Category Archives: Film Reviews

Movie Review – Destination Unknown (2017)

Review of Holocaust Survivor doc is at Flickering Myth and below…

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An in-depth and personal look at one of the bleakest points in history, Claire Ferguson’s Destination Unknown surveys the human stories at the heart of the events of the holocaust.

Skillfully inter-playing the stories of 12 survivors with archival footage from during wartime, the film allows an insight into the memories, passion and courage of these individuals. The film documents their various routes to escape the confusion and systematic evil of Nazi work camps such as Kraków-Płaszow, Mauthausen and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Amongst those interviewed by producer Llion Roberts is Mietek Pemper, who helped Oskar Schindler compile the famous List and save thousands of people. Also featured is a survivor’s tale of meeting the fearful Amon Göth, the sadistic commandant of Kraków-Płaszów.

The struggles to survive did not simply end with the closing of the war.  One of the things that the film does so well is highlight the tragic psychological damage that was done to these people, and the pain that does not simply go away after escape, survival or victory. Indeed in the case of Ed Mosberg, who gives lectures dressed in prison uniform, the past and pain of it does not seem to have dissipated very much at all. There is the sense that there is some power in keeping it where you can still see it.

The post-liberation period of the war is dealt with in some detail. The sheer chaos of Europe trying to come to terms with itself in the fallout of the war is given personality and intensity through these people’s stories. Mostly all in their eighties and nineties, the film lets them speak and does so with clarity and vision.  A wonderful feature of the film is the energy given off by these survivors. When they have been through so much, it is amazing that they can still laugh and smile and dance. Yet, as evidenced through home video footage and photographs some can and do. And that tells us so much about human strength and resistance.

Destination Unknown is a powerful film and, ultimately, a profoundly moving one.

Minute Bodies: The Intimate World of F. Percy Smith – DVD and BluRay out now

My review of the excellent Minute Bodies: The Intimate World of F. Percy Smith is over at Flickering Myth now… also below…

Minute Bodies

A meditative and blissfully soothing piece of art cinema, Minute Bodies: The Intimate World of F Percy Smith is a 55 minute tribute to the work of the pioneering microbiologist, inventor, artist and filmmaker. Released on dual format DVD and Blu-ray by the BFI, the release is essentially a Staples’s creatively selected montage of Smith’s defined and elegant films of flora and fauna. Making use of previously untested techniques of time-lapse, animation and micro-photographic elements, Smith was part artist and part scientist, constantly looking for new ways to describe the secrets of nature.

With the true commitment of a hobbyist (Smith initially developed his film techniques  part-time while working as a clerk), Smith found brilliant methods of showcasing the world just beyond our senses. The film, sharing that clarity and vision, beautifully brings about the energy and passion of his work. Graceful images of insects dancing and flying about alien seeming landscapes are wonderfully sound-tracked by the composers, and help to create a powerfully relaxing effect. This alien-ness is intensified by the fact that there are no human voices at all in the film and no narrative to bring context to what the audience is witnessing. Simply put, it is life. And as alien and dreamlike as it all is, there is always the knowledge that all of this is around us all off the time. Mesmerising stuff.

Special Features 

Eight short films from the Secrets of Nature series, made by both F. Percy Smith and his fellow filmmaker Mary Field.

Find more information on Minute Bodies at www.minutebodies.com

Berlin Syndrome review

Review of Berlin Syndrome over at Flickering Myth

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The Shepherd (El Pastor)

Full Review of The Shepherd over at Flickering Myth

The Shepherd, is a powerful film about the struggles to keep one’s identity and way of life intact in the face of global economics and modernisation. As architectural developments and housing project take up more and more space and land, it is a story that will only become more pertinent as time goes by. The transformation of the story into a darkly beautiful film featuring a rugged anti-hero who asks for nothing in return that nothing is asked of him is a great and memorable achievement.

The Shepherd (El Pastor) Quad Poster

Movie Review – After the Storm

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After the Storm review at Flickering Myth

After the Storm, Hirokazu Koreeda’s  (Still Walking, Our Little Sister) latest work of social realist drama beautifully captures the insecurities and doubtfulness of middle age angst. Laced with a darkly wry humour, the film is full of universal observations about ageing, family relations and finding a way in the world. The film is funny, touching and humanistic. Profound in its look at the passing of time and life, the work manages to display a confident and philosophical treatment of hopes, desires and family.

The film follows Shinoda Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), a prize-winning author in his younger days, who while reminiscing on his past glory lives an unsteady life as a gambler and a private eye. Barely able to pay his ex-wife Kyoko (Yôko Maki) child support money for his only son Shingo, Ryota leads a troubled existence bullet-pointed by various scams and dodgy plans. At various times, stressed out and belligerent or humble and resigned, the character is nevertheless likeable and his pained expressions and aggrieved outlook at life’s treatment provide plenty of bitter-sweet humour to what is a poetically honest and refreshingly produced story.

Much of the humour also comes from Ryota’s mother Yoshiko (Kirin Kiki), someone who sees life as an opportunity for acerbic one-liners and darkly funny observations about modern life. While always remaining tough and philosophical about her own solitary (since her husband passed) life, she still values the company of her son and holds out hope that he and his former wife will someday reunite. From the outset this looks unlikely, with Ryota and his mother symbolising the past, and the hard-working career driven Kyoko the present and Shingo the future.  Whether these different strands of time and thinking can link up again is part of the film’s success. A beautifully written piece and further evidence of Koreeda’s ability to get to the very heart of human nature.

Spaceship Movie Review

My review of Spaceship is over at FM now.

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Aiming to bring a sense of the intensity of feeling associated with adolescence, Spaceship is an ambitious attempt at illustrating the spirit and psychology of growing up. Using every single colour in the make-up box, it’s partly successful in showcasing teen-age confusion and wonderment, but ultimately disappoints with a mish-mash of styles and an insubstantial and wayward plot.

Essentially the story of Lucidia (Alexa Davies), a teen who dissapears in pursuit of aliens and unicorns, and her friends and grief stricken father Gabriel(Antti Reini) who try to find her, Spaceship works best when describing the seemingly insurmountable gap between adulthood and childhood. It does this in an even handed way, and it is one of the film’s strengths that it doesn’t resort to lazy cliches in its examination of youth sub-cultures and lifestyles. The numerous tics and obsessions of the youth on show are not mocked or laughed at, merely presented as part of the nature of things.

Indeed, Alex Taylor’s debut feature certainly looks the part, with hazy shots of halcyon views emphasising the film’s essential dreaminess. The young actors, along with Lucidia’s main two friends Alice (Tallulah Rose Haddon) and Tegan (Lara Peake), are an integral part of the film’s visual focus, with  a day-glo hyper stylised ‘cyber-goth’ dress sense informing the whole construction of the piece in every sense.

Unfortunately, this examination of ‘cyber-goth’ doesn’t seem to have carried over into the soundtrack, a confused melange of indie folk-rock and bargain bin electronica. Still, the visuals are remarkably effective and authentically weird and psychedelic at times, admitting the audience – and Gabriel – into a strange world of circus acts, hallucinations and wonder.

The innocence of youth is well highlighted, with the group of teens seemingly more interested in philosophising and day dreaming rather than in drugs and sex . This heightens the fairy tale nature of the film, bringing out its fantasy play and make-believe. This certainly isn’t a home-counties Kidulthood.

There are also some nice examples of dry humour, with the tale of the forgotten soldier at Aldershot barracks who wants to set up a rave one that could have been expanded on. The main story itself seems to have been left unattended after the first few drafts and the dialogue would have benefited from further edits.  In all then, something of a mixed bag. Strange and interesting, but with less to say than it initially thought it did, Spaceship is nevertheless worth a look and Taylor is a name to look out for in the future.

Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – For One Night Only

My review of the documentary film Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars screening across the UK on March 7th is over at Flickering Myth..

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Tower of London (1962)

Just released new Blu-Ray/DVD pack of the Corman/Price Shakespearean vehicle Tower of London

Find my review over at Flickering Myth and below…

What’s the best way to liven up a bit of Shakespeare? Get Roger Corman and Vincent Price involved of course!

Following the pair’s successful experiments with film adaptations of stories and poems by Edgar Allen Poe (The Fall of the House of Usher, Pit and the Pendulum and Tales of Terror) the idea seemed like a pretty good one. It’s certainly one which details many of the reasons why classic chiller fans are so devout to Corman’s genius ability to wring dramatic action out of every available space and dollar, alongside Vinnie Price’s wonderfully entertaining mixture of camp and maniacal performances.

Shot in a sharply focused black and white, the film is a loose remake of the 1939 film of the same title and the English playwright’s Richard III. There’s a bit of the Scottish play in there as well, as Price’s Richard of Gloucester – brother of a dying king – sets about taking out all of his rivals for the throne while also dodging the ghosts of those already slain. Price is, of course, the prime selling point of this movie with the actor at his nefarious best in this ‘drive-in Shakespeare show’.

But does it work? Well yes and no. The film does indeed feature a transfixing Price who is always worth watching and the pace is (usually) high tempo – which was presumably something of a priority when re-imagining Shakespeare. However, some of the scenes seem a bit rushed and conversely far too much time is given over to a disturbing rack torture scene that doesn’t sit too well with the tone of the rest of the film. Horrible yes, and it does set out the ruthlessness of Richard’s pursuit of power but doesn’t fit too well with the pace and takes up a large segment of the total running time.

That aside, much of the film is better judged and aside from a fairly abrupt ending and the scene already mentioned, Tower of London is another release from the Corman/Price stable well worth seeking out for anyone fond of devilish literary inspired goings-on in not so merry olde England.

Wiener Dog – DVD Review

Wiener Dog review below and at Flickering Myth.

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A Weiner-dog (or sausage dog in the UK) is another name for a dachshund, and the variously monikered creature is the common feature in this anthology film of four overarching chapters. Brought to the screen by indie-stalwart Todd Solondz, known for acerbic dark comic dramas Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness, Wiener-Dog is an oddly unfulfilling affair. Given the themes of depression and disillusionment, this is not entirely surprising, but the project also has the sense of being slightly under-cooked. Without giving too much away, for many the ending will leave a bitter taste, which again, is not too much of a surprise given Solondz’s previous work. It also leaves questions about how much is shock factor and how much is there for its own sake. In response to this, Solondz could simply show the film’s opening credit sequence which displays a Wiener-Dog alone and dejected in a dog pound cage. It’s not as if things started out too well for the character, is it, he may well ask…

In the first chapter, the lonely dog is momentarily freed from her physical imprisonment by a wealthy suburban family looking to offer their terminally ill son Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke) a new playmate to aid his well-being. Stressed out mom (Julie Delpy) is terrified of the dog messing up their home, which leads dad (Tracie Letts) to soon insist that the dog is kept caged in the basement. Remi is just as imprisoned by his illness as Wiener-Dog is, and the two form a bond of companionship that is bitter-sweet to witness. On a rare release from their cages – Wiener-Dog’s physical and Remi’s emotional – they dance around the smartly decorated home with abandon. Unfortunately, a wrongly proffered granola bar leads to Wiener-Dog getting extremely ill and eventually put down.

In the second act, a nurse, Dawn Wiener, (the protagonist of Solondz’s 1995 film Welcome to the Dollhouse, played this time by Greta Gerwig), brings Wiener-Dog back to health and takes her home. She meets up with an ex-schoolmate/bully Brandon (Kieran Culkin)who convinces her to go on a country road trip with him to visit his brother and brother’s partner. This is the most successful part of the film to my mind, with great performances from Gerwig and Culkin bringing a believable and genuine disjointedness to interpersonal relationships. Dawn decides to leave Wiener-Dog at the sweet couple’s Ohio ranch and moves on with Brandon down the interstate and the rest of their lives.

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The third act follows Danny DeVito’s bored and unfulfilled screen-writing professor as he tries to get his own creative work together. DeVito is great as the pained Dave Schmerz, someone who for whatever reason never got what he was looking for. Instead of artistic success, he gets the sack from his workplace after getting poor performance ratings from his students. In response to life’s unfair treatment he looks to make an artistic statement in the wildest of ways; by blowing himself and his dog up to smithereens.

Finally, the fourth act features another case of unfulfilled ambition provided by Ellen Burstyn’s crotchety old Nana. Always in the company of her own Wiener-Dog, lovingly named ‘Cancer’, she is visited by her granddaughter (Zosai Mamet) and her boyfriend – a visual artist named Fantasy (Michael Shaw). It soon becomes clear that her welfare is not top of the youngster’s priorities and Nana is eventually left alone again (with Cancer) assessing her own missed opportunities and life choices.

A difficult melange of the serious and sarcastic, Wiener-Dog ultimately comes across as an interesting idea that outstays its welcome, like a dinner guest trying to impress with self-consciously ‘weird’ jokes and depressing scenarios. Worth watching for the second act, which strikes the right balance of profundity and touching humour, but otherwise the film plays out like much of the characters’ lives; somewhat disappointing.

Blu-ray Review – Black Orpheus (1959)

Review of Black Orpheus over at Flickering Myth and below…

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Featuring an energetic burst of colour, vibrancy, music and dancing, Marcel Camus’ exhilarating take on the Ancient Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice is a pure joy to experience. Winner of the 1959 Academy Award for best foreign language feature as well as the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Black Orpheus (Orfeo Negro) was a huge success and created a surge in popularity for the Brazilian music style the Bossa nova.  The film is filled with beautifully choreographed dance pieces and the whole picture is one of festivity and party. This enchanting energy translates wonderfully well to Blu-ray, with Criterion issuing a restored and enhanced release completely worthy of this dream of a film.

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Focusing on the favelas of Rio and the upcoming famous carnaval, the film tells the story of Orfeo (Bruno Mello), a local bus driver and Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn) who arrives in Rio on the run from a man who is pursuing her. Orfeo, also an accomplished singer/poet and something of a ladies man, falls for Eurydice immediately and vows to protect her. In the process, he risks the anger of his quick tempered fiancee Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira), a woman easily provoked and thankfully for Orfeo, also easily distracted. An even greater risk to the potential happiness of the two new lovebirds is the individual stalking Eurydice, portrayed in the film literally as Death himself. Any one who knows the original myth – and countless tragic love stories the world over – can be pretty sure this isn’t going to end too well.

But even with this figure of Death hanging around though, there is nothing remotely bleak about the picture. It is firmly optimistic, as even with the inevitability of death, life, and the dance always continues. Life affirming is a phrase seemingly created for such a film as this. Eminently beautiful and profound.

SPECIAL FEATURES 

Criterion have put together a whole host of features for this release including:

New restored high definition digital transfer.
Optional English dubbed soundtrack
Archival interviews with Marcel Camus and Marpessa Dawn
New interviews with Brazilian cinema scholar Robert Stam, Jazz historian Gary Giddins and Brazilian author Ruy Castro
Looking for Black Orpheus documentary about the film’s cultural roots in Brazil and its continued relevance today.