Friday, 31 July 2015

Film Fest Day 8

With this ushering shift, I was venturing into foreign territory. I had never heard of any of these films, which was kind of exciting. It's rare in this day and age of internet leaks and spoilers to be genuinely surprised. 

She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry

I love this movie.

The women's liberation movement has done so much for us, and yet today it so often reduced to, at best, a redundant cause, or, at worst, a boogeyman of a bygone era.

Finally, someone has gathered all of the key figures, the middle class housewives, the radicals, the lefties, the minority advocates, the lesbians, the academics, the activists, and let them give their own views and stories on the change they helped create.

What I most loved about this was how it used the story of one part of the movement as a springboard into another. Hence we get to go from Betty Friedan and the creation of NOW in the mid 60s to the rise of specific sub-sects, like black women, pro-choice activists, lesbians and a host of others. Rather than reduce this story to a few people, She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry really gives a sense of the scope of its impact in the early 70s. The ripples that begin with Friedan's The Feminine Mystique move out to influence a vast body of scholarship, activism and agit-pop. 

This film is filled with such energy and hard-won wisdom that it makes you optimistic about the future. Sure, they were angry and confrontational. But without them, domestic abuse and rape would not have been criminalised in the public conscience, abortion legalised and faulty contraceptives replaced with safe alternatives. Women's health would not even be a concept. This documentary is a powerful tribute to their work.

Man or woman, check it out.

This movie bummed me out. It is really good, don't get me wrong. But it does its job too well.

Wrinkles tells the story of Emilio (Martin Sheen), an elderly man in the early stages of Alzheimers. His family move him to an old folks home where he makes friends with Miguel (the late George Coe). Miguel is a free spirit, who has no family and is not above fleecing the more addled members of the community. However, as Emilio gradually deteriorates, Miguel is forced to confront his own selfishness.

A simple story well told, with an unsentimental but empathetic view of its characters, Wrinkles is often achingly sad. It confronts the inevitability of age and death with a maturity you would not find in a hundred live-action dramas.

Bring plenty of tissues.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Film Fest Day 7

Yesterday is the reason why I keep volunteering at the film festival - not the free tickets, although those are nice. What the film festival offers is a chance to see movies I would never see otherwise. Today's post was going to feature reviews for End of the Tour and Love 3D - however circumstances changed, and I had to usher a completely different set of movies. Movies I would have never seen...

Women He's Undressed
This is a docudrama by Australian director Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career) about the life and career of Orry-Kelly, the famous Hollywood costume designer. Who the hell is Orry-Kelly? Here's a brief list of just some of his credits: 42nd Street, Now Voyager, Casablanca, An American in Paris, Oklahoma and Some Like It Hot.

Incarnated onscreen by actor Darren Gilshenan, Orry-Kelly acts as a guide and commentator as Armstrong's film charts his journey from the back of nowhere, Australia to the glamour of Hollywood. A series of talking heads, from critic Leonard Maltin to Jane Fonda,  offer their own insight and stories.

There are two major strands to the film, which make Orry-Kelly's life so fascinating. The first is  Orry-Kelly's contentious relationship with Hollywood star Cary Grant. Questions about Grant's personal life have lingered for decades, and this film blows the closet wide open. The one-time lovers were forced apart by Grant's desire for stardom and (in 1934) the sudden imposition of a new, repressive morality in Hollywood (embodied onscreen by the Production Code).

The other thing the film is very successful at, is pinpointing Orry-Kelly's genius for designing clothes that both flattered the sometimes unconventional body-types of his leading ladies, while augmenting their portrayals of their characters. The stories of his collaborations with Bette Davis, and his work on turning Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis into Daphne and Josephine is truly worth the price of admission.

I believe it is going to have a wider release in arthouses, so look out for it. It's great!

Red Amnesia
A mix of surrealism and social realism, this Chinese thriller is a fascinating story. It is rare that you see a movie featuring an OAP as protagonist - even more so that the OAP is a woman.

Red Amnesia tells the story of Deng, an elderly widow who becomes the victim of a series of prank calls and other harassment. Slowly, the mystery is unravelled - taking in Deng's past during the Cultural Revolution, her relationship with her gay son, and the mountain hamlet where she used to live.

I'm not going to spoil it. This is a very quiet, understated film. There are no obvious genre tropes or plot turns here, and yet it remains (largely) involving. There are a few dull patches in the middle, but the story and central character are so interesting that I was able to remain invested.

Lu Zhong is terrific in the lead. The character manages to be both incredibly sympathetic and unsympathetic, often simultaneously. It's a hard balance to strike, and it takes an incredible lack of arrogance to take on a role like Deng. She's really the selling point of this film, and the main reason to check it out.

A Poem Is A Naked Person
A rarely seen look at 70s music legend Leon Russell, this documentary was shot by Les Blank over the course of 1972-1974 but never released. 

Finally available, this is a fascinating time capsule of early 70s America, specifically the South and youth culture, and the music business. With no guiding voice-over, this is a vaguely coherent assemblage of various scenes: Russell rehearsing and performing; various band members discussing the meaning of life; pranks; locals and various scenery.

I enjoyed this, although I was not able to see the first 20 minutes or so because I was helping latecomers into the theatre. What I saw, I enjoyed. As a fan of this particular period in American Rock, it's good. As a sample of the atmosphere of the times, it's really great.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Film Fest Day 6: It's DOPE!

This was a late addition. I heard good things, noted that Zoë Kravitz looked very cute in corn rows and so BOOM. Instant review!

Malcolm is a nerd in his final year of high school. He and his friends are obsessed with early 90s hiphop culture, to the extent of wearing the clothes and, in Malcolm's case, the hair associated with the era. He lives in Inglewood, California and dreams of going to Harvard. After falling for a drug dealer's squeeze (Kravitz), Malcolm and his friends end up at the drug dealer's birthday party. Events take a turn for the worse, and Malcolm inadvertently ends up with a backpack full of high grade dope. Now he has to find a way to get rid of the drugs, ace his university entrance exams and help the drug dealer's girlfriend pass her GED (it's better than it sounds).

This movie is a lot of fun. Probably the most flat out enjoyable movie of the festival. In a way, it feels like a throwback to the teen movies of the 80s and early 90s. Like Ex Machina, it may not be wholly original in terms of its genre, but the perspective and presentation here elevate it above whatever cliches and conventions it uses.

It features strong performances from the central trio, particularly from lead Shameik Moore. I've never seen him before, and he really has presence here. Hopefully, he can follow Nate Parker and Michael B. Jordan into bigger roles. 

The movie is at its best in the first half, when it is more about the characters than plot twists. Not that the second half is bad, but it does feel a little ragged at times. But that's just nitpicking -- this movie is really good. What I really liked was how the movie managed to avoid softening the harshness of the characters' milieu, and still make you laugh. Dope has a darkness to it which gives it a vibrancy and realism lacking from similar movies like The Wackness

I highly recommend this. Hopefully, it gets a wider release outside the festival. It's that good. 

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Film Fest Day 5

Philip Dadson: Sonics from Scratch

Like I said a couple posts ago, one of the benefits of ushering is you get to see films you would not normally go out of your way to see. 

This documentary is about Philip Dadson, the creator of From Scratch and the Scratch Orchestra. For laymen such as myself, he creates music out of sounds that he finds -- from old pipes to a pair of rocks he finds on a beach. He works like a sculptor, building a collection of sounds out of collections of found objects, which he and his collaborators use to shape into unique musical pieces.

This movie was interesting, but not that illuminating. The movie tries to jam in his entire career, but it felt like an outline rather than an in-depth examination of the man and his music. This movie reminded me of a documentary on the sound artist Trimpin I saw at the festival a few years back (The Sound of Invention). That documentary felt far more in-depth, mainly because it managed to develop a portrait of the man and his work by focusing it around his plans for a new art installation. If this documentary had a similar narrative spine, it would have resonated more. As is, it covers too much ground in too short a running time.

However, if you are interested in one of New Zealand's less well known artists, it is worth a look -- if only for an overview.

If you are keeping score:

Girlhood: Good
Clouds of Sils Maria: Very good
'71: Great
The Lobster: Very good
I Am Thor: Good
Peggy Guggenheim - Art Addict: Very good
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night: Good
Jauja: Bad
The Assassin: Poor
Ex Machina: Great

Film Fest Day 4

Ugh, this day was exhausting. First I had two films to usher, and then a couple I had to wedge in during the evening because I could not go to their other showings.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
This movie is the intersection where an arthouse film meets a silent horror and a 50s drive-in flick. The plot is pretty simple: A small group of characters (a drug dealer, a prostitute, a gangster, a kid) find their lives seriously affected (or ended) by the mysterious appearance of a vampire. While it won't win any prizes in terms of story, the look, locale and performances make this a rather compelling watch.

It's really the incidental details which provide the real pleasures. The gangster's costume and posturing is an obvious highlight. The film has an offbeat sense of humour and a great soundtrack of Iranian pop songs I've never heard of. This is also the only film to my knowledge which features a skate-boarding vampire, and includes a cat in the role of comic relief. 

While it's not the masterpiece people have been making it out to be, it is a lot of fun.

Sigh. I had to hit a pot hole eventually.

This stars Viggo Mortensen as a European mercenary in Central or South America who is hunting for his runaway daughter. That about does it for plot. 

This movie was boring. The aspect ratio was much smaller than the screen -- I'm not sure what the intent here was. The movie makes a series of surrealistic turns which feel inexplicable, but are not compelling enough to make the movie worth watching.

On the plus side, the photography is the strongest aspect here with several beautiful compositions. As an art installation it might pass muster - as a cinematic experience it's a chore. 

The Assassin
The drought continues. 

Like Jauja, this is beautifully photographed, especially the location shots. The action sequences come in short, lyrical bursts. However, the movie is a confusing, over-complicated mess without interesting characters or dramatic tension.  

Ex Machina
I have been looking forward to this for so long. The internet machine said the movie was coming out on March 5. That turned out not to be. Then I heard it was coming out at the film festival, and booked for its first showing last Wednesday. Work intervened so I sacrificed sleep to see a last, late showing.  

This is the best movie I've seen this year. It won't hold the spot for long, but this is a damn good piece of work. Alex Garland has become the master of the small-scale, high concept genre film. This is one of the best films he's been involved with (I still have not seen Sunshine).

I'm sure you are familiar with the premise by now. A young computer programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a contest to spend a week with his boss, a reclusive genius (Oscar Isaac) who wants him to perform a modified version of the Turing Test to determine whether Ava, a humanoid machine he has created (Alicia Vikander) has artificial intelligence. And then things get really dark.

This is a smart film that not only has a lot of meaty ideas, but knows how to convey them with economy, imagination and (most importantly) a deliciously dark sense of humour. Beyond the musings on AI, the movie works as a sharply observed satire on the role of public performance in an age where cameras are everywhere -- specifically the performance of gender.

This focus on performing for an audience is highlighted by the main location: Nathan (Issac)'s residence, where the bulk of the film takes place, is a beautifully designed but claustrophobic bunker, a Panopticon-like structure filled with opaque windows and surveillance technology. In this place, everyone is playing for the cameras.

The performances from Isaac and Vikander are superlative (probably the only time I can use that word). Isaac is his usual reliably unpredictable self, while Vikander cements her growing It-Girl status after similarly great performances in A Royal Affair and Testament of Youth. She has about 572 other movies coming out this year, so I'm sure we'll hear about her again come award season. Gleeson is fine as the protagonist, but he comes across as a little vanilla compared to his co-stars' showier roles. That's always one of the pitfalls with a three-hander -- someone has to get the straight man role, and Gleeson falls into it adequately.

I'm going to stop waffling. The movie is not being given a theatrical release outside of the festival, so catch it when it comes out on a streaming platform. Watch it, love it. Good night. 

Friday, 24 July 2015

Film Fest Day 3: Thoughts from the back row

One of the benefits of ushering at the film festival is that I get to see a variety of movies I would have never seen on my own. While Day 2 was all my picks, yesterday was completely out of my control. To make the experience more interesting, I did not bother to read up on these movies beforehand.

I Am Thor
This as something else. A fly on the wall documentary about underground rock non-star Thor, a nude waiter/bodybuilder-turned-rock star, I Am Thor feels like a spiritual brother to Anvil!, the documentary from a few years back about the veteran Canadian metal act.

Constantly on the cusp of breaking out in the 70s and the 80s, Thor's rise was stymied by a series of  mishaps (at one point during contract negotiations before his first US tour, he was kidnapped and held for ransom by one of the parties involved). A nervous breakdown in the late 80s was the final nail in the coffin, and Thor left music for 10 years.

The documentary follows Thor through his 11 year comeback as the ageing rocker goes through band members, shitty venues and a series of health issues to a reunion with his original band in a Scandinanian tour.

Picture and sound quality are occasionally variable, and the opening 20 minutes are a bit too brief, speeding through his heyday with little context (I could have used a few more dates). However, the movie's strength lies in its portrayal of the central character, a relentlessly positive music fan who continues to chase his dream despite the naysayers, lack of money and his own physical struggles.

Peggy Guggenheim - Art Addict
Shot in a more conventional expository mode, combining stills, archive footage, Guggenheim's voice and various talking heads, Art Addict is a biographical piece about the eccentric art collector and her effect on the history of 20th century art.

Even for a layman, it is a fascinating journey through the giants of modern art (Max Ernst, Salvadore Dali, Jackson Pollock are among the many luminaries) decorated with spicy anecdotes and Guggenheim's witty asides.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Film fest viewing notes, Day 2

Clouds of Sils Maria 

I've never understood the rabid hatred for Kristen Stewart. But then again, my introduction to her work was not Twilight. The first time I remember registering Stewart was in a little indie called Speak, in which she played a shy teenager who is rendered-near mute after she is raped. She is amazing that movie, and ever since I've been waiting for her to show off her chops again. Clouds of Sils Maria is that movie.

Truth be told, Stewart and Juliette Binoche are both great. Their double act, as a veteran actress and her young assistant/confidant, is the engine of the movie. The movie itself is an interesting variation on the old 'veteran actress vs. young ingenue' premise.

Binoche plays celebrated actress Maria Enders, who is about to begin working on a new production of the play which made her a star back when she was 18. The play involves the relationship between an older woman and a young secretary who brings her down. Now playing the role of the older woman, Enders experiences a serious crisis of confidence as she finds herself unable to shake off her perception of the role from back when she played the younger role. Stewart plays her increasingly unsettled assistant, who finds it increasingly difficult to keep up with her employer/friend's process. Chloe Grace Moretz pops in as the up-and-coming Hollywood train wreck (think Lindsay Lohan) who has been cast in Enders' old role.

There are a lot of themes bouncing around here, relating to age, creative processes, public and private performance, reconnecting with (or being imprisoned by) the past, and most importantly, the subjectivity of the audience. All juicy stuff, which becomes the foundation for some great tête-à-têtes between Binoche and Stewart as they run lines ahead of rehearsals.

If I have any gripes, the first is that some of these arguments come off a little forced. Some of the dialogue clunks as the characters start to work over themes which should be subtext, but which just become text. My other gripe is Chloe Grace Moretz. This is a personal peeve, but I have never really been able to take her seriously. She always comes off as simultaneously too young and too mature for her years. It's the same thing I had with Dakota Fanning and Natalie Portman. Moretz just comes off as too intelligent and in control to convince as a Hollywood party animal.

Overall however, I enjoyed this movie a great deal. It feels like a good bet for a re-watch, and I might give it another look when it comes out for home viewing. Definitely worth a look.

I love a good John Carpenter movie. Since he's too busy watching gridiron to make movies, it's good that a generation of up-and-coming filmmakers have adopted his style and themes for their own works: films like Attack The Block, The Raid, and my own favourite, Dredd, have taken Carpenter's lo-fi, urban claustrophobia and made it relevant again.

'71 shares a number of Carpenter tropes -- sustained takes; wide angles of darkened rooms and hallways; a pulsating electronic score -- but has the intelligence and imagination to use them in a way that serves the story and does not feel like mere homage.

The premise is simple: a green British squadie (Jack O'Connell, great) arrives in Belfast in the middle of the 'Troubles.' He is separated from his unit during a riot and has to make his way back to barracks through the city's backstreets, while dodging the provisional IRA, ordinary citizens and ostensible allies, the Ulster militia.

Unlike Carpenter, who reduces his antagonists to pure images of evil, the makers of '71 go to great pains to colour everyone in shades of grey, reinforcing the confusing, complicated alliances, deals and grievances underpinning the situation in the city. This historical realism serves to increase the tension, as O'Connell finds that friends can be as dangerous as the supposed enemy. In the end, '71 is less one 'good guy's' triumph over adversity, and more like a drowning sailor being tossed and turned by forces outside his control.

It's early days yet, but as it stands, '71 is one of the best films I've seen this year, and definitely the highlight of my Festival experience thus far. Catch it when it comes out on home video and streaming services. It is amazing.

The Lobster
Going in, I had no idea what this was about. I read the synopsis, saw the above picture of Lea Seydoux scowling at a pig, became wonderfully confused and immediately booked a ticket.

I am still wonderfully confused. I mean, I think I get what this film is about -- I can follow the plot, I can tease out a theme or two, I enjoy the performances -- but I cannot really grasp what it is I have just seen.

The plot goes something like this: In the future(?), society has undergone a transformation of some kind(?). Oh Christ. Uh, so basically you have to be in a couple if you want to be a part of society (hetero or gay, doesn't matter as long as you got a ring on it). Colin Farrell's wife has left him for another man, so he has to go to this hotel in the country where he has 30 days to find a new 'partner' or he will be transformed into an animal of his own choosing (i.e. a lobster). His other option is to hide out in the woods with Seydoux's quasi-Colonel Kurtz and her un-merry band of 'loners', who let you do whatever you want as long as you do not pair off with anyone. Great options all round!

There is something off about this movie. It has a really dark sense of humour that I liked, but there are certain bits where the deadpan does not quite land. Most of problems have to do with the voice-over by Rachel Weisz -- her performance in the movie is great, but her narration is so flat and over-explanatory that it kind of bogged down the early part of the movie.

Apart from that, I liked the performances. Colin Farrell does well as a mild-mannered milquetoast, Ben Winshaw is his usual reliable self and Seydoux makes for a surprisingly effective antagonist (to be honest, most of the characters in the movie are terrible people, but her character takes it up a notch or 10). I have always found Seydoux's gloomy countenance somewhat unsettling (whether it's a Woody Allen movie or Mission: Impossible, she always looks like she's about to stab somebody for killing her cat) and it is put to good use here.

Overall, I recommend it just on the basis of it being both really weird and oddly watchable. I don't know if it succeeds at what it is trying to achieve, but it is pretty enjoyable. If you are in the mood for watching familiar faces (Ashley Jensen, Olivia Coleman and John C. Reilly turn up) doing weird stuff, or just want to watch something a bit different, maybe you will like this. I certainly won't forget it.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Stanley Baker: The UK's original hard man

Sean Connery considered him an inspiration. He gave Michael Caine his first big role.

A scruffy Welshman with stubble and a glint in his eye, Baker represented a new kind of British screen hero in the 50s. Tough, working class and virile, Baker was far closer to the leading men of Hollywood than John Mills or Kenneth More.

Thanks to the success of films like Hell DriversHell Is A City and Joseph Losey's The Criminal, Baker was at the vanguard of the wave of young British actors (Finney, Courtenay and Stamp) who would overthrow the old guard. While he delivered great performances in films like Accident, Baker is best known for his leading role in Zulu. A massive historical epic about the famous last stand at Rourke's Drift, Zulu was a personal project for Baker -- as well as starring, he also co-wrote and produced the film.

Baker failed to make the transition to Hollywood (he was one of the original choices for James Bond), sticking to British productions in which he continued to deliver a series of interesting, dark performances (check out his work with Joseph Losey for some of his best work). He died in 1976 at the ridiculously early age of 48.

While he is less well known today, Baker's impact in shattering the traditional image of a British leading man continues to be felt in the rugged, blue collar appeal of actors such as the late Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, and younger performers such as Daniel Craig and our lord and saviour Jason Statham.

Signature films: Hell Drivers, Criminal, Hell Is A City, The Guns of NavaroneZulu, Accident

Monday, 20 July 2015

Film festival viewing notes: Girlhood

And so it begins. The Auckland International Film Festival 2015. YAY! As a preamble, I still have some complimentary tickets to the festival. If anyone is interested, drop me a line. Any movie you want, free of charge. And now onto my first review of the season (selection? roster?), Girlhood, a French film directed by Celine Sciamma.

Funnily enough, in thinking about this movie, I could not help but compare it to the film I previously reviewed, Francois Ozon's Young & Beautiful. Both movies are about young women trying to find their own way in the world, and to this end both characters become involved in underworld activities (internet escorts and drug-dealing).

Girlhood is the story of a 16 year old girl Marieme (Karidja Touré). Unable to finish school due to poor grades, and unwilling to follow her mother into menial work and an apartment full of kids, Marieme joins an all-girl gang. While this leads to fights and petty theft, it also gives Marieme a new kind of family -- all the girls are stuck in the same place, with no real hope of getting out. With their only options crime or motherhood, they have made the only choice that makes sense.

This film is not about plot. It's a brave attempt to shine a light on the kinds of people and events that you do not see in Hollywood, or quite frankly, French cinema. It is rare to see minority actresses so firmly centrestage  and the young cast here are fantastic. I can't say anything more -- I just hope that this film opens up doors for them, and other French actors, to get onscreen. This film really jostled me awake about the lack of minority actors in French movies. 

love the use of music in this movie. The opening sequence, where all the local girls play American football in full pads and helmets, is scored with the track 'Dark Allies' by the band Light Asylum. Gets the juices pumping from the off. There is a scene where the girl gang lip-sync to Rhianna's song 'Diamonds' which almost made me cry. I don't even like the song, but in this context, with the girls dancing around a hotel room in stolen ball gowns, is so gloriously empowering. For a few minutes, they can just be teenagers goofing off and having fun.

See it for: The scene where they play mini golf, which is one of the funniest things I've seen in years.

Final thoughts: It's a good flick. We've seen quite a few films over the years that deal with teenage delinquency, so this lacks a certain freshness, but the young cast and Sciamma's direction help give Girlhood a vibrancy that help it stick out from the pack.

Jeune & Jolie (Young & Beautiful)

Continuing my recent dalliances with Gallic indies, here is a short review of the 2013 film Jeune & Jolie (Young & Beautiful)The story of a teenage girl who becomes a professional escort, Jeune & Jolie is the kind of movie that could have turned into a piece of exploitive, misogynistic trash. With this kind of subject matter, it takes a delicate touch -- somehow Jeune & Jolie manages to walk the tightrope between exploitation and character study, without ever tipping over the edge.

In an attempt to provide some kind of structure for my ramblings, and to avoid spoilers, I'm going to run through the major things which stuck out about this movie in the following categories.

The story: Isabelle is a 17 year old girl who is making her first moves into adult relationships. While on holiday, she has her first sexual experience with another teenager. The experience does nothing for her, and she avoids him for the rest of her trip. The film jumps forward to autumn, where Isabelle is back home and finishing high school. Unable, or unwilling, to date or socialise with her peers, but still curious about what she actually wants from a physical relationship, Isabelle finds her way into the world of internet escorts -- a forum where she can set the rules and avoid emotional entanglements.

The direction: Directed by Francois Ozon (2003's Swimming Pool), the film has a distanced, somewhat remote perspective similar to what Soderbergh attained with The Girlfriend Experience. While there is no real plot, there is a strong sense of directorial control and purpose to the way the story develops. Ozon's perspective is analogous to Hitchcock: neither consciously objective or subjective,  he uses his camera to direct the viewer's attention while never revealing exactly what is significant about what he is showing.

While there are no obvious plot points, there is a vague sense of cause and effect to each scene which lends the story a weird sense of momentum and tension. Something is out of whack in this girl's world and it is up to the viewer to figure it out.

In terms of the sexual content, there is nothing erotic about the young woman's encounters. The film does not linger on the physical component of her profession, preferring to record it from a remove or cut away. Ultimately, what makes the film so intriguing is that Ozon never explains why Isabelle does what she does. Further more, he does not ruin the story by providing a tidy or moralistic climax -- there are no 'punishment' or 'redemption' plot conveniences, and no easy answers.

Narrative structure: The film takes place over the course of a year, and is split into four segments of time, taking placing during a particular season of the year. This structural device works on a couple of inter-related levels: Practically, it compresses the character's evolution into an endurable running time (a tight 93 minutes). It also adds to the film's ambiguity - there is a strange variation of the Kuleshov effect going on here, as the viewer is forced to juxtapose an earlier version of the central character, against an older, more worldly iteration without the filmmakers showing explicitly how and why the character has changed. Finally, going back to what I said about tension, these 'seasonal jumps' act in the same way that act breaks in a play do -- they act as both cliffhangers for the story, and as a breather for the viewer to acclimatise to a new scenario.

Acting: A movie like Jeune & Jolie lives and dies on the performance of its lead actress. Simply put, Marine Vacth is a revelation. Enigmatic and fragile, world weary and naive, she is a real discovery. A former model with few credits, this film was her big break, and a well-deserved one at that. Expect great things from this one.

It is rare to see a mature, nuanced take on female agency and sexuality which does not find some way to demonise or punish its protagonist for attempting to express her own sexual identity. Jeune & Jolie succeeds in avoiding that trap, while also avoiding the potential for turning Isabelle into a male fantasy of female desire.

Overall, a strong recommend. 

Monday, 13 July 2015

A palette cleanser

Hey guys, been away for awhile. I'll be coming back in a big bad way when the film festival starts in Auckland next week. In the meantime here's a couple of short reviews of new releases I've seen recently.

Jurassic World
Not a patch on the original, but a decent monster movie all the same. The sexual politics alone seat it firmly back in another era, but the movie as whole feels like a classic Fifties monster movie with added CGI. Far funnier than I thought, and Bryce Dallas Howard looked great running in heels.

Me, Earl and the Dying Girl
This movie has been getting a lot of praise. I don't get it. The movie's idea of being clever seems to be taking every vaguely meta idea from every Sundance hit from the last decade and throwing them in a blender. The cast are fine, and a few scenes are effective, but this movie was too precious for its own good. The title really highlights the other problem I had with this movie - the movie reduces all its characters to types. The 'dying girl' is just that - she's an idea, not a character, one designed to make the self-involved 'Me' becomes less of a self-pitying tool. Meanwhile, Earl is just a caricature of the 'wise black friend'. Disappointing and overrated.

To pad this out, here's a few book recommendations.

Miracle Man
Alan Moore's classic series has been out of print for decades, and has finally been released in 3 nice volumes complete with special features. Highly influential and bursting with philosophical concepts and ideas about the nature of power, it is worth a look.

Death of a Citizen
The first entry in the novel series by Donald Hamilton, this short, brutal thriller introduces retired government hatchet man Matt Helm. Drawn back into his old ways by an old colleague, the book works as both a thriller and a man's descent into darkness. Surprisingly violent, the book does not obey all the conventions you would expect, as Helm's willingness to disregard laws, orders and morality makes him into more of a monster than the villains. While other anti-heroes go on about their dark sides (Batman, Dredd, Bond and Reacher), Helm is the real deal, and Hamilton does not try to cast his actions as heroic.

Red Harvest
A classic thriller that has served as the basis for Yojimbo and its remake Fistful of Dollars, Red Harvest is one of the best books from hard boiled writer Dashiell Hammett. The premise is great: a stranger comes to a town torn apart by warring gangs, and then uses their various weaknesses, secrets and grievances to bring them down from within. But a great premise alone does not a great book make - the characters are all vividly drawn, the pace never lets up and Hammett's prose is so economical and punchy that it transcends its 20s milieu to still feel fresh.

Strip Tease
Fun, fun, fun. Carl Hiassen's hilarious account of a debauched congressman's entanglements with an exotic dancer is so good, I'm still kicking myself that I have never read him before. Whip smart, funny and occasionally moving, Strip Tease is well worth a look.