Movie Review – Eternity (Alliance Francaise French Film Festival)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something at least worthwhile on a visual and aural level.

REVIEW: For those who don’t know my nationality, I am Vietnamese. And because I was raised in Australia for all of my life, I never really experienced much of Vietnamese culture, but there were some films that I had watched that had always stuck with me. And those were the works of Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung.

Showing the true beauty in the slices of life in Vietnam, his works were always amazing on a visual level as well as an aural level. Immigrated to France at a young age, he clearly took to the customs of the country as well as its film-making style.

In other words, his films were always graceful and soothing, even during moments of realism and nihilism. Famous examples are The Scent of the Green Papaya, Cyclo and Norwegian Wood. You can’t dislike a man that introduced to you critically acclaimed Hong Kong actor Tony Leung Chiu-wai, can you?

So when I heard that he was making his first French-language film with three of the best actresses in all of France, I was excited beyond belief. Counting the fact that this was the first film of Tran‘s that I have see on the big screen, did the film meet my expectations?

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Spanning through a century, showing two generations of a family, the film starts off following Valentine (Audrey Tautou) and her life, involving her husband Jules (Arieh Worthalter) and her children, including Henri (later played by Jeremie Renier).

After finding Jules and giving birth to more than half a dozen children, Valentine then watches as nearly all of them die untimely deaths of unspecified illnesses or leaving the family home, at which point the focus shifts to Valentine’s daughter-in-law Mathilde (Melanie Laurent), who is married to Henri, being the first generation to continue the bloodline.

The story also spans on to Mathilde’s childhood friend, Gabrielle (Berenice Bejo) and her husband Charles (Pierre Deladonchamps), whom both couples live comfortably as they raise their children together.

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As you may have assumed from the synopsis, the film does not have a plot. But for those who are accustomed to Tran‘s films, those were never in service of a plot. They were all in service of mood and atmosphere and thanks to Tran‘s sheer skill, Mark Lee Ping-bing‘s stellar cinematography and great musical choices, supervised by Elise Luguern, Eternity is truly a tone poem brought to life.

The actresses rely more on their physical acting rather than their dialogue delivery, and they all do very well. Audrey Tautou makes the most out of her patriarch role as she convincingly carries the emotional turmoil of her character with nary a word of dialogue.

Melanie Laurent is the most likable and vibrant out of the three, as she gracefully lights up the screen with hope and optimism as soon as she appears on-screen. Berenice Bejo is the tempered and taciturn of the three and she makes a good impression, as her interactions with Laurent are quite good.

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And of course, what would a Tran Anh Hung film be without the director’s muse (and wife) Tran Nu Yan Khe, who not only serves as the narrator of the film (who thankfully adds a sense of pragmatism to the proceedings), but is also the art director of the film.

The film deals with death and birth in a way that is quite poignant as well as illuminating. Scenes of the children, either through birth and death, for the most part, emotionally hit their mark. But due to the numerous times that we go through, the message that Tran wants to show the audience is clear: Birth is a miracle no matter how many times we see it and death is, deep down, meaningless no matter many times it happens and hits us. It really is a simple message, but a profound one nonetheless.

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And while the film certainly accomplishes what it aims for, for viewers who are looking for something else like a plot or conventional narrative will be bored. The film would probably be defined as “installation art”, along the lines of films of Hou Hsiao-hsien. Not to mention the languid pacing, the few sets and locations and the repetitious events.

But for those who are initiated to Tran‘s body of work and those who are willing to step outside the norm of conventional film-making may find Eternity to be a sensual delight that would most likely cast a spell of wonder and poignancy that one would definitely appreciate.

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Quickie Review

PROS

CONS

SCORE: 8/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Audrey Tautou, Berenice Bejo, Melanie Laurent, Jeremie Renier, Pierre Deladonchamps, Arieh Worthalter, Tran Nu Yen Khe
Director: Tran Anh Hung
Screenwriter: Alice Ferney (based on the novel, L’Elegance des veuves), Tran Anh Hung

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Movie Review – Being 17 (Alliance Francaise French Film Festival 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something as good as Girlhood.

REVIEW: This will be my first review from of a few entries for this year’s Alliance Francaise French Film Festival and if Being 17 is any indication, the festival is off to a great start. Coming-of-age films are a genre that I deeply appreciate. With no need of a strong reliance on plot, seeing the progression of a protagonist through young adulthood can be compelling on a cinematic level.

So when I heard of Being 17 showing at the festival and all of its critical buzz, I was intrigued. But what sealed the deal for me was the co-writer of the film, Celine Sciamma. Having seen her last directorial project, my hopes skyrocketed, since I absolutely loved Girlhood, with its mature approach to young adulthood, showing how it feels to briefly belong somewhere and its sheer realism. So does Being 17 live up to the hype?

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The film starts off with Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein), a taciturn yet intelligent student who lives with his mother Marianne (Sandrine Kiberlein), a doctor. His father, Nathan (Alexis Moret) is a military pilot who often gets called into mission reports.

During school, Damien gets picked on by Tomas (Corentin Fila), a classmate who trips him over for no reason. Thus begins a series of violent confrontations within the school faculty.

Tomas, who is a bi-racial son of sheep and cattle farmers, has to spend 90 minutes traveling to school. During one of her house calls, Marianne gets called to Tomas’ house to lend aid to Tomas’ mother, Christine, who has been through a series of miscarriages. Hearing that Tomas is struggling with his grades at school, she takes it upon herself to invite Tomas to her home to study. With the pressing of his parents, he reluctantly agrees.

Having no say in the matter, Damien has to suck it up to reside with Tomas, but little do the two realize, that this would end up being the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

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When I was watching the film, I found the catalyst of the relationship very hard to swallow. A mother inviting a bully of her son to live together is a hard thing to shake off and it is understandable that it would turn some people off. But if you get over that, Being 17 is really a compelling film that like Girlhood, is honest, non-judgmental and emotionally satisfying. But it isn’t as good as the latter, due to some flaws that are quite unfortunate.

Director Andre Techine, whose work I’ve never seen but I’m willing to rectify, takes a subtle approach to the storytelling, with very little of the histrionics that usually accompanies the genre and it pays off beautifully. Working with less-than-usual dialogue and more reliant on physical expressions, we see the angst and confusion of the characters; like in a scene where the two boys are fighting each other in the snow.

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The film is also split into three trimesters (a name given to the terms in French schools and is also a reference to Tomas’ mother’s pregnancy status) and the seasons reflect the progression of the characters brilliantly, while the settings in Pyrenees, France are beautifully capture by DOP Julien Hirsch.

The performances certainly hold up their end of the bargain, with the two leads showing great nuance and maturity to their performances. Klein and Fila share great chemistry, whether it is hostility or intimacy, they both give life to their characters while making them truly genuine.

Sandrine Kiberlain is fantastic as Marianne, as she shows warmth, charisma and (without spoilers) is very convincing in the later stages of the film. Despite her character’s questionable actions, Kiberlain makes them believable that the character would do such a thing.

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But there are flaws that prevent this film from being truly great. Alongside the morally questionable foundation of the story, there are scenes in the film that are present for the sake of foreshadowing, but it leads to nothing. In one case, there’s a scene where Marianne has a dream about a certain character that is morally bizarre. How it adds to the story is very questionable and it should’ve been left in the cutting room floor.

But overall, Being 17 is a thoughtful coming-of-age story with great performances, honest storytelling, beautiful cinematography and subtle direction that is sure to delight. If you can overlook its questionable morals, the emotional journey that the characters go through is sure to emotionally satisfy.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Great performances from the cast

Honest, emotionally satisfying storytelling

Beautiful cinematography

CONS

Morally questionable moments

SCORE: 8/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Sandrine Kiberlain, Kacey Mottet Klein, Corentin Fila, Alexis Loret, Jean Fornerod, Mama Prassinos, Jean Corso
Director: Andre Techine
Screenwriter: Andre Techine, Celine Sciamma

Movie Review – The Eagle Huntress

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EXPECTATIONS: An informative documentary about eagle hunting.

REVIEW: Now I admit, I do not watch a lot of documentaries, but the ones I did watch were all great. And yet somehow, there are documentaries that I’ve seen in the past that don’t feel like documentaries at all, mainly because the stories behind them are a little too hard to believe. Films like Super Size Me and Bowling for Columbine have been accused of being false, manipulative as well as misleading.

I start off with this because the documentary, The Eagle Huntress, has been accused of being staged, scripted and even acted. But even factoring all of this, does that clench the final verdict that the documentary is a bad viewing experience? In this case, yes and no.

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The documentary follows Aisholpan Nurgaiv, an incredibly optimistic 13 year-old girl, who long has been fascinated by the practice of eagle hunting, as demonstrated by her father as well as her grandfather.

They of course encourage her interest, despite the fact that she spends weekdays at a school far from the family home, due to the lack of dorms in the Altai Mountains region. At her school, she is practically known as a tomboy, where she both excels academically as well as athletically.

Her father then takes her out to capture an eagle chick off a cliff face and after the ritual, we see the progress between Aisholpan and the bird to the point where she enters unannounced in a eagle hunting competition, being the only female competitor.

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From the subject alone as well as its political implications, it’s a surefire winner. Aisholpan is a wonderful subject that is sure to inspire many due to her empowerment, her strength and her sheer will to succeed in what she wants to be, and the filmmakers milk it for all their worth.

Aisholpan doesn’t seem to go through many obstacles throughout the film despite a few  negative outbursts from the townspeople due to traditionalist (i.e. sexist) values, like how a woman should stick to staying home.

And what makes the film problematic is that the editing is constructed in a way that it makes the events feel staged, instead of organic. The musical score (including the closing song from Sia) unfortunately adds to the issue as well, feeling like the filmmaker is force-feeding an agenda, rather than just document the subject. Even the narration from Daisy Ridley (whose voice I love to hear) is quite unnecessary.

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The film is definitely well-shot (thanks to Simon Niblett), with all of the crane as well as drone shots, showing the wide scope of the mountains and the valleys in Western Mongolia beautifully. And there are moments where there is actual suspense, like in a scene where Aisholpan and her father are riding their horses through incredibly deep snow that is almost shoulder-high.

Don’t get me wrong, I truly admire the message and found the journey of Aisholpan very inspiring and if it inspires one person out there to be more like her, then the film can’t possibly be bad. But the morally questionable film-making just distracts me to the point that I can’t possibly fully give it total credit.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Inspiring story

Aisholpan is a great heroine

CONS

Questionable film-making

SCORE: 7/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Aisholpan Nurgaiv, Rhys Nurgaiv, Kuksyegyen Almagul, Boshai Dalaikhan, Daisy Ridley (narrator)
Director: Otto Bell
Screenwriter: N/A

Movie Review – Pieta in the Toilet

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EXPECTATIONS: A long, understated drama held together by its two appealing leads.

REVIEW: Terminal affliction dramas have been a long trope in films, with such classics like Love Story, Bright Star, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Biutiful and Sunny; either handling the subject manner in an understated manner or wringing all the dramatic juice out of it for all of its worth.

It is definitely used as an easy in for audience sympathy, which some filmmakers have taken advantage of to the point that there have been some horrific films like My Sister’s Keeper, P.S I Love You, Restless and of course, Me Before You. Those are examples that are exploitative, insistent and borderline offensive.

So when I was planning to watch Pieta in the Toilet, I was a bit nervous as to how the film would turn out. But I had an open mind when I read that the director of the film, Daishi Matsunaga, was a documentary filmmaker who decided to make this film his first narrative feature. His background in documentaries could be a positive factor in making the approach to the terminal affliction genre as realistic as possible. So did the film put my mind at ease and impress me, despite my doubts?

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Yojiro Oda stars as Sonoda, a former art school graduate who currently works as a window-washer. After lightly berating a new employee over fainting on the job, he himself faints, and consults a doctor about. In a blunt fashion towards Sonoda (as well as the audience), the doctor says that he is suffering advanced stages of stomach cancer and he must commence stages of chemotherapy to increase the chances of beating it.

Gradually, we learn more about Sonoda and his past, which includes his ex-girlfriend Satsuki (Saya Ichikawa), who is also an artist, but unlike Hiroshi, she was able to become a success, exhibiting one-woman shows of her samples of artwork. As Sonoda learns about his illness, he decides to hold off on telling his family and tries to get Satsuki to pose as his sister. But after a fight between the two, Sonoda spots Mai (Hana Sugisaki), an impulsive high school girl who is berating an older gentleman for accidentally tearing up her school uniform.

Sonoda agrees to pay for the damages if she would pose as his sister and she reluctantly agrees. It is then that the two start an unlikely relationship that we gradually see that they might have more in common than one would think.

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Now how does the film rank alongside other terminal affliction entries? Pretty damn high, I must say. Pieta in the Toilet is a seemingly simple story effectively told with fantastic direction, top-notch performances, a well-written script and indescribable cinematography that is reminiscent of the cinematography in Linda Linda Linda (both lensed by Ikeuchi Yoshihiro).

First off, the direction. As mentioned earlier, director Daishi Matsunaga had directed documentaries before this; one being about an actual famous artist, and it clearly shows in his latest effort. Aiming for the tone to be realistic yet extracting beauty throughout the mundane settings like a swimming pool or a hospital, Matsunaga strikes the perfect balance that makes the film a lot more hopeful that one would think of its grim story.

The storytelling is also very understated and never resides to tugging heartstrings or playing sappy music to get its emotions across. Sometimes, it is a bit too understated to the point that it makes one wonder if the film is as clinical as the hospital setting. Fortunately, Matsunaga bides his time, gradually building up the momentum of the story as well as developing his characters that it creates a genuinely cathartic pay-off.

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The actors deserve massive credit for making the film as credible as it is. Yojiro Oda (part of RADWIMPS, a rock band that is responsible for the score in the animated blockbuster, Your Name) gives an effective performance as Sonoda that might be a bit muted at first, but like the film, gets more emotional throughout the running time.

On the contrary, Hana Sugisaki is fantastic as the brash and impulsive Mai, who may have a tough exterior, but would eventually reveal a more vulnerable side. Her interactions, whether she’s being flirtatious or antagonistic, are always nuanced and she never goes cutesy to get the interest of the audience. There’s a scene in a swimming pool where she and Oda confront each other and it is a compelling experience of anger, acceptance, naivety and stubbornness that is strongly poignant.

As for the supporting actors, Lily Franky is a delight as a pervert/hospital patient who befriends Sonoda. Not only does he bring some much-needed humour to the proceedings, he also brings credibility to the dramatic parts alongside Oda, making the progression of Sonoda very easy to believe. He also shows his bare ass (not on the titular toilet, fortunately), which alone earns extra points. While Rie Miyazawa, a great veteran actress, does wonders with her small role as a mother of a cancer patient, and she even has a scene to herself that is one of the best scenes in the film.

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Speaking of best scenes in the film, the climax is a thing of beauty that perfectly encapsulates the arcs of the characters, the beauty of its story and even surprises with its daring final shot. It may last a few seconds and it proceeds past the point where it would seem obvious to a normal storyteller would end their story, but without going into spoilers, there is something about it that really pays off in retrospect.

Despite its strange title that would understandably turn people off, Pieta in the Toilet is a wonderful piece of film-making with fantastic performances, assured storytelling, a well-written script and surprisingly beautiful cinematography that not only adds hope to the story itself, but the genre as well.

Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performances from its cast

Wonderful direction/storytelling that balances beauty and realism in a grim story

Surprising cinematography that finds beauty in the most mundane settings

CONS

May be too understated for its own good in the first two acts

SCORE: 9/10

Cast: Yojiro Noda, Hana Sugisaki, Lily Franky, Saya Ichikawa, Shinobu Otake, Rie Miyazawa
Director: Daishi Matsunaga
Screenwriters: Daishi Matsunaga, Osamu Tezuka (original concept)

Movie Review – Killing Ground (Monster Fest 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: A film that will further damage Australia’s reputation on tourism.

REVIEW:  It’s been a long time since I’ve been camping and there’s a big reason for that. Films in the backwoods genre like The Blair Witch Project and Deliverance have always freaked me out in my early years due the uniqueness of the settings. It is quite an oxymoron that an area like the Australian forests can be so vast and yet feel so claustrophobic.

It also doesn’t help that Australian films have made great horror films (like the Wolf Creek series) in the Outback that have spread unintentional (or is it intentional?) fear across the world about what it’s like to tour around Australia.

So when I heard that a small film called Killing Ground was making huge buzz at Sundance, I was curious. And to have Aaron Pedersen (who was fantastic as the lead in crime-thrillers Mystery Road and Goldstone) in the cast was just icing on the cake. Will Killing Ground further “damage” the reputation of Australia’s tourism?

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Young couple Sam (Harriet Dyer) and Ian (Ian Meadows) drive down a long park road in order to spend a romantic New Year’s Eve on a remote lakefront. They’re initially a bit put off to find another tent already set up on the beach, then are quite dumbfounded when its inhabitants fail to turn up through the night.

Meanwhile, older married duo Margaret (Maya Strange) and Rob (Julian Garner) are likewise camping with their two children, bored teen Em (Tiarne Coupland) and toddler Ollie (played by twins Liam and Riley Parkes).

And in another subplot introduces German (Aaron Pedersen), a brooding ex-con with a vicious attack dog, and Chook (Aaron Glenane), his impulsive, dimwitted sidekick. Both have been seen earlier, trying to pick up female tourists at the pub and generally earning their reputation as the sleazies of the community.

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With a low budget, basically one location, a decidedly small cast and a simple well-worn premise, you gotta have a damn good director to make the most out of these resources. Thankfully, director Damien Power and the cast and crew are all up to the task.

One of the things that makes this film special is Power‘s refusal to abide to genre tropes. One example is the storytelling. As stated in the synopsis, there are three different subplots, but unlike a straightforward approach, these plots converge in a way that is inventive, refreshing and it is all done with a shocking singular take involving an infant.

Even the portrayal of the characters is told in a way that is out of the norm from thrillers. For the heroes, they are either more flawed or more capable than the audience would expect. As for the villains, we seem them early on, with a glimpse of how they go through their day-to-day life and it actually gives them a sense of humanity that makes them even scarier due to how true-to-life these characters can be.

Another example, there is a certain point in the film that bluntly tells the audience that all bets are off; no one has a guarantee of survival. Films of this genre need to be more like this, as the suspense is increased exponentially. This and other examples (like the restrained approach to violence, lack of musical score and character reversals) just goes to show that putting in a little effort in a well-worn genre goes a very long way.

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It is said that the restrictions of a low budget in a feature film can force a filmmaker to rely on their own creativity, and the crew of Killing Ground do not let Power down. Simon Chapman’s cinematography captures the Outback environment beautifully while also making the film it crushingly claustrophobic (even when the majority of the film is set during the day) while Katie Flaxman’s editing is kept minimalist to maximum effect. Last but not least, Leah Curtis‘ score is very effective ironically when it is sparingly used.

But all of this can be for naught if the characters were not portrayed in a way that makes the audience sympathetic towards them and gratefully, the actors are all up to snuff. Whilst Ian Meadows is likable as Ian (Who else?) the doctor/boyfriend, Harriet Dyer stands out as Sam, as she provides a sense of warmth as well as fearsome strength as the shit hits the fan. It also helps that it never feels phony since Dyer portrays it as if Sam always had that sense of strength within her; nor is it done to the detriment to other characters, as it feels rightly earned.

Special mention goes to Tiarnie Coupland, who is a real sport in portraying Em, the daughter of the family who were at the lakefront before the protagonists. It must not have been easy to go through the emotional as well as physical wringer and she does a very good job of it.

Like in every film, the protagonists are only as good as the antagonists and the two that the film has are very worthy. Aaron Pedersen, whom I remember as the heroic cop Jay Swan in films Mystery Road and Goldstone, plays against type as the collected, yet brooding German and he amply gives chills with his taciturn performance. While Aaron Glenane is great as the incredibly impulsive and unhinged Chook; and the two complement each other very well that they convince that they have a history together.

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As for its flaws, there are a few moments in the story that are still left hanging that might frustrate some and the fact that some of decisions that characters make in the film will definitely anger some, but considering that director Power had said that the 1997 Austrian film Funny Games was an influence in making Killing Ground, it was definitely intentional.

Overall, Killing Ground is a fantastic calling card for Damien Power, with very good performances, a willingness to make the most out of a well-worn genre and some visuals that will linger on your mind for a very long time.

Quickie Review

PROS

Damien Power’s willingness to make the most out of genre tropes

Very good performances

Some very haunting visuals

Refreshingly different storytelling

CONS

Will drastically affect Australian tourism

Minor frustrations from characters and plot decisions

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Aaron Pedersen, Harriet Dyer, Ian Meadows, Aaron Glenane, Maya Stange, Julian Garner, Tiarnie Coupland, Liam Parkes, Riley Parkes, Chris Armstrong
Director: Damien Power
Screenwriters: Damien Power

Movie Review – Silence

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EXPECTATIONS: An impressively mounted yet disarmingly esoteric tale.

REVIEW: If there’s one film-maker off the top of my head that, in my opinion, hasn’t made a bad film, that film-maker would be Martin Scorsese. Venturing from genre to genre with ease (Who can go from the family fantasy Hugo to the dark comedy The Wolf of Wall Street just like that?) and always applying professional care and passion within his projects, Scorsese is a film-maker whose work I will definitely watch, no matter what the subject is.

In the case of his newest film, Silence, the film explores themes of religious debate and how far faith can go within our lives. It’s not the first time Scorsese has explored these type of themes, with his earlier films The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun variably show, but Silence has been in the making close to 40 years; which is clearly a passion project for him. Has the time spent paid off in spades, or will it just end up being a footnote in an otherwise, sterling filmography?

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Set in 1635, the film opens with Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) being shown captive in Japan over the fact that Catholicism is outlawed there, leading Ferreira to be tortured (through the use of scalding hot spring water) to renounce his faith.

Back in Macau, two Jesuit priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) receive word of Ferreira’s story, and are shocked in disbelief. Willing to see the truth for themselves, they set forth to Japan to try to find their mentor as well as spread the word of Catholicism. But little do they know about the world they venture in, the things that they see and experience will change and challenge their beliefs forever.

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I have to admit, due to the subject matter, I was quite hesitant about this film. Not being a religious or devout person myself, and having little to no prior knowledge about the themes shown, I was afraid that I would be left distant throughout. While it may not be the masterpiece that people were expecting, Scorsese hasn’t let us down as Silence is clearly his most heartfelt and personal.

All of Scorsese‘s films have great production values and Silence is no exception. Looking as if Scorsese is doing an homage to Japanese cinema by using all of its film-making tropes (deliberate pacing, very little edits, lack of musical score etc.), the film crew are all capably up to the task. The cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto and production design by Dante Ferretti (whom previously collaborated with Scorsese for The Wolf of Wall Street) is spectacularly naturalistic, capturing the vistas of Taiwan (substituting for Japan) beautifully, while also capturing the period details as well the chaos of the ideological conflicts in the story.

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The editing by Scorsese veteran Thelma Schoonmaker is admirably restrained, which may look like a surprise when you compare it to her contribution in The Wolf of Wall Street. The faint musical score is thankfully isn’t as bombastic as the music in the trailer (like the scenes of torture), although for those who are not knowledgeable about the subject matter will find it hard to know how to emotionally engage themselves at some particular moments i.e.  a scene in the third act where a certain character is being forced to do something he or she doesn’t want to do. The themes of the film are quite thought-provoking and certainly adds to the value of the film i.e. the juxtaposition of pride and faith, the questionable reliance of God (hence one of the reasons of the film’s title).

The actors certainly are up to the task to support Scorsese‘s vision. Andrew Garfield has had a good year in 2016 with both this and Hacksaw Ridge, and he gives a great performance as Father Rodrigues, as he shows the many facets of the character (the passion, the pride, the obliviousness) very well, which is quite a feat considering that his character isn’t unlikable in the slightest.

The Caucasian supporting cast, consisting of Liam Neeson, Adam Driver and Ciaran Hinds are all good with the parts they are given, especially Neeson, whose presence is felt throughout the film despite a small amount of screen-time. But it is the Japanese cast that make the biggest impression.

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Yosuke Kubozuka essentially plays the Judas-like role in the film as Kichijiro, and he nails it, showing the feral instincts of humans perfectly whilst also showing conflicting views on how to look at faith. Shinya Tsukamoto, who is well-known as a fantastic director, gives a committed performance as Mokichi, a villager whose absolute faith in Catholicism could lead to certain danger, while Tadanobu Asano is low-key menacing as the interpreter for the Inquisitor, played by Issey Ogata.

Speaking of Ogata, his role is the biggest standout of the Japanese cast. Whether that is a good thing will be up to the audience. Unsure of whether he is meant to be menacing or comedic (or both?), his performance is quite reminiscent of Christoph Waltz‘s performance in Inglourious Basterds. The performance can deflate dramatic scenes at times, while in contrast, the comic relief could also be just that: a relief. Which is quite suitable considering the grim subject matter.

For those who are into Japanese cinema, there are many cameos from famous stars and character actors that they will appreciate i.e. Ryo Kase, Nana Komatsu, Hairi Katagiri, Asuka Kurosawa, AKIRA EXILE, SABU, Shun Sugata, Yoshi Oida and many others.

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As much as I like to brand this film as a masterpiece, there is just too many flaws for me to do so. The subject matter is told too esoterically to the uninitiated; the pacing is too slow for the film to be engaging throughout; the lack of music does hurt the film due the lack of pushing and telegraphing the film’s dramatic moments and it is the result of these two that Scorsese fans will probably think that Silence is too subdued for them.

Funnily enough, the violence in the film, while it is intense in how detached the film dwells on it, shouldn’t bother people much, since the similar thematic film, The Passion of the Christ, was also very violent, but much more unrestrained when compared to Silence.

Overall, Silence is not one of his best films, but if you like his earlier films that dwell upon religious themes, this compares favourably and is clearly a passion project for Scorsese that is well worth checking out. It may not be entertaining per se, but it is most certainly an illuminating experience.

Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performances

Glorious production values

Many themes provoke ample food-for-thought

CONS

The subject matter is too esoterically told

Lack of emotional engagement

The pacing can be too laborious for some

SCORE: 7.5/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano, Ciaran Hinds, Issey Ogata, Shinya Tsukamoto, Yoshi Oida, Yosuke Kubozuka, Nana Komatsu, Ryo Kase, Hairi Katagiri, Shun Sugata,  AKIRA EXILE, SABU
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenwriter: Martin Scorsese, Jay Cocks; based on the novel of the same name by Shusaku Endo

Movie Review – Raw (Monster Fest 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something fantastic as it is gory.

REVIEW: In the past decade, I have grown an affinity for French film, especially when they venture into the horror genre. With unbearably intense entries like Inside, Martyrs, Frontier(s); or artful entries like Amer, Evolution, Livid; and film classics like Les Diaboliques and Possession, I had an intense itch to satisfy that could only be satiated with another stellar entry.

So when I read about the huge buzz at Cannes and TIFF about a French cannibal horror film, which involves ambulances at screenings and tons of awards, I knew I had to see that film as soon as possible. Now let’s serve this review Raw, with all the sides!

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Garance Marillier stars as Justine, a shy, yet extremely bright young vegetarian who is following his parents’ footsteps (Joanna Preiss, Laurent Lucas) as well as her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), by attending vet school. She arrives at the university and immediately gets dragged into a hazing initiation, which shows her a world of thrills and danger.

Desperate to fit in, she strays from her principles and eats raw meat for the first time. With sheer amounts of peer pressure, a bunch of alcohol and joints of drugs, Justine soon experiences terrible and unexpected consequences as her true self begins to emerge.

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From reading the synopsis, it may seem like that this film is more of a coming-of-age film, rather than a horror entry. And after seeing the final result, that is actually what it is. The storytelling is surprisingly grounded given its genre trappings and director Julia Ducournau handles the film with such an assured hand, that the film rarely feels heavy-handed, even with its unsubtle metaphors (A vegetarian who is also a virgin?).

The genre execution mixed with the plausible grounding of the story is meshed really well, like how a character eats meat for the first time, which is quite reminiscent of experimentation just to conform. Or how one goes to university to discover who they are and how they fit in the world, which is conveyed in the truly messy fashion it is, that almost anyone can relate to. And it is because of Ducournau‘s direction and storytelling chops, that we have an emotional attachment to the story as well as the characters.

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Speaking of the characters, the actors assembled for the film are all fantastic. Garance Marillier is astounding as Justine, as she handles the arc of her character like a professional, from the shyness to the depravity, to the vulnerability and finally the acceptance. She reminded me of a more daring version of Saoirse Ronan, and I hope she gets more meaty roles in the future. Equally as good is Ella Rumpf, who is a force of nature as Alexia. Her roughness, her rebellious nature and her slight paternal nature towards Justine, are all handled with nuance and the chemistry the two actresses share is believable and quite touching as it develops throughout the film. Seeing Rumpf on screen reminded me of a mix of French horror queen Beatrice Dalle (who stars in horror films like Inside and Among the Living) and American actress Fairuza Balk, whom I have loved since her first role in the cult-classic sequel, Return to Oz.

The cinematography by Ruben Impens extracts a lot of nightmarish, yet beautiful imagery from the university setting, particularly scenes involving animals. Like a scene involving the newcomers crawling through a vast, dark room, like ants following a trail. While the make-up, by Laura Ozier and SFX specialist Olivier Afonso (who has worked on Inside), is skin-crawlingly convincing. There is a scene where we see a person’s leg that is half eaten, and the make-up is so realistic, that I could not stop staring at it despite being repulsed by it.

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With all the gory, nightmarish imagery and the dark story, it would seem that the film would be an arduous experience. But thankfully, it never feels like that and one of the reasons is because of the editing. Under a tight running time of 98 minutes, the editing by Jean Cristophe-Bouzy is intricate, yet free-flowing at times, like during the clubbing sequences. Without the focused editing, the film could have been a lot harder to swallow.

Another reason the film doesn’t feel arduous is because director Ducournau peppers dark humour throughout the film. Like when a character is finished vomiting, a fellow student assumes that she has a eating disorder and quickly shows her how to vomit correctly. Or another scene when Alexis is giving Justine a session of Brazillian wax. It is these moments of mirth that give the film a comedic bite that is similar to the work of Daniel Waters, who has written the classic teen film, Heathers.

And lastly, the musical score by Jim Williams, which not only capably conveys both menacing and entrancing moods very well, but also gives the film a needed dramatic punch in the film’s most intense moments, especially the climax.

Raw was a fantastic experience that had shocked, surprised, thrilled and touched me. I’ll be really surprised if this does not make it to my top 10 by the end of the year. With its assured and professional direction, a fantastic pair of performances, a well-thought out story and a beautiful musical score, Raw is definitely a rewarding meal to savour.

Her film does remind me of David Cronenberg and Daniel Waters, but I will definitely remember her name: Julia Ducournau.

Quickie Review

PROS

Assured direction

Fantastic pair of performances

Focused and tight editing

Wonderful musical score

Nightmarish imagery and cinematography

Marries genre tropes and true-to-life situations cleverly

CONS

The ending is a teeny bit abrupt

SCORE: 9/10

Cast: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella, Joana Preiss, Laurent Lucas, Bouli Lanners
Director: Julia Ducournau
Screenwriters: Julia Ducournau

Movie Review – Kong: Skull Island

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EXPECTATIONS: An incredibly silly, yet very entertaining monster mash.

REVIEW: Monster movies were my jam back when I was a kid. Just seeing two colossal creatures beating each other with whatever environment they are in at their disposal was such an incredible delight. With fantastic examples like the various Godzilla films, King Kong films, Mighty Peking Man, The Host (2006) and War of the Gargantuas, it just goes to show that sometimes, the simplest pleasures can be the best.

And it seems that Western films are getting back into the genre, with sterling examples like Cloverfield, Peter Jackson‘s King Kong, Pacific Rim and of course, the latest Godzilla entry. And now we have the latest reiteration of Kong with Kong: Skull Island. With an up-and-rising director (this being Vogt-Roberts‘ first studio film), a vast and talented supporting cast (with multiple Oscar winner/nominated actors and rising stars) and a huge budget (almost $200 million) in their disposal, will this be the entertaining monster mash the trailers hint at?

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Set in 1973, Tom Hiddleston plays James Conrad, a former British Special Air Force captain who served in the Vietnam War, who is hired by William “Bill” Randa (John Goodman), a senior official for Monarch, a secret government organization, to head an expedition to go to an uncharted island for extensive research.

Those who come along in the expedition include army personnel like Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) a US Lieutenant Colonel and leader of his helicopter squadron (consisting of Toby Kebbell, Thomas Mann, Shea Whigham, Jason Mitchell and others); Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), a war photojournalist and peace activist and Houston Brooks and San Lin (Corey Hawkins and Jing Tian), whom both work for Monarch, and others.

As they arrive on the island, they quickly realize that they have stepped in a place that they should have never stepped in as the inhabitant known as Kong (motion-captured by Terry Notary and Toby Kebbell) takes a stand to defend his land from the intruders. As the expedition crew makes plans to fight for survival against Kong and the other monsters on the island, some of them begin to see that Kong is worth saving.

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Let’s get one thing straight: this film does not have the tone of Gareth EdwardsGodzilla. So for those who want their monster films dark and serious would probably be deterred by the film’s lighter tone. But for those who relish the campy, silly monster films of yore will be highly entertained.

The trailers for the film promise loads of monster battles and boy, do we get them! Unlike the relentless teasing of showing Godzilla in the 2014 film, Kong is shown in the very first scene and has a constant presence throughout the film. The action scenes are plentiful, distinct and pack a massive punch.

The scene where Kong appears before the expedition crew for the first time is the highlight of the film. Other action scenes include giant insects, pterodactyls, octopi and of course, the Skullcrawlers, and they are spectacular to behold, thanks to Jordan Vogt-Roberts‘ direction, Larry Fong‘s graphic novel-like cinematography and John Dykstra‘s handing of the special effects. There are some inventive touches in the action scenes that also add to the fun like the use of a flashing camera or the use of toxic gas.

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Speaking of Vogt-Roberts, it is very clear that he is a huge fan of genre cinema and animation, particularly with Studio Ghibli. Besides the obvious references to Apocalypse Now and Platoon, the visual splendor and film-making references acclaimed animated films like Princess Mononoke (the settings and monsters), Spirited Away (the monsters) and even Laputa: Castle in the Sky (the scene where the expedition crew go through the storm to enter the island).

Although the splendor may interfere with the logic in the story (Would anyone stand still if an explosion happened that close?), thankfully, the film doesn’t really take itself seriously, therefore the splendor always adds to the fun. I also liked the fact that there are no shoehorned references or excessive foreshadowing to future films, unlike films of other established universes.

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The violence of the film is also a surprise that actually shocked me quite a bit. Considering that this is an M-rated film, the implications of said violent scenes still make a huge impact, like how a soldier meets his end with an incoming helicopter or how another soldier meets his end in a bamboo forest that is similar to a scene in Cannibal Holocaust.

Speaking of the lighter tone, contrary to the 2014 Godzilla film, Kong: Skull Island actually has a sense of humour. Everyone in the film clearly knows the ridiculousness of the story and the premise and they all have fun with it. So much so, that it’s quite hard to believe that this film is set in the same universe as the 2014 Godzilla film.

Almost every monster film has weak characterizations and Kong: Skull Island is no exception. Fortunately, the majority of the ensemble cast are all charismatic enough to stand out regardless. Tom Hiddleston basically reprises his role from The Night Manager as James Conrad; meaning that he gives a stoic, heroic and controlled performance that suits the film. Brie Larson capably exudes charm, sympathy and some much-needed wit to the proceedings, while John Goodman and Samuel L. Jackson chew some scenery with gusto.

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The majority of the supporting cast have their moments like Corey Hawkins as a passionate geologist and Thomas Mann, who gives an amusing performance that is clearly inspired by Bill Paxton‘s performance in Aliens while Shea Whigham and Jason Mitchell are an amusing duo with their banter. Toby Kebbell is fine as the sympathetic family man of the squadron, but he isn’t given much to do, probably because he was too busy helping out with the motion-capture process of the film.

It doesn’t excuse the wasted talent of Jing Tian, who contributes nothing to the film. It’s a shame because she has made big impressions as an action heroine in films like Special ID and The Great Wall. She is basically a shoehorned plug-in for the China market (since one of the production companies for the film is a Chinese film company), therefore she ends up joining the list of highly talented, yet wasted actors like Zhang Jingchu (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation), Fan Bing-bing and Wang Xueqi (Iron Man 3).

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Fortunately, the film compensates with John C. Reilly, who is the standout of the film. The trailers seem to hint that he was cast in the film for comic relief, but he ends up more than that and registers as a convincing action hero. His character has a solid backstory and also has a scene during the credits that was surprisingly poignant.

As for flaws, alongside the thin characterizations, the light tone can sometimes conflict with the serious parts of the film, which can confuse some on how to react. There’s a scene involving Shea Whigham‘s character that felt so out of place that I wasn’t sure if it was meant to be taken seriously or it was meant to be funny. Although the film lacks an emotional through-line unlike the last Kong film, it makes up for it with fun.

Overall, Kong: Skull Island was a lot of fun, with many spectacular monster battles, a likable ensemble cast, outstanding visual splendor and a standout performance from John C. Reilly.  Don’t leave the film during the credits, as there is a scene proceeding it for your pleasure.

Quickie Review

PROS

Spectacular monster battles

Astounding visual splendor

Vogt-Roberts’ enthusiastic direction

Likable and self-aware ensemble cast

CONS

The light tone conflicts with the seriousness of some scenes, leading to some unintentional laughs

Waste of Jing Tian

Thin characterizations

Lacks emotional through-line

SCORE: 7.5/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, John C. Reilly, Toby Kebbell, Jing Tian, Corey Hawkins, Terry Notary, Thomas Mann, Shea Whigham, Jason Mitchell, John Ortiz, Miyavi
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Screenwriter: John Gatins, Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Conolly