Film Festival Review

Review: Apples (Dir. Christos Nikou, 2020)

We are introduced to the nameless protagonist of Apples [Mila], played by Aris Servetalis, in his apartment through a series of cuts (or polaroid snapshots) in his apartment: restlessly listening to the radio…staring impassively into space… banging his head against the doorframe before venturing out to buy the flowers himself much like the eponymous Mrs. Dalloway. Though there is no party in sight for Aris as he wanders aimlessly through the city and eventually falls fast asleep on a bus taking him from A to B. When the driver awakens him, Aris doesn’t recall where he should have alighted, his name or where he lives – his lack of identification only confirms it and he is packed off in an ambulance to the Disturbed Memory Department of the Neurological Hospital for evaluation.

From there, he is assigned a number (14842) and afforded a new life as an amnesiac. Sudden onset amnesia is not seen as unusual as the seemingly irreversible epidemic sweeps across a modern, yet strangely analogue Athens, with neither sight nor sound of a mobile device. All amnesiacs (at least those not claimed by family members) are given tape recorders and polaroid cameras. The cassette tapes containing prompts of how to manage their “new beginnings” and the cameras are to snap proof of how they spent their days; photos stored in albums for posterity.

Christos Nikou served as Yorgos Lanthimos’ AD on Dogtooth and it initially shows. His film – based on a screenplay he co-wrote with Stavros Raptis – does fit within the so-called Greek Weird Wave in which filmmakers and writers such as the likes of Panos H. Kontras, Lanthimos, Athina Rachel Angari, and Efthymis Filippou have given us some brilliantly strange pieces of work that have painted a unique, often ideological, versions of Greek society. Yet, while his predecessors liked the darker, mordant aspects of life, Nikou’s film is far more heartfelt and poignant.

Aris throughout plays it deadpan even when he meets fellow new beginner Anna (Sofia Georgovassili) and as he chomps his way through, roughly, an orchard. Servetalis is a combination of Daniel Day-Lewis and Buster Keaton, the line between bizarre and funny grows increasingly blurry as the film progresses, as to the linearity of the whole thing is anybody’s guess. The 4:3 aspect ratio harks back to the silent era and helps to further detach from reality – although the whole Athens-epidemic-as-narrative-device strikes close to home as we, like Aris, find a new weird normal – in our case remembering to smile with our eyes beneath the material which covers the rest of our face.

The film is a very quiet and wry allegory with several laugh-out-loud moments involving a Batman, and even a nod to an Outcast lyric. Its use of colour is gorgeous, the daylight palette tends to be muddy blues, greys and muted greens while the nights tend to be oranges and ochres much like the innards of a mouldy apple. The use of music is astute with all feeding into the theme of memory and remembrance: “Scarborough Fair”, “Seal It With A Kiss”, and “Let’s Twist Again” (although, this arguably has a dual meaning) – tenuous it may be but even “Ave Maria” mentions fruit!

Apples is a brilliant and absurdist rumination on loss, memory, identity and human connection. It ponders selective memory – the want to forget what’s in the memory bank, the fight to remember by heart and if there’s a difference, and what the hell did we do before the smart phone and documenting our days.

Apples will be available exclusively on Curzon Home Cinema from Friday 7th May.


Review: Whitney: Can I Be Me (Dir. Nick Broomfield, 2017)

Can I Be Me‘s opening scenes take place on February 11th 2012 and we can hear the 911 dispatch call which was recorded on the night Whitney Houston, known as ‘Nippy’ to her family and friends, died alone aged 48. While there were dangerous levels of drugs found in her system, one of Whitney’s back-up singers tells us plainly, “She died of a broken heart.”

Whitney Elizabeth Houston was born in New Jersey on August 9th, 1963. Daughter of John and Cissy, and younger sister of Gary and Michael. Cissy would guide her, John would influence her and her brothers would provide the company when they did drugs together. Clive Davis would take her under his wing at 19 and create a pop icon – the best-selling black female vocalist since Aretha and Dionne (Warwick, who also happened to be a relative), and one who, according to Davis, would translate to a white audience.

Her debut album Whitney Houston sold 25 million copies. By 1988, the African American community felt she had sold out, her music had been ‘whitened’ and she was booed at the Soul Train Music Awards that same year (and the year after). Some say she never quite recovered from the rejection and she began seeing the “bad boy of R’n’B” Bobby Brown as, some have suggested, retaliation. They would later marry and the rest, as they say, is history. Well, not quite.

Footage takes us back to 1999 and the world tour Houston struggled to complete. The tour which would change the course of her career and, ultimately, her life. Combining home videos, archival footage and audio interviews,  Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal’s documentary is revealing without disrespect or exploitative intent; a frank portrait of a beloved and troubled artist. Nor does it shy away from the drug consumption, from teenage recreation, through the accidental overdoses, to the day it claimed her. This in itself addresses the level of apportioned blame aimed at Brown by the media.

Their relationship was tumultuous to say the least, however, home videos depict a happy, loving couple with a similar goofy sense of humour while reality suggests there were three people in they marriage; Bobby, Whitney and Robyn Crawford. Crawford was Houston’s best friend and rumoured lover – Brown confirmed his wife’s bisexuality in his memoir – and from the footage depicted in this documentary, Brown and Crawford loathed each other. He appeared to be emasculated by her while she watched their competitive marriage hinge itself on drugs and alcohol; and yet both vied for Whitney’s love and attention. The real tragedy would be Bobby Kristina (March 4th 1993 – July 26th 2015), and this film is scathing in her parents’ neglect. Poor kid.

The situation reached breaking point when Houston’s bodyguard David Roberts compiled several reports on the singer’s habits and addictions, and his fears. He asked for help; an intervention but these pleas fell largely on deaf ears. How can you save somebody who doesn’t want to be saved? He maintains that all are responsible for Houston’s premature death. There are so many what-ifs offered up: if she had grown up in a less fiercely religious household… had she never touched drugs in the first place… had her father not claimed she owed him and sued her for $100 million. The biggest caveat of all is had she been able to live and love Robyn as she wanted, would she still be alive? Bobby Brown seems to think so but we are only offered this quote via an intertitle. He, Cissy, and Robyn are never interviewed by the filmmakers and thus it, along with Houston’s bisexuality, remains conjecture. 

Can I Be Me is a candid, fascinating and heart-breaking documentary detailing – albeit within a very small window of time – the true toxic tragedy of fame and the toll of addiction, as is often the case of the truly gifted. Perhaps all of those around Whitney were in some way complicit in her destructive downfall but she was an addict, trapped within a brilliant, beautiful and troubled singer who only ever wanted to be herself, and sing. ‘Nippy’ changed the music industry and while some may have made their disapproval known once upon a time, she paved the way for the Mariahs, Beyoncés, Rihannas, and Leonas of this world, and a whole host of artists besides.

Where do broken hearts go – can they find their way home? In the case of this one, let’s hope so.

Blu-ray Review

Blu-ray Review: Moana (Dir. Ron Clements and Ron Musker, 2016)

In the beginning there was only ocean…

For the inhabitants of Motunui, that ocean is vast, and while once conquerable, it now serves to separate rather than unite, and to provide food. For Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), daughter of Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison), it calls to her. From infancy, she has a special relationship with it, hell, it’s even the translation of her name. Her beloved Gramma Tala (Rachel House) regales her with tales of myths and legends; amongst them, that of Te Fiti, Te Kā, and Maui.

Moana is fearless and yet torn – as she matures – between her birthright, of becoming Chief or giving in to the niggling voice within and setting sail beyond the reef. She’s at odds with who she is and who her people need her to be. When circumstances change and her village starts to suffer, she summons her courage and determination, along with hapless stowaway Hei Hei (Alan Tudyk), and restore the heart of Te Fiti. Her heart previously stolen by Maui (Dwayne Johnson) – chump, braggart, all hubris and hair (and moko). Moana must persuade the demigod to help her reverse the damage he has caused.

Disney’s last dabble with Polynesian culture was in 2002 with the Hawaii-set Lilo and StitchMoana – although the period of time is never established – is most definitely the pre-cursor to Lilo… – the island of Hawaii still to be discovered by the voyaging canoes of the master navigators using star constellations to guide them to lands old and new.

A non-white cast certainly makes a refreshing change. In fact, only the gormless chicken is voiced by a non-Polynesian with the remainder of the cast made up of Hawaiian, Samoan, Māori, and Tahitian natives, this authenticity makes all the difference. Yes, it’s a Disney-fied version of history but oh what a beautiful one with the music making it. Moana’s songs are written and composed by the trifecta that is Opetaia Foa’i, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Mark Mancina. They are heartfelt, incredibly catchy and above all memorable with highlights including ‘Where You Are’, ‘How Far I’ll Go’, ‘We Know the Way’, ‘You’re Welcome’ and the Bowie-inspired, Jemaine Clement solo, ‘Shiny’. This soundtrack is up there with Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Lion King (1994) for standard, originality, and (eventual) longevity.

In keeping with the recent trend, there isn’t a romantic slant to the narrative. Just like Merida in Brave and Elsa in Frozen, the love story element is reframed within a pre-existing relationship, i.e. Merida and her mother, Elsa and her sister, and their respective narrative drives stem from finding their place in the world. By comparison, Moana is about a girl and her grandmother and celebrating tradition, embracing heritage, and restoring balance. Like an animated, musical, slant on Niki Caro’s Whale Rider (2002).

Directors John Musker and Ron Clements having previously helmed The Little Mermaid (1989), Aladdin (1992), and The Princess and the Frog (2009) have, with Moana, created an incredibly respectful window into a previously untouched culture, certainly by Disney standards. This not only gives young vahines a voice but recognisable onscreen figures to identify with. Moana embraces her independence to venture and veer from her expected path, assert herself and listen to that voice within. What’s not to love about that?

The film is a sheer joy from beginning to end; 113 glorious minutes in which to be engulfed, immersed, and swallowed by an entire oceanic culture.

Bonus Features

The disc doesn’t scrimp on extras either and these are well worth exploring. Gone Fishing (2 mins) is a short film in which, once again, Moana and, her namesake, the ocean get the better of demigod Maui. The real gem of all the extras is the documentary Voice of the Islands (31 mins) which follows the two Midwestern directors in their research for Moana and documents their visits to the Pacific islands, which included Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti, Mo’orea; ending their journey in New Zealand. It’s an incredibly fascinating short doc, and depicts this latest animated outing as a real labour of love on all counts. Working alongside the Oceanic Story Trust, Moana was a wholly inclusive project in which Pacific choreographers, linguists, anthropologists, fishermen, tattoo artists are interviewed and encouraged, at every turn, to contribute. It is an emotional, informative and highly interesting watch. This is followed by Things You Didn’t Know About… (5 mins) delivered in one minute segments in which the directors, Dwayne Johnson, Auli’i Cravalho, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mark Mancina and Opetaia Foa’i are asked to answer fun, quick fire questions.

Island Fashion (5 mins) is an informative, if slight, addition to the extras menu in which costume design is examined, complete with storyboards and accessories. The Elements of… (13 mins) looks, in minute detail, (despite its short run time) at the more technical elements of Moana including Mini-Maui – a 2D integration within a 3D animation, drawn by Eric Goldberg. Further segments include water, lava, and hair, all explained by the visual effects supervisors and provide real insight into the extent and painstaking processes required to produce, say, responsive waves, smoke, fire and realistic hair.

They Know the Way: The Making of the Music Moana (12 mins). Again, Disney sure know how to pack a lot of information into a short duration. This covers the process by all three writers/composers/singers Mancina, Miranda, Foa’i and despite the fact that they are from the east coast, west coast and south pacific respectively, their cultural and musical difference worked so well as a collaboration. The Igelese Ete & Pasifika Voices choral clips are beautiful. Although, included on the soundtrack, another bonus feature is outtake ‘Warrior Face’ was deleted from the final film. It was inspired by the haka and is played in a three minute video against storyboards of the scene it would have accompanied. Fishing For Easter Eggs (3 mins) reveals hidden treasures from FrozenAladdinZootopiaLittle MermaidTangled and other Disney iconography which is dotted throughout Moana which even eagle-eyed viewers may have missed the first time.

Both directors introduce the Deleted Scenes (25 mins). These are in storyboard form and depict Moana as an eight year old, with her sibling, and definitely expand on a backstory which failed to make the final film. One feature, perhaps, for older children interested in the process but it’s very repetitive and younger audience members may lose interest. The disc extras are rounded off with the video for the Alessia Cara version of ‘How Far I’ll Go’ followed by the whole song translated into twenty-four languages.

Moana in home release is a worthy addition to the Disney family; full of magic and mana.