Wednesday, January 30, 2013


While I know that it is only January, I think I may have already found my favourite movie of 2013 in Pablo Berger’s “Blancanieves”.  The film is actually the third adaptation of the Snow White story that has been released in the past twelve months and for me, it is also the best and most original.  What makes “Blancanieves” stand out from the other two films is that it is a silent film, shot in glorious black and white, with the story being transported to 1920’s Spain and the art of bullfighting as its backdrop.  

Born the child of a famous bullfighter and a flamenco dancer and singer, tragedy has always followed poor Carmen.  Both her parents suffered terrible tragedies on the exact same day which also happened to be the day of Carmen’s birth.  Her father, Antonio Villalta, is gored by a bull and paralyzed from the neck down, while her mother after witnessing the horrific attack unexpectedly goes into labor and ends up dying during childbirth.  With so much sadness happening on the day of her birth, does this signal the kind of life Carmen is ultimately going to lead?  Abandoned by her father, who finds it hard to look at the young girl, Carmen is brought up in a loving environment by her grandmother.  She is a happy girl but always wanting the lost love of her father.  On the day of her communion while in high spirits dancing with her beautiful grandmother, tragedy yet again strikes the young girl, as the old lady’s life succumbs to a heart attack.  This leads to Carmen having to move in with her new gold-digging stepmother (her father remarried to one of his nurses, Encarna), who immediately forbids her to enter the second story of the house (where her father resides) and sets her to work doing all of the hardest chores she can find.  Life is tough for poor Carmen until one day while chasing her pet rooster she ends up in her father’s room.  Their eyes meet and it is like the past is forgotten and father and daughter immediately find a love for one another.  Their relationship together brings them both back to life as they suddenly learn to have fun again with Antonio Villalta sharing his knowledge and passion for bullfighting.  This relationship continues to grow for years (in secret because Encarna forbids it) until the day Antonio dies from “accidently” falling down a staircase.  The very next day whilst sent on an errand to her father’s grave, Encarna tries to have the now teenage girl killed, but unknown to Encarna herself, the assassination attempt on Carmen’s life had failed after a band of dwarves saves her.  After waking up with no memory of who she is or any of her past, the dwarves decide to name the girl “Snow White” after the classic fairytale, but what will happen when the evil Encarna finds out that Carmen is not dead and is actually the famous “Blancanieves” (Snow White)?

“Blancanieves” is a passion project for its director Pablo Berger, who spent eight years writing and trying to get the financing together to make the film.  Imagine his surprise when as he was finally shooting his dream project, another film called “The Artist” was released to massive acclaim.  You hear a lot of directors taking about luck contributing to their own success; being in the right place at the right time, but for Berger he appears to be so unlucky with his timing of “Blancanieves”.  Who would have thought another director would even attempt a film in the style of the dead art back when he started this project eight years ago?  While this can obviously not be proven, I am sure that if “Blancanieves” was released before the Academy Award winning “The Artist”, it would likely have received the recognition that film did.  As it is, “Blancanieves” has barely been a blip on the cinematic radar and I am sure there will be some that assume that it is riding on the coat-tails of “The Artist”.  Sadly the film didn’t even garner a “Best Foreign Film” nomination at this year’s Academy Awards even though it was chosen as Spain’s representative for the award.  Do not get me wrong, I am a massive fan of “The Artist” but “Blancanieves” is clearly the better film and it is such a shame that it will not get the recognition the previous film did.  Also what are the odds that the year you finally release your dream project that TWO other “Snow White” features are released also.  Let me reiterate, Pablo Berger has been damn unlucky.

Still that doesn’t take away just how magnificent a film “Blancanieves” really is.  It is a truly beautiful and amazing film that once again brings magic back to the cinema.  From the beginning to the end this is a glorious film and I loved seeing the “Snow White” fairytale removed from its usual traditions and implanted into the world of bullfighting and seeing it work so well.  All the familiar beats of the story still exist, the evil stepmother, the poisoned apple, the dwarves themselves, etc, but Berger has made the story all his own.  The one thing that does not exist in this version of “Snow White” is the magic mirror (which ironically both previous 2012 adaptations messed up royally), although there is never any doubt just how vain a person Encarna is; always wanting and having the best no matter the cost, and then posing with said items for magazine spreads.  Also unlike other adaptations, the father is not disposed of as quickly, in fact he is around (although incapacitated) well into Carmen’s teens.  This gives the film some of its greatest moments as we witness the father giving his wealth of knowledge on bullfighting while at the same time learning to love again.  I just adored these father / daughter scenes, they were beautiful and it made the father’s passing all that more heartbreaking.

Similar to the way he wasn’t hamstrung by the source material, Berger does not find himself a slave to the style he has shot the film in.  Although this film is a modern silent film, he again makes it his own; it is not just a pastiche of past films.  The look and feel of “Blancanieves” is much more in line with the European silent films of the era however it never feels like the project is an homage to them.  Berger has chosen to present the film as silent because he obviously feels this is the best way to tell its story and from the finished result I would not argue against this.  When I recently wrote about “The Artist” I mentioned towards the end that hopefully its success would bring to life a new era of silent films but that I also hoped that if this did happen, the stories being told in the format could be free of the art form as a back drop.  What I mean by this was I hoped that dramatic stories could once again be told silently without them being about silent films themselves.  In all honesty, when I wrote this I knew I would be seeing “Blancanieves” rather soon but it is the perfect example of what I was talking about.  The film does not draw attention to itself in regards to being silent, it is what it is, and it is all about servicing the magnificent story.

Everything about “Blancanieves” is just perfection.  First of all the performances are stunning.  Every single role has been cast splendidly, no one feels miscast at all, but there are a couple that need to be mentioned.  The person who steals the movie is Maribel Verdu who plays the wicked stepmother Encarna.  She is delicious in the role, owning every scene she is in.  As vain as a person could be, every emotion she presents is a false one and she is as cunning as a fox.  She may not look like much but cross her path and your life will be short-lived.  In front of the cameras, Encarna is the picture of happiness and the perfect wife but away from the spotlight she is someone else entirely; abusive, offensive and downright cruel.  Verdu appears to be having the time of her life playing someone so evil and she looks stunning towards the end when she is wearing her black veil.  The two girls that play Carmen also need to be singled out because they are also splendid.  Sofia Oria who plays Carmen as a child has that rare quality in a child actor in that she is able to come across really sweet and innocent, but does so in a way that feels so honest and is never annoying.  She is beautiful and as I have mentioned already, the scenes when she trains with her father are so heartwarming.  Oria plays the young Carmen with a sadness in her eyes also, which is apt considering how much her character goes through at an early age.  When Macarena Garcia takes over the role (which happens during a beautiful transition while Carmen is hanging the washing up) in her teenage years, the beauty does not fade but it appears the sadness has.  That does not last long because tragedy strikes almost immediately, but Garcia plays Carmen with the most beautiful of light touches that makes the audience fall for her immediately and easily.  I cannot forget to briefly mention Angela Molina who plays Carmen’s grandmother who is also just sensational.  Her screen time is limited but her performance is so good that you will never forget her.

Behind the camera, everything is as perfect as what is in front, with Kiko de la Rica’s black and white photography being some of the most beautiful in years.  De la Rica is Alex de la Iglesia’s regular cinematographer who is a director known for his excess and explosions of colour, so it was a nice change of pace to see him work in a more restrained and deliberate way, not to mention with black and white itself.  The work of editor Fernando Franco is equally impressive especially in some sequences that exhibit the use of a rapid fire montage technique similar to that of Sergei Eisenstein and he also excels during the bull fighting scenes.  Finally the score by Alfonso de Vilallonga is again, perfect.  This is just one of those things where the marriage of image and sound come together like they were always meant to be and were not created independently of one another.  As good as “Blancanieves” is, the score just elevates it to another level entirely especially when it introduces flamenco to scenes at exactly the right moment to add another whole dimension of tension.

During the opening titles of “Blancanieves” there is a subtitle stating that the film is “inspired by the story from The Brothers’ Grimm” which immediately lets you know that this is no Disney fairytale.  The majority of fairytales are actually quite dark and full of very violent things if you go and look back to the original tales.  In “Blancanieves” this is also evident as the character of Carmen goes through some very bad things during the tale and for fans not familiar with the tone of the Brothers’ Grimm tales, the ending may come as a surprise or a shock.  

Overall I just adored Pablo Berger’s “Blancanieves” (as if you couldn’t guess).  I actually went into the film with quite high expectations and the film managed to surpass them.  I would go so far as to call the film perfect with the exception of one shot that I found a little clunky (the shot of Antonio looking proudly down on her daughter from Heaven near the end of the film).  From the opening frame right through until the “Freaks” like finale, I was mesmerized by “Blancanieves” and it’s beautifully told story.  While I understand a lot of people have a resistance to watching silent films, please do yourself a favour and see “Blancanieves” if you get the chance, because I am sure if you do, you will not be sorry.  For me, it brought the magic of cinema back to me and for that I am going to give “Blancanieves” a rare…..

5 Stars.

Sunday, January 27, 2013


Recently I had the opportunity to finally see Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and “The Birds” on the big screen which were played together as a double feature.  My love for all things Hitchcock is well known and this has always been a dream pairing of mine.  So many of the classic Hitchcock films I have already been able to see on the big screen but both “Psycho” and “The Birds” were a glaring omission.  Anyway, brilliant as the Astor cinema is, they finally presented these two films together for a special one week engagement and there was no way I was ever going to miss a chance to see these classics on the big screen.  While initially I was a little disappointed that both films were projected in DCP’s (digital cinema package) and not 35mm as I would have hoped, I reluctantly understand that this is the state of cinema these days and in actual fact the presentations of the films were gorgeous, so I needn’t have worried.  While I am sure I will get around to writing a review for “Psycho” eventually, this review is actually for “The Birds”.

While most people are aware of the film “The Birds”, I am not convinced that everyone knows exactly the plot of the film, so here is a little synopsis to help.  After being the victim of a practical joke from Mitch Brenner, Melanie Daniels leaves her home in San Francisco to track him down and play a joke of her own on him.  She finds him in his hometown, the quiet coastal town of Bodega Bay.  On the way back from Mitch’s house, she is attacked by a swooping seagull.  The attack is unprovoked and doesn’t follow the species normal habits.  From then on, strange things continue to occur, as bird attacks become more frequent and more aggressive. What is driving these birds to attack humans?

Talk about a tough task.  Seriously, how do you follow up “Psycho”?  This is what Alfred Hitchcock had to deal with, and while he doesn’t make a film better than “Psycho”, what he delivers is outstanding.
Like “Psycho”, “The Birds” can easily be categorized as being part of the horror genre, rather than the thriller genre Hitchcock was so famous for.  Also like “Psycho”, most people know about “The Birds” even if they haven’t seen the film.  It has seeped into pop-culture, and whenever you see a larger than normal gathering of birds, you cannot help but think of this movie.

"The Birds" is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most cinematic films.  There are a number of times throughout the film when Hitchcock uses the bare-minimum of dialogue and tells the story just with the visuals.  In fact the final half hour of the film, from when they board themselves in the farmhouse, there is almost no dialogue.  It is all told visually, with the help of the ambient and scary sounds of the birds outside, causing some truly horrific suspense. 

What is great about the film is that the story is allowed to breathe and build.  For the first hour of the film, the birds are basically a foreboding presence, with very little participation at all.  It is in this time that we get to know the characters and learn to love them, which is very important in a horror film.  If you don’t like the characters, you will not care about them when they are in danger.  Another thing that is great about the film is the tonal shifts, which work well and seem quite natural in regards to the story.  When we first meet our main characters, the film is very playful and fun, and plays basically like a screwball comedy.  However, when the seagull attacks Melanie for the first time, that air of playfulness is lost, and the dramatic arc of the picture begins, as characters are trying to work out what is causing the birds to attack.  The final shifting of tone happens when our main characters board themselves into the farmhouse for protection.  Here is when the film turns into a true horror picture and the atmosphere is filled with dread and terror.  Visually the film also plays with themes of light and dark which reflect with these tonal shifts as early on “The Birds” is a very bright and sun-filled film.  The longer it continues, the more colour is drained from the film and the darker it gets until the thrilling finale which is played in almost total darkness with the exception of a lantern providing the smallest of flickering lights.  Also by the end, the film is full of thick and dark shadows that were never present earlier on, to the point that the shadows themselves have their own ominous feeling to them.

There are so many moments in this film that are memorable.  The first being the seagull attack on Melanie, which just comes out of nowhere, and ends just as quickly.  The next being the discovery of the farmer laying dead in his bedroom with his eyes removed.  The way Hitchcock shows us the body has been copied numerous times since, as it is done in three quick cuts, each cut getting closer to the farmer with the final cut being a close-up of his face.  Another is the gas-station attack, especially when Melanie traps herself in a phone-box with the birds all trying to get in.  At one stage a seagull flies straight into the glass and shatters it.  It is terrifying and comes out of the blue.

There are two infamous scenes in “The Birds”.  The first would have to be the scene near the end when Melanie goes into the attic and is attacked by all the birds hidden in the room, until she collapses.  Behind the scenes, this was a very traumatic moment for Tippi Hedren, as originally she was lied to by Hitchcock who told her that they would use mechanical birds for this scene.  However when the day arrived to shoot the scene, she found out that that was never the case and that live birds would be used.  The scene took five days to shoot, and during this time, she had birds attached to her, thrown at her, and actually attack her, until at the end of the scene, she collapsed due to exhaustion and was hospitalized for a week to recover.  Whether the way Hedren was treated was justified, I’m not sure I’d agree, but the end result is an amazing scene.

The most iconic image and scene of “The Birds”, however, is the “jungle gym” scene.  This is the scene when Melanie is waiting outside the school to collect Cathy, to make sure she gets home all right.  She is sitting on a chair, smoking and behind her, in the background, is the children’s playground.  At first we, the audience, see that a single crow has landed on the jungle gym.  It cuts back to Melanie, this time the framing of the shot is a little tighter.  We cut back to the jungle gym and there are now four crows on it.  It once again cuts back to Melanie, primarily a close up on her face, and Hitchcock ingeniously holds on the shot for a very long time.  The suspense here is unbearable, as we all know that the birds are gathering behind Melanie, but she has no idea.  What makes this scene even more impressive is that the children inside the school are singing a strange nursery rhyme which just adds to the tension.  Finally, Melanie notices a bird in the sky, and she follows it with her eyes.  When she turns around she sees the whole jungle gym covered in crows.  Just then school finishes and the kids come out and the birds attack.  It is a classic Hitchcock scene. 

As of yet, I haven’t talked about any of the acting.  I must say that I have a soft spot in my heart for ‘Tippi’ Hedren, who plays Melanie Daniels.  She sometimes gets a bad rap, and is often described as a poor man’s Grace Kelly, but the two films that she did with Hitchcock are amongst my favourites.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that she is my favourite of the Hitchcock blondes.  Her performance, although not perfect (some of her reaction shots seem a little forced), is quite good.  You fall in love with her character and fear for her safety.  Rod Taylor as Mitch Brenner is also quite good, as is Veronica Cartwright, who plays Mitch’s eleven year old sister.  Thankfully, she isn’t an annoying child which so many in films are.  However, the best performance in the film is from Jessica Tandy, who plays Mitch’s mother, Lydia.  Her reaction when she finds the farmer dead with his eyes pecked out is brilliant and so realistic.  She is also outstanding, in a scene near the end, as she gets more and more scared, and reacts against her son due to fear.  Alfred Hitchcock always seemed to find great roles for older actors (like Thelma Ritter in “Rear Window”), which you just do not see done anymore, which is a shame.

Another thing of note, in regards to the making of “The Birds”, is that it has no film score.  This was when Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann were at the peak of their powers together, but they decided that the film would be more terrifying without music, and just the sounds of the birds to create dread and suspense.  They were right, especially in the end scene in the farmhouse, when we can hear the birds outside gathering without actually seeing them.  The noise gets louder and louder, until the birds finally attack.  Although he created no score, Bernard Herrmann is still credited as “sound consultant”.  Hitchcock’s other regular technicians all do great work here, like Robert Burks (his director of photography), and especially his editor, George Tomasini, who does some quite amazing work.

The only negative that I could find in “The Birds” is the scene in the restaurant when all the patrons are discussing why the birds are attacking.  The scene is definitely needed, but I feel that it goes on too long and almost stops the film dead.  If it was made shorter, I think the scene would work better.  However, this is the last time you get to breathe.  After this scene ends, the horror just continues to build and build, until the fantastic ending.

Overall, this is an amazing technical achievement by Hitchcock.  The difficulty in making this picture meant that it took three years to be completed, and the end result is a near masterpiece.  From the light and carefree start until the brilliant terror-filled and apocalyptic ending, it is always entertaining, and is recommended viewing for everyone, not just Hitchcock fans.

4.5 Stars.

Thursday, January 24, 2013


Just like every other year that has gone before it, there are a plethora of new releases that I am looking forward to seeing in 2013, but to list every single one would take forever and a day, so I am only going to highlight my six most anticipated releases of 2013, starting with:

Quite simply the reason I am looking forward to “To The Wonder” is that it is the new film from director Terrence Malick and apparently it is kind of like a spiritual sequel to his previous film “Tree Of Life”.  Amazingly when the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival back in September, it was received with some of the worst reviews of Malick’s career to date.  However the recently released trailers still have me salivating to see “To The Wonder” which is the first film from this director to be actually set in the present.  It apparently tackles the themes of love and faith and stars Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem and Olga Kurylenko, with Emmanuel Lubezki returning behind the camera for cinematography duties.  If nothing else, we know it is going to be a gorgeous looking film.

Any film directed by Martin Scorsese is going to be on my most anticipated list and normally at number one, but even though I am very excited for “The Wolf Of Wall Street” just because it is a new film from the master, the topic of corruption on Wall Street doesn’t exactly thrill me that much.  I am sure that once a trailer appears, my anticipation will skyrocket like always but right now, my expectations are controlled.  It does have the potential to be amazing though when you look at the cast he has put together: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matthew McConaughey, Jean Dujardin and Jonah Hill, to name just a few.  What does excite me about “The Wolf Of Wall Street” is it sees the first collaboration between Scorsese and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (who interestingly also shot Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”).

Amazingly in 2013, all three of my favourite South Korean directors are making their English language Hollywood debuts.  Although Kim Jee-Woon got saddled with what appears to be a generic Arnold Schwarzenegger action film with “The Last Stand”, both Bong Joon-Ho and Park Chan-Wook seem to have found much more interesting vehicles to show off their considerable talents.  “Snowpiercer” is Bong Joon-Ho’s latest effort but details on the film are slim at best.  All we know is that it is set in the future during a new ice age and it follows a group of characters on a train who are the last remaining survivors on Earth.  It is an adaptation of a French comic book by Benjamin Legrand and it appears as though it is going to be a very bleak film.  Whatever it turns out to be, nothing will stop me from seeing the new film from the director of such classics as “Memories Of Murder”, “The Host” and “Mother”.

I am a Rob Zombie fan, so sue me.  Personally I think the man always has an interesting vision for all of his films, but with “The Lords Of Salem” he is trying something new.  Instead of the brutal violence and rough, handheld camera work he is known for, Zombie is changing his aesthetic style this time with a film that is made of perfectly composed frames that are full of symmetry.  Also the film is apparently much slower in pace than his previous films, although still just as demented.  As soon as Zombie mentioned that one of the films he used for inspiration was Polanski’s “The Tenant”, I was hooked.  When the film recently premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, reactions were mixed, with some thinking it was a pile of shit and others thinking it was just amazing.  Just knowing that the film is more about the disintegration of a mind, has me thinking I am going to love this film, but either way it is going to be interesting to see Rob Zombie’s take on the world of witches. 

This is the brand new film from Park Chan-Wook and judging by the trailers alone, “Stoker” looks like a stunning piece of work.  Park Chan-Wook has always been known as a supreme visual stylist and thankfully that style seems to have made the journey to Hollywood with him.  I have tried to stay away from as many details about “Stoker” as possible but the film was written by Wentworth Miller (yes, that Wentworth Miller) and is about the Stoker family who consists of a mother, Evelyn and her daughter India.  When India’s father passes away, her Uncle Charlie comes to visit the family, and while he is initially charming, India starts to become suspicious of Charlie’s true motives for his visit.  From the synopsis alone, it appears as if “Stoker” is taking a page out Alfred Hitchcock’s “Shadow Of A Doubt” but when the film premiered this past weekend the person that seemed to be constantly mentioned in reviews was Brian De Palma.  In fact, one review stated that it was like Park Chan-Wook wanted to out De Palma De Palma at his own game.  This is just music to my ears because I consider De Palma the greatest living visual stylist in cinema today.  I am so excited for “Stoker” and the Australian release date of March 28 cannot come soon enough.  I also must mention the cast of this film which is full of Australians like Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska, and Jacki Weaver, who are joined by Matthew Goode in the role of Uncle Charlie.

Forget what I just said above!  Forget the pretenders!  There is only one Brian De Palma and he is back!  That is right, “Passion” is the brand new film from De Palma and he finally returns to the thriller genre that he made his name in with such features as “Dressed To Kill” and “Blow Out”.  The film is actually a remake of Alain Corneau’s final film, “Crime D’Amour”, which initially worried me because I thought the original film was just terrible.  Thankfully though from all reports De Palma has made the story all his own, and while the remake follows the original storyline for the majority of the first two thirds of the film, apparently the final third is pure De Palma full of split screens, split diopter shots, and every other visual flourish De Palma is known for.  His familiar themes also rear their heads too.  From all reports, the story folds in on itself in a combination of dreams and dreams within dreams, that just sounds magnificent.  Fans of Brian De Palma are falling all over themselves for “Passion” claiming it to be a fantastic return to form, however like always, critics who are not enamored by De Palma and his style have been stating the film is an embarrassing mess.  Well since I am definitely in the former group, I am expecting “Passion” to blow my mind and that is why it is my most anticipated film of 2013.

Well, that is it.  My enormous round up of the year that was 2012 is finally over.  Hopefully you enjoyed reading it and got something out of it, but how about we go back to watching some new films now?