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20/20 Filmsight - Film Criticism by David O'Connell

Film Criticism by David O'Connell

I'm a Sydney-based film reviewer that loves to review local screenings and film festivals. Want me to cover your event? Email me at cibbuano ~AT~ orble ~DOT~ com.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

April 30th 2015 04:33

David Zellner’s new film, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (2014), conceived and written with his brother Nathan, is an exquisitely deadpan drama-black comedy. Beginning in Japan, it eventually treks to an American town that the film literate amongst audience members will be all too familiar with. This is the strange odyssey of a young woman, Kumiko (Rinko Kukuchi). Isolated, outcast, and peculiar, she works a menial, pointless office job, beyond which she’s inclined to become immersed in strange quests. Viewing herself as like a Spanish conquistador she stumbles upon a barely functioning copy of the Coen brothers’ masterpiece Fargo on a mangled VHS tape. Little footage from the film is discernible, though she’s drawn to a key scene in which Steve Buscemi’s criminal buries a suitcase full of cash in the snow beside an anonymous, changeless stretch of highway.

Replaying this footage over and over again, Kumiko constructs a meticulous but spurious map and becomes determined to travel to Fargo and uncover the treasure for herself. Appropriating her boss’s credit card she heads to the States and sets out on her journey. Naturally she will encounter some oddball characters along the way, including a helpful police officer played by the director himself. Most of the people she meets, surprisingly, are sympathetic to her cause and attempt to shed light on a reality that Kumiko struggles to come to terms with.

With its oddball sensibilities, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter remains true to the strange worldview of Kumiko. It’s this vision that informs the film’s aesthetic and our perspective, consequently, is forever filtered through her eyes. The marvellous Kukuchi gives an astonishing performance; so much hangs on her and even with limited dialogue she fills Kumiko’s life with strange, intimate details that reflect an intriguingly internalised reaction to the world. Though the film tends to ebb and flow through the course of a very deliberately paced narrative, the often wordless reactions of Kumiko provide subtle, rich details of a life that remains resolutely self-contained.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter will not be to all tastes but it’s full of idiosyncratic details, including an often brazen, ominous use of music by The Octopus Project which occasionally rises to cacophonous heights as if the plot is nearing a horror movie detour. Though it doesn’t deliver the payoff it seems to be hinting at, the film never loses its way until the very end when, presumably struggling for a strong metaphorical summation of Kumiko’s quest, it weakly fades out. Minor quibbles aside, this is a compelling, distinctive piece of cinema with a startling central performance and is highly recommended viewing.



March 26th 2015 04:53
The latest from modern Russian master Andrey Zvyagintsev is the story of a not quite ordinary family shifting in the sands of time under the weight of corruption. In a remote northern town, struggling mechanic Kolya (Aleksey Serabryakov) is about to have his home and hearth pulled out from under him by a bitter, corrupt mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov). Though Kolya thinks he has an ace in his deck with the evidence garnered by his old friend and now Moscow lawyer Dimitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), nothing is quite what it appears. As the seams holding his marriage to his younger wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) begin to unravel, he finds himself unable to comprehend the approaching storm. Beholding the world and all it consequences through a vodka-smeared gaze only exacerbates his downward spiral.

Zvyagintsev‘s ferociously bleak film has a soured, grey-tinted, autumnal beauty about it and for two-thirds of its length the film goes close to matching his two great works, The Return (2003) and Elena (2011) in their depth of commentary about Russian societal ills, especially the vast divide between the haves and have-nots. What Leviathan does lack however is a finely honed commentary and, in particular, the great economy of those masterpieces.

Though the acting is flawless, the film’s third act loses its shape and too often Zvyagintsev resolves potentially complex strands with simplified narrative turns. The traumatised reaction of son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev) to a ferocious, impetuous coupling of his parents - a very, one-sided, heinous transgression - is one disappointing example of this loosening of the noose. Then there’s the expository dialogue that seeks, far too self-consciously, to flush metaphors out into the light with compromised conversation that dilutes the naturalism that Zvyagintsev works tirelessly to achieve. Kolya’s drunken run-in with a priest is a prime example of the third act’s minor shortcomings.

Leviathan (2014) is flawed but it has a withering impact in its best moments. It also strikes a powerful, gut-churning final note as the death knell tolls for some of the participants. A moral, ethical death is some instances, the director seems to be saying, just as flagrantly emphasises the decay of ambition and helplessness in the face of power that corrupts absolutely. And again there’s the wretched disparity to marvel at of Russian ideals of freedom with their counterparts in the real world. It’s grim and disturbing ultimately, these conclusions of Zvagintsev’s, but for the most part, it makes for compelling drama with a touch of bleak humour tossed into the mix making for brief but welcome relief.



March 18th 2015 03:35

A tense, visceral crawl into the underbelly of a dark Belfast night, ’71 (2014) is the startling feature debut of director Yann Demange and writer Gregory Burke. After initial scenes of young British recruits, including Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), being put through their pre-training rigours, word comes through an immediate assignment on the front-line. A seemingly run-of-the-mill confrontation quickly escalates in a pitted battle between the overwhelmed soldiers as the battering locals descend with a hailstorm of fists and rocks. Amidst the chaos - all of which is captured with extraordinary raw intensity by Demange and his cinematographer Tat Radcliffe– two young soldiers become isolated. Hook and his fellow soldier are vulnerable targets and when his partner becomes victim to a ruthless attack, Hook is forced to run for his life.

The ensuing set-piece is one of the film’s highlights with the intensity ramped up to breaking point. Hook dodges bullets whilst ducking in and out of suffocatingly narrow streets, running headlong into a netherworld, blind to what lurks around corners, and unable to gauge his enemies. It’s terrifying stuff and again, the kinetic, frantic heart-in-mouth race for survival is captured with a blistering rawness, a combination of rapid editing and jittery hand-held sweeps and charges. It gives the entire sequence an immediacy that has you afraid to breathe before it ends.

The middle section of the film slows down into a night of recovery and reassessment. But Hook is wading in very dangerous, shark-infested waters. Trust becomes an issue as factions begin their search once his isolated status becomes common knowledge. As is typical in films depicting the Northern Ireland troubles, there’s a disorienting fluidity in the line of separation between various factions: who can you really trust when it’s almost impossible to distinguish the sides the players are on. Hook discovers the truth of this as a fearless local teen becomes his only allay for a while.

The film counts down to an electric, tension filled search as the sides close in and Hook’s freedom becomes even more reliant on chance and the kindness of interested bystanders. Demange’s command of the various strands in highly impressive again: the cat-and-mouse manoeuvring has the same effect as the earlier riot and chase, causing sweat to break out on audience members’ palms. Though O’Connell has minimal dialogue, he’s a formidable and believable physical presence, continuing his strong work of recent times, including the lead in Unbroken (2014) as well as David Mackenzie’s superb prison film Starred Up (2014). The other components, including all the support roles and the eerily effective, tension-building score by David Holmes complete an almost flawless debut by the very promising Demange. His command of the subject matter and instinct for building and maintaining an uncomfortable, almost unbearable intensity are indicators of an enviable talent whose future work is eagerly anticipated.

'71 opens in Australian cinemas on Thursday, March 19.


Love is Strange

March 17th 2015 03:48

Seventh Son

March 11th 2015 04:22

Still Alice

March 9th 2015 02:22


February 19th 2015 02:00

The Gambler

February 5th 2015 01:37

American Sniper

February 3rd 2015 06:53

Favourite Films of 2014

January 27th 2015 07:01

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