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.

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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.

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.

BEKAS

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!

BekasIraqi director Karzan Kader’s Bekas tells the story of two young Iraqi shoe-shining orphans, setting out on a journey from their rural town with dreams of meeting Superman in America. Like many films of its ilk, it relies wholly on the charm of its young leads, but their aggressive cuteness can only mask the film’s many problems up to a certain point.

Young, untested actors have the ability to surprise with their naiveté and naturalism, but there simply has to be a very patient, skilled director to wrangle them, which Kader is sadly not. Having these children (and the rest of the cast) bellow their lines at one another begins to grate pretty quickly, and while the film looks terrific, it feels like a very impatient move to not give as much care to the performances as to the look.

There is an interesting wrinkle to Bekas however, but I can’t discern how much is intentional and not just a curious coincidence. It’s important how little Zana (Zamand Taha) and Dana (Sarwar Fazil) know about their planned destination other than what they have gleaned from limited interactions with icons of pop culture. Their travels are inspired by Superman, they risk injury and separation in pursuit of Coca-Cola, and even name their donkey Michael Jackson, but it’s all nothing more than an ideal.

The odd part is the same thing could be said about the film itself. Kader shoehorns in so much Hollywood style, evoking classic westerns, spy films, even a little Star Wars, but the effect is to trivialise the larger issues at play in the story. If it’s an intentional conceit it’s only moderately successful, but it feels more like Kader’s desperate attempt to recreate the movies he’s clearly well versed in, with only the skeleton of a clichéd, and ultimately unresolved story.

WHITE LIES

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!

8854141I was fortunate enough over the weekend to attend a screening of NZ feature White Lies followed by a revealing Q+A session with writer/director Dana Rotberg, star Antonia Prebble, composer John Psathas and novelist Witi Ihimaera. It might seem odd for a film about NZ colonial identity to be made by a Mexican filmmaker, but surprisingly the story benefits greatly by coming from an outside perspective.

Adapted from Witi Ihimaera’s novella Medicine Woman, White Lies doesn’t have a particularly well told story at its core, but is nonetheless an important film for NZ to have produced. Set during the early days of settlement, the film depicts a sinuous power struggle between colonial housewife Rebecca (Prebble), her housemaid Maraea (Rachel House), and Paraiti (Whirimako Black), the Maori medicine woman whose particular skills and discretion are sought.

The shifting dominance of each of these women, representing different aspects of female identity at the time, weaves a compelling and bleak narrative, but some of the story beats that should have had greater impact unfortunately fall a little flat. Elements that needed more room to breathe play out much too quickly, not allowing audiences time to digest, although the film’s closing scenes are powerful. White Lies deals with uncomfortable subject matter, and Rotberg doesn’t shy away from the story’s most tragic aspects.

Thankfully, White Lies looks better than any NZ film for some time. The cinematography by NZ legend Alun Bollinger gives the rugged setting of the film a beautifully oppressive quality reminiscent of his work on Vincent Ward’s Vigil, and has moments of rare, haunting beauty. 

White-LiesIt’s a shame that most viewers will be unable to hear Rotberg speak about her approach to the film. The director’s keen understanding of the tragedy of colonialism in her homeland brings significance to White Lies that a Kiwi director may have been guarded about addressing, and hearing her thoughts on NZ colonialism and our nervous attitude about exposing our own violent past was incredibly refreshing. Her desire to treat the subject with integrity while never sugarcoating it comes across with wonderful passion, and while she remained respectful of the source material, she makes no excuses for altering Ihimaera’s work to suit her own vision. Despite the film’s faults, White Lies takes more risks and offers deeper perspective than most NZ films of late.

THE GREAT GATSBY

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!

The-Great-GatsbyI can’t remember the last time a film took me by surprise quite as much as Baz Luhrmann’s lavish, lascivious adaptation of The Great Gatsby. If you’ve seen the marketing for the film you might think (as I did) that you know what to expect, but beyond all the glitz and spectacle, Luhrmann and his fantastic cast offer a faithful, enveloping and timely take on the greatest novel of the twentieth century.

Luhrmann’s unique vision of Gatsby gets off to such a rocky start that it’s tempting to write the film off. This is the film we saw in the trailers, where it feels like the director is retreating back to the past success of Moulin Rouge, tragically taking a treasured classic with him. Snatches of story are doled out amidst the chaos of the decadent backdrop, an attempt to disorient us alongside Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) that just doesn’t succeed. However just as it reaches insufferable limits, Luhrmann reigns in his most self-indulgent whims and lets F. Scott Fitzgerald take over.

Having a top-notch cast inhabit these iconic roles really brings out the power of the story, and Leonardo DiCaprio and Joel Edgerton in particular shine through Luhrmann’s bluster when he lets them, as he thankfully does for the second half of Gatsby. DiCaprio expertly juggles both sides of Jay Gatsby, transforming his enigmatic traits into insecurity and warped ambition, and Edgerton captures the brash entitlement of the vile Tom Buchanan wonderfully.

Luhrmann has never been known for his restraint, yet beyond the difficult opening act he manages to engage through story not style, even saving a stinging indictment of modern excess that hovers just out of reach right until the closing moments. Like the titular character himself, there’s much more to Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby below the surface.

Thread Kapiti Review: THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST

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!

film_review_the_reluctant_fundamentalist_519db05499It’s an admirable move by director Mira Nair to centre an American thriller around a Muslim leading man, if only she was willing to take as many risks with the story telling. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a Hollywood-Qatar co-production with a terrific supporting cast alongside a little known leading man (Riz Ahmed), is a convoluted pastiche, trying to say so much that it ends up saying almost nothing.

The film plays out largely in flashback, after Pakistani Changez (Ahmed) and his family are implicated in the kidnap of a foreign colleague, and he is forced to prove his innocence by recounting the story of his life to a shady American journalist (Liev Schreiber) embedded in Lahore. The problem is that despite what the marketing would have you believe, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is only about one third of an effective thriller.

Understandably for a film dealing with complex American-Islamist geopolitics, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is heavy on 9/11 drama, attempting to offer a fresh look by showing the fallout from the attacks from the other side. It’s an idea with potential for an issue that is already well-trodden cinematic ground, and as such it’s a great shame that the film’s capitalism/terrorism parallels are glaringly obvious, and rather than truly confronting the audience with anything new and challenging, Nair gets bogged down in tired tropes and an unlikely and unnecessary romantic sub plot that sucks up the already long screen time. 

One or two of these elements drawn out and explored with an increased focus might have made for a more satisfying experience, but Nair seems to have taken the approach to throw as much as she could at the screen hoping that most of it would stick, but instead there are mere glimpses of a good film buried under far too much clutter.