58th BFI London Film Festival: Birdman Review

•October 22, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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The formerly high-flying movie star Riggan Thomson (played marvellously by Michael Keaton) has tough days ahead of him. A play, which was supposed to help him get back on top, consumes money, the actor who plays one of the main roles goes to hospital after being hit by a falling stage light and an actress (Andrea Risenborough), who occasionally sleeps with Riggan, worries about her late period. The relationship with his daughter (Emma Stone), a recovering drug addict, is disastrous and if that wasn’t enough, hired at the last minute is the critics’ favourite Mike Shiner (the superb Edward Norton) who drinks a real Bourbon whiskey on stage and gets an erection in the middle of a performance. What irritates Riggan the most is that Mike is a talented artist. Additionally, he begins to hear voices, particularly one voice- Birdman the superhero, whose portrayal in the past brought Riggan glory. Unfortunately, everything indicates that Broadway is not ready to accept Thomson with open arms.

If you thought that the advertised Birdman poster depicting Michael Keaton and the winged creature sitting on his head was strange, you ought to be prepared for the movie itself. The first sequence of the film sees a levitating Michael in white underwear complaining about the place he is in and that it smells like balls. After a while you will see dancing reindeer and various other unexplained situations. Birdman is like a jazz improvisation, but with nonstop action. The pace of the film doesn’t stop even for a second and Riggan ‘makes’ his journey to the rhythm of Mexican musician Antonio Sanchez’s drums. Long shots with an uncluttered assembly of cuts are reminiscent of Scorsese’s Goodfellas. From the beginning, Alejandro González Iñárritu was very keen on this sort of film format: “our life is ultimately one big continuous shot. We wake up in the morning and we can’t escape, we don’t move to another reality. We are trapped in our own. That’s how we experience life and that’s how I wanted the audience to experience Riggan’s one”.

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The film is based on Raymond Carver’s 1981 short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and it is brilliantly done. Carver’s poem, which opens the film, provides an excellent summary of the characters’ situation – no one is happy with what they have, and, above all, everyone desires glory. Theatre performers envy actors their fame and actors are jealous of theatre prestige. It seems like the delicate Amy Ryan, who plays Thomson’s ex wife, is the only grounded person in the film. Keaton, still best known as Batman, is very courageous in the role of Riggan with his tired eyes, scruffy facial hair and somewhat neglected body. Unfortunately, only the inherent Birdman’s voice recalls Riggan’s glamorous past of him portraying the superhero. Norton, who has come with the baggage of being difficult and demanding over the years, finds just the right balance between arrogance and sincerity in Mike Shiner’s character.

Iñárritu wasn’t afraid to expose many people in the film, he made fun of social media, journalists, whoever cited Barthes and even asked about face-lifting using piglets’ sperm. He mocked actors without any remorse: “This clown has half of your talent, and earns a fortune in his tin lumberjack costume”- growls Birdman’s as he watches Robert Downey Jr on the TV. The director has already show that he is able to construct a complex film world, here, however, he outdid himself. He created a great microcosm in the mind of one character. Iñárritu said that the film terrified him and that making Birdman was a whole new experience for him. For the first time he didn’t feel confident about a project he was working on. Although it is not a masterpiece like Amores Perros, Birdman is tangible proof that sometimes it is worth facing your fears. The film is alive in every frame and you will simply love it.

Written by Maggie Gogler.

Edited by Roxy Simons.

58th BFI London Film Festival: Rosewater Review

•October 20, 2014 • Leave a Comment

The 2009 Iranian elections saw a controversial win by leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over public favourite Mir-Hossein Mousavi which sparked protests in the streets of Iran. Working on behalf of Newsweek, Maziar Bahari travelled to Iran to report on the elections and was soon swept up in the turmoil. After filming and showing the horrors of police brutality to the west, Bahari was imprisoned from June 2009 to October of the same year for being a ‘western spy’.

The unlawful confinement of journalists and political activists around the world is an unfortunate daily occurrence in modern society. Men and women are regularly tortured and interrogated for speaking out against governments and fighting for what they believe in. Rosewater is one of the latest films to focus on this problem, by exposing Bahari’s experience following the Iran elections. Directed by The Daily Show political satirist Jon Stewart, Rosewater is an emotional, and sometimes light-hearted, debut that explores the extent to which the fight for survival is driven by fear and hope.

Stewart’s film follows Bahari, played beautifully by Gael Garcia Bernal, from his home in London through the streets of Iran and into his interrogation in the country’s most notorious prison. Similar to the show’s coverage of the event in 2009, Stewart shows the audience the normality and courageous human spirit of the Iranian people. The West have often placed this group of people into categories, namely as victims or terrorists, and in Rosewater Stewart negates this by showing that they are human, and have the same fears and hopes as us. By incorporating news and Bahari’s footage from the time, alongside a re-enactment of The Daily Show’s own interview with him, Stewart has managed to make a very grounded and engaging film. Some of the techniques in Rosewater did, at times, feel redundant, in particular Stewart’s presentation of Iran’s protests via twitter. This slowed the film’s pace down momentarily, though Stewart’s tackling of Bahari’s confinement soon set that straight.

Rosewater is at its strongest during Bahari’s imprisonment and it is in these scenes that Gael Garcia Bernal shines most. Bernal is the driving force of this film, and he brings a subtle modesty to the role. His performance as Bahari was very touching, and as he moved from scene to scene he gave the character added depth. While Bernal was fantastic as Bahari, he shone out amongst a group of actors that gave solid performances. Dimitri Leonidas and Kim Bodnia, in particular, gave stellar performances as political activist Davood and interrogator Haj Agha respectively. I do believe that by highlighting the plight of the prisoners that are unheard of, Rosewater has examined a problem that is  still present in Iran and many other countries.

Jon Stewart, meanwhile, successfully blends humour and drama that, a lot like his work on his show, makes the subject more engaging for the audience. He also uses an interesting variety of direction in the film, and I especially liked the elegant way in which he presented Bahari’s discussions with his deceased father as he struggled to come to terms with his incarceration. The decision to depict Bahari’s perspective through the apparent presence of those he converses with, and then juxtaposing it against the reality of their absence creates a moving experience for the viewer.

Rosewater sent me on an emotional rollercoaster of laughter and tears and, although I enjoyed the second half more, I do think that Jon Stewart has made a brilliant debut feature film.

Written by Roxy Simons.

Edited by Manoshi Quayes.

58th BFI London Film Festival: The World of Kanako Review

•October 19, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Why is everyone so obsessed with Kanako? Where she is. Why she is. How she is. What she is. Kanako. Kanako. Ka-na-ko.

Perhaps it’s fitting then, that The World of Kanako is all about its eponymous character but also never about her. Instead it’s the world she creates through her actions that is everything to and in this film – light from a collapsed star, ever drawing people further and further down. Everyone’s Alice in this never-ending rabbit hole, and director Tetsuya Nakashima’s invited the audience along for the ride.

Kanako’s basic premise of a father’s search for his missing daughter sounds simple in a way that belies the intensity and nightmarish quality of the actual film. With imagery and a vividness reminiscent of Tarantino, the film’s 118 minutes hurtle along with such incredible speed that the audience barely has time to blink, let alone contemplate the plethora of questions and questionable ethics brought on by each scene. Compounded with a disjointed, non-linear, multiple perspective narrative, the film is a heady experience, especially in the few scenes where it departs from its grim and gory status quo to a shift into beautiful animation or acid fuelled party-scapes.

The above aside, The World of Kanako is not a film for the faint hearted. The film’s initial release in Japan had several audience members leaving the theatre due to discomfort, and it’s obvious from the get go why this is the case. Graphic murder and torture scenes are merely frosting compared to the violent outbursts, physical and sexual, that make up most of Fujishima’s actions and behaviour, and therefore almost the entirety of the film. I, myself, found the film to be an uneasy experience, and there were more than one or two moments where I felt uncomfortable and slightly ill. I do believe, however, that The World of Kanako was an intriguing and immersive experience.

Nakashima’s use of short sharp editing and different aspects of Japanese life and culture were paramount in keeping the audience engaged, but more importantly, in maintaining their suspension of disbelief. This, of course, was important simply because the level of gore and violence became gratuitous to the point that Fujishima’s (and, for that matter, anyone he came in contact with’s) continued survival, especially during the final stand-off, seemed implausible, if not downright impossible. It is to Kōji Yakusho’s credit that Fujishima never felt caricatured, and that his performance was reigned in enough to lend credibility to such an over the top role. All in all, the film provided a cohesive experience with every element adding to the atmosphere and narrative while also working so well individually that the sound alone, for example, was enough to put me on edge.

The World of Kanako was an unexpectedly intense thrill ride that is very likely to achieve cult status if it hasn’t already, exulting as it does in its nastiness and the director’s dream of subverting the “rogue cop” genre.  It should be noted, though, that beyond the extreme audio and vivid visuals, the film does leave its audiences thinking. Even if it’s only about what their kids are doing tonight.

Written by Roxy Simons.

Edited by Manoshi Quayes.

58th BFI London Film Festival: A Hard Day Review

•October 16, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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A Hard Day is an action- packed movie by Kim Seong- hun, which puts protagonist detective Go Geon- soo (Lee Sun-Kyun) in a tricky situation from the very first scene. Forced to skip his mother’s funeral he rushes to attend an important matter at the police station. Unfortunately, before reaching the destination, he is involved in a hit and run accident. Furthermore, he struggles with a divorce and corruption accusations. The more Geon- soo tries to cover his tracks, the deeper he is digging his own grave. From this point onwards the film tension grows minute by minute. When asked about creating the tension in the film, the director had this to say: “There needs to be an explanation before throwing the protagonist into a certain situation. If an explanation is weak, then the movie loses its’ credibility in a snap. My rule when writing the screenplay was to make every scene believable to the audience and to make it fun at the same time. Putting a sign in every scene and linking it to the following story was a painful but fun procedure.” With great conviction I can say that the humour and tension was excellently balanced.

While Geon- soo strays with his daily routine we stumble across the antagonist, a corrupted police officer, Park Chang Min (Cho Jin- woong), whose malicious way of living slowly destroys the detective’s, already disrupted life. These two strong minded men overpower the big screen from the start to the very end of the film. I have to admit I watched it with bated breath. It has been a really long time since I’ve enjoyed an action film. Apart from a great storyline, the director Kim Seung- hun drew on the amazing acting talent of the cast including, well established Lee Sun-kyun. His portrayal of the detective kept me on the edge of my seat. Without a doubt it was an energetic and fearless performance, which definitely increased the value of the film. Lee Sun- kyun has been an active actor since 2001 and also started his career in musical theatre. After a few years of acting in small films, he finally got his break in 2009 when he appeared in Paju, a film by Park Chan-ok, for which he received a Best Actor award from the Las Palmas de Gran Canaria International Film Festival. Followed by critical acclaim for mystery thriller Helpless and romantic comedy All About My Wife, both in 2012. He is also a regular in Hong Sang- soo’s films.

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Alongside Lee Sun- kyuk’s character, there is Cho Jin- woong. Jin- woong is best known for his roles as Sejong’s loyal bodyguard Moo- hyul in Deep Roasted Tree, and as the mobster Kim Pan- ho in Nameless Gangster. Yet again he took on a cruel and spiteful role of the unscrupulous police officer, whose involvement and devotion to wickedness and crime was exceptionally assorted into the script. Cho Jin- woong’s acting was faultless. He was the ideal actor for this role. Having said that I wouldn’t mind seeing Choi Min- sik in the role of the diabolical policeman. The chemistry between Jin-Woong and Seung-Hun was immense. They were unquestionably well paired by the director. I am not surprised that the Critics at the Cannes Film Festival raved over Korean cop thriller A Hard Day:Very precise, refreshing and stimulate the new senses”.

Variety magazine beautifully commented on the film editing “Kim Chang-Ju’s precise; gimmick-free pacing enables the plot twists and shifts in character behaviour to feel natural and credible.” I couldn’t have agreed more. Editing was stainless along with a haunting score by Mok Young-Jin which truly reflected the protagonists’ moods. I will definitely watch A Hard Day again when it’s released in cinemas.

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Cho Jin-woong and Lee Sun-kyun

Written by Maggie Gogler

Edited by Jackie Tatham

58th BFI London Film Festival: Silvered Water, Syria Self Portrait Review

•October 15, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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“This is the film made of 1001 images shot by 1001 Syrian men and women and I”- Ossama Mohammed

Silvered Water, Syria Self Portrait is a film by a Syrian filmmaker Ossama Mohammed, who is now living in Paris as a political refugee with his wife, and a Kurdish activist, Simav Bedirxan, who shot her short videos during the siege in Homs. It has been over 3 years since the Syrian Uprising began with nationwide protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s government. Every day dozens of amateur recordings appear on various social media sites including, the most popular channel, YouTube. Silvered Water, Syria Self Portrait was created by using that footage. After two years of filming and editing the stories, it became a unique, moving and unforgettable documentary.

In was in December of 2011 when Ossama received a message on Facebook from a young woman in Syria. Her name was Simav, and she asked him a simple question: “What would you do if your camera was in Homs? What would you film?” With that question in mind their remarkable collaboration began. Ossama started to edit a vast amount of footage from YouTube. The recordings contained a bloody pacification of demonstrations, bombing of cities and images of victims- wounded and dead. Hams, Damascus and Dar’a, just to name few, were the most affected cities in Syria. People marched hundreds of kilometres in protest against the regime. Destroyed by greed and hunger for power, the Syrian government began carnage. Tens of thousands of protesters, students, liberal activists and human rights advocates were imprisoned and there were reports of widespread torture and terror in state prisons. In the first half, Mohammed uses odd and disturbing, out of mobile phone footage. How he acquired it, is anyone’s guess, since one often repeated shot of a badly beaten teenage boy stripped to his underwear and forced to kiss a soldier’s boot before being raped could only have been filmed by the army itself.

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Simav came to a decision to become the director’s eyes on the ground. Influenced by him, she decided to write and document her daily activities in the conflict zone. Through her eyes we experienced fear, determination and unprecedented pain of locals who tried to live their lives in the destroyed city of Homs. She particularly concentrates on the small children she teaches for a while and reflects on their future. Her strength, bravery and stubbornness is praiseworthy. After watching shots of disfigured animals and dead children, men being shot on screen, teenagers tortured in prison and streets flowing with blood, it’s hard to feel anything but outrage against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his murderous army. What was this documentary made for? I do believe it had one purpose only; to raise the world’s awareness of what is really happening in Syria right now.

Along with the flawless editing, amazingly modern use of natural sounds and Noma Omran’s music, Silvered Water, Syria Self Portrait is a shattering 90 minute documentary which will make you think that “there is no limit on what cinema can do in the face of the war”. It’s certainly a must see film.

Written by Maggie Gogler

Edited by Jackie Tatham

58th BFI London Film Festival: Hill of Freedom Review

•October 11, 2014 • Leave a Comment

For a film that was selected for the laugh category at this year’s BFI London Film Festival, the least you’d expect is Hill of Freedom to be funny. Instead Hong Sang-soo’s film is poorly paced with little acting or directorial merit to speak of.

The film follows Mori, a Japanese man searching for his lost love, Kwon, in Seoul, and the interesting people he meets along his journey. While this may sound good on paper, it is Hong Sang-soo’s delivery that leads to its downfall. Mori’s escapades in Hill of Freedom are not shown in chronological order as they are supposed to reflect the order in which Kwon reads the letters he sent her during his time in Seoul. This means that the subjects of his conversation are unclear to the audience for most of the film, making it very confusing to watch.

Hong Sang-soo’s film became increasingly tedious as the film progressed, this was due, in particular, to the disjointed and repetitive script. The film attempts to explore the limits of translation, as Mori can only speak English with those around him, but it does not do this as well as other films examining the same issue, such as Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. The conversations that Mori has with the supporting characters are dull and trivial, and in fact do very little to compare the different cultures or move the story forward.

Moreover, Hong Sang-soo’s use of one camera angle per scene and, I would argue, his overuse of zoom made it feel like a low budget film. Despite these issues, I did feel that the soundtrack was well made, even if it was scarcely relied upon in the film. Coming from an acclaimed director like Hong Sang-soo, I was expecting Hill of Freedom to be an enjoyable visual experience. Instead, I left the cinema feeling disappointed and curious as to why this film was shortlisted for several film festivals.

Written by Roxy Simons.

Edited by Manoshi Quayes.

22nd Raindance Film Festival: Panic Review

•October 10, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Desperation can make people do crazy things – and there’s no greater demonstration of that than Sean Spencer’s Panic. With London as its backdrop, Panic is a study in urban isolation, desperation, and London’s ghost community through music journalist Andrew Deeley’s subjective lens. Influences from Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window are immediately obvious, reminiscent in Deeley observing a girl through his window and being drawn in when a violent confrontation leads to her disappearance. Deeley must then overcome debilitating panic attacks in order to find Kem and save her from her dire situation. What follows is an emotional and intense thriller that touches on key issues in the seedy underbelly of criminal England.

Filmed over 13 days, Spencer’s film maintains a raw intensity that revolves almost solely around Deeley’s psyche. While there are few principle characters in Panic, it is of little consequence to the audience because these individuals have more than enough variety and strength in personalities to guarantee them a place of prominence in comparison to their other, more mainstream, counterparts. Panic is a film driven by the powerful performances of its lead actors, especially David Gyasi and Pippa Nixon. Gyasi’s performance in Panic is near faultless, lending Deeley a subtle vulnerability and stubborn determination to see events through to the end. Having admired his work ever since he was in White Heat, his portrayal of Deeley merely re-establishes my conviction in his talent. It is almost over-generous then, that we also get Pippa Nixon’s Michelle/Amy as the intriguing and resolute character that Deeley needs like a rock for support through his ordeal.

What I liked the most about Panic was its exposition on the ghost community and the issue of human and sex trafficking. These problems are not widely discussed in the media and to have Panic examine them through Deeley’s frantic search made the film relevant and intriguing. I do feel, however, that the film only touched upon the problems that are faced by trafficked individuals every day, and although the film’s purpose was to expose the issue through Deeley’s reductive view (i.e. he only cared about saving Kem), I would have liked to have seen more development on the topic.

Incorporating elements from various neo-noir classics, Spencer has made a film that is engaging and powerful. While the plot could be criticised for being too straightforward (given its use of the knight-in-shining-armour trope), I did think that the film was wonderfully executed by Sean Spencer and cinematographer Carl Burke. The crisp visual imagery and effective narration shown in the film make it an arresting watch, and Christopher Nicholas Bang’s striking score is the perfect accompaniment to the character’s struggles (both within and out) to reach his goal. Compounded together, Panic is an engaging semi-detective thriller that explores the lengths one will go to relieve another of their desperate situation.

Written by Roxy Simons.

Edited by Manoshi Quayes.