Lina Lamont

"What do you think I am, dumb or something?"

Candelabras, criminals and goblins

This post first appeared on Watt to Watch, on 20th July 2013

As day two dawns, I can now declare the New Zealand International Film Festival officially open and already awesome.

Thursday’s opening night film was the perfect choice to get us into the swing of things at the Civic Theatre. Behind the Candelabra has glitz, glamour, pathos and tells the mind-boggling story of the most flamboyantly closeted gay icon of our time – Las Vegas pianist and performer Liberace.

behind-the-candelabra-michael-douglas piano

Famous for being director Steven Soderbergh’s final movie (at age 50 he’s retiring from cinema, though thankfully not from TV), Candelabra is warmed by yellow hues and golden glitter, from Matt Damon’s bouncy ’70s haircut to Michael Douglas’s gold slippers. The acting on all counts is superb – Douglas excels at balancing Liberace’s nightclub camp with a heartfelt domestic longing, and Damon is wonderful – not just when he steps out of the swimming pool (cue gasps from both genders in the audience) but credible in every scene as he makes the bizarre and disturbing journey from toyboy to adoptive son.

And as for the production design…

The film has Soderbergh’s trademark edge (those who enjoyed Magic Mike for the grit as well as the spectacle will feel right at home) and though much of it is played for laughs – Rob Lowe steals all his scenes, literally without lifting an eyebrow – it’s a heartfelt, wonderful film.

Gideon's Army

To counter all that glamour after opening night, my first “proper” step into this year’s fest-feast was Gideon’s Army. A documentary about public defenders in America’s south, it had everything I’d hoped for. Strong protagonists in the form of criminal lawyers Travis Williams and Brandy Alexander walk us through their daily tribulations defending over 120 clients at a time, attempting to save foolish youths from 10 years in jail. It made me laugh, I nearly cried (but clearly I’m too tough to let tears trickle this early on in the festival) and I actually whooped out loud (sorry, fellow viewers) as Brandy took down a prosecution witness on the stand. Gideon’s Army is truly inspirational, pragmatic and also very moving.

Only Day one, but I’d booked three movies. I like to start as I mean to go on (ie: frantic) – so straight after Gideon I hoofed it up the hill to see a Singaporean film, Ilo Ilo. What a perfect little movie this is. The performances are so real and modestly played, you feel like you’re sitting on the couch at a stranger’s home, watching their family slowly combust. But in a palatable way, not a Von Trier way.

Set in Singapore in 1997, just as the recession is hitting, it follows a typical Singaporean Chinese family living in a housing development block (like most of Singapore’s citizens) who take on a Filipina maid, Terry. Husband’s work is in jeopardy; mother is pregnant and snippy; and their only son, Jiale, is an absolutely handful. Maria in The Sound of Music had it easy – for the first few scenes I wanted to give that Jiale a clip round the ear (figuratively, of course, since that’s illegal).

Ilo Ilo pic

But then the relationship between maid and child develops and what a joy this is to behold. Beautifully photographed, the story and dialogue perfectly pitched – Ilo Ilo is certainly one of those “unexpected gems” you’re warned about at festivals. Highly recommended.

So far, so satisfying – this festival lark is doing exactly what it says on the tin. As I set off back down the hill to the grand old Civic again, hordes of dark-clad film nerds – sorry, aficionados – were congregating in growing excitement for Dario Argento’s horror masterpiece Suspiria, to be accompanied live by Italian prog-rock band Goblin.

Goblin scored the original soundtrack, and quite how festival programmer Ant Timpson managed to entice them to la bella Nuova Zelanda, I can only imagine – but entice them he did. Twenty-five years after the original film hit cinemas (and two decades since I saw it at a slumber party and was terrified out of my wits), this time round it was probably more thrilling to watch the band hit their timpani and strum their bouzouki than it was actually frightening to see ballet dancers flailing about in razor wire. (Sorry, am I too late to say Spoiler Alert?)

In the cynical light of 2013, Suspiria is quite silly and unintentionally humorous – certainly last night’s audience thought so – and I only hope the five members of Goblin weren’t a bit miffed to hear laughter where back in 1977 they’d have heard screams.


But it was a splendid experience, nonetheless, and proof yet again of how wondrous cinema can be, particularly when consumed with a side order of Italian synth.

Please, just nobody tell Signor Dario.


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