Thursday, July 31, 2014

Snowpiercer (2013)

Year: 2013
Running Time: 126 minutes
Director: Joon-ho Bong
Writers: Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette (based on Le Transperceneige by), Joon-ho Bong and Kelly Masterton (screenplay)
Cast: Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris, Kang-ho Song, Ah-sung Ko, Alison Pill

There is nothing like a film which divides people's opinions by miles. Whether you take to Joon-ho Bong's first English language film, Snowpiercer or not doesn't make any difference to the fact that it is a film which inspires ongoing thought and conversation. It is an understatement to say that this film is not a film for everyone due to it's intense violence and exceptionally dark humour, but underneath that harsh exterior is a film with an original and suspenseful screenplay and incredible production design. Snowpiercer is absolutely memorable for whatever reason you allow it to be, but your negative memories may be hiding the gem it is underneath.

Set in the future when the whole world has been frozen over and much of human life destroyed with it, what is left of the human race is aboard a continuously running high-speed train named the Snowpiercer.  The train is divided into classes with the upper class at the front of the train living in luxury with all they will need and the lower classes living at the back of the train living in worse poverty than they would be living in on the outside. After two of their young children are taken, the people at the back of the train led by Curtis (Chris Evans) decide to rebel and make their way to the front of the train to confront the train's inventor and conductor, Wilford (Ed Harris). Curtis and his group embark on a journey towards the front of the train which proves to be absolutely horrific.

It cannot be stressed enough that Snowpiercer is not a film that everyone will enjoy. Snowpiercer is by no means your run of the mill action/drama film and is shocking on so many levels. The faint hearted will find the film most shocking for it's extreme violence, which is particularly brutal and graphic with the axe among the weapons of choice and amputation a chosen form of torture. The screenplay and story itself are also rather shocking for a number of reasons. With the film's Australian premiere at the Sydney Film Festival in June, festival director Nashen Moodley likened Snowpiercer to the television show, "Game of Thrones" for the reason that nobody is ever safe. It is established early on that no character is ensured safety against harm in the film. While this is a trait we have come to associate with productions such as "Game of Thrones", it is still a relatively shocking concept as traditionally lead characters in a film or television show are immune to an early death or death at all. It is very much a case of survival of the fittest and a study of the class system, which is present in society as much in the present as in the future in the film. The weak in the lower class do not have the strength to survive in the harsh conditions they are made to endure, while the weak can survive in the higher classes as they are given the resources to be able to do so.

Although post-apocalyptic films are not particularly rare in this day and age, Snowpiercer has a great deal of originality to it based on it's dark screenplay and black sense of humour. The film is incredibly suspenseful and unpredictable due to it's early reminder of the characters mortality. The oppression felt by the main characters from the back of the train resonates and the audience experiences this on an emotional level with the characters. It is not a happy film, rather an angry one laced with rebellious hope. The film does have a sense of humour which is extremely black and could be misinterpreted by some as it trying to be serious and failing miserably. When sifting through the moments in the film which are being laughed at, it seems more than likely that director Joon-ho Bong and co-writer, Kelly Masterton are purposely using over-exaggeration in order to give the film more character and that this is turn allows for a few evil giggles. However, at the end of the day, whether people find Tilda Swinton's Mason, Alison Pill's Teacher or Chris Evan's now infamous baby quote funny is completely up to the individual.

The production design of Snowpiercer is superb. The way the train was created with each carriage having a different personality is completely intriguing. With each different carriage having to be a completely different world inside the same shaped space, the designers do so well to be able to complete this. The visions of the frozen world outside the Snowpiercer are also very well done. The cinematography employed in also intriguing, in particular in the tunnel scene. Although this is also perhaps the most violent scene in the film, the way in which shadow and light are used to observe the happenings is very interesting.

Chris Evans' Crurtis leads the charge in Snowpiercer. Evans is once again able to use his action film experience and do so in style during the film, but he also gives a very raw, human performance. It perhaps isn't a performance which oozes emotion, but he shows it where it is needed. Jamie Bell, who plays Curtis' offsider, Edgar also does well as does Octavia Spencer as Tanya. The most memorable performance is Tilda Swinton as Mason. There is so much character and intrigue when it comes to Mason. We never really find out that much about her, but she is such a great and intriguing character to watch. The way in which Swinton commits everything she has in performance and body is brilliant. Alison Pill's Teacher is another memorable character. She has very little screen time and no background story, but again, brilliant to watch and a load of fun in a dark and quirky way.

Snowpiercer is a welcomed film due to it's wicked originality and unpredictability. The reasons many will dislike it will be the reasons many will love it. It is exceptionally dark in mood and humour and rebellious towards traditional rules of the action and drama genres.


Sunday, July 27, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Year: 2014
Running Time: 121 minutes
Director: James Gunn
Writers: Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning (comic book), James Gunn and Nicole Perlman (screenplay)
Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper (voice), Vin Diesel (voice), Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Glenn Close, Benicio Del Toro

Guardians of the Galaxy will open in Australian cinemas on the 7th August and United States cinemas on the 1st of August.

Guardians of the Galaxy is a superhero film in a league of it's own. While being the action packed extravaganza one comes to expect from it being a comic book adaptation, the film has it's own identity which sets it apart from other such films and make it extremely memorable and enjoyable. It's personality resonates through it's witty script, impressive visuals, colourful characters and an incredibly addictive soundtrack. Guardians of the Galaxy is in itself an addiction as the feeling of excitement it creates and it's fun atmosphere is one that is remembered and has a great staying power.

Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), a human living in a far away galaxy who was abducted by an alien life form when he was a young boy, is disturbed by Ronan the Accuser's (Lee Pace) men while stealing a mysterious orb. Upon returning to his home city, he finds he is now a wanted man being tracked by not only Ronan's enigmatic follower, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), but also by bounty hunter racoon, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his offsider, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). When the four land themselves in prison for their public battle, they team up with Dax the Destroyer (Dave Baustina), who has revenge on Ronan on his mind and see's Gamora as his key to vengeance. However, when this group of misfits discover that Ronan desires the orb so he can destroy the galaxy, they work together to defend their world from his evil plans.

Guardians of the Galaxy is a film with a whole lot of character. The film has absolute confidence in what it is and makes the most of what it has to offer. The film is slightly reminiscent of past films such as Star Wars, but it very much has it's own identity. All the elements of the film work wonderfully together to give the film it's own distinct feeling, which is that of excitement, fun and just a sprinkling of nostalgia thanks to Peter Quill's mind still partly dwelling on Earth in the late 1980's. Guardians of the Galaxy doesn't have the same luxury that many other comic book superheroes do which is that unless you are an avid comic book reader yourself, you are not entirely, if at all familiar with the story of the guardians. This works in the film's favour as there is nowhere near as much pressure or expectation on the characters and it is just a pleasure to enjoy getting to know the guardians and understand their world naturally. It really was an ambitious venture by Marvel to create the world of the guardians, but due to some incredible production design it is done brilliantly. The visuals are intriguing and have a wonderful incorporation of colour. The CGI special effects are also quite magnificent.

The screenplay is wonderfully written by James Gunn (who also directed the film) and Nicole Perlman. The story can be a little too busy to begin with while the guardians are forming their alliance, as so many people seem to be wanting Peter for their own reasons. However, once the five join forces the story flows and is intriguing and, to an extent, unpredictable. Although thrilling and action-packed, there is an incredible amount of witty and hilarious dialogue with lines that can be rather quotable. The great thing about the comedy in this film, is that it is not the usual comedic style featured in an action/superhero film which borders on corniness. Much of the comedy in Guardians of the Galaxy wouldn't be out of place in a comedy genre film. The only problem with a lot of the comedic references is that they are quite generation specific. Jackson Pollock and even Kevin Bacon's 1984 Footloose are not references that many younger viewers will understand, but much of the film will be a great deal more relatable to people who grew up in the 1980's in general. The use of the Walkman and particularly the soundtrack give an air of nostalgia to the film. The soundtrack is indeed one of the most memorable features of the film. There is a great mix of tunes from the 1960's, 70's and 80's , which are very well incorporated into the film starting with "Come and Get Your Love" by Redbone to set the scene for something fun and "Cherry Bomb" by The Runaways to build excitement.

The characters who are the Guardians of the Galaxy are all very well constructed and developed during the film. Chris Pratt is perfect as Peter Quill. He is so incredibly relatable and performs his role with absolute ease. His character is quite an interesting one, as he has an incredible amount of boyish charm and slight cockiness which doesn't come from thinking he is special as much as from there being a part of him which refuses to grow up. This is surprisingly really quite a likable quality in him and he charms the audience with this. Pratt's Peter Quill is one which you want to see more of and see more heroes who areas relatable as him.

Zoe Saldana does well as Gamora and is a strong female, action character, which is again the type of character one wants to see more of in action films. She works very well with Pratt on screen and although there is romantic chemistry between the two, the chemistry of them as partners in crime is much stronger. Bradley Cooper gives a superb voice performance as raccoon, Rocket. What is so brilliant about his performance is that for the most part his voice is unrecognisable as Cooper's own, which those familiar with his work would be used to hearing. Cooper gives Rocket true character with his voice and makes Rocket an even more intriguing raccoon than what he already is. Another surprise is Vin Diesel as tree/human mutation, Groot. Groot only has three words to say throughout the film, but Diesel's voice is unrecognisable in those three words. Groot is a wonderful character and with such little speech, comes across as being such a sweet being and an audience favourite.

Guardians of the Galaxy oozes character and is a truly enjoyable ride. It leaves you craving more and awaiting it's sequel with baited breath so to experience more of the fun had in the first and have further contact with it's wonderful characters.


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

And So It Goes (2014)

Year: 2014
Running Time: 94 minutes
Director: Rob Reiner
Writer: Mark Andrus
Cast: Michael Douglas, Diane Keaton, Sterling Jerins, Frances Sternhagen, Scott Shepherd, Annie Parisse, Yaya DaCosta Alafia

And So It Goes opens in Australian cinemas on the 7th August and is distributed by Studiocanal. Opens in cinemas in the United States on the 24th July and now showing in the United Kingdom.

If Rob Reiner, Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton were to be given a school report card judging their work on And So It Goes, it would read the same on all of them....."Can Do Better". If this was the first piece of direction you had seen from Reiner and the first film starring Douglas or Keaton you had seen, you probably wouldn't want to see another. And So It Goes is overly stereotypical, ridiculously exaggerated and completely predictable. The film doesn't feel as if it was made with any love or passion, rather it was just made for the sake of making a movie.

Realtor Oren Little (Michael Douglas) has had little compassion, time or respect for anyone since he lost the love of his life to cancer and disowned his addict son, Luke (Scott Shepherd). When Luke reappears to let his father know that he is going to jail, he also informs him that he has a ten year old daughter, Sarah (Sterling Jerins) who he needs Oren to look after while he is behind bars. Oren really has no desire to look after this little girl he knew nothing of, but his next door neighbour, Leah (Diane Keaton) is completely taken by Sarah and takes her under her wing while Oren figures himself out. Leah, who also struggles with the memory of the death of her husband, and Oren find that this little girl may be the one who helps both of them move on with their lives and ultimately find comfort in each other.

And So It Goes is completely and utterly typical for the type of film which it is. There is nothing whatsoever original about it and originality seems to be substituted by over exaggeration of the stereotypical romantic comedy genre features of the film.  And So It Goes is exactly what you would expect from a comedy led by actors in the same generation as Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton. It is the lightest of light watches, even though it deals with highly emotional subjects such as death and substance abuse. It is an understatement to say that And So It Goes is not the best work of anyone involved.  Rob Reiner's direction of his players is surprisingly mediocre considering what he has achieved in the past and doesn't support an already weak screenplay by Mark Andrus. Again, Andrus has written some wonderful screenplays in the past, including As Good As It Gets, which he was nominated for an Academy Award for. The screenplay leaves a great deal to be desired with certain situations leaving the audience scratching their heads in confusion. For example, why was Oren's co-worker Ted (Andy Karl) going to such great lengths to become friends with Oren's son when he clearly isn't that close to Oren anyway and why was messaging Luke on Facebook and texting him? Messages on Facebook and texting will typically give the same result.  Plus neighbour, Kennedy (Yaya DaCosta Alafia) has the easiest home birth ever.

With all these talented people attached, one has to wonder what really went wrong. The situations and characters in the film are wildly exaggerated which would normally point to the film makers trying too hard, but it is the exact opposite. The film just seems like it was made carelessly and without passion, like everyone just turned up for work and didn't particularly want to be there.

The film begins well enough with a glorious long shot over the Connecticut riverside location where the film takes place, and there are actually some beautiful location shots throughout the film. The town where the characters live is certainly idyllic and looks wonderful on screen. Yet the musical score attached to these images is once again stereotypical for such a film and bordering on corny.

The performances by those in the film are not all together terrible, but the way their characters are written and their direction does not give them a great deal to work with. Michael Douglas' Oren Little is an extremely unlikable character. He has his best and most empathetic moment in the last five minutes of the film, but the rest of the film see's his character taking the path so many cynical characters in film have taken many times before. His bitter dialogue is supposed to be funny, but comes across as just plain mean and often quite racist and sexist. Oren's character is constructed well as you feel you know his background in depth, but his development throughout the film is patchy and doesn't register on an emotional level the way it should.

Diane Keaton's performance is extremely over the top. Again, it is not as much Keaton's fault as it is the way she is directed. The way Leah cries at the drop of the hat during the film seems neither funny nor upsetting, it is more just ridiculous. Her emotional outbursts are not emotionally exaggerated as they are physically exaggerated by the way she throws her arms in the air and raises her voice at appropriate moments. Again, her character of Leah is constructed well, but it is not clear at what stage in the film she really starts to change or whether she really changes at all. She doesn't represent a strong female character by any means. However, Sterling Jerins and Scott Shepherd give strong performances and the scenes which the two are in together are actually quite sweet and emotional. At such a young age, Jerins gives perhaps the most controlled performance out of anyone in the film and her character is the best written in terms of development.

And So It Goes requires no emotional investment nor a great deal of brain power. It is unfortunately completely forgettable and a film which you get the feeling most involved would rather forget as well.


Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Lunchbox (2013)

Year: 2013
Running Time: 104 minutes
Director: Ritesh Batra
Writer: Ritesh Batra
Cast: Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui

The Lunchbox is a charming film which restores faith in the romance genre. It is a breath of fresh air into the masses of romance films which have crowded our cinemas in the past few years with overly stereotypical and predictable elements. The Lunchbox is exceptionally sweet and even though the story is quite simplistic, it accomplishes so much around this story of two lonely people who find each other in the most unusual fashion. While it is culturally significant to modern day India, the threads of romance laced through the film are rather old fashioned in a most welcomed way. The Lunchbox is tantalising, heart warming and aesthetically pleasing with it's wonderful visuals of Indian cuisine.

Mumbai's lunchbox system has always had a reputation of efficiency with there being very little chance of a person being delivered the wrong lunch. It is close to an impossibility, which is why it is so unusual when lonely wife and mother, Ila's (Nimrat Kaur) home cooked meal for her husband gets delivered to the wrong person. Her meal finds Saajan Ferndandes (Irrfan Khan), a reclusive widower who is preparing for retirement. The two begin an exchange of letters through the lunches and find that this exchange is what makes the difference they have both been craving in their lives.

Just when it seems like the romance genre has nothing new left to offer, along comes a film like The Lunchbox. It avoids all the stereotypical elements of a love story which usually play a huge part in the predictability of such films. It explores the lost art of penpalling in an original form and is slightly reminiscent of such films as The Shop Around The Corner and You've Got Mail, but only in the sense that the two lead characters are exchanging letters and forming a relationship with each other by doing so. Not only does the film follow paths not normally explored by other films in its genre, but it also keeps the viewer guessing right till the end and also beyond. It has an overall feel good atmosphere to it, but it is also deep and sensitive to the emotional hardships of life and love.

The Lunchbox is a wonderful cultural study of modern day Mumbai. The lunchbox system is one which people in western culture who have never visited India would not be familiar with and the film gives a wonderful introduction to it. Visually, The Lunchbox excels on so many levels. It does brilliantly at capturing life in Mumbai domestically, and also in an office environment. The first few shots of Mumbai in the rain first thing in the morning gives the impression of chaos, but is it is incredibly interesting chaos and quite an intriguing snapshot of life in Mumbai. The whole film contains many location shots which cannot be described as neat such as cluttered offices and homes, but there is beauty in the mayhem with the way it is charmingly shot. Yet, what leaves the greatest impression on the viewer is the wonderful food which is part of the character's lunchboxes. The Indian cuisine does not only look delightful on film, but the way in which the characters react (especially Saajan) to it allows you to imagine you can also smell the incredible aroma of the food and taste the spice.

There is a wonderful sense of character development in The Lunchbox. Each character changes throughout the film and their relationships with each other play a big part in this development. Irrfan Khan is very, very good as Saajan. He changes in a great way throughout the film and connects with the audience on an emotional level. This connection allows you to understand, admire and empathize with him in a way which resonates long after the film is over. It is beautiful to see how his relationship with Ila and his work colleague, Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) change him and bring life, love and happiness back to his life.

Nimrat Kaur gives a beautiful performance as Ila. She starts off fragile and sad, but becomes a strong female character. Nawazuddin Siddiqui's Shaikh is a fantastic character. He has had such a tough life, but his spirit is contagious. It is obvious that his hardships have effected him, but his happiness and eagerness is beautiful. His character is so beneficial to the film as he is one of the biggest reasons Saajan learns to embrace life. Ila and Saajan may be the lead characters of the film, but Shaikh's presence is so important to their lives and relationships.

The Lunchbox is the film that sets the benchmark for romance films. The elements of it's genre are packaged in a most original way and delivered with beauty and charm within the chaos of it's world.


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

How To Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

Year: 2014
Running Time: 102 minutes
Director: Dean Deblois
Writers: Cressida Cowell ("How To Train Your Dragon" book series), Dean Deblois (screenplay)
Cast: Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, Gerard Butler, Cate Blanchett, Kit Harrington, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kristen Wiig

Although How To Train Your Dragon 2 does not feel quite as significant as it's 2010 parent, it avoids the usual sequel pitfalls and makes for a fun and entertaining watch. The film manages to do what so many animated sequels fail to do and that is to admit that it's lead character is growing up and develop him accordingly. There is unsuspected emotional depth during the film, but the majority of revelations that occur during the film don't meet the same level of originality that they do in the original film.

The film meets up with Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his faithful dragon, Toothless four years after the two first united and proved to Hiccup's village Berk and his chieftain father, Stoick (Gerard Butler) that Vikings and dragons could live together in peace. When Hiccup and his girlfriend, Astrid (America Ferrera) encounter a dragon hunter by the name of Eret (Kit Harrington) and his crew, they find out that an enigmatic and old enemy of Stoick, Drago (Djimon Hounsou) is assembling a dragon army. With Hiccup feeling the pressure to take over as chieftain of Berk from his father, he feels that he must step up and convince Drago that dragons and humans can live together and stop him from declaring war.

How To Train Your Dragon was a whole lot of fun, and How To Train Your Dragon 2 brings more of that fun. The story itself is more serious, yet because the revelations in the film are not that dissimilar from the original it misses out on feeling as significant as what it could. In the original film, Hiccup tries to convince his elders that dragons are not the evil creatures they believe they are and in this film he is trying to convince another group of people of this. Of course the ways which he achieves this are different in the two films, but those who have seen the first film will feel like they have just seen a different version of the first rather than a new adventure. However, the similar storyline is disguised as the characters have grown and developed, particularly Hiccup. Many sequels (animated sequels in particular) will present their characters as not far gone since the last film, but Hiccup and his friends have grown up and are now adults rather than awkward adolescents. It is refreshing to see that the main character has developed with time passing rather than it be the same character with the same attributes that we knew before. Hiccup's basic personality traits remain unchanged, but you can absolutely tell the difference the time passed has made.

One thing that How To Train Your Dragon 2 does more than it's predecessor, is that it is a more emotional experience, especially at a particular moment in the film. As a result of this and the maturing of the characters, this sequel does feel like it is not as much directed towards children as the first film. The lack of younger characters in the film make it harder from children to relate to the situations in the film, but Toothless and the other dragons still do enough to keep younger audiences attention. The story itself isn't complex enough to categorise it as a film for adults. It wavers somewhere in the middle, which is more an observation than a positive or negative as the film is still entertaining. The animation is impressive and the final dragon battle scenes spectacular.

When one is familiar with Jay Baruchel's work, How To Train Your Dragon 2 does not seem like he has really stretched his boundaries. He doesn't do a great deal with his voice, as was also the case in the first film. Listening to him as Hiccup is basically listening to Jay Baruchel as he is in every other film. Yet, besides the lack of versatility to Baruchel's vocal performance, there is no denying that he is Hiccup and any other voice wouldn't add to the character the way his does.

Gerard Butler and Kit Harrington do vocally what they are best at. Butler is being a heroic Viking who strives on action and glory and Harrington is a adventurer on a quest to protect. Cate Blanchett's vocal performance is quite intriguing. Playing Hiccup's long lost mother, Valka, her accent can come across as a strange mixture of several dialects. However, what she does do with her voice is perfect for a woman who has only had dealings with dragons for decades. She is hesitant and slightly restrained as she comes to grips with speaking to humans again, which works very well for her character.

How To Train Your Dragon 2 may not reach the heights which the first film does, but it is still entertaining and fun. It's originality lies in it's character development from one film to the next rather than in it's storyline.


Monday, July 14, 2014

Interview with Once My Mother director, Sophia Turkiewicz

The incredible film, Once My Mother which Movie Critical reviewed as part of out coverage of the 2014 Sydney Film Festival, is being released nationally on the 24th of July. When Sophia Turkiewicz was only six years old, her Polish mother, Helen placed her in an Adelaide orphanage. It wasn't until later in life that Turkiewicz started to piece together the stories her mother had told her over the years and realised the reasons behind her actions. Once My Mother takes us on a journey through wartime Poland and Siberia and Helen's life as a refugee before settling in Australia. It is the amazing story of Helen's survival, but also a heart warming story of reconciliation and forgiveness.

We were extremely lucky to sit down with film maker, Sophia Turkiewicz today to discuss the film, her mother and the upcoming release.

Firstly, thankyou for sharing such an incredibly beautiful and personal journey in Once My Mother. It seems like you have had the idea for the film in one way or another for quite a long time. How long exactly had you been thinking about making the film?
Well, I have been making it in one way or another since 1976. I started making a film about my mothers life when I was a student at film school in my second year and went on and shot the material which you see in black and white, but I never got around to finishing it. Then I graduated from film school and life went a different way. I graduated with this film in cans and they just sat there year after year and it was only really in 2007 that I started to see that my mother's mental health was really starting to deteriorate. She was had dementia and I thought I better get that film finished. I sort of got the wind up because I realised she was probably not going to be around for much longer. In the meantime over the years I had also shot other bits and pieces, but I seriously started to get back to the project in 2007 and from that point on whenever I could I would get whoever was around me with a camera to help me. Finally it's finished but it really did take the last seven years to get it finished. We had a lot of problems raising funds for it, but that didn't stop us filming. The irony is that by the time we actually got the funding from Screen Australia at the end of 2012 we had shot all the material that you have seen in the film.

So you pretty much shot the film and then you got the funding, is that how it worked?
There was still a lot of archival work we needed to do and all that sort of stuff so all the funding that we got ended up paying for the archival footage plus the post-production like the editing.

How long was it in between when you first got the funding and when you first showed the film in public?
Well taking a step back, what happened was while we still were looking for funding we tried to raise money privately, such as doing a fundraiser at the Sherman Gallery. We managed to raise a little bit of private money and with that it was enough to employ Denise Haslem, who became our editor. At that stage we just got her to do a rough cut because all those years I had been filming I was going crazy because I couldn't edit it myself because I didn't have the skills. As my mother's health was deteriorating and I was filming her, she was going round in circles so I couldn't actually keep track of what was actually good material and what wasn't. I was desperate to just be able to get a rough cut and take out all the unusable stuff and see what it was I actually had. So once we got that private bit of money, we got a rough cut and started showing it around. Not publicly, but at least finally I had a cut which I could show people and say "This is what I am trying to do", but that didn't help us all that much in attracting funding. Then finally we got the funding at the end of 2012 and then we spent the next eight months editing and the first screening was for our cast and crew. The very first public screening we had was at the Adelaide Film Festival at the end of last year.

As we said before, your film is extremely personal. Was there any time during the making of the film when you said to yourself "I can't do this or show this to anyone, it's just too personal"?
Well, again I am going to backtrack it a bit. Initially it wasn't actually going to be that personal. Initially the focus was just going to be on my mother's story. I knew I was going to be in there somewhere, but I just thought it might just be as a narrator or I thought I might just have a minor appearance in there somewhere. Gradually over the development of it I realised I was going to be a character in the story and the drive behind the story really was for me to be able to figure out my relationship with my mother. The story is a story of our reconciliation and I just wanted to track how it actually occurred. So once I realised that then I made a commitment in the storytelling to be as truthful as I could about the relationship. There is no point in not being truthful because audiences can see if there is something not authentic or if they are being manipulated. So I just tried to tell the story as I had experienced it. Now I also was aware that I didn't just want it to be therapy for myself, I felt that I had been doing that and I had to find a way to actually let the audience into the story as well. Once I realised it was a story of reconciliation, that informed me what I should put in. So once that happened I constructed the narrative or my mother's life and then my own life, and then I worked to find the balance between the two stories.
But in terms of putting myself on the screen, I did find that incredibly difficult. I am much happier being behind the camera! Initially, when we were in the cutting room I thought "Oh my God, I just can't do this!" I hated seeing me on the screen, but at a certain point I realised I needed to treat myself as another character in the film and once I made that decision, to my absolute astonishment I was able to construct myself as if I was a character on screen who's life is being explored and nothing to do with me.

So when you were growing up, you did obviously felt a lot of resentment towards your mother, because you were only six years old when she placed you in the orphanage in Adelaide. A child's mind doesn't operate with the same logic as an adult or a mother's, and as you said the film was almost therapeutic for you. When did you start to feel as though you were really starting to understand and forgive your mother?
Well, really my mother ended up being in an aged care home for ten years before she died and she slowly got more and more forgetful. She lived in Adelaide and for the first seven years or so when I think about it, I still had some sort of unresolved thing with my mother because I would feel like I needed to go regularly back to Adelaide because that's what daughters do when they have aged parents. So I would play that role of being a dutiful daughter, but every time I got off the plane in Adelaide I would have this knot in my stomach and I knew that I didn't really want to be there. So I would do my duty and with relief get back onto the plane and came back to my real life in Sydney. It didn't happen over night, but somehow gradually something happened internally. I was filming bits and pieces, but once I started researching her life because I had not known the big historical picture because I had just grown up with the family stories. The historical information hadn't been available until the 1990's with the fall of communism and that whole story had come out. So when I started researching I started to find out this incredibly epic story that had an historical backdrop and it was this incredibly intimate story. As I started  researching that I started to realise what a heroic, extraordinary woman my mother was and in that process all sorts of things started to resolve internally and certainly those last few years I was jumping on a plane to see her, I couldn't wait to go. I started to look forward to spending as much time as I could with her. Time was precious and she was going mentally, but it didn't matter. I wasn't going there to have conversations with her in the end, it was just to be with her. What I understand now about dementia now is that the brain might go, but all that emotion doesn't and while I was there and being close and touching her, that was hugely important not just for her, but for me.

You do see that in the film when she starts to talk about how she was pregnant with Sophia, and you then tell her that you are Sophia. She is then just so happy to realise that so you can tell all the emotion is still there.
Absolutely and that is the interesting thing about dealing with people with dementia. Before when I would go there and I would have the same conversation with her twenty times and I would get frustrated. Then I would realise that it's not about the words, it is about the emotional connection.

Do you think if you didn't have the film you would have still come to that realisation, or do you think film really aided your realisation?
That's an interesting question. I don't know, I think I use my creative expression to resolve issues in my own life. Maybe I would have found some way to resolve it by talking about it with friends or writing about it, but my particular way of doing it is through film because that is what I have been trained to do. I can't actually answer that question...but it is a great question!

So when you made your film, Silver City back in the 1980's which was about Polish immigrants coming to Australia, was it because you were more fascinated by your mother's story, or were you looking for a way to understand and forgive then?
Another really, really good question. I think at that point I knew that mother had had some extraordinary life experiences and my friends were always curious when I told them bits and pieces. I knew that there was an incredible story there, but I have to say that at that time I was using her story for my own benefit. So I think in that context that was what I made Silver City for, not to unravel our relationship. I think that this story is a companion piece to Silver City, that one was a drama and this one is a documentary. It was almost that I wanted to get the story right this time, which I hadn't done with Silver City because it was dramatized and I had changed things. The way I think about Silver City now is that it was about a family's arrival in Australia as refugees, but it was the background of the story which is authentic and more interesting to me now rather than the fictional thread that's got nothing to do with my family.

In other words, Silver City was more of a "based on", while this is more of an emotional film?
That's a good way of putting it. It was very loosely based!

During the film, you are travelling through Poland and going to all these places that your mother had told you she had been. When you were in these places did you feel a connection such as you could feel the ghosts of the past?
Oh totally. I had grown up hearing these stories about her growing up in these little towns and I could just imagine it somehow, but as an abstract because you don't really know what it is like. To actually go there and see what it was really like was hugely important for me personally, but also extraordinary to be walking through a village that is still incredibly poor and it is now part of Ukraine. I think nothing has changed since my mother was there, apart from the fact that they now have electricity. There's still no running water in the village, there is just a well every so often. My mother's house which you see in the film, you actually don't see but it is a dirt floor. That is common still in that village. So it was amazing to walk around and see what life might have been like, but also the ghosts walking around the streets which she would have been playing in as a kid. That was just hugely, hugely important to me.

What was the hardest part about making the film would you say?
The hardest part was getting the money. Once we got the money, from that point on nothing was hard. It was just a joy. Of course it was hard day to day with the usual types of obstacles. Apart from the money, the hardest part was before we got the money and we were still filming, I didn't have access to proper access to professional equipment and people. Pretty much all the footage was shot on a non-professional camera. There was only one day when we had a professional cinematography and that was a lovely friend of mine who had given up a day of her weekend when we were both in Adelaide and we shot one of the first scenes you see of my mother answering the door. That was one of the only days we had a cinematographers on board. One of my disappointments is that we weren't able to have material professionally shot. It would have a completely different look and it would have been a completely different film.

Were there any parts of your mother's life that were particularly hard to document or research?
Well, the whole process of researching my mothers life was done in the last six years. It was just so difficult to find any documentation. I got a researcher to try and find family documents such as birth certificates, death records of her parents and all that kind of stuff. She couldn't find anything because there is no such documentation. I have no idea when my mother was born for instance, there is no documentation about her life. When I was researching, nothing was dug up at all which was a bit of a disappointment. I went looking for clues by trying to find my grandparents headstones and couldn't find anything. What was extraordinary was that after this search all around the world at places like archival institutes in Ukraine and nothing came to light, my husband who is an art historian had to go to Canberra to do some research at the National Archives and I went along with him. He told me to put in my mother's name and see what comes up, and blow me down...a whole mass of documents came up! What I think had happened was that once that she had been transferred to a camp in Tehran, they were a lot more organised and had information about each of the refugees and documented them. From there, the documents would have gone to Africa with my mother and then to the National Archives in Canberra! That was a miracle!

So did you mother every have a birthday date, as she didn't have a documented date of birth?
Oh yes! Someone made up a birth date for her. Her made up birthday was the 2nd of October. We have no idea what year she was born, although I calculated it must have been around 1924 as she was 16 when she got imported to Siberia.

You covered so much in the film, was there much you had to leave out or was most of it in there?
Oh no no. Again, once you have a theme, you get spoilt for choices. I think this is a danger a lot of film makers make. They think because they have all of this fabulous material that they have to put it in somehow. For me, if it doesn't actually fit, it's never really going to go in the story. So there were other stories and incidents that I have got a record of that didn't end up in the final film.

What would you like audiences to take away from Once My Mother in regards to relationships?
Well, even though it is more about more my area of complications with my mother, I think every mother and child relationship has it's complexities. What I look at is the course of our relationship over my lifetime up until now and it changes that mother and child relationship. That relationship is a dynamic one and it evolves. I guess if there is one thing I feel so lucky to have is first the opportunity to reconcile with my mother before she died, and also to have that on record for my son and his family. I just feel so privileged. I get so many coming up to me saying "My mother died and I never reconciled with her". My advice is do it before it is too late, you will never regret it.

Is it still emotional for you watching the film back?
Well, to my surprise I like to sit in the cinema with people who are watching it because I like to see how people are responding. I often find myself getting involved in the story myself and I am thinking "Oh my God! What comes next?" as I have forgotten!

What I gathered from watching Once My Mother is that it is almost like a present of love to your mother. Did she get to see any of the footage before she passed away?
No, she saw bits and pieces of the other footage I had filmed and she saw the video I brought back from the town she grew up in, which you see in the movie when she discovers that her sister had been killed by the Russians. She died before the film was finished and that is one of my regrets. I would have loved to have had her there in the audience watching her life up on the screen. She would have had no comprehension of what it was all about, but it would have been a beautiful experience.

How did she feel about you making a film about her life? Did she like that idea?
She was bemused by this thing I was doing, she couldn't understand it. Yet she would go along very happily. I remember I wanted to shoot one scene of my arrival at the aged care home and I shot it like you would a drama where you have shot sizes, and you do reverses of different shot sizes. There are several takes to get that effect. I was shooting it like it was a drama rather than a doco because my background had always been in drama! What was hilarious was that she got right into the whole thing and with every take, her performance just got bigger and bigger and bigger! Then she started to involve the camera operator by winking at him or waving! It was then I discovered what an actress she was!

The film opens on the 24th of July. How are you feeling about the release?
Oh very excited! It's such a thrill. Doco's for a start rarely get a national release so we are so lucky to have had that opportunity, and I am dying to show it to audiences out there. It's just about how to get it out there which is our big challenge as we don't have a big marketing budget or anything. We're just relying on getting the word out and word of mouth. That's the only stressful thing at the moment.

What has been your favourite part of the journey so far?
Actually getting it out to the audiences and the Q & A sessions. When you make a film, you want people to get out and see your story. To be there with an audience and getting their responses is what it's all about ultimately. That's why you make a film.

It's been at a few film festival's now. How do you think being at a film festival is going to compare to an actual release?
It is a different kind of mind set because film festivals are a specific kind of audience and are people who are passionate about film. Now we are finding that showing the film for a group of paying customers is a different thing. It's a different feeling to have a general public. The one thing that we have picked up at the film festivals is that as we have won three Audience Awards, that tells us that if the audience does come to see the film they do respond. That is certainly the feeling we are getting from screening it is that if we get the audience in, they are not disappointed.

So what's next for you after the release?
Well I have got another project which is a documentary, but it's too early to tell. I'm too busy at the moment to focus on it, but I look forward to really getting into the next one once this one is over.

Who are some of the film makers who inspire you?
I always find that hard to answer as I am not one of those people who have a list, but certainly I think one of our greats here in Australia is Peter Weir. I love his storytelling, he is a master of storytelling. When I was teaching at the film school I would often use his films to show students his directing choices. I've pulled his work apart a lot to see how he does it and boy, is he a master!

We would like to thank Sophia Turkiewicz for her time and wish her all the best of luck!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Tim's Vermeer (2013)

Year: 2013
Running Time: 80 minutes
Director: Teller
Writers: Penn Jillette and Teller

Tim's Vermeer is about passion that crosses over into the territory of obsession. While Teller's film documents Tim Jenison's quest to prove his theory regarding Johannes Vermeer's method of painting, it is more about the journey than the result. Tim's Vermeer is the perfect example about how it is about the journey, not the destination. Not that the result isn't astounding, but the road that Jenison takes in order to prove his theory is as intriguing as it is bordering on insane. It leaves you feeling richer in culture, knowledge and inspiration.

Texan inventor, Tim Jenison believes he knows the secret behind 17th century painter, Johannes Vermeer's brilliant masterpieces such as The Girl With The Pearl Earring. In order to achieve the level of realism in his paintings, Jenison has a theory that Vermeer secretly employed the aid of an optical apparatus. Rather than purely just study this theory, he decides to put this theory in practise and paint his own Vermeer painting using an optical apparatus himself to see if he can prove that this was the way Vermeer worked. Jenison chooses Vermeer's "The Music Lesson" to recreate, a task which is a great deal harder and time consuming than he could have ever believed.

While watching Tim's Vermeer, one has to wonder if Tim Jenison is crazy in undertaking such a quest. However, crazy isn't as accurate a word to describe him as much as passionate and ambitious. In a profession such as his you need to have the ability to seize the most complex of ideas and work with them to achieve a complex goal. He has a history of aiming high and achieving wonderful things. This is how Jenison works in this film. He takes hold of this idea of how he believes Vermeer conducted his work, and despite not being a painter himself, decides to prove this theory by creating a masterpiece of his own. Jenison reaches the point where most people in his situation would turn their attention to something else and the point where this process starts to seem like it is madness. Granted Teller was making a film about Jenison and his theory so he was obliged to keep going, but it is the principle of not giving up on a promise you make to yourself that resonates.

The film is completely shot as the events happen giving a real authenticity to the film. Yet, unlike many other documentaries, it doesn't shy away from the fact that there is always a camera in the room. The subjects in most documentaries will try to pretend that a camera isn't filming them while they are going about their business, but in Tim's Vermeer they make no effort to hide the camera. Jenison does address the camera countless times giving the film a video diary feel. As Jenison travels across the world to find out more about Vermeer, there is an overwhelmingly contagious sense of awe and passion, such as when Jenison emerges from seeing the real "The Music Lesson" inside Buckingham Palace. It is moments like this and the finale of the film which make you realise that Jenison undertook this mission in order to feel the way he does at these times, and that is a feeling everybody wants to feel.

Tim's Vermeer is not the type of film that is purely about art for art lovers. It assumes that the viewer has little knowledge about the subject and does it's best to explain everything it feels the audience needs to know to appreciate the Jenison's journey. Visually, it doesn't take an art lover to appreciate the beauty of both Vermeer's and Jenison's work. Vermeer's famous paintings are exquisite and the big screen adds to their beauty. While Jenison may not be a painter, the way the camera captures the process of his Vermeer is wonderful. In particular, the fine details of his Vermeer are seen in a way that would not be possible to the naked eye.

Tim's Vermeer is an unbelievable journey which takes the passion for the quest for truth to a new level. The film surely proves that it is the journey, not the destination, but the destination doesn't look bad when it is hanging on your wall as a reminder.


Thursday, July 3, 2014

Jersey Boys (2014)

Year: 2014
Running Time: 134 minutes
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writers: Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (musical book and screenplay)
Cast: John Lloyd Young, Vincent Piazza, Michael Lomenda, Erich Bergen, Christopher Walken, Joseph Russo

There is only a number of times you can say when describing a film musical "You won't like it if you are not a fan of musicals to begin with" before you start sounding like a broken record. Yet, that is what it comes down to with Clint Eastwood's film adaptation of stage musical Jersey Boys. Eastwood has made the decision to keep much of his latest film true to the stage production and this decision may not sit so well with many, in particular those who are generally not fans of the musical genre. Yet, those who are theatre buffs and musical lovers will be quite taken by Eastwood's latest film which reminds us just what a wonderful filmmaker he is.

 Jersey Boys is the story of the 1960's pop sensation, The Four Seasons. Focusing mainly on the life of lead singer, Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young), the film is based on the Broadway musical of the same name and tells the tale of the boys who grew up on the mean streets of New Jersey where opportunities were hard to come by. When band members Valli, Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) and Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) allow songwriter, Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) to join their group, they find the winning combination to become the stars they are remembered as. However, fame comes at a price as the boys find out.

Clint Eastwood's film is an ode to the Broadway musical. It is a biopic, but Jersey Boys wants to stay true to it's theatre roots rather than pretend that it is a musical made for the screen and it is no surprise that the screenwriters, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice are also the musical book writers. There is no mistaking the film's Broadway roots as there are various elements which seem more at home on the stage than on the screen, but Eastwood wants us to be reminded of this. Much of this film will be bordering on torture for people who have no interest in musical theatre. While Jersey Boys isn't that type of musical where the characters burst into song at any given moment, there are features which seem out of place on screen, yet would seem right at home on stage such as characters talking directly to the audience and the finale number. The screen gives Jersey Boys a greater area to play with and opportunity to use the directorial expertise of Eastwood to make it work on screen without forgetting where it began.

Jersey Boys is a lot of fun and has a great nostalgic atmosphere. The 1950's and 60's are visually recreated with style and accuracy in the suburbs of New Jersey as well as in the big city. The costume design is gorgeous and production design such as that of the streetlamp lit streets and home interiors are perfect for the times. The camera angles Eastwood employs throughout the film are incredibly interesting and the lighting he uses for the character's profiles adds an intriguing edge. The music is, of course, a highlight of the film. The soundtrack contains all The Four Season's greatest hits and watching them be sung in the film by the four lead actors is extremely reminiscent of seeing of seeing the real Four Seasons perform live.

However, the film itself is not as powerful as it is entertaining. The band's successes do not feel as high as they should, and their lows not as emotional as they could be. The scene where the band is ultimately breaking up is probably the most powerful scene in the film, and not to mention quite possibly the most entertaining scene that doesn't involve music. However, the saddest scene which should be a sure tearjerker, the characters do not show enough emotion for it to be so.

Eastwood was questioned regarding his decision to cast Broadway musical performers rather than big name Hollywood stars, but when watching Jersey Boys it is a decision which proved to be the right one. It would seem that people would take the characters even less seriously if they were distracted by well known movie stars playing them. It is not even guaranteed that there would be many film stars out there who would be able to sing with the same incredible vocal range of Frankie Valli the way that John Lloyd Young does. Young does well in the lead, but doesn't pack the emotional punch which should be part of the role. He also falls into the trap which was going to be inevitable when he is playing the same role on film as he does on stage which is of sometimes overemphasising his facial expressions. On stage this is a necessity so people in the back row can see what people in the front row could, yet it is nowhere as necessary on screen. However, no one can deny that his performance and vocal skills are extraordinary.

Vincent Piazza is wonderful as Tommy DeVito. He is a convincing bad boy and everything about his performance radiates this. Erich Bergan, who plays Bobby  Gaudio is also very good. His performance starts off as slightly comical and light, but becomes extremely likable and very witty during the film. Michael Lomenda is fine, but his character, unlike that of Bergen's, becomes more unintentionally comical throughout the film. While he is angry, the audience laughs and therefore cannot be taken seriously. Clint Eastwood also makes an extremely cheeky cameo, but a very entertaining and memorable one.

It cannot be stressed more that Jersey Boys is not a film for people who are not fans of musicals in general. Clint Eastwood's direction is beautiful and it is glaringly obvious that he cares greatly for the Broadway version. Therefore, this is for the people who do care as much as Eastwood does for this.