Interstellar: Review and/or Discussion

Maybe don’t read before watching the film – although I don’t spoil too much, it’s a good one to know nothing about before viewing.interstellar

I’ve not read any reviews of Christopher Nolan’s newest science-fiction epic, so I don’t entirely know the mass-consensus, or at least what the big critics are saying. This is quite fun, as I get to have an opinion not influenced by the musings of others. I also managed to avoid knowing anything about the plot of the film going in, having not watching any trailers and purposely avoided promotional material. It didn’t seem hard to avoid the promotional material, it felt as if the film sneaked its way into theaters. For what I’m assuming is a very expensive film, with some big names in it, it’s surprising the marketing hasn’t been as big as Nolan’s previous films like The Dark Knight or Inception, films that surely did well because of how hard it was to avoid them in the lead up to the films. Of course TDK was helped by the death of one of the main cast members, but Inception seemed to be all about the marketing – teasing certain scenes in a similar manner to before the release of The Matrix (with the rooftop bullet time sequence played all the time on TV for example). Perhaps Interstellar has been publicized hard and I’ve just avoided it through share luck or ignorance. I’m not looking up the wikipedia page before writing this blog, so I’m not going to bring any new revelations or facts to the table.

So without any research taking place, all I’ve got to go on is my gut feeling. Emotions, you know. Based purely on my initial thoughts about the film – I have to say, it’s a hell of an experience. Which is what we may have come to expect with Nolan; big expensive blockbusters that provide a thrilling experience especially when viewed with the intended IMAX projection. He takes the plot in some really fantastic directions and I recommend everyone, even people not usually that interested in science fiction to give it a go. I was getting pretty bored with the idea of movies in general that last few months – getting more interested in the odd TV show (mostly ancient documentaries like Civilization), or just not bothering with any fiction at all. It’s always good when going through a movie watching rut to stumble across a film that shakes you awake and reminds you of why you love cinema.

The film isn’t perfect. Without getting too into spoilers, the problems I have with the film are also partially reasons I liked it. Nolan goes just a little bit too far with the narrative, unable to pull back and know when the important stuff has been said – which is perhaps due to studio interference or maybe just due to having too much control and not enough objectivity from the piece of art being created. He missed the opportunity to pose some grand questions and make us think – letting an obsession with tying up insignificant narrative threads overshadow the deeper themes driving them. Similar issues that I had with The Dark Knight Rises. Lack of self-control seems to be a big problem with Hollywood auteur’s, affecting New Zealand’s own Peter Jackson in a similar way with his overblown and over-indulgent Hobbit trilogy. Nolan is the superior filmmaker though, so when he gets indulgent, at least there’s a heck of a lot to chew on and ruminate about – not just pretty high frame rate visuals hanging on a long narrative of nothing at all.

But disregarding comparisons with other lesser auteurs, and forgetting the negatives – it’s an amazing, pretty, ambitious, complex and hugely entertaining film. My favorite film of the year so far along with The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson) and documentary We Come As Friends (Hubert Sauper). Without ruining too much for those who read one in spite of the spoiler warning – there’s not many films that dare to explore concepts of the nature of time and space, and finite nature of human existence and the preciousness of earth in such a massive blockbuster context.

Go see it. Go see it now. Take your Mum to it. She’ll possibly hate it. But it’s the science fiction film of our generation – similar to 2001, and everyone had to see that, so everyone should have to see this.

interstellarI wrote about The Dark Knight Rises upon release here

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Review: I Survived A Zombie Holocaust (Guy Pigden, 2014)

*Some spoilers – I tried to keep them to a minimum but proceed with slight caution

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Ever since Peter Jackson arrived on the scene with the uber-low budget splatter sci-fi Bad Taste and put NZ on the horror film map with the zombie gore-fest Braindead, any New Zealand filming maker attempting a film in a horror genre has faced inevitable comparisons with Jackson and his horror classics. Some have added extra NZ themed gimmicks into the mix the differentiate themselves, i.e. the sheep of Black Sheep and Maori cannibals of Fresh Meat – both of which stuck to a comedy/horror template comparable to that of Jackson’s – others have played it straight such as The Ferryman.

Perhaps New Zealanders are more naturally gifted or comfortable with satire – Guy Pidgen’s debut film I Survived A Zombie Holocaust is another successful combination of both comedy and horror – differentiating itself from those that came before with a self-aware narrative that winks at the audience as it deconstructs horror film cliches. It also cleverly manages to comment on the nature of film-making in NZ, with a frustrated director brought to the brink due to the stress in part of being turned down for funding time and time again – as well as by the real life living dead that have invaded his film set. The film also nods to cult classics of yore – with references to Sam Raimi and Romero films – and is sure to appeal to jaded international horror fans with its mix of horror homage and fresh ideas – thus breaking away from the long shadow of Jackson. This is also the first major horror film to have been majority shot in Dunedin (by Dunedin-ite filmmakers), the city where I’m from – so I’m quite proud to have the city not immortalized in cult-horror history.

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We open with a succession of stumbling zombies and a bulked up hero brandishing science fiction weaponry – this turns out to be a film-within-a-film as we’re introduced to the film set of maniacal auteur director SMP, played brilliantly by New Zealand screen veteran Andrew Laing. The bulked up hero is vain celebrity Adam Harrison (Mike Johnson), whose co-star of this film-within-a-film is diva Jessica Valentine (Reanin Johannink). SMP’s crew includes location manager Tane Henare (Ben Baker) whose rugby past is explored through-out the film, the loyal Assistant Director Richard Driver, whose loyalty might prove to be fatal, and a gun friendly American props-master, Randy Bateman (Mark Neilson). Into this wanders aspiring writer and first time runner Wesley Pennington (Harley Neville), who fumbles his way through a first day, attempting to get his script read, only to have it used as toilet paper by the director – and who falls for the kindly caterer Susan Ford (Jocelyn Christian).

The variety of stories and strength of acting is impressive – it is unusual for a low-budget film to have a scope such as this and not trip over its own ambitions. As the real life zombies appear and the massacre begins the gore and action set pieces don’t let down for a good 50 minutes. Egg beaters are taken to faces, dismemberment abounds and there’s even some good head explosions. There is an eyeball gag to rival Fulci’s slow ocular impaling from Zombie. Towards the end, there is something particularly unexpected involving a characters hand, but I won’t mention any more as this also forms a crucial plot point. Although violent the gore never takes it self too seriously, and there are some hilarious set-pieces – such as a misguided rampage on civilians mistaken to be the living dead – a handheld horror segment in which SMP takes one last shot at finishing his film and one involving a phallus that won’t soon be forgotten.

The performances and script are strong across the board – Ben Baker as the broken ex-rugby playing location manager delivers some great moments in his subplot, as does Mark Neilson, whose one-liners and misguided rampage provides some of the most memorable comic moments. I felt truly sympathetic to the plight of the DA brought to life by Simon Ward, who sacrifices himself more than his job would usually entail. Mike Johnson is given some of the best catch phrases of the film and proves he has a knack for comedy. We are also sympathetic to Harley Neville’s Wesley Pennington, whose writing ambitions take a backseat as he must help his fellow crew members survive the real life zombie violence. Neville gets some great comic moments as well – such as early on when he is forced to be a nude stand-in – the results are one of the comedy highlights of the film. His romance with Jocelyn Christian’s Susan Ford is also a nice touch – and the duo have a fair amount of onscreen chemistry.

The film stays self-aware through-out, with our writer/runner protagonist attempting to get his own zom-com-rom script acknowledged by the film’s crew. This leads to some great reflexive moments – Wesley is given advice early on from the film’s writer Harold Beasley, who points out the archetypes that the various characters around the filmset would fall into in a theoretical way – ending with the moral that for Wesley to be a good writer he must write from what knows. This scene in turn works as an acknowledgement by the film’s writer/director Guy Pidgen of the archetypes that he himself is utilizing and commenting upon. It’s this sort of reflexivity that gives the film an intelligent edge over horror films that play it straight – and perhaps one that is necessary in the jaded film viewing world of 2014. Later, director SMP in a moment of anger teetering on madness, details the difficulties he has gone to get his films funded – facing constant rejection. Given that this is a New Zealand Film Commission funded film, one can only assume that this is direct commentary on the nature of struggling for funding in a small film industry such as New Zealand’s.

It is not often that a lower-budget New Zealand film makes as much of its funding as this –  pulling off multiple sub-plots, a self-aware plot that doesn’t manage to trip over its own cleverness and large horror action set-pieces ambitious enough to be in a $5 million dollar film, let alone a $250,000. There is horror, comedy, romance, meta-commentary and a good ending – ingredients that add up to one of the strongest New Zealand debut’s probably ever. The gore hounds will be satisfied but so will those that require an intelligent script. I used to be quite passionate about horror films when I was younger, obsessively hunting out cult classics such as Lucio Fulci’s Zombie and devoting many afternoons to re-watching Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead. My love for the genre has since faded, and I find myself rarely willing to praise a modern horror film. But I Survived A Zombie Holocaust is worthy of the praise – not least because it rivals Jackson’s Bad Taste (hate to mention it but the mans shadow is inescapable in NZ film history), which I remain quite fond of.

I have a slight bias of course. The film is shot in Dunedin and I’m friends with the filmmakers and a large amount of the cast. But objectively, the film is really impressive. Go and track it down when you can – the hard-work that’s gone into the film is clear.

 

NZIFF 2014 Rockumentaries part 1; Nick Cave’s 20,000 Days On Earth

Nick-Cave film poster

I saw three varied rock documentaries at the NZ International Film Festival in Auckland, the first of which, Nick Cave’s 20,000 Days On Earth (directed by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard), the most cinematic and staged of all three. There was a bit of hype surrounding this one, to which I was largely ignorant of considering I’m not the biggest Nick Cave fan. I like his music, but have never really delved further than his most popular albums (Murder Ballads, last year’s Push The Sky Away). I’ve gained more of an appreciation for him recently due to his live shows, having seen a few streamed from festivals the last couple of years. His most recent Glastonbury performance was brilliant and enough to convert a non-fan, check it out.

20,000 Days On Earth looks at a fictional 24 hours in the life of Nick Cave, on his twenty thousandth day on earth. An extremely well filmed day and productive day, we see him rehearse and song write with his band and have some hilarious nostalgic conversations with Bad Seeds member Warren Ellis. The band scenes eventually culminate in a riveting performance at the Sydney Opera house, the cinematography focusing just as much on the reaction of the audience members as the charisma of Cave on stage.

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This being his film, Cave dominates every scene and lets us into his life in a very deliberate kind of way. He takes us on a trip to his therapist, and with a lot of mood lighting as the camera shifts about (possibly on a dolly), Cave gives insight into his childhood, what he remembers of his father and his stints with religion and addiction (addiction jokingly said to be preferable to religion). Cave also takes meandering drives around Brighton which he now calls home, and is joined by people from his past who float in and out, bringing up key moments from Cave’s life and asking questions. Kylie Minogue’s cameo is a particularly notable one as is one of his ex-Bad Seeds members Blixa Bargeld, who discusses his reason for leaving the band.

The overall mood of the film is of inspiration, spending much time looking at the creative process behind Cave writing his songs and the influence of the past on his work. I left feeling quite inspired. Although it’s all about Cave, through several monologues he connects to larger themes of the benefits of living a life for art. Cave seems to want to inspire us to be productive, to be more adventurous with our ideas. I feel any creative type will benefit from a trip into an artist’s world such as this.

Watch the trailer:

NZIFF: Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, 2014)

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The Cannes 2014 favourite gets it’s first (and only?) cinematic run in New Zealand as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival. Sissako is only of the few African born directors making narrative cinema that is gaining such an interest at an international level, so I was curious to see what his cinematic voice is like, having not seen his previous films. Sissako, although born in Mauritania, spent much of his childhood in Mali, his fathers country. In this film he focuses his lens on Malian people, specifically in North Mali and Timbuktu, the historically significant city (with a long history of being notoriously difficult to get to, many colonial explorers dying attempting to cross the Saharan desert) which is often confused in western minds with a metaphor for a distant place. But Timbuktu is filled with real people and real struggles, and Sissako successfully translates these to a fictional narrative (based partially on real events) showing the human side behind the Tamasheq-speaking locals and the Arabic-speaking Islamic extremists who’ve invaded their community.

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The core of the story is a drama about a couple, Kidane and Satima who live peacefully on the outskirts of the city, tending to their cattle and raising their daughter. But an argument over the murder of a favourite cow, called ‘GPS’ leads to the father Kidane accidentally murdering a fellow farmer. Separately to this is the story of the civilians living inside Timbuktu, being kept under the strict rule of gun toting Islamic extremists, who’ve banned everything from music to playing soccer and enforced the wearing of the hijab (traditional muslim headscarf) on Timbuktu woman. These new laws are met with defiance from many of the locals, one woman refusing to wear gloves to do the work she has been previously doing with bare hands her whole life, or a group of kids playing an game of soccer with an invisible ball just to get around the regulations. These scenes are staged dramatically and make life in Mali seem very relatable. We are shown the extremists as they try to convert many around the city but struggle to find a level of Islamic conviction they seek. The hypocrisies of the extremists are also made evident; the gun toting militants ban simple pleasures and yet communicate with each other via smartphones and frequently bend their Islamic religious teachings to fit any agenda.

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The cast at Cannes

Although the story is a tragedy we are equally shown the light and relatable aspects of life in Northern Mali, and humor is found even in the darkest aspects of life amongst this type of extremism. What is apparent are the human stories that we are never given when watching news reports on Islamic communities in Africa or the Middle East. We are most usually told only about the murders and bombings, or the various invasions, but not taken inside the lives of those affected by these political groups. We see Malian people singing, socializing and trying to keep their lives going in spite of the changes forced upon them by the ideals of a few. We get to know the people, such as the farmers Kidane and Satima or the unique personalities inhabiting the city. We also get to know the militants, and are given opportunity to equally pity their situation.

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Timbukto
is also photographed beautifully; there is striking imagery, for example one key scene is is played out in a long take from a extremely wide angle, highlighting how the events of these peoples lives take place against the harsh conditions of the desert. The invisible soccar game is also particularly memorable, and plays out with only music and no sound effects; a montage of what having fun is life within the constrictions of inflicted extremest rule in africa. Any brutality in the film is dealt with sensitively and without exploitation. This is delicate, considered filmmaking, on a culture that rarely, if ever, gets an opportunity to tell it’s stories on a world scale.

Watch a excert:

 

Only Lovers Left Alive [film review]

Only lovers left alive

[May contain spoilers]

A modern vampiric romance set against decaying Detroit streets with the odd Tangier alley-way thrown in for good measure, Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive succeeds because of the chemistry between it’s lead stars, Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston.

Playing a couple with a love that has lasted several centuries, Lovers sees Hiddleston’s Adam holed up in a Detroit mansion writing droning funeral rock music on antique guitars, while his wife, Eve (Swinton) lives in Tangier. We see both of them securing blood through underground measures not requiring the eating of living people, Adam from a doctor and Eve from a fellow aging vampire, a ghost writer of considerable success in a past time, Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt). Adam also has a friend in Detroit who secures him the antique guitars he plays, Ian (Anton Yelchin) and other black market things. The depressed Adam makes a call to Eve, and quickly convinces her to rejoin him in Detroit. After a brief period of romantic reunion, Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) arrives on their doorstep, shaking things up slightly.

The plot is not especially dense, but Jarmusch is more concerned with mood, as per his earlier films like Dead Man. The soundtrack is a highlight, matching the sombre visuals (all at night, hence the life of the vampire) with droning guitars and the occasional Moroccan instrumental. Jarmusch puts particular emphasis on making the vampire situations not overly staged, the plot refrains from big twists that might feature in a mainstream version of the same plot. The conversations between the key vampires are all pretty interesting and topical as well, with Adam and Eve both concerned with science, astrology, Einstein’s entanglement theory, toads and giant humming crystals in the sky to name a few. Adam has a love of antique instruments and Eve indulges his passion, thus anyone interested in classic guitars would probably get a kick from the references.

I’m by no means hugely schooled on Jarmusch’s filmography, having seen Mystery Train and Down By Law quite some time ago, but I feel the film stacks up against cult favourite Dead Man, being similarly hypnotic in pacing and detailed in scripting. The film is mostly appealing visually, though there is a few ugly shots here and there (some of the car perspective driving shots I felt looked out of place). The images of a decaying Detroit were particularly striking, and with never aging vampires set against this backdrop, Jarmusch seemed to be making a point about the finite nature of human existence. The humans of the film, referred to as zombies, are a kind that ignorant to their own decay, and the destruction of their civilization around them. All themes that were tackled without being heavy handed – and at the end of the day – ever lasting love is what prevails in this Gothic romantic tale.

Only lovers left alive