Monday, 25 July 2016

Under The Shadow: NZIFF Review

Under The Shadow: NZIFF Review

Tapping into both childhood fears and mining a rich social setting proves to be fertile ground in Babak Anvari's psychological terror Under the Shadow.

Set in the Iran /Iraq war and using the genre conventions of a haunted house /superstitious myth, it's the story of Shideh (Narges Rashidi) and daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). Shideh has been fighting against the patriarchal society to get back to her studies as a doctor, but losing the fight, she's forced to take control of the household when her doctor husband is posted at a facility near the front line on military service.

But as the shadow of the war creeps closer to Shideh's Tehran apartment and the bombings come closer, she refuses to move out. And things get worse when her young daughter starts to believe they're being haunted by a Djinn....

As a first foray into the horror genre, writer / director Babak Anvari's Under The Shadow both simultaneously embraces the tropes of the genre and gives them a new spin, creating something that feels fresh and exciting. The slow burn of the set up allows you to really engage with Shideh's struggle, and then when Dorsa starts to feel threatened, the atmospherics are simply ramped up another notch. (Granted the idea of a kid under threat is perhaps where the film's creepiness really begins to kick in).

Anvari's embracing of autobiographical elements has clearly enhanced the look and feel of the film, but it's Rashidi as the feminist hero and first time child actor Manshadi who really propel proceedings into the stratosphere. Their interaction and the sneaking feeling that Shideh is losing it are nicely set up and in the initial part of the film the seesawing between who is right and who is wrong veers so clearly back and forth that you're never quite sure if the Djinn concept is anything other than in both of their heads.

Mining the rich vein of paranoia and foreboding with the war in the background and the shredding of nerves works wonders for the audience participation and engagement with Under The Shadow. 

This is not a CGI driven shock fest, but an introduction of a new take on the genre that feels fresh, exciting and could potentially have legs for others to take over; it feels like even by saying so little, the mythology is deeply set up in this film - and the ending offers up the potential for more. The fact its societal setting says much gives a disquiet and insight that adds much to proceedings.

Original, slow burning and psychologically deft, the unsettling Under the Shadow is a clever take on its genre and it's one not to be missed.

NZIFF Interview with Under The Shadow director Babak Anvari

NZIFF Interview with Under The Shadow director Babak Anvari

At the New Zealand International Film Festival, we're quite privileged to get some of the filmmakers here for introductions of their film.

One such director was Babak Anvari, the writer / director of Under The Shadow.

Babak took time after the film to have a brief chat with me about it and the reception it's had on the festival circuit ahead of its UK release.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Batman: The Killing Joke: Film Review

Batman: The Killing Joke: Film Review

Cast: Kevin Conroy, Tara Strong, Mark Hamill
Director: Sam Liu

"First off all, before the horror began, there was a time when capes and fighting crimes was really exciting."

So begins the 26th animated DC Universe film, an adaptation of one of the most praised iconic storylines in the series - the origins of the Joker, from a 1988 graphic novel by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland.

However, Batman: The Killing Joke is predominantly the story of Barbara Gordon's Batgirl (narrated brilliantly by Tara Strong) and her relationship with Batman.

The film starts out with more of a background to Batgirl, her abusive relationship with the Bat (he's emotionally cold and distant from her) and her quest to take down a criminal from the Mob who's obsessed with her.

But then, Batman: The Killing Joke segues into the original graphic novel and what you'd expect from the film - lifting panels from the page and transposing the iconic imagery created by 2000AD supremo Brian Bolland.

Vocally, the film's sound with Conroy and Hamill giving their usual all to Batman and Joker respectively. And Strong's particularly, er, strong with her Barbara Gordon - even if creatively the filmmakers appear to turn this Batgirl into someone who is fawning a little over the non-availability of the Batman.

It's an odd choice and along with a controversial sex scene (yep, you heard that right), the Killing Joke appears to have dangerous things to say about the portrayal of Batgirl and women in general. While it's understandable there's plenty of online commentary on Batman's behaviour after his controlling instincts kick in and he ignores after the Bat-booty call, the film's handling of Batgirl in the aftermath is weak.

And given the backstory is supposed to give some drive to Batman's desire to punish Joker for Gordon's paralysis, it's odd to note that the original novel lent more weight to that side of the story by making Joker's inherent cruelty seem more random and therefore nastier because of its cold-blooded nature. As with the novel, there are hints that she suffers a sexual assault as well which seem to be backed up in the film.

Perhaps that's some of Batman: The Killing Joke's strength - it faithfully adapts the novel in a way that enhances the original and embraces some of Bolland's original artwork.

But potentially, a lot of the back half of the film is weaker anyway, with the set-up being the more interesting elements of Batman: The Killing Joke; as with most comic books, denouements tend less to hold water and flounder in the face of such story-telling odds. Flashbacks weave into an origins story for the Joker as per the original, and Hamill engenders his Joker with the definitive touches.

All in all, even with the controversial elements and an ending that is up for discussion after these two yin and yang nemeses share a joke, the over-riding feeling with Batman: The Killing Joke is that it's an animated tale that is more Batgirl's story.

Whether that's a good thing, or whether the joke's on the audience, time will perhaps tell.

Embrace: NZIFF Review

Embrace: NZIFF Review

Much like fellow Aussie Damon Gameau and his quest against the undeclared sugars in our diet, Body Positive movement founder Taryn Brumfitt is hoping to make a change.

With this brisk energetic documentary, Brumfitt's desire to shake up the way we see ourselves first and foremost won't come as a surprise to many who feel the fashion industry and society itself is in need of a change.

They say every picture is worth a 1000 words, and in Brumfitt's case, it was a picture that sparked a 1000 stories - predominantly to her in-box. Posting a non-traditional after image of her body after having had three kids and placing it side-by-side a picture of her winning a body building competition before, her social media was inundated with positivity - and negativity.

And deciding last minute to reject a cosmetic procedure over worrying what message that would send to her young family, Brumfitt decided to do something more positive.

With crowd-funding involved, Brumfitt decided there was something further to explore here and it was time to take on the perception of women in the western world - and more importantly,  empower those looking in the mirror that there's nothing wrong with what they see.

Complete with her red-rimmed glasses and bubbly effervescence, Brumfitt's world trip sees her frankness and openness charm, and she never steers into overt lecturing, preferring instead to let people speak for themselves and consequently inspire her audience.

There's no denying there will be relative whoops of delight when she places all her societally perceived flaws on display with a frank openness that's hard to disparage or mock. In among decrying that she had nipples the size of dinner plates and seeing a cosmetic surgeon claim her body could be enhanced in certain ways when there's nothing inherently wrong with it, Brumfitt's honesty and universal relatability will win over an audience.

The pacy doco may lack some commentary or riposte from the fashion industry it so readily looks to accuse (much like Gameau's That Sugar Film lacked any official response) but given its crowd-funding nature and its inherent positive desire to inspire women and everyday people, it seems only right that the stories and screen time is devoted to those who make up our society rather than those who photoshop it into oblivion dishing out excuses as to why it's valid.

While talking to the likes of celebs Ricki Lake, Amanda de Cadenet to model Stefania Ferrario all have merit, the true strength of the doco comes from time spent with Turia Pitt whose life was changed by a marathon and a bush fire that ravaged her looks and a skinny gaunt girl called Tina, whose tearful declarations will do more to force anger over perpetuating the stereotypes.

Peppered with vox pops over flaws from everyday people further fuels the fire that many are unnecessarily unhappy with their self-worth in a society obsessed with celebs and selfies. Brumfitt doesn't need to over-egg this pudding, the evidence in the body image debate is already overwhelming based on her meet and greets throughout.

One suspects as far as Brumfitt's concerned, even the spark of discussion is a major win for what's important - and Brumfitt's authenticity and entry into the body movement debate may grow the swelling feeling of getting back to what matters in life and not buying into what the social media obsessed world says is important. Presented in non-didactic fashion and with a pace that's energetic rather than lecturing, it's easy to see why it's helping galvanise the body image debate.

There's no denying that Embrace is a rallying cry, a genial non-polemic call from the floor to remember what's actually important in life, and to self-worth. If it inspires an epiphany in anyone viewing or sparks a conversation over perception, then that's no small victory whatsoever.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Captain Fantastic: NZIFF Review

Captain Fantastic: NZIFF Review

Revelling in as much quirk as is cinematically possible and throwing kids into the mix on a road trip film certainly worked well for Little Miss Sunshine.

And to a degree, large parts of it are reused in Captain Fantastic, screenplay and director Matt Ross' film.

Starring Viggo Mortensen as Ben, it's the story of how his brood, who live life off the grid in the woods are forced into the wilds of American civilisation when Ben's wife kills herself. Deciding to gather up the clan and go and rescue her from the horrors of a Christian funeral as per her own wishes, Ben throws his brood onto the bus (named Steve) and sets out on their mission.

Embracing its anarcho-survivalist and pseudo intellectual edges, Captain Fantastic manages to pack in a great deal of humour at the idea of kids trotting out offbeat mantras, from celebrating Noam Chomsky's birthday instead of Christmas and from just generally mining unexpected language from young children's mouthes.

And while Mortensen shines, imbuing Ben with both a sensitivity of belief and a deep love for wanting what he believes best for all, the script's over-reliance on reaction shots to those encountering Ben and his brood for the first time begins to ultimately grate as the road trip moves from point-to-point with nary any reality within.

It serves as a vehicle to pour commentary on America's current obsessions - and indeed a billboard with "Is it immigration or is it invasion" on it feels scarily timely as they rumble toward a Trump-fuelled election.

But when Captain Fantastic lays off the twee quirk and the indoctrination of a doomsday preppers type ethos, it tries desperately - and inevitably - to inject drama and conflict from Ben's beliefs and others' objections to them.

It doesn't always work, simply because the film's solely (and perhaps understandably) on Ben's side (and ultimately the audience as well) and never wants to offer any kind of alternative. The conflict in the last third of the film with Frank Langella's reasoned father in law seems shoe horned in and unable to allow any consequence to flow; loosely, the father in law wants custody of the children out of anger for what's happened and this narrative thread simply melts away out of convenience rather than from resolution.  And a thread over a son's desire to go to college or another's rebellion are given meat early on but don't amount to anything when faced with the love of their father.

It's maddening to say the least, given how wonderfully shot and crowd-pleasing the whole thing is - thankfully, it's helmed by Mortensen's turn as Ben, and when he delivers a eulogy and has his inevitable long dark night of the soul, there's a real poignancy to the moral struggle within - and that's solely testament to Mortensen's presence on the screen.

Otherwise, this culture clash dramedy feels like a hollow experience that revels in its absurdity and trades on a caricature of happy / sad to achieve its emotionally manipulative aims.

Notes on Blindness: NZIFF Review

Notes on Blindness: NZIFF Review

If there's perhaps an irony that a film about blindness has committed some of the most beautiful and evocative imagery to celluloid, then Notes on Blindness would do well to embrace the irony.

After years of failing sight, Birmingham professor of theology John Hull became completely blind in 1983 and began keeping an audio diary. The ethos behind that was his singular belief that if he didn't understand blindness it would defeat him.

Using Hull's original tapes as well as interview material and with actors lip synching the tapes and taking part in re-enactments, the BBC Storyville strand documentary helmed by filmmakers Peter Middleton and James Spinney is simply put, eloquently mind-blowingly sensual (and has shades of the reflective nature of Terence Malick's Tree of Life).

It helps the source material from Hull is both insightful and honest, with aching admissions that he's begun to forget what his wife looked like, or places from his childhood are fading, as well as the ultimately depressing feeling of being unable to see his new-born children or hearing their cries of delight at Christmas without any visual context.

It's these tacit admissions that begin to give a view of Hull's mind's eye and the world within. But by using hauntingly lyrical imagery that serves as memory or snapshots thereof, what Spinney and Middleton have done in this eye opening film is to commit to celluloid something inspiring and in many ways, a visual representation of what you always imagine life will look like when it apparently flashes before your eyes before you pass.

Past recollections loop in and out, images of eyes close up and simple images of grass blowing in a field unencumbered by anything other than sound show an ingenuity in translating the material and helping inspire others. It's all held in by a wall of sound that emanates from the screen that breathes extra life to the world within.

While acceptance for Hull himself gradually brings clarity of vision and purpose, the filmmakers bring life to a world many of us would hope never to experience and an empathy to those who already do - it's bravura stuff, stylishly and simplistically set in motion.

In one scene, Hull reveals how standing by his home's front door and listening to the rain gives contours to the world around him and how he wishes there could be rain inside a house so he had ideas of depth and a sense of dimension. The following shots of rain pouring within are almost transcendant in their beauty and ingenious in their execution. (It helps the source material is so eloquent and thoughtful as you'd expect of a professor, but not once does it ever wallow in pity, offering a painfully intuitive view into the world of Hull and those around him).

Lyrical and insightful, honest and heart-aching in equal parts, Notes on Blindness is handled with sensitivity, with visual aplomb and with such shrewd astuteness that it's ultimately profoundly moving.

Newstalk ZB Review - Star Trek Beyond, Swiss Army Man and 10 Cloverfield Lane

Newstalk ZB Review - Star Trek Beyond, Swiss Army Man and 10 Cloverfield Lane

This morning on ZB with Jack Tame, I took a look at the new Star Trek film, took a break from the New Zealand International Film Festival to talk Swiss Army Man and talked one of the year's best in 10 Cloverfield Lane.

Take a listen below: