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.

NZIFF 2013 Diary: A BAND CALLED DEATH

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.

A-band-called-deathI have been listening to punk rock music for almost 20 years, and I thought had a decent grasp on the origins of the genre. Spurred on by apathy towards the self-indulgent rock scene of the 70s, bands like The Ramones, Television, and Blondie started a underground movement which the Sex Pistols would soon vomit into the headlines, and the rest was history.

A Band Called Death is here to call into question everything that I thought I knew about the origins of punk music. Long forgotten (although they were only ever known by a few), Death predate The Ramones by at least a couple of years, and at a time when Led Zeppelin and Roger Emerson were destroying rock music with nine minute long solos and songs about wizards and fairies and Christ knows what, in Detroit three young black brothers were creating some of the most innovative rock and roll in years.

I’m not going to hide that fact that for me, as a punk fan, A Band Called Death is a kind of Rosetta Stone. The film documents a missing, vital piece of punk rock history that was unearthed in an attic in 2008, some 33 years after being recorded, a piece that previously was little more than a whisper among hardcore collectors.

However, the story of the three brothers is so much more than a punk story, and really the music itself plays a only minor part. What A Band Called Death delivers is a tale of faith, family, and a tortured, uncompromising musical visionary who went to his grave unrecognised and unknown. The Hackney family are a joy to learn about, but there’s an element of great sadness as there always is when a powerful talent passes far too soon.

For punk rock fans, A Band Called Death is essential viewing, if only to introduce the phenomenal music these three brothers created, but even those who aren’t interested in the music of Death should seek this out. I’ve already heard it called this year’s Searching for Sugarman (which isn’t an entirely incorrect comparison), but if anything A Band Called Death has a stronger story without the schmaltzy tone, and the music is more important for its innovation.

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NZIFF 2013 Diary: TO THE WONDER

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.

To-The-Wonder-Trailer8Terence Malick’s To The Wonder was not only my most anticipated film of the NZIFF, but maybe my most anticipated of the whole year. I was already a massive fan of the reclusive director, and after 2011’s The Tree of Life, which would sit very high among my favourite films of all time, I was understandably eager to see what was next.

It’s not surprising that there are a lot of similarities between To The Wonder and The Tree of Life, given that they were released just two years apart, uncharacteristically fast for Malick. The two works feel like they are designed to go hand in hand, as the look is almost identical, and they cover overlapping ground, albeit set 50 years or so apart*.

Where the core story of the previous film was about family dynamics, To The Wonder is primarily about the turbulent relationship between Marina (Olga Kurylenko in the performance of the year) and Neil (Ben Affleck). As per usual Malick shows almost no interest in conventional exposition, telling his story with imagery and peppering it with his signature disjointed narration. There’s no mistaking a Malick film, and for the most part To The Wonder is textbook stuff.

No one else has ever moved the camera like this, and it all feels so impossibly spontaneous, as if he simply wanders around beautiful locations with his cast and shoots whatever captures his eye. As a result, there’s always going to be a disconnect for some people. Why would he stop shooting his characters to watch someone pushing leaves around with a leaf blower? Because that’s what makes him Malick.

While always staggeringly beautiful, To The Wonder isn’t quite as successful with its story telling, at least not on the first viewing. While the central thread concerning Kurylenko and Affleck is very strong, fraying into deeper thematic territory in just the right places, a couple of significant side plots involving a fling between Affleck and Rachel McAdams, and particularly Javier Bardem’s spiritually aimless priest, don’t quite land.

Malick is known for shooting vast volumes of footage to shape his films, and stories abound about entire characters and subplots being removed completely, and that’s what Bardem’s character’s story feels like to me, the remnant of a larger story. The ghost of what the links would be are there, as Kurylenko wrestles with her faith throughout the film, but in the end Bardem is little more than a face for her struggle, and his own story only lingers in vague traces.

To The Wonder is certainly going to be a film that, like all of Malick’s work, I will return to several times. My gut feeling right now is that it’s one of his lesser efforts, but there’s still more here to chew on than the vast majority of films being made right now.

(*side note: nothing would make me happier than to see Malick continue this trend and make a family/relationship drama set 50 years into the future.)

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NZIFF 2013 Diary: MUD

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.

mud

While it’s not without its problems, Jeff Nichols’ parable Mud hit a personal sweet spot for me. Long have I lamented the recent state of American films made with a younger audience in mind, and I have suffered through countless neutered, cut-and-paste family films that are terrified of taking any risks and leave zero moral grey area for kids to interpret themselves. Mud however is a throwback to many films from my 1980s youth, recalling the earlier work Dante, Zemeckis, Rob Reiner, and most obviously Spielberg.

I can’t remember the last time a movie nailed the universal nuances of boyhood quite as well as Mud. The Tree of Life springs to mind, but Mud doesn’t have the same cryptic ambition. Nichols just wants to spin an old-fashioned boy’s adventure yarn, and for the most part, especially when he sticks with the boys Ellis (Tye Sheridan, who coincidentally also had a part in The Tree of Life) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) in two remarkably assured performances from such young actors.

Nichols packs the supporting cast with bigger names including Matthew McConaughey (still in the thick of an amazing comeback streak), Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon, and Joe Don Baker, but they all, with the possible exception of McConaughey, play second fiddle to the boys. Unfortunately Nichols’ writing of the adult characters didn’t seem to be as important either, as Shannon, Witherspoon and Baker aren’t given much to do, and the always tremendous Shepard doesn’t really get as much screen time as I would have liked from his character.

Anyone with kids around the same age as the leads, particularly boys, should seek out Mud. It’s darker than most family fare these days, and prying deeper into the film might yield some questionable gender issues, but it captures the spirit of being a kid so well that real kids will be swept away with it.

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