Concise Review: Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

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Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a heartening film that captures life in all its wondrous, macabre and awkwardly humorous turns. The film is a marvellous marvel comprised of small moments that capture a rare sense of authenticity. Moreover, like Waititi’s previous directorial effort- What We Do in the Shadows, the picture has a notable affection for its characters, while also showing them at their most expressive, raw and downtrodden.

Shadows employed a documentary style that relied on natural lighting, lavish set design and stock footage in reinforcing its vampire’s domestic plight. Waititi comfortably widens the scope of his filmmaking canvas for the tale of a pop culture savvy teenager and cantankerous old man’s escape from child services across the New Zealand countryside.

Despite the picture primarily being filmed with the long-standing technique of a single-camera setup, cinematographer Lachlan Milne still manages to craft shots filled with detail and a sense of place. Most of these come from the film being shot on location in the New Zealand bush. As captured on film, the long and unwinding forest is dangerous, magical and picturesque. There is one particular scene where our two central characters look engulfed by the woods, which reinforces Waititi’s wise choice not to utilise soft focus in a lot of the shots in the film.

Finally, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is engaging because its cinematic references imbue the proceedings with a humorous edge and grand weight. For example, there is an exchange at the tail end of the picture when the head child welfare worker Paula (Rachel House) and Ricky (Julian Dennison) equates herself to the Terminator and her target to Sarah Conner from the first James Cameron picture. The moment accentuates her resolve and the stakes of conflict in a wry, amusing manner.

However, the most crucial scene that is indicative of this quality is when Ricky says to Hec (Who is played with great subtly by Sam Neil) that he wants to be a gangster in the vein of Tony Montana from Scarface. The aged man retorts angrily about the dangerous of the forest, and how the young man could not even survive against the wild elements lest being a gangster. The moment is a beautiful microcosm of the film’s natural ability to make moments feel life-affirming, comical and genuinely touching. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is retroactively my favourite film of 2016, a truly bold film that proves Cinema is still very much alive.

Concise Examination: The Last Jedi- Title and Teaser Poster

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The Last Jedi, which is the title for the upcoming eighth instalment in the Star Wars saga signifies a bold jolt in audience expectation for the December 2017 release. Firstly, it breaks the tradition of the title for second movies in the trilogies referring to military actions- Empire Strikes Back and Attack of the Clones. Instead, the three-word title sharpens its focus on the nearly extinct light side of the force. Grammatically, the word Jedi has been simultaneously used as plural and singular as a quote from Episode II attests “You must realise there aren’t enough Jedi to protect the Republic. We’re keepers of the peace, not soldiers.”

The opening crawl for The Force Awakens and the following dialogue from Yoda in Return of the Jedi (“Luke, when gone am I… the last of the Jedi will you be.”) clearly alludes to The Last Jedi being Luke Skywalker. The notion is a tantalising because the events proceeding Episode VII scared Luke and it will be fascinating to see the burden he carries knowing he is indeed the last of an ancient order. Or perhaps, it could allude to Rey being the Last Jedi that will be under Luke’s tutelage. Finally, the choice of red for the outline of the Star Wars wording accentuates the urgency of the title and represents an homage to the title poster for the Revenge of the Jedi (The original name for the Episode VI before it was changed to Return of the Jedi)

Concise Review: Don’t Breathe (2016)

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Director Fede Alvarez’s quasi-balletic free roaming camera and forensic tracking shots effortlessly make Don’t Breathe a finely crafted exercise in pulse-pounding tension. However, the real horror of the picture are the revelations of the film that cast retributive justice in a frightening new light. This aspect is particularly accentuated by Stephen Lang’s impressive central performance. He portrays the character with a great feebleness and vulnerability while also imbuing the blind man with a matter of fact rationality and a terrifying, unpredictable nature. The result is a grim and original portrait of female violation that had echoes of the slasher films of yore and the Josef Fritzl case in 2008.

Review: La La Land (2017)

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La La Land is a charming and exemplary film that reminds the viewer of the romanticism of Hollywood’s better days as well as the virtues of the cinematic experience. The former is illustrated in a quiet moment when aspiring actress Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) is walking down a street. As she is making her way down a darkened avenue, an elegantly constructed tracking shot reveals an elaborate painting of many actors from the movies’ great past. The latter is encapsulated in a wonderful sequence in which Mia and Sebastian’s (Ryan Gosling) romance blossoms during a revival screening of Rebel Without a Cause.

These series of scenes are wonderfully directed by Damon Chazelle who juxtaposes the magic of the big screen experience with the transformative moments it can establish. He conveys this by showing the flickering light of the projector shine on the characters’ faces and having their hands meet, which culminates in a newfound intimacy.

The picture was shot in CinemaScope- resulting in an exuberant portrait of Los Angeles. The sequence that strengthens this depiction is the opening musical number called “Another Day of Sun.” It showcases an ambitious dance scene in the midst of a frustrating morning traffic jam.

However, the most astounding aspect of La La Land is in its excellent representation of Jazz. If Chazelle’s last film- Whiplash showed the blood, sweat and physical anguish in the pursuit being a Jazz drummer then La La Land is a genial advocation for the virtues of the musical genre. At the same time, the picture also typifies the inherent conflict in the improvisational staple of the iconic style.

The fundamental problem with the film comes from the imbalance of interest in the central characters’ dreams. While Chazelle provides many reasons for Mia wanting to become an actress, I never felt that they were compelling or stirring. The problem is compounded by the elusive nature of Mia’s one woman play. The audience never gets a sense of its story, purpose or Mia’s reasoning for deciding to do it in the first place.

On the other hand, Sebastian’s dream of opening a Jazz club resonated because it comes from a deep-seated desire of artistic expression. In some early scenes, Sebastian plays a Jazz piece on the piano much to the chagrin of his boss who wants the young musician to play Christmas music. The small section of music that the character plays feels like the last dying breaths of the musical genre as it struggles to find relevance and resonance in modern times.

Interestingly, this thread is explored as Sebastian becomes a keyboardist for a Jazz band pcalled The Messengers who is fronted by his former high school friend Keith. (John Legend) Legend’s character represents the contemporary sceptic of Jazz who believes it must change to survive as opposed to being a pristinely preserved antique attraction. Sebastian’s time in the band also introduces the question of how the practical concerns of life can be at odds with achieving one’s inmost desires.

Finally, Ryan Gosling’s performance as the pianist and Jazz aficionado is remarkable and represents his best one to date. Gosling combines his compelling silent work- exemplified in movies such as Drive and Only God Forgives along with his penchant for physical comedy- combined with an endearing, passionate and driven nature that provides Sebastian with remarkable depth. Moreover, his performance during the solo piano sections (Incidentally, Gosling plays all the piano pieces himself) called to mind the great soul bearing efforts of Ethan Hawke and Oscar Issac in Born to Be Blue and Inside Llewyn Davis respectively.

The final moments of the picture when Mia and Sebastian lock eyes across a crowded room represent the actor’s singularly striking moment in the film. He gives Mia a faint smile before sitting down and playing another song. The expression carries a touching universality because it conveys a tough exterior attempting to bury feelings of regret and sadness even in the face of achieving success. With this in mind, the film’s title and iconic idiom become a bittersweet irony- reinforcing the necessities of life taking precedent over the romanticism of dreaming.

 

Review: Silence (2017)

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For the much revered and venerated Martin Scorcese, Silence represents the director’s magnum opus. The film is a tremendously soul-stirring odyssey of devotion, persecution and theological struggle with Scorcese’s firm directorial hand at its most contemplative and visceral. The picture charts the journey of two Jesuit priests who travel to Japan to find their mentor and ascertain his apparent apostasy in the wake of a systematic torture of devout native Christians.

The first half of the picture shows Father Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) visiting two downtrodden villages- who must secretly practice their outlawed faith. In these series of scenes, Scorcese presents an excellent portrait of faux ritual. The exacting patience and minimalism of these languid sequences particularly impress.

For example, in the first village, Rodrigues and Garupe perform sermons, baptisms and confessions in a tiny hut. Consequently, Scorcese’s static camera moves imbue the sequences with a compelling intimacy. Moreover, Scorcese’s longstanding editor, Thelma Schoonmaker makes these scenes resonate through her precise cuts in the religious ceremonies. The result is a sense of majesty and heartening comfort as the awe-struck facial expressions of the villagers are regularly shown in the centre of the frame.

Another small moment that encapsulates Scorcese’s considered approach is when Rodrigues is performing Communion with a small cracker. From the object, the camera pans 180 degrees clockwise. The audience is shown the majority of the villagers and ends with Rodrigues’s earnest face. The scene emboldens Scorcese’s exploration of man’s pride overtaking his conviction and purpose.

In the third act, Rodrigues is confronted by his mentor Father Cristóvão Ferreira (played with subdued enmity by Liam Neeson) who contends that Christianity is a lost cause in Japan. Crucially, he thinks the people who espoused belief in Christianity and died for their faith, in fact, died for Rodrigues. The subtle dramatic revelation casts the first half of the film in a fascinating light. It suggests the folly of Rodrigues’ belief in the face of the heart-wrenching cruelty he has witnessed and proposes that the revelation aspect of Christianity is fundamentally undermining its benevolent intentions.

The interplay between man’s violent nature and his unwavering faith is a theme that has pervaded Scorcese’s oeuvre. In Silence, it takes on a powerful new life because faith and violence are inseparable. Unbeknownst to Rodrigues, his steadfast commitment entails cruelty towards his fellow man despite never physically harming them himself.

During the same conversation, Ferreira makes a compelling case for why Christianity will die out in the country. The most convincing point comes from Japan being an enormous swamp where people worship nature. People inherently espouse the sun rising every day as opposed to the son of God rising after the second day. Rodrigo Prieto’s Cinematography accentuates this idea with these remarkable shots of the sun bathed in twilight. In other regards, Prieto makes Japan feel like an elusive spectre with these foggy, grey shots that engulf the land.

However, it is the last shot of the film in which a black rosary is revealed to be in the midst of Prieto’s burning body that stirs the imagination. It suggests the titular Silence does not necessarily exist between God and his loyal disciple but between the faithful and his devout belief- evoking a fierce internal loyalty that never truly died.

Review: The Lobster (2015)

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The Lobster is one of those rare films that make you want to climb the highest mountain and express your adoration for it with a fervent joyousness. It is so audacious and masterfully crafted, even a lengthy review could not begin to expound on its unique, singular vision. The picture imagines the world in amusing terms, whereby single people turn into animals if they cannot fall in love with a member of the opposite sex. Conceptually ludicrous to be sure. However, in execution, the absurdist premise is handled with a commendable dry wit. In fact, the humour becomes a constant rhythm that reinforces the absurd dystopian world.

The matter of fact narrator (Rachel Weisz) speaks of the varied people in the contained hotel (where the dating law is enforced) in a manner akin to a perceptive author. Her words paint a picture of an awkward assortment of people, whose smallest traits become defining. One such woman has frequent nose bleeds. She finds kinship with a man, who pretends to have them, by subjecting himself to continual head knocks.

There is a particually amusing scene in which this character discusses his duplicity with a man he has befriended; he asks earnestly, “What’s worse, to die of cold and hunger in the woods, to become an animal that will be killed and eaten by some larger animal or to have a nosebleed from time to time.” The question reveals the film’s exploration of sacrifice. There is a sense that in each of the human relationships, something is at stake and fundamentally lost.

In the hotel system, happiness is sacrificed due to desperation becoming the underlying emotion that motivates the single people to find a mate. In the Loner culture, romantic relationships are sacrificed for a life of solitude. And in the final moments, the idea of sacrifice is potently presented, as a genuine act of faith and love, so that one man can show commitment to the woman he adores.

Finally, The Lobster’s droll portrait of dystopia is accentuated by the filmmaking. One sequence feels like it is channelling the frantic mad capped violence in Battle Royale because of a series of slow motion shots. A particularly striking moment depicts the multiple hotel singletons running into the woods with their guns drawn in the midst of a mildly sunny day.

In keeping with the film’s counter-intuitive premise, the unusual uses of the camera linger. For example, the grizzly opening sequence is seen through a car’s windshield screen as a static camera is employed, and the windscreen wipers remove traces of rain in real time. In the second act, there is a small moment where the camera is focusing on a meeting in the hotel manager’s office. The shot has a refracted distortion, resulting in some of the characters being bathed in a warm heavenly glow.

The directorial choices serve to emphasise the film’s disorientating view of human relationships. To an outsider, they are seemingly ordinary. However, to the perceptive observer, they prove to be far more strange, elusive and amusing.