Glory Days Magazine Review: MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET

This is another in my ongoing classic film review segment I’m writing in NZ vintage lifestyle magazine Glory Days. It’s a really cool mag, so be sure to check it out here.

600full-miracle-on-34th-street-posterI’m often asked what it is about classical cinema that I find so constantly enthralling, and while there are myriad reasons I could give, perhaps my favourite is the sense of surprise that comes from peering through a window on a bygone era. Miracle on 34th Street is a good example; a film made famous for its wholesome representation of Christmas, but beneath its festive wrapping exists a revealing study of social instability and modern anxiety.

“Christmas is a frame of mind.” So says Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn), an elderly gentleman employed by lavish New York department store Macy’s to fill the role of Santa Claus, a position left empty by the drunken incompetence of his predecessor.

Kris however believes himself to be the real Santa, appearing at a time when the meaning of Christmas has been forgotten, buried under the onslaught of crass commercialism. What better place than a department store to remind everyone what the holiday is about?

Kris takes it upon himself to convince non-believing Doris (Maureen O’Hara) and her precocious young daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) that he is in fact Santa. Yet his habit of sending shoppers to competitor Gimbels in search of gifts lands him in hot water with Macy’s management and the nefarious store psychologist Granville Sawyer (Porter Hall), who insists Kris be committed.

600full-miracle-on-34th-street-screenshotLike so many films of the era, Miracle on 34th Street ends up in a courtroom, that bastion of American freedom, as Kris fights to prove his true identity. With the aid of do-gooder lawyer (and Doris’ love interest) Fred Gailey (John Payne), and culminating in a now iconic scene involving the delivery of thousands of letters to Santa into the courtroom, all is wrapped up with a neat, inevitable little bow.

With the gift of hindsight, some troubling issues about the social climate in 1948 are what make Miracle on 34th Street such a pleasure to unwrap. The film is ostensibly about reclaiming the meaning of the season, and representing the cynicism of modernity we have Doris, an apartment dwelling single mother with a high-powered job, the very antithesis of family values at the time. Sure she’s successful, but her unconventional situation offers an uneasy portrait of female societal roles, and the film is constantly berating the audience about how wrong she is. 

Most tellingly, young Susan’s Christmas wish is a house in the suburbs away from the fast-paced world of her mother’s job, obviously with new father Fred as part of the package. In the end Miracle on 34th Street isn’t about whether Kris is in fact the real Santa Claus, but about the restoration of a more acceptable family equilibrium for the time. It can be enjoyed for its seasonal sweetness, but there’s a dash of bitterness in this Christmas treat.

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Thread Kapiti Review: MOOD INDIGO

mood-indigo10Fresh from its appearance at the NZ International Film Festival, Michel Gondry’s Mood Indigo has returned to cinemas for an art house run. Almost.

Since the festival, the powers that be have edited more than 30 minutes out of Mood Indigo for wide release, and while I didn’t see the longer cut, the film appears to suffer, particularly in the third act, from its studio-imposed brevity.

Beginning as a simple love story between Colin (Romain Duris) and Chloe (Audrey Tatou), the film features Gondry’s signature hand-crafted style, using stop-motion and in camera trickery to craft a charming, whimsical, and very French world. Early on, Mood Indigo’s more upbeat tone is like a Looney Tunes cartoon come to life, and the attention to detail is wonderfully enchanting.

Sadly, as the story begins to take a more sombre turn at around the halfway point, what remains of the visual trickery and some of the sillier elements of the world begin to wear a little. As Gondry continues into downright depressing territory, it becomes clear that all of the earlier gimmickry is masking a pretty thin story, and while it’s fun to look at, the visual style fails to add any real substance.

By all accounts the longer festival cut was a fully involving and moving fantasy romance, but what we are now offered is a film that tumbles toward its conclusion without giving the audience enough time to process it. Whether or not a future DVD release will make Gondry’s original vision available remains to be seen, but there’s just enough here to make me think a longer version would be worthwhile. 

As it is, Mood Indigo is a unique but unsatisfying experience, possibly a sad casualty of studio meddling.

Thread Kapiti Review: MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

The following is a review I wrote for Thread, a new publication on the Kapiti Coast in New Zealand. Pick up a copy if you’re in the area, or you can visit their blog version here. Hopefully this will be a somewhat regular thing, so support a really cool new thing!

much-ado-about-nothingSomewhere amidst making The Avengers (one of the biggest films of all time), director Joss Whedon, apparently on a whim, gathered a bunch of friends to his house in Hollywood. His plan was to adapt another literary work, William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, about as far from mega-budget tentpole filmmaking as you can get. 

Casting the film with familiar stars from previous work and soaking the whole thing in gallons of wine, Whedon pulls off Much Ado with aplomb. One of the Bard’s breeziest comedies, the film takes place over the course of a few days and concerns two vastly different couples each approaching romance in their unique way. 

Hero (Jillian Morgese) and Claudio (Fran Kranz), the doe-eyed pair arranged to be wed by their high powered fathers, are hindered by the scandalous meddling of Don John (Sean Maher) and his troublesome cronies. Theirs is a relationship typical of Shakespeare’s lighter work, all misunderstanding and melodrama, and Morgese in particular suffers through her bland role.

Where Much Ado comes alive however is in the relationship of Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker). Gifted with some of the sharpest, funniest dialogue in literary history, the pair dominate the film, with Denisof’s roguish, sarcastic charm the perfect counterpoint to Acker’s wonderful, star-making turn. The chemistry between them is like a lightning bolt right into the heart of the story, and it’s pure joy to watch them bicker and banter.

It’s impressive that Whedon could so expertly segue from the pinnacle of blockbuster filmmaking to such an intimate work as Much Ado, but the film feels like a truly collaborative effort, the output of a few friends with the talent and the time. You’re unlikely to have more fun in the cinema all year.

NZIFF 2013 Diary: ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE

For the 2013 New Zealand International Film Festival I figured I’d try and keep some kind of a review diary covering each of the 20 or so films I’m planning to see. It’s going to be a busy couple of weeks.

Only-Lovers-Left-Alive-stillA perfect ending to this years NZIFF, to rival last year’s stunning Holy Motors, Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive apparently had to have clearance from the esoteric director himself before they were allowed to be screened. Fortunately for the packed Embassy Theatre, he gave the thumbs up.

What has become clear to me is that the world needs more arthouse vampire films. Only Lovers Left Alive joins the ranks of two other relatively recent films Let the Right One In and Thirst, as examples of how to effectively tweak the well-worn genre. Each explores the vampiric curse in their own unique way, and show that the vampire genre still has fangs, even if all the teenagers have forgotten.

Only Lovers Left Alive is a bizarre window into the life of a pair of married vampires, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton). Initially separated for unexplained reasons, Adam and Eve’s respective lives seem to be in a holding pattern. He, an apparent musical genius, lives a reclusive existence, meandering through the rooms of his run down Detroit villa and only venturing out to collect blood from his ‘dealer’ (Jeffrey Wright). She however walks the narrow alleys of Tangiers, spending time with a long-time acquaintance, the eccentric Marlowe (John Hurt), the real writer behind Shakespeare and who knows how many others.

As Eve sees Adam sink deeper into a suicidal depression, she opts to fly to Detroit to be with him, and it’s upon her arrival that Hiddleston and Swinton really come alive. Jarmusch displays how effective good casting can be, with Hiddleston perfect for the moping yet creatively brilliant Adam, and Swinton at her slinky, alien best as Eve. As well as Hurt, Anton Yelchin does solid work as Adam’s conduit to the outside world Ian, and Mia Wasikowska shines as Eve’s troublesome sister Ava.

Like several other Jarmusch films I can think of, there is great thematic depth to Only Lovers Left Alive that will doubtless reward multiple viewings. There’s clear allegorical comment about Detroit and Hollywood, and a lot is being said about music, literature, art, and probably dozens of things that flew over my head, but I’m eager to dive back in as soon as possible.

And I haven’t even mentioned the incredible work of the art department on the film. Adam’s house itself is a marvel, a once opulent, cavernous mansion now cluttered with what feels like centuries of accumulated baggage. A more fitting abode for Adam I can’t imagine. Only Lovers Left Alive wrapped up the New Zealand International Film Festival for 2013 in fine style, and while I’m a little relieved it’s over, I’m already counting down the days until NZIFF 2014.

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NZIFF 2013 Diary: MANIAC

For the 2013 New Zealand International Film Festival I figured I’d try and keep some kind of a review diary covering each of the 20 or so films I’m planning to see. It’s going to be a busy couple of weeks.

maniac__spanIt speaks pretty highly of the lineup for the 2013 NZIFF that there’s only one film I saw that I would like to extricate from my memory. That film is Maniac.

A remake of a semi-classic 1980 slasher movie, Maniac is the story of Frank (Elijah Wood), a deeply disturbed vintage mannequin restorer (a profession that could only exist in a horror film) with a penchant for viciously murdering young women to collect their scalps. Following an encounter with young artist Anna (Nora Amezeder) who wants to use some of Frank’s mannequins for an art show, we’re led down a dark alley of obsession.

The hook for Maniac (and certainly the reason for it’s much discussed ban in NZ outside of festival screenings) is the unconventional style, in that the whole film is filmed from Frank’s point of view. In a better film, the ban might open up an interesting debate regarding POV violence in entertainment, given the popularity of first-person shooter video games etc, but it seems Maniac doesn’t have much to say beneath its ugly surface.

Aside from a startling and effective opening sequence, the film is peppered with some very upsetting scenes of violence towards women, feeling like relics from a more barbaric era of cinema. Director Franck Khalfoun clearly thinks he’s making Peeping Tom for the 21st century, but despite the intriguing technique, he doesn’t generate any tension with Maniac, instead presenting the extreme violence seemingly for the sake of it. In between we have to suffer some of the most atrocious, ham-fisted dialogue imaginable, and any attempts to get deeper into Frank’s psychology land with an obvious thud. The rare occasions where Khalfoun’s choices seem to be leading somewhere a little more interesting, as he shifts perspective outside of Frank, are swiftly jettisoned in favour of more nastiness.

Perhaps the only thing in Maniac’s favour is the moody 80s style music by Robin Coudert, but even that makes up for little when it accompanies such a vapid film. In better hands a film like Maniac might have had some interesting things to say, but this is a film to be avoided.

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NZIFF 2013 Diary: DIAL M FOR MURDER 3D

For the 2013 New Zealand International Film Festival I figured I’d try and keep some kind of a review diary covering each of the 20 or so films I’m planning to see. It’s going to be a busy couple of weeks.

movie-dial-m-murder-01I had myself convinced before entering the cinema that Dial M for Murder was a Hitchcock film I hadn’t previously seen, but as I was watching it slowly began to come flooding back. I can’t for the life of me recall when I had seen it, but ultimately it didn’t matter. Dial M for Murder is pure Hitchcock mastery, an elaborately plotted work with the greatest filmmaker of all time at his experimental peak.

In terms of the master’s canon, Dial M for Murder sits comfortably with his one-shot exercise Rope, and is definitely a precursor to the film he made next Rear Window. Set almost entirely in one apartment, the story concerns one man’s (Ray Milland) jealous and greed-fueled ambition to commit the perfect murder. His wealthy wife (Grace Kelly) has been unfaithful, and after securing the services of an old college acquaintance (Anthony Dawson), he plots a seamless scheme to exact his revenge, collecting a hefty inheritance in the process. Unsurprisingly, not all goes to plan.

Several times Hitchcock tested himeslf to do a lot with little, and Dial M for Murder is a classic example. By restricting himself to such a confined space he is obliged to fire through very heavy dialogue sequences, and while it’s a lot to absorb, it’s all crafted so exquisitely that it’s never hard to keep up. It’s also one of his funniest films (second only perhaps to North by Northwest), with Hitchcock not afraid to self-reflexively call his film out when various red herrings begin stretch the limits of feasibility.

Dial M for Murder was the only film Hitchcock shot in 3D, and in an interesting side-note, at the NZIFF this year it was presented in converted 3D, a rare treat. I’m no great fan of the format, but with Dial M for Murder it was unobtrusive to the point of non-existence for the most part, however it was worth it for one iconic shot that people will know when they see, should they ever get the chance to see it in this way. However you choose to see it, Dial M for Murder is a fantastic film that deserves its place among Hitchcock’s greatest.

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Thread Kapiti Review: THE CONJURING

The following is a review I wrote for Thread, a new publication on the Kapiti Coast in New Zealand. Pick up a copy if you’re in the area, or you can visit their blog version here. Hopefully this will be a somewhat regular thing, so support a really cool new thing!

r-THE-CONJURING-large570Not being one to enjoy a lot of new horror films, it’s hard for me to put The Conjuring in context with other films of its ilk in modern cinema. Fortunately though, James Wan’s latest film is so reverential to a past era of the horror genre that I felt right at home.

For the most part, this is a good thing. The style of 1970s horror that The Conjuring owes so much to is a rich well to draw from, although at times the line between taking influence and outright copying gets a little blurry. Stylistically, the most obvious point of reference is The Exorcist, as The Conjuring tells the story of two paranormal investigators (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) investigating a house supposedly containing an evil spirit with a penchant for possession, but other films like The Amityville Horror, Poltergeist, and The Shining all get more than a brief nod.

In a lesser film this might be more of an issue, but The Conjuring is strong enough that you’re not given much of a chance to dwell on its style. It’s a terrifying, visceral experience, executing a classic structure of tension and release better than anything I’ve seen from American horror in years. Wan manages to surprise in just the right moments, preparing the audience for the scares but never firing them from quite where you expect.

The only real issue with the film is something that most people likely won’t even have a problem with: the ‘based on true events’ hook. Yes, the story comes from the testimony of real people, but claiming the events are true is preposterous, dishonest marketing for a film that doesn’t need it. That said, The Conjuring is a well made, well performed, frightening film, at a time when American horror is all but stagnant.