Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Steve McQueen - The Man and Le Mans: NZFF Review

Steve McQueen - The Man and Le Mans: NZFF Review

Pulling together previously unheard interviews and calling on an apparent 1 million feet of footage shot for the Le Mans film, Steve McQueen - The Man and Le Mans is a look at one man's unswerving dedication (and perhaps hubris) to get a film made.

Back in the 60s, Steve McQueen was at the height of his career; but while he lived the Hollywood life, he really had only one true obsession - racing and the speed associated with it.

Setting up his own production company, McQueen's first project after the likes of Bullitt and The Thomas Crown Affair was a film based on the thrill of the motor-racing; he wanted to capture the excitement of Le Mans 24 hour race and incorporate it into the big screen. And because he had the power and relative clout to get it going, he did - even though no script was anywhere to be seen.

Admittedly this was a common practice in the 60s and 70s, and McQueen set about shooting as much footage of the cars as they waited for the script. And they waited, and waited...

Steve McQueen - The Man and Le Mans is a funereal piece in many ways, but also a fascinating examination of a passion project and the follies that come with it.

Using a wealth of footage (well, there was a million feet of it), a ragtag ensemble of talking heads, including Steve's son Chad and various drivers on the flick, and some ponderous staging shots, a lot of which are purely served up for art's sake, it's an intriguing almost clinical look at how a failed project had to come together regardless.

Mournful and melancholy in tone, it really could have done with a bit of an edit and a tightening up of its almost sedentary pace. Despite it being about racing cars, and there being plenty of footage thereof, it's not a film about cars or the speed of the pace or frenzy of making a Hollywood machine to a deadline. Wisely using some smart talking heads with long shots of them staring into the camera builds up an atmosphere of menace and uncertainty for those unfamiliar with the critical reception of Le Mans and the ultimate fate of McQueen after this driving passion project.

Directors Gabriel Clarke and John McKenna may have given us an insight into the troubled production but the film needs an expeditious edit in places to get it into pole position. But if anything, the film gives us more of an insight into the King of Cool, and how his steely nerve was shattered by the project of Le Mans, the fight between directors and lack of script and Charles Manson rearing his head in the piece.

Ultimately, Steve McQueen - The Man and Le Mans is a studious and fascinating film, one that will reward race fans and McQueen buffs in extremis but also one that could have done with a trim and some areas expanding.

While We're Young: NZFF Review

While We're Young: NZFF Review

Achieving the broadest of reaches and never losing sight of being entertaining, Noah Baumbach's While We're Young delivers a pitch perfect comedy to alleviate the soul as the New Zealand International Film Festival continues.

Ben Stiller plays Josh. a documentary maker stuck in his latest project; his wife is Cornelia (Naomi Watts, channeling some warm comedic schtick) a fellow producer. Worries over whether the pair is in a rut are pushed to one side, when Josh meets Adam Driver's Jamie, a 25-year-old version of himself, but more in touch with his hipper side.

Energised by Jamie's interest (along with his wife, played by Amanda Seyfried), Josh sets out to complete his documentary and re-discover his, and his wife's joie de vivre.

While We're Young is wistful, wry, warmly comic fare as it lays down some realities about how we truly are in life and what steps we take when we get older.

Brilliantly juxtaposing the attitudes of Josh and Cornelia ("We have the freedom to do what we want; what we do with it is not important" being one of their earlier bon mots) to their younger counterparts proves to be the film's masterstroke as a light script is breezily delivered by the cast.

But there's a grain of truth that will be entirely resonant with others in this drily laconic movie; it's a film where the younger embrace vinyl and reading, but the older struggle with digital technology all around them; where retro is cool, but the future is baffling.

And yet, in among the light banter, is a man on the edge of a crisis,a relationship on a brink and a smart savvy take on how priorities and viewpoints change as life goes on. It's humour mixed with life's experiences, good and bad - and Baumbach delivers it in spades.

Granted, there will be some who will find the film's themes trite, but there will be an equal - if not larger - amount who will find it cutting a little close to the bone. If you let it, While We're Young emerges as something touching and sensitive to time's passing - it doesn't harm it in the slightest that it's well-performed, well-written and deeply engaging as it doles out its message about life.

Monday, 27 July 2015

The Guest: Film Review

The Guest: Film Review

Cast: Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Brendan Meyer, Lance Reddick
Director: Adam Wingard

From the director of the brilliant You're Next comes a thriller that for some will cast a new light on cousin Matthew from Downton Abbey.

Dan Stevens stars as David, a former soldier who one day shows up on the doorstep of the Peterson family, claiming to have been a friend of their son who was killed in action. Not wanting to appear unkind, the family invites him to stay while he gets settled.

However, as David spends more time with the family, there are a series of deaths, leading daughter Anna (It Follows star Maika Monroe) to suspect him.

Lurid and trashy, revelling in its 80s attitude and soundtrack, The Guest is a hyper-stylish thriller that works on many levels, inveigling its way into your consciousness.

Stevens drops the Downton charm and impresses with his nonchalant and detached exterior belying the menace within his character, but continues to drop hints thanks to underplayed looks and momentary glances. And Monroe, who was so impressive in It Follows, cements her credentials as an up and comer as Anna, who balances paranoia and growing up in equal measure.

Wingard's latest is a genre piece in many ways with the retro feel seeping its way through but without soaking it in past glories. A synth soundtrack sets the tone for the ultra-violence, but there's more than just the music to admire; while the explanations as to what's going on may be a little lacking (there's no doubt you may feel a little cheesed at never getting the full picture), the film's ambiguous and mysterious tone works as it heads to its conclusion.

The Guest is a thriller that works on many levels, a powerful blast of retro fused with the modern and cements Wingard's place as a genre master.


The Assassin: NZFF Review

The Assassin: NZFF Review

An exercise in patience, albeit a not entirely successful one, The Assassin, from director Hou Hsiao-hsien, is likely to polarise audiences.

Set in 7th Century China at the decline of the Tang dynasty, it's the story of Yinniang (Shu Qi) a general's daughter who was taken away by a nun when young and who returns to carry out an assassination mission that could have far-reaching consequences for the political future of the Weibo region.-
The fact that it takes 1 hour 20 minutes before the lead actually speaks gives you an insight into the slow, ponderous pace of The Assassin. It's a film that favours visual aesthetics over any kind of semblance of plot and long-sweeping character development. In fact, one story line involving a pregnancy of a character and her faking to avoid detection is thrown in with such weight that it's clearly important to the film's arc but is introduced so randomly and executed so poorly that it fails to provide any narrative heft whatsoever.

An impassive, emotionless lead of Yinniang doesn't help matters either; if you're expecting a film chock full of fight sequences that are long and extended, you'll also be disappointed in what transpires. Short bursts of fight scenes happen but with little or no consequence; in fact, director Hou Hsiao-hsien has left it for you to do the work, to engage with the film and provide the emotional heft that's needed - and unfortunately, that's not always a trade-off that works to his advantage I'm afraid to say, as not once did I care about anyone involved in this.

The Assassin though succeeds in its visuals; perhaps, a little too much so. Conversations are snatched from a distance and shot with veils floating in front of the camera, as if we are spying in on them like Yinniang; a couple of sequences flit by until you realise that she is lurking in the background as well. It's masterful, if not involving, stuff.

But ultimately The Assassin feels muddled; its slow languid, almost stultifying pace is crippling and its narrative and back-story is lacking; whether it's the subtitles that didn't convey everything they needed to or the script was muddled at an earlier stage, this Assassin is a killer of a film - but for all the wrong reasons.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation: Film Review

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation: Film Review

Review coming soon!

With the IMF disbanded, and Ethan (Tom Cruise) out in the cold, the team now faces off against a network of highly skilled special agents, the Syndicate. 
These highly trained operatives are hellbent on creating a new world order through an escalating series of terrorist attacks. 
Ethan gathers his team and joins forces with disavowed British agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), who may or may not be a member of this rogue nation, as the group faces their most impossible mission yet.
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation is in cinemas from July 30th.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Prophet's Prey: NZFF Review

Prophet's Prey: NZFF Review

"Evil flourishes when good men do nothing."

Director Amy Berg's last foray into the New Zealand International Film Festival was something of a triumphant affair, as the screenings of West of Memphis clearly demonstrated.

Her latest, a doco into the behaviour of the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, Warren Jeffs is anything but uplifiting, another demonstration of how America chooses to let its zealots flourish under the guise of religion.

Deeply unsettling and utterly terrifying, this brilliantly taut doco pulls together the portrait of a man whose drive to serve his skewed take on the word of God has ravaged lives, abused children and torn his family apart - and yet, he serves time currently in jail, but depressingly, his power continues to grow.

Using testimony from Jeffs' victims, his family and a series of investigators aiming to get to the truth, Berg uses the desolation of mid-Western countryside shots where Jeffs and his community thrive, mixed in with floatingly haunting voiceovers of Jeffs' indoctrination to paint a picture on a horrifying canvas.

Every victim of the church (and thankfully, few are used sparingly throughout) help build a portrait of a man who any sensible outsider could see is abusing his power and brainwashing. But to those inside his thrall, it's equally easy to see why Jeffs would be able to manipulate the women through polygamy, overthrow his church-leading father by crafting a series of insidious lies and create a presence that got him on the America's Top 10 most wanted list.

But it's Berg who deserves the praise here, not a man whose perversion of life continues to trouble long after the film has finished.

Crafting together a doco that's distinctly balanced and meticulously down the line, she once again demonstrates, like West of Memphis, how the American legal system is failing. Despite testimony from Jeffs' victims and a careful building of a case against Jeffs, it's the ineptitude of their prey that helps him fall foul. With the spectre of Waco carefully evoked and the reverberations of that showdown still lingering, Berg uses education and prompts a natural reaction to achieve her goal. It's clear she wishes to enlighten us to the horrors within, but a final coda depresses greatly and proves to be a rallying cry to arms once again for the American justice system to come to the party.

Prophet's Prey will hold you in its sway throughout - it's deeply troubling, completely unsettling and thanks to Berg's eye for story-telling, it's sickeningly riveting.

Goodnight Mommy: NZFF Review

Goodnight Mommy: NZFF Review

A creepy chamber piece in extremis, Goodnight Mommy will unsettle you more than perhaps you are willing to admit.

Writer-directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala tell the story of Lukas and Elias, two young twin brothers, who feel their mother is not who they believe her to be when she returns from hospital.

Seemingly uncharacteristically short with one and ignoring the other, this isn't the mother they remember - and the more time passes in their ultra-modern clinical house, the boys suspect things have taken a turn for the worst.

Even if you guess what exactly is going on in Goodnight Mommy (as I did within the first 10 minutes thanks to one piece of dialogue), it makes not a jot of difference. This ultra-suspenseful claustrophobic flick has a way of inveigling itself under your skin as the unsettling and foreboding atmosphere ratchets up the tension, leaving you feeling unfathomably sick in your stomach.

Lukas and Elias Schwarz play the twins as a little something akin to the twins out of The Shining; they're always together, always natural and in the film's final act, incredible. To say more about the film is to spoil the ride (which is a shame given how much there is to talk about after) but needless to say the slow panning shots, quietly rumbling dread and the brilliant use of location (the house alone is like a third character of the film, its ultra-modern edges and interiors shorn of clutter perhaps providing some psychological insight, lurking away in the corners of your mind.

This chiller packs a punch thanks to its denouement and also the clear, almost clinical way it's been shot and structured. (Though one moment involving outsiders really does beggar belief and very nearly costs the film its credence)

Once you know the ending, it makes viewing Goodnight Mommy a different experience and gives rise to potentially playing it back again to spot the clues you missed before - but as well as being a psychologically intense film, it's also tremendously upsetting; its themes and examination of one particular emotion is deeply troubling; however those discussions are best left until daytime, when the sunlight can pierce your mind which has been clouded in fog by the murkier tones painted by Franz and Fiala's mind-games.