, Kahi builds a house of volatility, fuelling the fire, but never over-milking it for effect. Expanding the scale of his filmmaking, Kahi moves into action movie territory in parts, with a soundtrack building to an explosive conclusion. But just as the audience believes the film will go one way, a simple holding back of the tension proves to be devastating.

It's not all perfect. 

There's clearly not room for nuance in the Government side here - and Kahi isn't really interested in ensuring a fairness from those in power. After all, the film is a response, not a measured expose of what happened - but by balancing this with the humanity of all those caught in the day and led by Curtis' Taffy, the imbalance is just about rectified.

Unfortunately, Manu Bennett is the weak link here, his character clearly seeming to think the brief is like something from an 80s revenge movie, and the lack of subtlety and almost OTT edges to the acting make him stand out like a sore thumb from the quieter more refined tones of Curtis, Simone Kessell et al.

Using children as a foil for the humour in the horror proves to be the relief that's needed, but it's in Muru's compassion that the film gains its strengths.

From a confrontational start to an emotionally devastating end, Muru has a rollercoaster of a journey to endure - and audiences will perhaps be surprised how much they're swept up in it, no matter what politics or affiliations they may hold.

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