Month: October, 2018

Brimstone & Glory

brimThose who remember the euphoric opening sequence to Beasts of the Southern Wild will immediately recognise similarities with Brimstone & Glory.  That is because both Beasts and Brimstone share the same brilliantly sense-inducing talents of producer/musician Ben Zeitlin, and although helmed by feature debutant, Viktor Jakovleski, Brimstone & Glory has certainly gleaned a lot from Zeitlin’s explosive input.

Coming in at a modest sixty-seven minutes long, this firecracker of a movie is appropriately punchy and zeroes in on the small(ish by Mexican standards) town of Tultepec, which once a year lights up to celebrate San Juan de Dios, the patron saint of fireworks.  But this is no “hang a lantern in the window dressing” kind of festival; instead, this is a brutally unforgiving two evenings of high octane pyrotechnics.  OSH has no place here.

The doco loosely follows the fortunes of Santi, a young boy whose family is entering a float into the “running of the bulls”.  The giant bull floats are paraded down the street on the second night and systematically ignited and blown up in all manner of ways. There is an element of machismo on show here as the pundits, who are mostly men, follow the pyro-fanatic faith like some sort of rite of passage.  But as much as the festival purports to be celebrating the 16th century Saint—who was credited with rushing into a burning hospital to rescue patients, escaping untouched by the flames (or so the story goes)—it really does seem more like an excuse to blow stuff up. Regardless, the heady mix of beauty and lunacy will have you giggling in amazement. 

The film keeps dialogue to a minimum (a bonus for subtitle averse film-goers), choosing instead to focus more on the fireworks.  The results offer some stunning visuals that capture the beauty of seemingly every individual spark (some of which were shot at an incredibly high 1500 fps), all perfectly wed to Zeitlin’s majestic score.  It’s utterly mesmerising, and although the narrative could’ve been stronger, Brimstone & Glory remains a triumph of sensory delights.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

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American Animals

aaposterHave you ever daydreamed how to engineer the perfect heist? Just a harmless fantasy for most, but American Animals considers what happens when such reverie flirts with reality. 

Pushing beyond the simple heist genre-flick that the trailer suggests, American Animals is a true story that examines the seemingly senseless motivation behind the desire to cross that criminal line.  Four promising young American college students decide to steal some rare and extremely valuable books from their university library. But the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry and this is no exception as the film traverses their comically flawed caper. It dives deep into the psyche behind the two main players, Warren (Evan Peters) and Spencer (Barry Keoghan), finding them restless and frustrated at the privileged life neatly laid out before them. But their efforts to disrupt their predetermined “entitlement” is met with far-reaching consequences.

As the title suggests, American Animals is less about the crime per-se and more a damming statement on the country’s disaffected youth. Riffing on the pseudo-documentary form, American Animals’ style owes a lot to recent films like I, Tonya and Compliance.  It is riddled with unreliable narrators who drive home the film’s thesis on relativism and personal truth. What is interesting here, are the interjections from the real-life people involved which are inter-spliced throughout.  The result is an intriguing and often moving insight into lives of regret and atonement. 

Writer/Director Bart Layton (The Imposter) has employed his documentarian background to great effect giving a heady blend of dynamic drama, humour and alluring fourth-wall breaking. The accuracy of how events actually played out are deliberately left open for conjecture—as the real Warren insists “you’ll just have to take my word for it”.  But one thing’s for sure; American Animals presents these lads’ “truth” as an intoxicating tale of dark humour and tragedy that proves to be an absorbing tale from start to finish.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist

WestwoodPunkIconActivistThis year has now produced two notable documentaries about British fashion designers. But where the recently released McQueen was a straight stare at a life that burnt bright, Westwood dials things back and is a more measured examination of a designer still working.

From the outset, the film makes it clear that Vivienne does not want to tell us her life story. In the film’s only vagary, it’s difficult to discern if she is apologetically embarrassed about boring us with her stories, or unapologetically annoyed about boring herself with them. What is abundantly clear though, is that Westwood is a straight shooter offering some Gordon Ramsey styled moments of non-minced vocabulary.  

The documentary dispenses with her upbringing, beginning instead in the seventies when Westwood was busy confronting society with the self-proclaimed invention of punk. It was when punk became fashionable, rather than a middle finger to the establishment it was supposed to be, that Westwood branched off and seriously honed her skill as a clothes designer.  Unsurprisingly, her punk sensibility (which is still in evidence today) raised the ire of the British fashion fraternity. Her label independently forged on nonetheless and even to this day, it’s rapid expansion clashes with her desire to maintain control of it. 

Westwood is a wonderful sensory experience and its fractured visual approach makes for an engaging experience. Fledgeling Director Lorna Tucker has done a commendable job of harnessing the copious amount of archival footage, presenting it in an imaginative way. A tapestry of overlapping imagery and footage jumps around the screen, building on the film’s larger canvas. 

Although visually rewarding, the documentary lacks the narrative bite to match Westwood’s iconoclastic persona. There are interesting flash-points of drama throughout, but as a whole, the film doesn’t have the punch of contemporaries such as McQueen—obviously, a lot more difficult when the subject of your doco is still alive and kicking.

Even so, Westwood is a worthwhile documentary that demonstrates how an outspoken provocateur, who is pointed in the right direction, can be an effective agent for positive change. And if the film teaches us one thing it is that the world needs punks, icons, and activists.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

Beast

beast“You’re wounded. I can fix that.”—it is a seemingly innocuous opening line from Beast, but it speaks volumes about the film’s two central characters. Moll (played by Jessie Buckley), to whom the line is directed, has just met the mysterious Pascal (Johnny Flynn).  His multilayered comment clearly points to more than just the cut on her hand.

In his debut feature, Writer/Director Michael Pearce has created a complex and vividly lush thriller that sits you bolt-upright in your seat.  It is a brooding character study that investigates the hidden monsters within, borrowing from dark thrillers like Lady Macbeth and winking at classics such as Fatal Attraction.

A serial killer is on the loose in the small British island community of Jersey … a bad time for Moll to fall in love with a mysterious stranger.  Moll, a sheltered young woman, is still firmly under her oppressive mother’s thumb (clinically played by Geraldine James), but the allure of Pascal is too great to resist. As the murder-mystery plays out in the periphery, Beast chooses to focus on creating, then untangling, the complex love story of Moll and Pascal. They are two flawed individuals who both wrestle with their own demons and although the machinations of the murder-mystery are ever-present, the film’s real mystery is what motivates their relationship. 

Beast works best in the quieter moments of introspection and interaction between the two lovers.

The underrated Jessie Buckley (Taboo, War and Peace) is superb here. She drips with screen presence and her nuanced performance has Moll teetering on the cusp of sanity. Also of note is cinematographer Benjamin Kracun (Hyena), whose careful attention to every shot is a spellbinding feast of perfection, almost to the point of distraction. 

It is a shame, then, that the film’s finale falls a little flat and an opportunity to finish on a provocatively ambiguous note is disappointingly snuffed out by Pearce’s neat and tidy ending. Nonetheless, Beast remains, for the most part, an excellent film from a talented cast and crew that are worth keeping an eye on.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.