Saturday, July 31, 2010


Made by the director of Cube but using a much bigger budget, Splice is sci-fi horror movie set in the near future when genetic engineering and in vitro gestation are a bit further advanced on current state of the art. Elsa Kast and Clive Nicoli are bio-engineers working at the Nucleic Exchange Research and Development lab (part of the research division of pharmaceutical company Newstead Pharma). N.E.R.D. focuses on gene splicing and protein production. Proteins that will have pharmacological uses. Their initial success is a slug like creature made from the DNA of 6 or 8 different species. Not satisfied with that they want to move onto using human DNA to create a creature that will produce proteins to be used in even more useful drugs.

Unfortunately their law suit averse and bottom line focused management want profits from the existing creature, rather than spend their money on a new creature. You should be able to see where this is going. Unlike Cube this is not a cerebral sci-fi thriller, rather an update on ideas from Frankenstein and The Fly. Aimed at sci-fi and horror fans, there is even a lab scene stolen straight from Alien. It is all quite stylishly done, even if the plot becomes extremely predictable and clichéd in the final few scenes, it still had alternating shock and humour that got the loudest audience reaction at this year's film festival.

The lead characters keep our sympathy in a way that most mad scientist characters don't, and the creature itself gradually acquires a personality. The only downside was the lack of inventiveness in the plot.

Ian's rating 4/5

The Killer Inside Me

It looks like no expense was spared in acquiring the props for The Killer in Me. They seem to have rounded up an endless supply of 1940s and 50s cars, set them among period buildings and populated the film with faces that look right for period. The clothes, furniture and even the way of talking seems right. The only cast member who looks out of place is Jessica Alba, and even she could be excused her exotic looks on the grounds that she is a prostitute from out of town. Though what a woman this good looking is doing working as a small town prostitute rather than making it big in Hollywood stretches credulity.

The script is based on a 1952 pulp novel of the same name. As the title indicates it is the story of murder told from the murderer's point of view. I haven't read the book so I don't know if the faults in the film lie with the book or its translation to film. Outwardly Lou Ford is a fine upstanding young man, living a house he inherited from his dead parent in Central City, Texas. Where he is now a Sheriff's depute. On the inside he is much darker, with an unhealthy attitude to women that up till now he has managed to hide from the girl friend that is more interested in him than he is in her. In fact it seems odd that Lou, who prefers to spend his off duty time sitting alone reading old books and listening to opera or playing the piano, even has a girlfriend. But I guess psychopaths have to keep up appearances.

I wanted to like this movie. I am a sucker for stylish movies. But the stylishness and polish of The Killer Inside Me casts its faults into sharp relief. Is it the difficulty of converting a novel into a film that accounts for all the loose plot threads? How and why does Joe Rothman (the union man) know and figure out so many of Lou's secrets before people closer to him? The initial scene between Lou and Joyce stretches credulity to point that I wonder if Lou is a reliable narrator. How does Lou so effortlessly find the masochistic women he craves? But the house doused in petrol through which a hoard of people can walk through without smelling it, and even safely smoke in, which later literally explodes in flame is the biggest fault.

The film highlights a strange American attitude that a film about murder and sex can show some simulate sex (with clothes on) and graphic and sustained violence (worse than in the splatter movie Dream Home) yet it can't show any nudity. (The film gets it's nudity rating from a brief shot of a woman's buttocks). May be I am a decadent European, but give me nudity over someone being slowly beaten into a pulp.

Casey Affleck is very effective as the outwardly charming psychopath Lou Ford, and Ned Beatty is effortless as the one dimensional but under estimated Chester Conway. But unfortunately the film follows the solitary Lou around so much that the other actors merely get walk on bit parts. (Literally the film consists of people turning up to say something to Lou and leaving or Lou arriving somewhere to say something and then leaving.) This may accurately reflect the self centred nature of Lou Ford and his inability to know anyone around him any better than the pigeon holed stereotype he labels them with, but it makes telling some of the story threads difficult.

Ian's rating 2.5/5

Friday, July 30, 2010

Sam Hunt: Purple Balloon and other Stories

Sam Hunt is a rarity - a New Zealander who has managed to make a living from poetry. He's a household name and he's close to the nation's heart, despite that incredibly upper-class voice. Even though Kiwis aren't very tolerant of difference, I guess we can forgive being a poet and sounding posh if the poet determinedly takes his poetry to every corner of the country and the poet doesn't look posh and is fond of a drink (or three). And I guess we like the consistency of the shaggy haircut, the aviator sunglasses, the stovepipe trousers and the way a Sam Hunt poem sounds

Purple Balloon gives us a bit of a look at the man behind the image and it's fascinating stuff. He didn't talk til he was four. He's been writing poetry forever. His big brothers are apparently as unimpressed by his achievements as only older siblings can be. This national icon is actually very shy person. He struggles with alcohol.

The film gives us a mix of Sam talking to camera, a selection of other iconic Kiwis talking about Sam, Sam's family talking about Sam and a huge variety of archival footage including clips of poetry performances, old TV interviews, and even Jon Gadsby impersonating Sam. The New Zealand landscape features, particularly the Pauatahunui inlet.

I could happily watch this film again. The film-makers were at the screening and it seems they may make further films about Sam Hunt which would be something to look forward to.

Anne's rating: 4/5


"I knew something bad was going to happen today" says Nasri, the young Muslim Arab-Israeli narrator of Ajami, which is the neighbourhood of Jaffa where the film is set. In fact it seems that something bad happens in Ajami every day and its just a matter of degree. The bad stuff isn't all what you expect - a number of Israeli or Palestinian films we've seen in recent years focus on how Israeli Government policy has made life difficult for Arabs, particularly in terms of restricting freedom of movement (and Ajami has its share of illegal labour coming in from the West Bank) but this film gives additional perspectives.

The first new perspective is on home-grown terrorism by Bedouin gangs who, mafia-style, demand protection money from local businesses and indulge in drive-by shootings and arson if they don't get what they want.

A second new perspective is the difficulties of inter-religious relationships - Nasri's older brother Omar has a Christian girlfriend (his boss's daughter)and one of his fellow employees has a Jewish girlfriend - which just goes to complicate what's already a complicated existence.

Thirdly we have the local drug trade and the local police force thrown in for extra excitement.

Ajami is a circular story which follows Omar for a few days and shows how all the factors I've described impinge on his life and the lives of those around him. The credits roll with Omar running for his life , and you can see his life isn't going to get any less complicated anytime soon.

Anne's rating 3/5
Ian's rating 4/5

White Material

The last of Claire Denis's films I saw was the beautiful but confusing Beau Travail. Whereas White Material is less about the beauty and more about the story.

The story is of Maria Vial the white French manager of a coffee plantation owned by her sick ex-father in law, who is trying to harvest the coffee crop as the country disintegrates around her. Her staff flee, so she heads off with a wallet full of money to hire more. She hurries round cajoling them, her son and her ex-husband (who looks disturbingly like a stoned Robert Redford) to help her with the harvest all the time denying and turning a blind eye to evidence that the rebels have the upper hand and she should leave for her own safety.

The theme is that white people may own land in Africa, may be destitute if they are forced out of Africa, may even be born in Africa but are they really African? A secondary theme is the fragility of civilisation.

You could possibly read a feminist sub-text into this film too, as Maria is surrounded by unreliable men: her plotting ex-husband, their lazy son, her sick ex-father in law, her deserting staff, the retreating French army, the devious mayor, her son's gym teacher - now extorting money at a rebel road block etc. It is the men who are destroying things and betraying her, and the target of her bottled anger.

To add to the feeling of chaos, it is ambiguous as to which side the men with guns are on and the story telling is some what abbreviated. A local radio DJ plays the role of providing expository information. At the end I talked with the people seated either side of me and we couldn't agree on exactly who was who and what happened.

There are a couple of odd events, the son's unexplained metamorphosis and the final scene. The presence of English speaking child soldiers in Francophone country is also not explained.

Ian's rating 3/5

How I Ended This Summer

How I Ended This Summer isn't a film about the Arctic or the Russian Meteorological Service. It is a film with a generation gap, a technology gap, an experience gap and a trust gap between two men working at a met hut on the Russian north coast towards the end of summer. An older man wed to a 75 year tradition of manual met reading and regular radio transmissions and a young one threatening that way of life with computer telemetry. One mistake leads too quickly to another and things spiral rapidly out of control in a confined environment (ironically, thousands of square kilometers of arctic landscape). It brings into sharp focus how we rely on social norms, the interventions of other people or at least on being able to get away from people to avoid screwing things up even more than we already have.

Sergei Puskepalis plays the older Sergei Gulybin with a threatening combination of aloofness and superior competence, but it is Grigory Dobrygin who steals the show playing the younger Pavel Danilov displaying just the right combination of diffidence, fear and bravado.

Ian's rating 2.5/5

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


The film festival program says that:
Wound is the angry by-product of being bored by the utterly predictable banality of our mainstream movies
The warning bells should have rung louder. This is code for "Wound is a surreal movie". Unfortunately I have a checkered history with surreal movies. I either enjoy them or am confused, frustrated and bored by them - nothing in between.

It is obvious that Kate O’Rourke (who plays Sue) acted her heart out in this movie. She is in almost every scene and displaying a range of extreme emotions in most of them. It feels exhausting just to watch her. The same way it was exhausting to watch the heroine of Run, Lola, Run running for 90 minutes. Kate certainly deserves recognition for her acting in Wound. Te Kaea Beri, who plays Tanya the sulky, silently raging teenager does good job too. I thought that the dolls were the next best characters after Sue and Tanya.

There is plenty of violence and even more symbolism which suits a film about a sexually abused and hence mentally ill woman with revenge fantasies. In my view many of the scenes could have been jumbled up and played in a different order or left out all together without distracting from the story or experience. If a film maker leaves too much up to the viewer they are no longer telling a story, but proving some images which the viewer can interpret any way they like or more likely give up trying to interpret. I suspect that I should make greater efforts to avoid surreal films, as more often than not I don't enjoy them.

Mental illness is probably good subject for a surreal movie and if you like disturbing images and things that don't make sense then by all means go and see Wound, it is well acted and full of symbolism and other craziness.

Ian's rating 1.5/5

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Human Centipede (First Sequence)

The Human Centipede (First Sequence) is probably not a movie you want to rave about to your elderly, church going, relatives if you want to be invited back or want to be left something more than their unpaid rest home bills as your inheritance. It is a simple horror film that unashamedly uses the clichés of horror movies with glee. Two cute American girls in search of a German nightclub, break down in the woods and decide to walk for help through the trees rather than along the road. They arrive at a house owned by mad doctor with a passion for home surgery and an odd fixation for sewing things together. His latest project is to sew three people together to form a 12 legged centipede.

Don't ask why. In fact don't get him angry or he will put you in the middle of his concoction, and he doesn't use post operative pain killers. Unlike your general splatter horror, the disgust here is in the concept of how the three victims are sewn together.

There are a couple of glaring plot holes, but it is a straight forward horror romp, with no redeeming features I can think of. Not frightening, just a little disgusting with a send up of some horror film clichés.

Ian's rating 3.5/5


Soon after this film started I had to ask Anne which Lebanon war this was about. Because the film takes place entirely inside a tank there is little to identify where and when the events are taking place. Lebanon (like Waltz with Bashir) is about Israel's 1982-2000 invasion (rather than the 1978 or 2006 invasions). The enemy is merely identified as terrorists (but are the PLO).

The first thing that struck me was how scared and undisciplined the four Israeli tank crew are compared with the ten or so Israeli soldiers walking ahead of the tank. This difference in attitude is never explained. What is going on outside the tank is mostly seen through the gunner's sight, which gives a magnified, yet constricted view of the world. The other thing that seemed odd to me is that the turret hatch is operated from outside so people can jump into the tank without a by-your-leave!

This is a movie about four scared young men who don't want to go to war, don't want to be in the army and don't want to kill people. They bicker with each other. They are horrified by what they see and are ordered to do. The war as we/they see it is obviously a one-sided affair with a modern war machine pitted against lightly armed amateurs and civilians, with predictable results.

Written and directed by Samuel Maoz, who served in this war, it is a look at war from the point of view of those that don't want to be involved in war and don't see the point of it. It has the feeling of a film that was made from a play, with its small cast, single set and the importance of the dialog as opposed to action. If you want to see a film about the 1982-2000 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Waltz with Bashir is a much better film (I have yet to see Beaufort - set at the other end of this war).

There was odd moment of shock at one point when a Christian Phalangist fighter (Ashraf Barhom) turns and smiles with the same feral smile he used as Ammonius the Christian preacher in Agora a couple of days ago!

Ian's rating 2/5 Anne's rating 3.5/5

Anne: This wasn't just a film about not wanting to be involved in war; it also deals with what it's like to be inside a tank (something I hadn't considered before), what it's like to be required to actually fight rather than practice and what its like if your fellow soldiers don't behave in the prescribed way. I was engrossed, and not just because the gunner looked like Daniel Carter. And we saw some little blue penguins on the way to the movie - always a highlight. .

I Love You Phillip Morrison

Jim Carey's not everyone's cup of tea, but there isn't so much of the cable guy in this movie - this is more a presentation of [true] subject matter which is in itself unbelievable - but is topped off with Carey's comic abilities. The film follows the life of Steve (something), from childhood, when he learns he was adopted, leaping to adulthood when he meets (in church) and marries his wife, then admits to her he's gay... at which point the film really begins. Steve is a serious con-artist, who'll do pretty much anything, but is honestly serious about a guy (Philip Morrison) and there's no cheating involved - he's just cheating everyone else - insurance companies, employers, the beauracracy & courts... to pay for it - and to escape - from the law, custody, prison - and there REALLY are a good many approaches to this.

The film ends with the admission that while Phillip got out in 2006, Steve became "an embarrassment to the state of Texas, and it's governor, George W Bush, and was handed an unprecedented life sentence" (one presumes it was unprecedented due to the lack of violence etc in the crimes) and that he's still inside...

The story is incredible, and the presentation is "a laugh a minute" - there's a spot towards the end where it seems to drag a little, but overall was fairly evenly- and quick-paced from start to end; I think the depictions of intimacy were well done (I assume at least not all of those involved were queer) though aside from these and Carey himself, the acting was a bit lacking in places. Notwithstanding this, watching this film was very enjoyable, and in some respects offers a fair amount of food for thought.

John's rating 4/5

Winter's Bone

I thought this film was dead loss - it was completely lacking in positive emotions or positive outcomes (at least the outcomes the participants in the film would have wanted) or anything else to draw me into the world the film presented to me - but the acting was quite good, the music etc all fit, and the portrayal of small town/rural attitudes and values were all excellent.

John's rating 2/5

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Double Hour

My first reaction to The Double Hour is that it is a very clever film. There are no shortage of hints and red herrings in this mystery story. Yet I was taken in.

Sonia is working as a chambermaid at an Italian hotel and goes speed dating and ends up meeting ex-cop Guido. On a date with Guido things go very wrong. The aftermath leaves her jumpy and seeing all sorts of disturbing coincidences.

There are no special effects or jaw-dropping CGI or amazing stunts or sexy naked bodies. It is basically an old fashioned film. I am not going to say too much more about The Double Hour, but recommend that you go and see it if you like clever story telling.

Ian's rating 4/5


The French need someone to pick up top secret documents from a Francophile KGB colonel in Moscow, who thinks the USSR has lost its way and needs shaking up. Who better to do it than Pierre, a French electrical engineer living in Moscow with a wife and two young and no spy training? Grigoriev, the KGB colonel seems to have similar disregard for normal professional spy techniques. The French call their new source "Farewell". While the initial information from Farewell is explosive, what the French really want is the list of KGB spies in the West. As more and more people are dragged into the secret it becomes increasingly dangerous for Grigoriev and Pierre and his family, and escaping the USSR becomes the top priority.

The story is very loosely based on real life "Farewell", Vladimir Vetrov.

While sometimes you want to reach out and shake the characters and say "don't be so stupid", on the whole the movie is a competent thriller with the added interest of Pierre and his wife being amateurs but also the human interest of Grigoriev who wants to be paid in French poetry and cassettes of Queen for his teenage son.

(A longer review from the Independent)

Ian's rating 3.5/5
Anne's rating 3/5

Sunday, July 25, 2010


Hypatia is one of those historical characters nobody knows much about (and many of us have never heard of) hence there is plenty of scope for the scriptwriters to be imaginative. She was an academic in Alexandria in late Roman empire, who was murdered in 415AD. At that time Alexandria was still one of the academic centres of the Roman Empire (a hang over from the hay day when its Library was world famous). Agora (which sounds more exotic than "Town Square") covers a period in history that is rarely covered by film. The time when Christianity moves from being a minor (and persecuted) religion to being the state religion, and thence starts exercising political power.

There are ingredients here for two movies: the story of how Christianity evolved and the story of a woman who becomes an academic, seeks to maintain her self determination and then faces religious persecution. Unfortunately it is not clear which movie Agora is trying to be.

The evolution of Christianity is described in terms of its consequences for others around them. The appeal of Christianity to the poor and slaves through its ideas of all men being equal and through its charity work is very briefly dealt with, similarly the phase where people join, out of convenience or fear because Christianity has become the most powerful game in town is also briefly dealt with. But why people converted during the phase in between these two is skipped. The Christians (and in fact all the religious groups) are mostly depicted as a mob, with their leaders depicted as one dimensional power hungry men of action. It feels like one of those B-movie or TV programs where bad guys are just bad because they are evil and they exist only to be eventually defeated by the good guys. Except here one of the groups of bad guys defeat all the others.

The story of Hypatia is not a story of evolution, she seems to be the one constant. She is doing and saying the same things at the end of the film as she does at the beginning, while all around her major social changes are taking place. She (Rachel Weisz) doesn't seem to age either. The boys she taught grow up and become men, but she seems to remain that ambiguously aged beautiful woman to the end. There is a love triangle involving Orestes (one of her pupils) and Davus (one of her slaves). But it is so under played (Hypatia seems not to notice those who adore her) that at times it is not clear if Davus in particular loves her or hates her.

It seems like a lot of money was spent on making this lavish film about an unusual woman living at a very interesting time in history. It is not clear to me if this is supposed to be a film about Hypatia or about an interesting, but usually ignored, era in the history of Christianity. The film concentrates too much on the events happening around Hypatia, and she is too passive and unchanging to be a story about her. The Christian characters are barely more than names and centre of the story is too far removed them for Christianity to be the centre of the film. It is a pity because the sets and costumes are excellent and there is nothing wrong with the actors. On the other hand I wasn't bored and I have had plenty to think about afterwards. For instance, researching for this review I found that historians disagree on when the great library at Alexandria was destroyed, giving four possible dates: 48BC, 273AD, 391AD or 642AD.

In case you are wondering if this is an anti-Christian film. I don't think it is. Several religions have gone through the same evolution from persecuted to persecutor. Islam did it 300 or so years after Hypatia died. Jews have gone through it more than once, most spectacularly in the 1940s. Non-religious groups have also gone through this metamorphosis, so I think it is a more general human phenomena.

You have to admire the film makers for having the balls to star Rachel Weisz in a serious film set in Egypt.

Ian's rating 2.5/5
Anne's rating 2.5/5

The Ghost Writer

Here's the deal: a recently retired British Prime Minister played by Pierce Brosnan (and yes, you're supposed to think Tony Blair) is writing his memoirs and his ghost-writer and former aide drowns. His publishers quickly rope in a replacement (played by Euan MacGregor) who is shipped off to the USA to the publisher's beach house to join the ex-PM and finish the book. What seems like a straightforward task becomes somewhat problematic as the new ghost-writer discovers hints of unpleasantness about the ex-PM and his old ghost-writer's demise. And meantime the attention of the world's media is focused on the ex-PM as a possible prosecution for war crimes looms.

The unease begins early and builds relentlessly. The beach house is in a gated compound in Cape Cod or somewhere similar and it's winter - the sky stays ominously gray all film. There are no leaves on the trees. The house's decor is black and gray and the art is gloomy. Dark-clothed staff hover or drive about in dark-coloured cars. There's ominous music. In contrast, Euan Macgregor's character seems a very ordinary bloke, not given to flights of fancy and not above putting his head in his hands and groaning when confronted with the ex-PM's prose. So when he gets spooked, the feelings of apprehension are infectious and believable.

The Ghost Writer is a rip-snorter of a thriller which will keep you thoroughly diverted for the two hours involved. It's stylish to look at and the plot, while it has a few holes, is on the whole pretty tight. The ending is a surprise, which is how it should be. Seeing Kim Cattrall as the ex-PM's assistant is an added reason to go.

Anne's rating 4.5/5 Ian's rating 4/5

The Most Dangerous Man in America

This film is also known as The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. Now, I'm not the world's biggest documentary fan (I blame an unfortunate experience watching Noam Chomsky early on in my exposure to this genre) but I have been known to attend documentaries on my own volition. Often this is because I already have an interest in the subject matter. This is not the case for this film - the film festival programme description sounded interesting but I had no prior knowledge of either Daniel Ellsberg or the Pentagon Papers.

As the title suggests, its all about Daniel Ellsberg, who is one of the world's interesting guys and a famous whistleblower as far as the US government is concerned. He went to Harvard in the early 1950s , and then joined the marines. Later he worked for the RAND Corporation, finished a PhD in decision-making theory, worked for the Pentagon (for Robert Macnamara), went to Vietnam in the mid 1960s working for the State Department and then back to the Rand Corporation. He was a contributor to a top-secret United States Department of Defense report called "History of United States' decision-making policy in Vietnam 1945 -1967" which was commissioned by Robert Mcnamara, the then Secretary of Defense, in 1967. This history (all 7000 pages of it) became known as The Pentagon Papers when Ellsberg leaked it to the New York Times in 1971 and the American public found out the extent to which successive American presidents had lied to them about their intentions in Vietnam.

The film chronicles all these events in detail and the fallout following the publication of the papers. There are interviews with Ellsberg and his wife and son. There are interviews with colleagues and journalists. There are excerpts from White House Tapes, there's historic footage and old photos. I learned lots. I boggled at the concept of working 12 hour days six days a week at the Pentagon (no wonder wife number one left) but also at the logistics of photocopying 7000 top-secret pages at night without getting caught. Having grown up thinking of Richard Nixon as a bad guy I was amazed to find out he won forty-nine out of fifty states in the 1972 Presidential election.

I hesitate to say you must go and watch this film, but if it should come to a documentary channel near you it's well worth watching. The US Government has all sorts of skeletons in its closet and this story about the revelation of some of them was really interesting.

Anne's rating 3.5/5

Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Prophet

Another day, another prison film.

A Prophet follows the young Malik though six years in jail as he goes from being a bumbling, illiterate nobody who gets beaten up, into being someone not only knows the system but learns how to use it. Prison is a hard place to learn things, but one thing Malik learns quickly is to take advantage of opportunities.

This isn't the tense thriller that Cell 211 is, this is a long drama divided into chapters that chronicle Malik's time in jail. Each chapter documents a notable event in Malik's incarceration: learning who is really the boss of the jail, learning the value of loyalty, making other useful contacts, first day release, rewards, taking the initiative and leaving jail. Most of these also involve César, a Corsican whose control extends beyond the other prisoners to the guards and to Corsican organised crime and politics. Over the years not only does Malik grow in confidence but the power shifts from one organised crime group to another and Malik has to reconsider alliances.

While Cell 211 is an intense portrayal of a few violent hours in a prison, A Prophet is a considered, longer term portrayal of one man's voyage of discovery over 6 years inside.

Ian's rating 3/5

The Time that Remains

The Time that Remains seems to start out as a biography of director Elia Suleiman's father Fuad and then morphs gradually into an autobiography of Elia himself. It also serves as a chronicle of life in Israel for Palestinians, and (appropriately) kicks off in 1948. The Israeli army is advancing on Nazareth and many citizens are preparing to leave while Fuad fights with the local resistance and narrowly avoids execution.

We fast forward to the 1960's when Fuad is married to Nadia and Elia is growing up. Aunt Olga still lives in the family home and Fuad and Nadia live close by. Their interactions with the neighbours illustrate the close-knit nature of the community. Daily life is illustrated by recurring vignettes. We see life in Nazareth gradually becoming more suffocating and we see Elia become an adult. His father dies and, much later, his Mother's death concludes the film.

This film isn't an easy watch. It moves quite slowly and there's a lot of repetition. There are long stretches (especially towards the end) where there is very little dialogue. There are some bits that will stay with me for a long time, particularly a sixty ton Israeli tank parked outside a home and the gun barrel tracking the occupant as he paces back and forth across the road talking on his cellphone, seemingly oblivious. Almost as poignant was the armoured car outside the nightclub in Ramallah being steadfastly ignored by the dancers.

As is often the case after watching films involving Israel, I came away shaking my head.

Anne's rating 3/5 Ian's rating 3/5

Dream Home

You are working three jobs. You are not out boozing with your pals. You are saving every last red cent, but your Dream Home is still out of your reach? What's a girl to do? Come on, we are in a Hong Kong horror movie, what's a girl to do? Go on a killing spree in the neighbouring apartments to give the building a bad reputation and drive down the price, of course.

The back story of Li-sheung's life is simple, the premise is simpler. But how well equipped is a tele-sales girl for a killing spree? Actually she proves so adept at it you might want to reconsider that rude retort the next time you are rung up by someone trying to sell you something.

The film is very stylishly shot with three parallel timelines that director generally leaves up to us to marry up and sort out. There are the flashbacks to Li-sheung's childhood when she see violence being used to clear people out of buildings developers want demolish. There is the present day story of Li-sheung working, begging for loans and negotiating with the real estate agent. In parallel for these is the killing spree itself, which all happens on one night.

There is an element of social satire at work here but ultimately this is a slasher horror movie in which every victim is killed in a different (and sometime inventive) way. Unlike many such killers Li-sheung (played by the cute Josie Ho) is not omnipotent. Like her victims she is physically vulnerable. She mostly relies on the element of surprise and her ruthlessness. There is plenty of gore and unpleasantness to make you squirm and in the druggie flat there is some humour and nudity.

Review on MTV IGGY with trailer.
Time Out Hong Kong interview with Josie Ho.
Twitch interview with Josie Ho.

Ian's rating 3.5/5

Friday, July 23, 2010

Cell 211

Your first day at work can be stressful but I guarantee it was never as bad for you as it was for newbie prison guard, Juan Olivier. In fact for Juan things start to go badly the day before his first day. While he is being shown around the prison, a riot breaks out led by the swaggering Malamadre.

This tense thriller rarely gives you a moment to unclench your fingers as it plunges from one crisis to the next. The balance of power snaps back and forth between the prisoners and the prison authorities as each side looks for an edge over the other, with Juan being caught in the middle. Circumstances force him to deal with the dangerous and unpredictable Malamadre and their relationship is the thread that runs through this movie.

Violence is an integral part of Cell 211 and the woman sitting next to me almost leaped on her companion at one point. It also captures and reflects the anger, fear and frustration of each side, with an intensity that is often missing in thrillers with less mundane settings. These people don't have the high tech resources and extraordinary skills that are all too common in films like the Bourne series. Both sides have limited information, limited resources and internal conflicts, and are only separated from each other by one or two walls and some bars or glass. The violence is mostly inflicted at short range, making the experience much more intense.

There are almost no wasted scenes and it pays to remember every unimportant detail and throw away line, because they may become important in deciphering a later turn of events. Despite the fact that because the action takes place in a prison, which constrains the events, Cell 211 still manages to be unpredictable to the end.

Ian's rating 5/5

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Kawasaki’s Rose

Kawasaki’s Rose is a complex origami flower and this film is about peeling back layers in an effort to get at the truth underneath, and raises questions about truth, memory, how much people are culpable for their behaviour under stress and are myths more valuable than the truth?

The film follows a TV film crew as it films a Czech psychiatrist, Pavel Josek, who is going to be awarded an honour in recognition of his role as a dissident under the Communist regime. By coincidence the sound engineer is Pavel's son-in-law, who feels rejected by Pavel. As the TV crew researches Pavel they discover something that changes the direction of their TV show. (If you are keen on plot spoilers look here or IMDB).

This is a film that asks some tough questions that are relevant to many countries that have undergone trauma in the 20th Century. On a domestic level is it worth wrecking a family by exposing the skeleton in the closet? On a national level is the need for heroes worth suppressing the truth for? Who gets to decide what the collective memory is?

Because the number of characters is small (5 in Pavel's family) and 3 or 4 others, and because the secret is more personal than political the film is intimate and understandable. While the film does a good job of explaining the methods used by secret police to put pressure on people. Unfortunately it doesn't adequately explain why governments would want a relatively unimportant individual to either capitulate so entirely or leave the country with no middle ground possible. I guess this is probably more understandable to Czechs than Kiwis. This minor issue aside this was an absorbing movie either as domestic drama or as a political/philosophical dilemma.

I was interested to learn that the Czech Communist Government regarded exile to "the West" as a form of punishment. Which is quite different to the attitude of the Soviet government!

Ian's rating 3.5/5
Anne's rating 2.5/5

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story

The star of Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story is Hebba Younis, a very fashionable, petite, young daytime-TV host with a pageboy haircut. She lives with her good-looking, newspaper reporter husband in a luxury apartment high above Cairo. Their lives are far removed from ordinary Cairo both literally and figuratively. He is on the short list for promotion to the politically sensitive job of editor in chief, an appointment that needs government approval. But her political stories are annoying the government and his colleagues tell him to shut her up. Under pressure she switches interviewing non-political women. The interviews morph into long flashbacks as the interviewees tell their stories.

In the first interview a middle-aged psychiatric patient from an upper class family is interviewed about her choice to remain a virgin. Unfortunately for Hebba's husband it centers on a date the woman's mother set up for her many years earlier with a man who came armed with a list of demands including that she give up driving in return for marriage. It turns out the the man is now a cabinet minister.

In the second interview an ex-inmate who is looking after a retired prison guard is interviewed about her crime (murder). This flashback teases the viewer with a who-done-it to who mystery story as three sisters made orphan by their father's death struggle to run a hardware shop with the help of their father's apprentice and the meddling of a drug addict uncle.

In the third interview a young dentist describes how she was wooed by an older American-educated economist, who seduces her and then blackmails her. The blackmailer is also appointed to a cabinet post.

Though easy on the eye Hebba is too selfish and touchy to be a likable character, which probably helps in drawing our sympathies to the three interviewees. The three stories have themes of women talking openly about love and sex and betrayal or oppression by men but also have or are seen to have political consequences (it also gives the impression that Egyptian cabinet ministers are particularly bad in this regard... and thin-skinned about it to boot). Overall it feels contrived and melodramatic, but the middle story in particular is well told and acted (and could probably expanded into a film by itself). While women talking openly on screen about sex and love might be common place in Western films like Sex and the City, I suspect it is not the case in Egyptian films.

Ian's rating 3/5
Anne's rating 4/5

The Concert

Another day, another movie. The ticket queue stretched out the door and down the street - and this was Tuesday lunchtime. Happily the Embassy's large capacity ensured we didn't miss out on a seat.

And so we met Andrei, a cleaner at the Bolshoi Theatre. He's also the Bolshoi's ex-conductor and alcoholically challenged. His career was brought to a sudden stop (in the middle of a performance of Tchaikovsky's violin concerto in D) some thirty years ago because the communist regime took exception to his pro-Jewish attitudes. Lea the Jewish violinist was send to the Gulag. At the time Andrei and the orchestra's violin soloist Lea were obsessed with perfecting this violin concerto, and as a result of what happened Andrei has been obsessed with it ever since.

One fateful day, Andrei is cleaning the office at the theatre when a fax arrives from Paris asking if the orchestra can perform there in few weeks time. Andrei intercepts the fax and hatches a plan to conduct the Tchaikovsky concerto using an orchestra of his fellow musicians, a member of the previously mentioned communist regime and a talented french violinist who never plays Tchaikovsky.

Here we have all the ingredients for a french farce and there are lots of laughs. Getting the motley band of ex-professional musicians to Paris is one thing, getting them to perform is quite another. And of course there's the problem of keeping the concert from the "real" Bolshoi Orchestra and it's management.

However, this is so much more than a French Farce or a good opportunity to take the mickey out of the Russians. It's a stirring and affecting tale about an exorcising personal demons and about what people will do to help out someone they care about. It falls into the feel-good category but it gets the heart rate up as well as the hair on the back of your neck. There are so many obstacles that you're not completely sure that things will turn out well. The story and Tchaikovsky will keep you glued to your seat for the whole two hours.

Anne's rating 4.5/5
Ian's rating 5/5

A Somewhat Gentle Man

A person leaving jail is a common opening film scene (e.g. Zift and Sherrybaby), but don't hold this cliché against A Somewhat Gentle Man. Don't hold the bleak, winter urban setting and slow pace against this film either, because unlike some of the Scandinavian comedies I've seen, which are not only dark, but also surreal (e.g. The Bothersome Man), the most surreal thing here are the coincidences. Stay with A Somewhat Gentle Man beyond its slow, unpromising start (and occasional violence) to enjoy some off beat humour delivered slowly, unexpectedly and sometimes below the belt.

Ulrik having finished a 12 year stretch for murder, discovers that his old crime boss is more keen on revenge against the man who squealed to the police 12 years ago than he is. But how can he upset the man who also finds him his first job and place to live (even if the room has a clanging metal door)? In fact the world is divided into those that want to take advantage of him and those who don't want to know him.

You know that you are not in Kansas when a woman, arriving home with her young son, is horrified to find her husband kneeling in a pool of piss on the living room floor with a gun to his head, reacts by offering to make everyone some tea. If you like black comedy delivered with barely a drop of melodrama then this is your sort of film. There is even a happy ending of sorts.

Ian's rating 3.5/5

Love in a Puff

Love in a Puff, which is the unfolding of the romance between Cherie (a cosmetics saleswoman) and Jimmy (who works in advertising), was made in Hong Kong. When I think of movies made in Hong Kong I think of Jackie Chan, martial arts and police dramas, so a romantic comedy was definitely a novelty. A romance born in an alley outside work amongst a group of smokers is also a first. The firsts kept coming - early on I remember thinking how refreshing to have the girl making the first moves. Cherie is older than Jimmy. A man who puts dry ice in the loo for kicks is definitely an exception to the rule. And it was great for us myopes to have a good-looking, glasses-wearer as the male lead.

The attractive leads, the witty dialogue and the incorporation of text messaging into the plot all work well and add to the watching pleasure. Smoking is a integral part of the plot, not just the title and the means of girl meeting boy. Cherie and Jimmy driving all over town the night before the tax on cigarettes goes up adds a comic and urgent element. Cherie's asthma is another important plot aspect.

Loathing smoking shouldn't keep you away. This a feel-good movie on lots of levels and the ending should keep all viewers happy.

Anne's rating 4/5
Ian's rating 3/5

Animal Kingdom

Melbourne is known for its shopping, trams, food, wine and criminal gangs. Animal Kingdom looks at a fictional crime family from the point of view of a seventeen year old boy. From this point of view things are not black and white. The people who nurture him are on the wrong side of the law. The police are not always on the right side of the law. There is a severe shortage of trust in this story, which provides much of the tension.

The story builds gradually as the focus moves gradually from one family member to another as different members take an interest in the silent Joshua, who mostly wants to be invisible. Once the police take an interest in him, Joshua finds that he can no longer take a passive role.

If you like dark, morally ambiguous thrillers then Animal Kingdom is a film you should see. If you prefer cheerful, morally black and white films then it is a film to avoid.

Ian's rating 3.5/5

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Housemaid

Last year we had a Chilean view of the master servant relationship. This year we have the South Korean view. This Korean view centres on exploitation of servants and the dangers posed to powerless servants by malicious employers. The story is about a young maid hired by the very rich Hoon family. The Hoon household consists of the piano playing Mr Hoon, the very pregnant Mrs Hoon, their little daughter and long time servant Mrs Cho. When things go wrong the extremely vicious mother in law joins the family.

Like The Maid, The Housemaid is about a world that will seem odd to most Kiwis, but whereas the Chilean film is about a middle class family we can identify with, the Korean film is about a family that is too rich to identify with, and who's casual arrogance is jaw dropping.

The film builds up from a chaotic, almost plotless beginning, focusing itself through the series of event that lead to the climax. Technically the film is very stylish with arty shots of the Hoon's house and lifestyle, and clever touches of humour. But I think it largely misses in engaging a Kiwi audience (though it may play better at home), and it finishes with a confusing scene that seems both unnecessary and out of place with the rest of the film.

Ian's rating 3/5
Anne's rating 2.5/5

Monday, July 19, 2010

Four Lions

Going to a comedy about four incompetent British Muslim would-be terrorists seemed an attractive proposition to me and Wellingtonians obviously agreed, since the Sunday night showing was totally full. Apart from wanting to be amused, there was also the curiosity about how the subject matter would be handled and who would find it offensive.

A reviewer quoted in the film festival programme said Four Lions was In the Loop meets Paradise Now and having seen both of those movies I'd agree - but that comparison doesn't give you the full picture. Throw in Mr Bean (for the painful cringe-making type of humour) and Inspector Clouseau (for the slapstick and added stupidity) and you'll have a better idea.

The Four Lions want to stage a suicide bombing. The film documents their arguments about what to bomb (Barry the white muslim convert wants to bomb the local mosque and one of the others wants to bomb the internet), their attempts to video their explanation of their actions, two of them going to a terrorist training camp in Pakistan, their agreement on the London Marathon as their target, and their explosive making efforts.

There's a lot to make you laugh in Four Lions and as much to make you groan - the silly stuff like swallowing the car keys so the others are forced to hotwire the car to get to the airport, running through London in an Ostrich suit, strapping explosives to a crow, and the philosophical stuff like why your concept of paradise is so strong that you'd want to give up a beautiful wife and a charming son to get there early and why you'd think that women are second class citizen. And then there's the inescapable fact that the dynamics of four not-very-bright men trying to organise anything is just bound to be funny.

One reviewer suggested that the point of the film was that most terrorists were incompetent so we shouldn't we worried about them and I disagree entirely. The purposes of the film that occurred to me are that there's often humour to be derived from serious subjects, that even stupid terrorists are dangerous - and not only to themselves, and that terrorists are just ordinary people with unusually strong convictions.

Four Lions is a comedy that will take you a bit outside your comfort zone, so cast political correctness aside and go and watch it.

Anne's rating 4/5
Ian's rating 4/5

The Loved Ones

Two boys: a funny one and a sullen one. Three girls: a good one, a bad one and a misunderstood one. The end of the year school dance. Girl gets boy... but which boy? And which girl?

One boy learns that the hospitality of outback folk can be painful, inventive with household objects and difficult to escape from. Though he might have been pre-warned if they taught William Congreve in English class. The other boy's evening doesn't go to plan either.

This is a good film to test your squeamish levels with, as this is a surprise and violence horror movie rather than a suspense one. While it is difficult for horror movie makers to avoid formula in the structure of their films Sean Byrne has been inventive in the detail of implementing the formula. It is also an equal opportunity horror movie, the girls are not scream queen victims, in fact for most of the film they drive the action. So if your date is up to it, lock away all sharp objects, make sure you are on good terms with all your ex's, dress up and see this film in a cinema where you can share a sofa and you can hold more than each other's hands.

Did I mention the father-daughter relationship that will be seared on your brain as much as the unspeakable things that happen to the hero?

Ian's rating 4/5

(I advise against seeing the trailer for this film as it gives too much away)

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Marvellous Corricks

I was suspicious that this was going to be a mockumentary - like Forgotten Silver, but I was mistaken, it was the real deal. The Corricks were a real family of vaudeville performers who bought a projector and later a camera and showed films as part of their act, starting in NZ and moving onto Australia and then a world tour.

This was a showing of nine of these films from before 1910, with a piano accompaniment and a narration. The narrator not only described the action but between reels he talked about the Corricks and early film making and projecting, in the age before the film industry and the cinema evolved from chaos into something resembling what we have today. One of the films was so odd that it wasn't even vaguely clear what the story was supposed to be. There were flowers that turned into women who then turned a man into a flower. Apart from the travelogs (including one about London in 1904 without a single motor vehicle or even a tram), most of the films had some form of special effects. It seems that the early film makers were more interested in what was possible than telling stories.

The narration was initially a little wooden but that aside I would recommend this to anyone interested very early films.

Ian's rating 2/5

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Myth of the American Sleepover

We were lured into going to this film (which is a late addition to the festival) today by a 2 for 1 ticket offer and we should have resisted the temptation. It was a slow-moving story about how assorted bunches of American teenagers spend the last night of the summer vacation. They're all supposed to be at single sex sleepovers but they go AWOL to fraternise with the opposite sex and drink a lot. The brochure blurb suggested a charmingly nostalgic tale of adolescence, but that isn't what was delivered.

It is perhaps not surprising that a film with the word myth in the title is unbelievable. Ludicrous, even. Given the quantity of alcohol that was consumed, nobody seemed worse for wear - there was only one delicate vomiting episode from which the victim recovered incredibly quickly. Not only did no-one appear drunk, there was no bad language, no breakages and they all drove or walked all over town in the middle of the night and came to no harm. There was no sexual aggression or unwanted groping and I found it amazing that not only did one boy say "can I kiss you?" or "I want to kiss you" before doing it but they all did. All the characters were ridiculously articulate.

Just to round out my list of gripes, the film was a funny colour - sort of faded. Perhaps this was supposed to add to sense of nostalgia that the maker was trying to cultivate, but I just found it irritating. And while it was clearly supposed to be set on a balmy summer evening, it just didn't look warm.

Anne's rating 2/5

This film followed a cute Kiwi short film about young boys breaking into an old house in search of Playboy magazines. By comparison The Myth of the American Sleepover was filmed with a faded looking colour cast. This plus the timeless fashion might be intended to give the film a nostalgic look but really nostalgia is better achieved by picking a subject the viewers are familiar with and emotionally attached to. Unfortunately alcohol and chasing the opposite sex were not part of my teenage years, so I am probably not the target audience for this film, and it didn't win me over.

I agree with Anne about how impervious to alcohol these teenagers seemed to be. I wasn't as irritated by the film as Anne was but it isn't a film I'd recommend.

Ian's rating 1.5/5

Friday, July 16, 2010

Once Upon a Time in the West

Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow is not only a dance rhythm, but also the rhythm of Once Upon a Time in the West. The film switches back and forth between slow sequences where nothing seems to happen and explosions of violence.

The opening scene, with its irritating noises (squeaky water pump, buzzing fly, etc) and lack of dialogue is one of cinema's best remembered opening sequences. It is also the first hint that Sergio Leone might be playing with us. The harmonica that seems to be part of the score until one of the characters notices it in a way that seems like he is breaking the fourth wall in an unusual way, is the confirmation that Sergio Leone is using all his skills to tell this story with as much flare as possible. In fact the story is secondary to the way it is told. The whole plot seems to be his MacGuffin. This is the Western as style rather than substance. The sun, heat, lack of water and women, the machismo, the ritual of the gunfights, the division of labour between the toiling (and cowardly) workers and the otherwise idle gunslingers, violence as a means of decision making, the lack of consequences for some actions and fatal consequences for others.

That said, the two plots are presented as mysteries. We know who is being killed and who is killing but the motives are only gradually revealed, one motive being kept secret until the final scenes.

The humour is laconic and dry.
Frank: How can you trust a man who wears both a belt and suspenders? The man can't even trust his own pants.

Or more famously:
Harmonica faces three gunmen at the railway station.
Harmonica: Did you bring a horse for me?
Snaky: Well... looks like we're...
Snaky: ...looks like we're shy one horse.
Harmonica: You brought two too many.

The largely imperturbable Jill (Claudia Cardinale), the lone female character around which all the gunfighters orbit like comets, has to put up with men who range from patronising, to non-PC, to misogynistic. Unfortunately she isn't given much acting to do. The orbiting men played by Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson and Jason Robards are all menacing, ruthless dominating characters. In particular Charles Bronson's cool, quiet, unbelievably fast shooting harmonica player is the best I have seen him act.

I think Sergio Leone must have had a passion for blue eyes, given the number of lingering close ups of staring blue eyes (especially Henry Fonda's).

Ian's rating 4/5


The Film Festival's Wellington season kicked off tonight with the New Zealand Premiere of Predicament which is the film of a novel by the same name. This black and comic tale is set in 1930's Taranaki,and it's teenager hero is named Cedric. He is a slightly anorexic-looking version of Harry Potter and he and the movie have a kind of story-book yesteryear charm - think Boys' own annual, or possibly the Famous Five, and then try to imagine how either of those might try to handle a tale involving murder and sex.

It's school holidays and Cedric becomes acquainted with an unemployed petty criminal named Mervyn and his creepy but hilarious side-kick, Spook. They hatch a plan to blackmail some unfortunate locals, particularly the property developer who ripped off Cedric's Grandmother. As the plan is executed Cedric wrestles elaborately with his conscience about his level of participation and anything that can go wrong does go wrong. You'll have to go and see the movie to find out what happens but I can promise you a wholesomely happy, if somewhat cunning, ending to an unwholesome tale.

Predicament doesn't take itself very seriously. It makes fun of all sorts of things, and all kinds of movie genres but especially thrillers and detective stories. There is gloriously deadpan humour, some slapstick physical comedy and some "lets zoom-right-in-your-face" camera work.It is very atmospheric and the dialogue is witty. Spook (played by Jemaine Clement) is a joy to watch and listen to - he materialises from nowhere and almost steals the show.

I could happily watch this movie again tomorrow - I feel there's plenty more to appreciate than I took in in one viewing.

Anne's rating 4/5
Ian's rating 3/4