Beyond the Known World

Beyond the Known World R

Chelsie Preston Crayford in Beyond the Known World

Hot on the heels of Lion comes another needle in a haystack mystery set in India. Beyond the Known World will no doubt garner many comparisons to Lion; it is set predominantly in India, concerns the search of a missing family member, and has a contingent of Australasian cast members — one of whom is David Wenham (who also starred in Lion).  However, despite these similarities the film is quite different in many respects … and it will cost you a lot less in tissues.

The New Zealand/India co-production, helmed by Indian director Pan Nalin (Samsara) and written by New Zealander Dianne Taylor (Apron Strings), begins its story in Auckland. Carl (Wenham) and Julie (Sia Trokenheim) are not on good terms due their recent divorce. But when their nineteen year old daughter Eva (Emily McKenzie) doesn’t return from India, the couple fear the worst and put their differences aside to go and look for her.  Their search takes them into the pot-smoking expat villages of the Himalayan foothills, where they are met with locals who are frustratingly indifferent to their plight. Both Trokenheim and Wenham offer powerfully raw and authentic performances that capture the couple’s anguish at the lack of power they wield over their situation. It is also a situation that forces the couple to examine their own relationship and the impact it might have had on their daughter.

Beyond the Known World benefits from Pan Nalin’s local knowledge (a loose term in a country as vast and varied as India) as Director. He sketches a mountainous India with ironic subtlety that normalises the characters’ surroundings rather than bringing undue attention to itself. Nalin’s combination with cinematographer Ian McCarroll (a New Zealander in his second feature film after Fantail) thankfully avoids the temptation to just show off the film’s stunning locations. Instead, we are treated to wonderfully textured scenes that are complimented with an editing pace that matches the narrative requirements of Dianne Taylor’s very tight screenplay.  It gets the balance just right.

With a rich combination of New Zealand and Indian talent, Beyond the Known World is a strong piece of cinema that stubbornly remains in your mind like a limpet. It is certainly a sobering story, and although probably not far from the truth, Beyond the Known World remains a fictional account of a tale that is believably told.

You can see the published review here.

Their Finest

tfinestDanish director Lone Scherfig has certainly taken a shine to English stories.  She piggy-backed on Nick Hornby’s screenplay with her 2009 surprise hit, An Education, which brought the wonderful Carey Mulligan to a wider audience; then in 2011 adapted David Nichols’ best selling novel in One Day. Now Scherfig has Gemma Arterton putting on an awkward Welsh accent in a war-time film that has equal measures of romance, drama, and comedy.

Set in London during the Second World War, Catrin (Arterton) accidentally lands a role as a script writer for a studio that is commissioned to make propaganda films that buoy the spirits of the nation. She soon discovers that creating the perfect script means walking a narrow path fraught with the terms and conditions set by the Secretary of War — “authenticity informed by optimism” is their catchphrase. Most notably, it requires that the story be factual, which is easier said than done when Catrin discovers a workable story but from a unreliable source. Oh, and the film must have an American … because “Your film must show your American sisters that this is a war their husbands should be fighting.”  The search for American talent reveals an obligatory chiseled jawed “hero” whose inability to act offers hilarious results as they attempt to make him look “authentic”.

Of course there is the love story that is de rigueur for films such as this.  Catrin’s fellow script writer (and boss) Tom, played by Sam Claflin (Me Before You), waits in the margins while Catrin sorts out the relationship with her cheating husband. Its all fairly predicable, but thankfully not handled with a heavy hand. Their Finest really elevates itself above mediocrity however, in the on-set wrangling of the eclectic bunch of actors who need to work closely with the script writers — one of whom is the charming and affable Bill Nighy. He plays the consummate goof, an actor lost in his art and constantly losing sense of the occasion.

Although predictable in parts, Their Finest remains an interesting story that is delicately laced with an appropriate level of tragedy given its war-time setting. It unabashedly contrasts this with plenty of feminist rhetoric, which on occasion feels a little forced. It certainly isn’t a remarkable film by any stretch, but as a piece of sentimental entertainment it is easily digestible and certainly worth your time, if only just to see Nighy’s delightful antics.

You can see the published review here.

The Salesman

Much was made of The Salesman’s nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars this year.  The film’s Iranian director, Asghar Farhadi (A Separation), stated that he would not attend the ceremony due to Donald Trump’s executive order barring Iranians from entering in U.S., and upon winning, his prepared speech was instead read by proxy. Unfortunately, much of its sting was deflated due to the best picture announcement debacle, but it still raises questions over Farhadi’s Oscar nod being a protest vote. Some anti Trump sentiment by the voting Academy perhaps?  We’ll never know, and all I can offer is a critique of the film on it own merits.

Set in Tehran, a middle-class couple Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad (Shahab Hosseini) are forced from their apartment due to construction faults.  The opening scene that depicts the building’s imminent collapse is tense and superbly sets the film’s tone; clinically stark, devoid of warmth or any musical score and working within a very drained palette — a style that appears to be straight out of the Michael Haneke handbook (Amour, Funny Games). It is a stunning opening sequence nonetheless and works to facilitate the film’s brooding atmosphere and sense of tension.  The couple eventually find alternative accommodation, but only too late do they discover its previous tenant to be a prostitute who had unsavoury customers calling in at all hours. One night Rana buzzes open the door thinking that it must be her husband.  Big mistake. Her assault and the pursuit of the assailant brings about a captivating mystery that ends with an unexpected (if somewhat drawn-out) ending.

Unfortunately, the film presents a nagging problem throughout. In their spare time Rana and Emad are members of a theatre group who are putting on a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. There appears to be an assumption by Farhadi that the viewer has seen or read Millar’s play, which for me, has since been lost in the foggy memory of my final year at high school. Yet, it is obvious that the role Millar’s play has within the story is an important one, as is evident in the film’s title and most likely forms some sort of subtext that was unfortunately lost on me. Despite this, I found The Salesman a refreshing and taut mystery and perhaps a more informed critique might be offered if only I could remember that damn play … I blame my seventh form teacher.

You can see the published review here.

Life

lifeThe writing duo of Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have recently penned successful action/comedies (Deadpool, Zombieland), but Life presents their first effort at a sci-fi thriller. It seems to be a polarising genre — some are good (Event Horizon, Sunshine, Alien), some are bad (Species, Mission to Mars, Europa Report). However, Life is unique in that it is decidedly, well … ordinary.  Like its cast, my expectations for this film were floating in zero gravity when I entered the cinema.  I felt like an American watching cricket waiting for the penny to drop.  Yet, somehow Life never let a solid opinion settle, as I was met with equal measures of good and bad. So thumbs up, Life, for sitting on the fence. Not many sci-fi thrillers manage to do that.

The film is helmed by Daniel Espinosa. Who? Yes, he’s the director that bought you the wonderfully bland Child 44 and Safe House.  I thought that perhaps the enigmatically superb Jake Gyllenhaal (pictured) might spark things to life, but unfortunately all six crew members (including Rebecca Ferguson and Ryan Reynolds) have been severely underwritten, leaving the cast with little scope to work with.

The plot is a simple one. Set entirely on the International Space Station orbiting Earth, the crew receive (with a bit of difficulty) a soil sample from Mars in order for them to study it and search for signs of life.  It’s not a spoiler to say that they discover an alien life form … and that professionals start making unprofessional decisions … and that people die. In a nutshell it is a contamination crisis of an alien predator, a la Alien (and a million other films since).

It’s also chamber-piece that owes a lot of its style to many that went before it. For example, the set pieces are mechanically perfect but also perfectly borrowed from the likes of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity.  Not to take anything away from a film that takes good care of all it borrows, because Life is quite sumptuous to look at.  But unlike its alien subject it doesn’t morph into something more original or more interesting; instead it appears satisfied to occupy its duplicated space. If you haven’t been privy to many of its pioneering predecessors then my suspicion is that you will enjoy Life.  But for me, I didn’t love it, I didn’t hate it. It’s just an ok film that fell out of my brain soon after I left the theatre.

You can see the published review here.

Loving

 

lovingJeff Nichols is a restless director and certainly not one to bed-down in any single genre. He has plumbed the depths of the psychological thriller in Take Shelter, wrangled the stars in the coming-of-age drama of Mud, and more recently pushed the envelope with the sci-fi road-film, Midnight Special. He is certainly one of the more versatile directors working today, and in his latest outing, Loving, the enigmatic auteur tackles racial injustice.

Based on a true story about an unlawful interracial marriage, Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga bring performances that are both powerful and understated. In 1958, before America’s civil rights revolution, Richard Loving (Edgerton) married Mildred Jeter (Negga) in Washington DC, where interracial marriages were legal.  However, on their return home to Virginia where interracial marriages were not permitted, they were met with legal road-blocks as the state saw to throw them out under threat of imprisonment. Years of legal and social tumult saw their case taken all the way to the Supreme Court, where the couple’s relationship finally prompted the overturning of those laws nationwide.

Loving is a film that is surprisingly non-belligerent in tone, despite the outrageous injustice of its subject matter – America’s historical treatment of race. Instead it calmly states its case and proceeds to leave the histrionics to the viewer. It is a slow burn that is satisfyingly sure of itself. What is remarkable is the bold move to not only explore the boundaries of racial segregation but also comment on gender politics.  Typically the husband is seen as the enduring pillar of strength, fighting the good fight, while the wife plays a passively supportive role. Here, it is increasingly apparent that the real hero of Loving is Mildred as she begins to take control of their situation herself. Nichols masterfully presents this visually, as Mildred becomes more and more centred in the film’s frame (observe at the image above) and Edgerton is gently ushered to the margins. The diminutive Negga returns the favour by giving a wonderfully authentic performance that no doubt draws from her own experience as a child of mixed race (being of Ethiopian and Irish descent).

Nichols’ muse, Michael Shannon (who I could listen to read the phonebook), pops in for a cameo as a photographer for Life magazine. His big screen presence is perhaps the film’s only distraction in a story that, despite its subdued telling, is an enlightening glimpse into America’s checkered past and is well worth the watch.

Rating: 4 constitutional laws out of 5.

You can see the published review here.

A Street Cat Named Bob

 

ascnbThere seem to be plenty of films that anthropomorphise their animal subjects to a level where they might as well be a human. Obviously, some rules of nature must be bent for animal/human relationships to be expressed in cinema, not forgetting that such films also play well to the purchasing power of younger audiences.  But, when you’re dealing with the weighty topics of drug addiction and parental neglect, as in A Street Cat Named Bob, a fine line needs be traversed to make the story accessible to a wide audience.  Certainly a tricky proposal for the film’s marketing execs. Thankfully director Roger Spottiswoode (Turner & Hooch) has dipped his toes into such waters before and comes oh so close to getting the balance right.

Imagine mixing the social realism of Ken Loach (I, Daniel Blake), the musical sensibilities of John Carney (Once), and then tampering it down with the family friendly nonsense of David Frankel (Marley and Me), and you’ll arrive somewhere near A Street Cat Named Bob. Based on James Bowen’s true story and best-selling book of the same name, A Street Cat Named Bob is a simple story that avoids getting bogged down by complexities or subtexts.  James (Luke Treadaway), street busker and recovering Heroin addict, is living on the streets of London and is given one last chance by the welfare system to clean up his life. Hindered further by poverty, he is befriended by Bob, a ginger stray cat. James’s relationship with Bob provides the perfect talisman for his recovery efforts and also provides the story a fresh take on human/feline relationships.

Luke Treadaway, looking every inch the member of a prog-rock band circa 1975, does a very commendable job of portraying the recovering addict. It’s a schtick that we’ve all seen before on the big screen, but its a solid performance nonetheless.  Unfortunately, the supporting cast do not offer the same level of gravitas, succumbing to some fairly cliched moments that suggest a “made for TV” feel. However, there is genuine affection for animals and humanity alike in a film that opted to exclusively wrangle real cats (seven in all, including Bob himself) with its human counterparts rather than going down the path of digital effects — the result is a charming film that makes an admirable attempt at keeping true to its source material.

Rating: 3 miaows out of 5.

You can see the published review here.

Alone in Berlin

aib

It never ceases to amaze me the seemingly boundless supply of obscure stories from our past that bubble to the surface.  Unfortunately, many are true tales that tell of tragic circumstances, but through their telling they act as a warning beacon for humanity.  Alone in Berlin is one of those beacons.

Set during the Second World War, Alone in Berlin recounts the true story of German couple Anna and Otto Quangel (Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson).  After hearing the news that their only son has lost his life on Hitler’s battlefield, the couple’s despair drives them to resist the Nazi regime from within.  In a form of passive propaganda they begin to write anti-Nazi slogans on cards and randomly place them throughout Berlin city — a method similar to Arthur Stace’s “Eternity” chalkings, although with stakes a lot higher. It’s not long before their form of resistance is seen as a threat and a game of cat and mouse ensues. Criminal detective Escherich (Daniel Brühl) is deployed to track them down as the film becomes a procedural that effortlessly mixes the styles of serial crime thriller and war-time period drama.

My first concern was to put any dubious German accents to bed in order to set my suspension of disbelief at ease. Would Thompson’s clipped English accent prevail? Gleeson’s Irish brogue bubble to the surface? Or, heaven forbid, Brühl’s learned American english twang get the better of the German native?  Well, I can gladly report in this instance … all quiet on the western front. In fact, I find it odd to report that the film’s production values are remarkable for their invisibility. Really, this is a good thing for a film where Anna and Otto’s story should not be derailed by clever filmic hullabaloo.

Not without its faults, Alone in Berlin is perhaps a little trite in parts; but to its credit it gets on with telling the story in an efficient manner with very little else to bounce me out of its narrative arc. This is a credit to the tight script by Achim von Borries and fledgling director Vincent Perez (who tends to err on the melodramatic side). Daniel Brühl superbly negotiates a delicate balance between sympathy and duty, and Thompson and Gleeson produce warm and believable performances, allowing me to be carried along with their plight — the necessity of free speech to keep the wolves at bay.

Rating: 4 sneakily written notes out of 5.

You can see the published review here.

Notes on Blindness

 

nobpic“As one goes deeper into blindness, one begins to live by other interests, other values. One begins to take up residence in another world.” This haunting comment by John Hull gives a snapshot of his achingly poignant true story. In 1983, just days before the birth of his first son, the academic and theologian lost his sight, and in order to make sense of his condition, he began keeping a diary on audiocassette.  Directors Pete Middleton and James Spinney (in only their first feature length film), have done a commendable job of adapting John Hull’s tapes to the big screen.

Easily comparable to Julian Schnabel’s masterpiece The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, (which tells the true story of of Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby’s experience with Locked In Syndrome), Notes on Blindness cleverly employs the artifice of cinema to encourage the viewer to experience the symptoms of its protagonist. This is phenomenological cinema of the highest regard, eliciting a mindful viewing experience. Hull’s own taped voice comes to life through lip-synched recreations and are cleverly spliced with voiced narration. It is perhaps no surprise that a film about blindness has a heavy emphasis on sound, and here it is woven into a sensitive sound design by accomplished sound editor Joakim Sundström (who also worked on Nick Cave’s superb biopic 20,000 Days on Earth). Although, his unique use of diegetic and non-diegetic sound does bring a level of disorientation that takes some adjustment.

Likewise, the strikingly beautiful and yet claustrophobic cinematography (by Gerry Floyd) brings equal measures of beauty and frustration as the camera struggles for light and focus, never allowing us to simply sit and look. The paradox of a visual medium giving us a pseudo experience of blindness is palpable — a form of mimicry to which Hull voices his own frustrations as “a desperate need to break through this curtain, this veil that surrounded me. To come out into the world of light out there.”

The film presents as insightfully ponderous and occasionally meandering, but its core concern always remains Hull’s conflict between fact and faith, which ultimately collide with interesting results. Notes on Blindness requires a level of effort on the viewer to garner a full appreciation, but it is worth it.

Rating: 4 mindful moments out of 5

You can see the published review here.

Silence

 

silenceI am always wary when a film of notable scope and pedigree such as Silence is largely ignored during awards season. Either I’m reading too much into its lack of critical chatter, or the film is a dud. I was hoping the former.  After all, master director Martin Scorsese has had this film in the oven on slow-cook since the nineties, so my hopes were high.

Silence is based on Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 historical novel about the persecution of Christians in 17th-century Japan. Two Portuguese Jesuit priests, Rodrigues and Garupe (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver), leave for Japan in search of one of their own (Ferreira, played by Liam Neeson) who’s believed to have renounced his faith and “gone native”. In doing so, both have their faith tested as they encounter extreme torment in a land that is “like a swamp” and incapable of adopting the Christian faith. Shūsaku Endō’s story is remarkably similar to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness which also received cinematic treatment with Apocalypse Now.  But where Apocalypse Now was a personal film for Ford Coppola due to hardships he encountered while filming, Silence is a personal film to Scorsese because the source material clearly resonates with his own faith.  However, this might’ve clouded his filmic judgement, because like its protagonists, Silence tests your patience.

I really wanted to like this film, but like an unrequited love, I found myself losing interest and giving up the chase. Large chunks were unengaging, slow, and dare I say it … boring.  Putting in extra effort to peel back layers of dubious Portuguese accents and gratuitous melodrama does reward the viewer with glimpses of Scorsese genius; his intentional use of the camera, his interesting treatment of sound — basically, Silence looks and sounds great.  But, that’s slim pickings for a film that promised so much more.

I have never felt this way about a Scorsese film before. So, like the Jesuit priests, I started to doubt my faith in the great director.  Must I apostatise like the film’s Christian subjects? Maybe I was lacking the piety of a true film critic. Or perhaps this was a test and so I should wait for enlightenment. Like any great cinematic journey, the destination only begins to fully reveal itself long after you’ve left the theatre.  So, wait I did … nothing. Waited further … silence.  Sorry Martin.

Rating: 2.5 blessings out of 5

You can see the published review here.

Fences

fencesAdapting a celebrated Broadway play to the screen without it being considered “stagey” can’t be easy. The award winning play Fences opened for its third run in 2010, and here, the play’s five main actors have reprised their role for its big screen treatment.

The play was written by Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson. His adaptation for the big screen has been posthumously helmed by Denzel Washington. Wilson, who died in 2005, insisted that the film version of his play be directed by an African-American, a decision which has certainly cemented the story’s concern with race. Oddly though, Fences benefits very little from Washington’s hundred-plus stage performances as its protagonist, Troy, bringing to the screen a performance that feels over rehearsed.  The same can’t be said for Viola Davis, whose role as his wife is reprised with genuine authenticity.

Troy is a disgruntled father carrying the baggage of his neglected upbringing, and bitterness over missing a shot at big-time baseball due to the racist selection policy of the fifties. In denying his son (Jovan Adepo) the same opportunity, his flaws are laid bare and serve to fuel the film’s central theme of “legacy” — how we either rebel against what we view as wrong with our parents, or we become their faults and pass it on to the next generation.  The titular fence that Troy builds throughout the film serves as a metaphor to expound upon this theme — “You gotta take the crooked with the straights” is a comment on accepting our flawed nature as human beings as much as it is about the fence itself.

The value added by its adaptation from stage to screen is a subtle one.  Relying heavily on language and performance, it appears to unapologetically eschew the medium it is presented on, employing a very bland filmic style.  What makes this perplexing is that it was shot by Danish cinematographer, Charlotte Bruus Christensen, who is known for some very striking and vivid screen work (The Hunt, The Girl on the Train).

Ultimately it is the script rather than the look that gives the film its “stagey” feel, which is perhaps due to Wilson’s lack of experience with film.  And while a cinematic version of Fences has widened its audience reach, the same can’t be said for widening its appeal. It does have some wonderful and touching moments, but as a whole, Fences is a couple of palings short.

Rating: 3 palings out of 5

You can see the published review here.