Wednesday, August 17, 2016


Packed and ready to leave Spain with her boyfriend for Portugal, Julieta happens to run into an old friend of her daughters. The two share a brief conversation where the girl mentions that she recently also ran into Antia, Julieta's daughter. This shakes Julieta to the bone because her daughter has been missing for twelve years, and so the future she had planned, which twenty minutes earlier seemed so certain, comes to a crashing halt as Julieta must confront the demons of her past. From here, we are witness to her life before and the decisions she made to end up where she is today, and what caused the separation from her daughter Antia.

Julieta” is Pedro Almodoavar's twentieth feature film and also happened to be my most anticipated film of 2016. Normally when I go into a film that I am anticipating so much, I do so with hesitation over a fear of being disappointed. This was not the case here, it was almost like I knew that Almodovar was going to deliver as he rarely puts a wrong foot forward, and as soon as the opening credits began, I knew I was safe in the hands of a master filmmaker and a big goofy smile covered my entire face. This is a return to the kind of dramas Almodovar is famous for, with strong females leads, and is the first of this type since 2006's “Volver”. I think it is fair to say that the story of “Julieta” is a low key affair, very internalised and as such, the film feels smaller than we are used to from this talented director, but that does not mean that it is any less good.

The entire film takes place of around thirty years, and at the start of the film we are witness to Julieta when she is young and full of energy. She is a school teacher and you can tell that she really cares about her students well being. She connects with them due to her vitality towards life, and as such you can see that she is getting through to them all. Eventually she ends up on a train, and it is this train ride that changes her life forever, for two reasons. The first is that it is on this train that she ends up meeting the love of her life, Xoan, and the future father of her daughter. The other reason is not a happy one, as it is also on this train that she runs from a conversation with a lonely stranger, a stranger who later commits suicide on the train ride. From here on, she carries around the guilt of not talking to the man and thus feeling like she contributed towards the man's death. This early part of the film, Julieta is played by Adriana Ugarte and she is simply wonderful in the role. Like her character, she is full of such energy and really brings a lightness to the film. You really enjoy being in the company of this woman. Without delving into spoilers, Julieta ends up suffering from a great tragedy, which again she will feel guilty towards, and Ugarte is then sensational at showing us Julieta in a completely different light. She becomes a shell of her former self, turning away from life and falling into a deep depression. Ugarte is amazing at being physically present in a scene, and yet not being in the moment at all; her mind is always elsewhere. It is a great performance.

As is the norm for a Pedro Almodovar film, the visual details within it are all immaculately designed and realised and for this first half of the film set in the eighties, the period detail is just spot on. From the horrible ugly clothes to the décor within the houses, it all feels on point and you feel transported back to that era; the era incidentally when Almodovar first made a name for himself in the world of cinema. His use of colour, as usual, is outstanding. He is one director that doesn't seem to have any fear of making his films burst with colour and this one is no exception, with his use of the colour red, sublime, right from the opening frame.

From here on, Julieta, now a broken woman, attempts to find her way back into the world and to find happiness once again. Her daughter and herself seem to have a good relationship although it is reverse in nature with Antia being the one looking after her mother, instead of the other way around. This version of Julieta is now played by Emma Suarez and it is a much different performance then that of Urgate's, because Julieta herself is a completely different woman now. There is almost no light left in the woman any more, only darkness, although she is trying desperately to find her way back out into the light. You can sense that she is just full of pain and hurt and that she is very fragile, and when her daughter disappears, this only gets worse. Eventually, we do see Julieta what appears happy again; she is with a new man who loves her deeply, and she is ready to leave behind Spain and her past, however you can see through Suarez's eyes that she is still very sad and his not come to terms with her past.

This is actually quite a hard film to talk about because it is filled with little twists and turns that sometimes appear out of nowhere, so to ruin these just doesn't seem fair for a film so new. I will say that Almodovar once again proves that he also has an uncanny ability to create unbearable suspense to a scene, and I am not surprised to have seen many references to Alfred Hitchcock in reviews for this film. There is one point in particular when I could not help but think of Hitch, during an expertly staged suspense sequence. In saying that, I would not call this a suspense film, but a melodrama about a woman coming to terms with the past and trying to reconcile herself with it so that she can have a future. Unfortunately I think that the film's original title was much stronger and spoke entirely about the its themes and subtext, and it is a great shame to have lost it. The original title was “Silencio” but Almodovar decided to give it up so there would be no confusion between his film and Martin Scorsese's “The Silence”, also due later this year. As I said this is a shame, because the film is all about how keeping quiet about trauma or things that happen in your life, even if it you believe its for the good of others, never turns out to be a good thing at all. Throughout the film, many different characters hold back or keep quiet about certain things, and every time it back fires and ultimately causes more pain rather than prevent it. It is not until the characters actually confront or face up to these things, that they can then move past them and happiness is either achieved or at least is in sight again.

Before I end this little review, I quickly want to make mention of Rossy De Palma, who plays Xoan's housekeeper. Anybody who is an Almodovar fan loves Rossy De Palma, who used to show up regularly in his earlier films, and thankfully he is using her again. Here she is wonderful as a two faced bitchy character, and she commands the screen with such power, even with her ridiculous and ugly hairstyle. She is great though and you can never take your eyes off of her.

Overall, “Julieta” did not disappoint. While smaller in scope than usual for Almodovar, this was a beautifully created film that I loved every second of. It has been wonderfully acted by all involved, with Almodovar's involvement behind the camera, impeccable as usual. Hopefully you can get something out of this review as I have tried to keep the film's secrets just that, but I can say that Julieta's journey is one worth taking with her. I highly recommend this film.

4 Stars.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016


After travelling to the U.S for his previous feature, “Stoker”, Park Chan-Wook has returned to South Korea for his latest film, “The Handmaiden”. Due to the twisting and turning narrative, I really have no idea how to write a succinct synopsis of the film, so instead will just copy and paste the one that is in the MIFF guide, which I think describes the film perfectly:

Sooki, a beautiful young pickpocket, has been dispatched by a master conman known as The Count to become handmaiden to naïve Japanese heiress Hideko. The plan: lure Hideko into falling in love with The Count and as soon as they are married lock her in a mental asylum and claim her vast fortune. However, Hideko is far from what she seems and when handmaiden and mistress fall in love, the stage is set for a dangerous and sexually explicit power play that could leave all three of them unmoored.”

There are certain things that you now put down as given when watching a Park Chan-Wook film. The first, the film is going to look amazing. All of his films have stunning production design and all have been immaculately shot. The second, they are never boring. While not all of his films are totally successful, you are never bored for a second in any of his films. And the third, they tend to stray towards the “weird” side of life rather than anything conventional. True to form, all of the above can be found in “The Handmaiden”.

The original novel that this film is based upon, Sarah Waters' “Fingersmith”, was set in Victorian Era England, however for this adaptation Park has changed the location to Korea in the 1930's, back when Japan was still occupying the country. The period has been gorgeously recreated with both locations and costumes looking of the era down to the tiniest details, and he shows off these details every chance he gets, in typical Park fashion, which is to say it is highly stylised. This visual style has become so pronounced that you can pick one of his films from just the images of its trailer, so to say that another Park Chan-Wook film looks breathtakingly gorgeous, is almost redundant but at the same time it is also the truth. “The Handmaiden” is now the seventh collaboration between director and cinematographer Chung Chung-Hoon, and it is clear that they both bring out the best in each other's talents. There is a sumptuousness to the films of Park Chan-Wook that have been shot by Chung Chung-Hoon that is not there in the films he didn't. He gives the film an expensive look to it all, which is perfect for “The Handmaiden” and the locations where this story is being told within.

In regards to the film's entertainment value, I have to say that it is at an extremely high level. Although the film is long, there is always something going on that you have no chance of being bored. The greatest asset in achieving this is Park's choice in tone for the film. He brilliantly keeps the film light and it never takes itself too seriously. If he had decided to go the other way and play it totally straight, all the twists and turns of the narrative seriously would've been on the nose. Instead by keeping the film playful and fun, it becomes so much easier to except the ridiculousness of some aspects of the film. While the film is playful, I was surprised by just how funny it also was. There are moments in the film where you could find yourself laughing through this more than a comedy, but being a Park Chan-Wook film you should be aware that the comedy can have a darkness to it. I will say that the film's structure though is a little problematic, at least in the short term and on an initial viewing of the film. “The Handmaiden” is actually split into three parts, and during each individual part we see things that we thought we knew as truth, from a different point of view thus changing the point of certain scenes, and just who was playing who. Personally I found the start of the second chapter extremely jarring and it took me out of the film for a while, but once I had it worked out in my head again, I was with the film until its finale. However be prepared for many twists and turns because they happen frequently, so this is a film that you really need to focus 100% on.

While I stated above that Park's films tend to focus themselves on the weirder side of life, this is true, although with “The Handmaiden” a large focus of the film is on sexuality and it is quite explicit. It is no spoiler to mention that the film's main relationship is between the two girls in the film and Park does not hold back during his presentations of these lesbian sex scenes. They are quite full on and very explicit, however, you would never call them very realistic. I had actually heard this criticism after its Cannes screening, so maybe my antennae was tuned in to notice this, but they really are a male's fantasy version of lesbian sex. It is more how we, as men, often picture it to look, whereas I feel the truth of them to be very different. In another film I saw this year at MIFF, “I, Olga Hepnarova”, there was another portrayal of lesbian sex that I thought was brilliant and felt like the truth, and importantly it felt like the women were into each other, which you cant really say for the scenes in “The Handmaiden”. Here we get the girls in exotic positions but it all feels a little fake and over the top, but in saying that I guess that fits with the tone of the rest of the picture. The other part of sexuality in the film is when Hideko reads to a group of men a selection of adult novels, and the language and explicit descriptions within them are not for those with faint ears. Oh and if you are looking for something weird in the film, Park fan's should be happy to know that another octopus shows up in this picture in one of the films best WTF moments.

One aspect I briefly want to mention before wrapping this up is the subtitles of the film. Because both Japanese and Korean is spoken at a rapid pace, and sometimes even changes mid-sentence (due to the fact that all the characters are fluent in both languages), the subtitles are presented in two different colours. The subtitles for the Japanese spoken were in yellow, whilst Korean was subtitled in normal white. For an English speaking person who is not fluent in either language, you may think who cares, but this decision actually makes for a richer experience because there is a deeper meaning or reason for the characters to change language and we now get to experience (at least partly) these nuances too. I commend the decision to do this and hope it stays the same when the film arrives on blu ray later in the year.

Overall, I found Park Chan-Wook's latest film, “The Handmaiden” to be an absolute delight. It is a great thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat the whole time, and its playful tone makes the film endlessly entertaining. It has been acted wonderfully by all involved, keeping the performances as playful as the film itself, and as usual for a film by Park, it looks magnificent. Whilst the film is a little jarring at the start of the second chapter, I'm sure this only exists during a persons initial viewing of the film. The only other negative I have is the film is slightly too long, but at the end of the day, this is yet another successful film from Park Chan-Wook.

3.5 Stars.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016


The films of Nicolas Winding Refn are a wild and varied bunch, rarely is each subsequent film of similar ilk as the one that came before it, but one thing they all have in common, despite how successful the film may or may not be, they have all been expertly put together. Not only that, they all have the fingerprints of their creator fully engrained in them; these are films that could only have been made by Nicolas Winding Refn, and his films always leave an impression – be it good or bad, it is a rare thing to walk away from a Refn film with just a “meh”. For the majority of his filmography, I rate them rather highly and as of this writing, I consider his 2011 feature, “Drive”, to be his masterpiece (I rated the film as the best directed of any I saw in 2011). However, his follow up, the Thai-set “Only God Forgives”, I found to be a total bore. Granted, it is stunningly beautiful to look at, but it was the first time I felt that Refn had nothing to say, nor story to tell, and was hoping to ride the wave of the films style, rather than substance which the film completely lacked. “The Neon Demon” is his latest film and sees him return to L.A where “Drive” was shot and set. I was looking forward to finding out whether Refn was going to continue down the path of style over substance, or if he legitimately had something to convey or say this time around. Early reports out of Cannes indicated that the film was incredibly dividing, which got me even more excited to see it, to find out just what all the fuss was about and now, thanks to MIFF, I have done so, and can report to you all about my experiences with “The Neon Demon”.

The Neon Demon” is set in the L.A fashion and modelling scene. We are introduced immediately to Jessie, the protagonist of the film, as she enters the city, wide eyed and full of dreams. While certainly naïve of the potential depravities surrounding her, Jessie is not as innocent or as helpless as she looks, but conversely, she also isn't as tough or aware as she thinks. It becomes apparent very quickly that Jessie has something; she has “it”, and that she isn't going to be just another girl in a long line of hopefuls destined to be disappointed and broken by the cut-throat nature of both the industry and city. Jessie immediately turns heads and catches eyes as casting directors and designers all want to work with her. This doesn't sit well with the other girls in the industry who all want what Jessie has, and soon it isn't long before Jessie not only has to watch out for her competitors, who will do anything to bring her down, but of the industry itself, which is determined to exploit her for all she is worth before her very short expiration date arrives. Even if Jessie can defend herself from all of this in an attempt to achieve her dream, can she do so without herself being corrupted, or will she need to sell her soul to become the success she dreams of?

I'm going to be upfront and say I really do not know how I feel about this crazy and demented film, nor whether or not my initial opinions of it, will be my final after subsequent viewings. Because of this, this may be less of a review and more like rambling thoughts I have regarding the film. One thing I will say is that “The Neon Demon” is a wild ride, and for a movie that has a two hour running time, it just flew by. Once again, the visuals take centre stage making “The Neon Demon” gorgeous to stare at and get lost in. Each image appears to have been worked out to the tiniest millimetre to ensure perfection which I guess is warranted in a film about modelling where image is everything. I am forever stunned by Refn's use of colour in his films, not least of all because the man is colour blind, and this new film is no exception. The colour pallet is hardly subtle, but is used to signify where Jessie is, in terms of her character's arc. The very early scenes when she first hits L.A are all shot in blinding white, to symbolise her purity and innocence, however after this initial photo shoot, white gives way to blue; Jessie is no longer innocent and completely pure (she has been “tainted” slightly by shooting in the nude) but the blue signifies that she is still relatively naïve. Blue remains prominent for a while as Jessie catches the eye of the best talent in the industry, as she secures herself numerous jobs while still remaining true to herself. It isn't until she becomes one of “them”, and turns cold and self obsessed, thus corrupted, that the film is then bathed in red primarily and then the rest of the film onwards becomes full of madness and depravity. Whilst other colours are also boldly used in the film, those three are significant to Jessie. One visual aspect of the film that is obviously symbolic, but that I cannot wrap my head around (at least on a single viewing), is all of the triangle imagery that Refn has placed into the film. Their significance is obviously important to him, especially because Jessie's biggest transformation happens within one, and again he isn't subtle with the presentation of the triangles; they are front and centre most of the time, but maybe I'm just not smart enough to understand their meaning. So is this just a film filled with pretty pictures again, or is there some deeper meaning attached to them? Again, to be totally honest, I'm still not sure. In the moment, watching the film, I was seduced by the images and the story of Jessie's journey, but after her big transformation, the film changes and is worried less about plot and more in a surreal atmosphere it creates. In fact, the second half of the film, when you think about it later, very little happens during it, in terms of Jessie's arc that is. All the depravity of the film does come out in this second half but I feel that all this ends up boiling down to is that it is saying that in L.A, there are really only a few outcomes; either your competitors will eat you alive, your audience will just get sick of you, or you become the big success you dream of, but at what cost? If this is all Refn is saying, it sadly isn't very deep, nor is it very original. There is also significant importance shown to the fact that in the industry, image and beauty is everything. Scratch that; its the only thing. Once you lose it or it fades, you will be thrown onto the trash heap. I just can't help wondering if Refn has been smart enough or brave enough to make a film about the fact that image is everything, by making a film that is only pretty with no depth behind it. Is this his statement on the L.A modelling scene? All that matters is the image, not whether there is meaning behind the images? I do not have the answer to these questions.

In regards to the acting in the film, it appears all of the girls have been directed to perform in a strangely stylised way, as they all talk in a much slower rhythm than you would expect in reality. To be honest, I wasn't really a fan of any of the performances; they were adequate but not very consistent. Personally I felt Elle Fanning, who plays Jessie, excelled better as the naïve girl at the beginning but struggled a little with the corrupted model she later becomes. Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote both looked the part but didn't really impress with the exception of one scene with Lee in a bathroom after she fails at an audition. I had heard a lot of great things about Jena Malone's performance, but for me this didn't materialise, as again I just thought she was nothing more than adequate. In fact, my favourite performance in the film came from Keanu Reeves (yes, I know what I just wrote) who plays a sleazy motel owner, in a brief role. He actually comes across very real and disturbing, and reminded me of a similar role he played in Sam Raimi's “The Gift” back in 2000, where he was also playing against type and was great at it.

One of the problems I think “The Neon Demon” faces is the fact that Refn and company have been promoting the film as a horror film, and I think for most, it would fail in this regard. Granted the film, especially in the second half, is filled to the brim with depravities but these don't come attached with any fear or suspense. This is nasty stuff, we are talking about cannibalism, necrophilia, murder and bloody violence on an extreme level, but all of these things are just presented to us, never in a way that we or the characters should feel afraid of, therefore the horror of these actions never comes across like they should, and some even come across as comedic.

I'm sure that there is plenty more I could write about and discuss in regards to “The Neon Demon” but I want to have at least another viewing of the film before I do so, and the fact that I really want to watch it again, must give some indication of the power of the film. Again I will say that in the moment, I was with the film one hundred percent, and its running time just flew by, but it is when I have gone back to think about it some more after the fact, that I am not entirely sure if it holds up nor if it has anything significant to say. It is definitely a bizarre trip and one that I look forward to taking again, and soon, but I'm just not sure that it adds up to a whole lot. One film that I kept being reminded of while watching “The Neon Demon”, was Paul Verhoeven's “Showgirls” and I think that Refn's film has the ability to create a cult audience that Verhoeven's film now has, and deserves. So, anyway, whilst I am confused and bewildered by “The Neon Demon”, I still enjoyed my initial viewing of it and definitely think it is worth taking the trip with, at least once.

3.5 Stars.