Lina Lamont

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

Archive for the tag “NZFF 2013”

Blancanieves

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 22nd September 2013

When The Artist shook up cinema and the Academy Awards a couple of years ago, it enchanted audiences but few will have expected a resurgence in black and white, silent movies. A beautiful film, expertly crafted, but nonetheless a bit of a one-trick pony, no?

For Spanish filmmaker Pablo Berger, that’s a resounding “No!” Berger had spent many years on his own monochrome, sound- and dialogue-free rendition of Snow White when The Artist pipped him to the innovation post in 2011. Thankfully for us, he didn’t relegate his project to a bottom drawer, but instead went ahead and started shooting. His self-proclaimed “love letter to European silent cinema” takes Snow White’s story to 1920s Andalusia (principally Seville) and creates a far fresher take on the fairytale than the two that Hollywood churned out last year.

Blancanieves starts life as Carmencita, born to a bull-fighting father who unwittingly takes on an evil stepmother who makes their lives miserable. Far darker and more brutal than the tale you’re used to, Carmencita (a luscious, long-lashed Macarena Garcia) witnesses heartbreak before coming of age and running away to take up her father’s profession in the company of Los Enanitos Toreros (dwarf bullfighters).

This is proper old-school black and white cinema, which uses intertitles and artful close-ups to convey exposition in the plot. Superbly nuanced acting has characters relying on facial expressions to convey innermost thoughts and mental machinations. With no sound design (for example, no clopping hooves), the music therefore has to be incredible, and indeed it is – taking us from Spanish guitar through languid oboe and clarinet to honky-tonk piano.

This is one grown-up fairytale worth catching on the big screen.

I think it’s all over – final musings on the NZFF 2013

This post first appeared on Watt to Watch at http://www.stuff.co.nz on 4th August 2013

As I write, the seven venues that have hosted the Auckland film festival should hopefully be packed as keen locals get their final fix of this year’s best arthouse fare. The rush of the last fortnight ended for me last night on something of an ambivalent low, but not before I’d seen three of my overall festival highlights.

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As hoped, Joss Whedon’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing delivered in spades. Assembling a terrific cast of quasi-familiar faces at his Santa Monica home, he shot the film over 12 days, evidenced in the pace and energy appropriate for one of the Bard’s best comedies. A tale of two sets of lovers, the story doesn’t need repeating here but what matters is that Whedon retains the original language (with imperceptible abridgement) and every single performance is so good you not only know exactly what’s going on in the action but you capture every joke. And boy is it funny. Shot in black and white, the film is a laugh-out-loud delight from go to whoa. Imperative viewing for anyone with a heart and the merest scraping of a wit.

Ernest & Celestine was my only animated outing this year, and the Cannes 2012 film was also an absolute treat. In French (but subtitled of course), Ernest the hungry bear encounters Celestine the kindly mouse, and their unorthodox (and outlawed) friendship gets them in and out of all sorts of scrapes as it enriches both their lives. The drawing is exquisite, appropriately “old-school” in its rendering of a French town where both species live in peaceably separate communities. My seven year old companion loved it, and having spent a good while counting some of the 450 elephants in the Civic Theatre afterwards, I think she’ll be asking to come back next year.

Ernest & Celestine

Solid films both but by their nature and subject matter less charming were the excellent Romanian film Child’s Pose and Ulrich Seidl’s PARADISE: Hope.

Having avoided seeing Seidl’s Love film at Cannes last year because I didn’t think I was up for his brutal truths about the pain of the world, I was ambivalent about seeing PARADISE: Hope this year. And while I gather this one is less grim than his previous two PARADISE films, Seidl’s conclusion to the trilogy still expertly instils a feeling of unease and distaste.

13-year old Melanie joins a group of kids at Diet Camp, and while there is plenty of footage of the youngsters doing hapless star jumps and striding through the rain with ski poles, it’s the after hours teenage shenanigans and the natural hormonal instincts of youth that interest Seidl the most. Just as his Love story followed plump, middle-aged sex tourists in Africa, here the scent of potential sex permeates the whole movie. Seidl’s cleverness (or masterful manipulation, if you prefer) is his ability to take his characters right to the precipice of unwelcome behaviour but never quite have them jump off. The sense of audience unease is palpable, but it’s not like you leave the cinema heaving a sigh of relief. Disquieting, certainly, and while narratively a bit unsatisfying, perhaps it’s better he stopped where he did…

Child's Pose

Similarly gritty, Child’s Pose showcases an exceptional performance from Luminita Gheorghiu as Cornelia, a bourgeois Budapest mother whose love for her son moves her to incredible lengths to protect his future after he is charged with killing a child. The 34-year old son, by comparison, is a devastating mix of immature, ungrateful and vicious. The story arc and dialogue is painfully realistic, and though it’s not (nor meant to be) a “fun” watch, Child’s Pose is a great film.

The festival’s closing night film was Jim Jarmusch’s luscious Only Lovers Left Alive. I could never be said to actually like Tilda Swinton, but the English actress has been blowing me away for decades, with every performance from the transgendered Orlando to her sweaty-armpitted lawyer in Michael Clayton. Here she plays Eve to Tom Hiddleston’s Adam, two lovers of the night whose dark ways are made considerably less creepy or clichéd by the fact their life story crosses several centuries.

Nevermind Swinton is 20 years older than Hiddleston – their love-match is touching and deeply romantic and full of wit. The kooky cast includes John Hurt as Christopher Marlowe, who laments his best work was appropriated by that damn Shakespeare; Mia Wasikowska as Eve’s naughty little sister; and Jeffrey Wright (there’s a nod to Wright’s breakout film role as Jean-Michel Basquiat in Eve’s choice of travel reading). Jarmusch has crafted a hilarious, exotic, delicious film that is a fitting close to this extremely fine festival.

On a closing note, a few recommendations for those in other centres who are still planning their NZIFF time. My favourite films (not quite in order of ecstasy): Antarctica: A Year on Ice; Which Way is the Front Line from Here?; Omar; What Maisie Knew; The Selfish Giant; Utu – Redux; A Hijacking; Only Lovers Left Alive; Much Ado About Nothing; Gideon’s Army; Dial M for Murder.

I hope that helps you to narrow your choices down!

Lives torn apart

This post was first published in Watt to Watch at http://www.stuff.co.nz on 2nd August 2013

There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, as I have just two more viewing days of festival left. I’ve kept the last day completely unbooked, since I usually have an eleventh-hour bout of FOMO and rush to something, anything, before the crushing comedown of the post-festival blues.

No time to mope just yet, however, as I’ve been gorging on mind-expanding documentaries, pausing only for some eye candy of the handbag and shoes kind.

Screening this Sunday on the Auckland leg’s final day is the theatrical edit of documentary-maker Annie Goldson’s latest foray into telling it like it is. He Toki Huna: New Zealand in Afghanistan makes for an excellent history lesson on why we joined the allied forces in a conflict not of our making, before enlightening viewers on what we’ve really been doing there.

He Toki Huna

Initially it’s rather embarrassing – I couldn’t help feeling we are the kid who is only invited to play in the Big Boys’ game to make up numbers. However, it soon transpires that New Zealand’s involvement in “reconstructing” the war-torn country is distinctly murky behind the positively-spun newsreel.

Taking up the cause for Kiwi journalist Jon Stephenson, discredited by John Key for earlier reported assertions, He Toki Huna travels to Kabul and into Bamiyan province, where locals are interviewed about New Zealand’s presence over the past decade. The Kiwis are regarded well enough, though recipients of our reconstruction efforts are scathing about the quality of work.

But the real revelations fly when Stephenson talks to those affected by a night raid that left two Afghans dead. Whether you’ll be shocked that New Zealand isn’t as 100 per cent pure as we’re led to believe, or whether you’re inured to tales of alleged military misconduct, this is an engaging, enlightening view of a story in which, for once, the Americans aren’t the leads.

While we’re talking documentaries, a special shout-out to the innovative rendering of Cambodia’s tragic past in The Missing Picture. Most people know that two million Cambodians were killed under Pol Pot’s 1970s regime, and while there have been several documentaries taking various angles (last year’s superb Brother Number One is notable for its New Zealand connection), here the filmmaker has painstakingly sculpted clay figurines to play out the story of his losing his entire family to starvation and murder. Interspersed with contemporary footage, much of it from Khmer Rouge propaganda videos, the gentle French voiceover describes horrors that are represented on screen in a surprisingly affecting manner.

Not wanting to break the sombre mood, I then watched The Captain and his Pirate, a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at a real-life ship hijacking that left the captain undergoing trauma therapy in a clinic in Germany, while the Somali pirate describes his affection and respect for the captain from the safety of his desert village. There is an astonishing moment when the interview is played back for the captain to hear hurtfully candid remarks. But given this is a view into the real world of ordinary people whose lives are brought painfully together, it’s the whole tale that’s remarkable.

A Hijacking

And what a perfect introduction to piratical life before I embarked on the superb Danish thriller, A Hijacking. Dramatising the same situation, writer/director Tobias Lindholm (who wrote The Hunt, and shows even greater skill here) tells the desperate story from both sides. In the corporate offices of the shipping company, CEO Peter (The Killing‘s Soren Malling) is trained by a real-life hostage negotiator in how to deal with the pirates who have taken his ship in the Indian Ocean. On board, the beleaguered cook Mikkel tries to survive mentally and physically as the crew languishes for [I won’t tell you how long!] as negotiations are drawn out. The acting is superb, and every line of dialogue seemingly spot-on for such an unimaginable situation. Full marks go to Lindholm and his own crew for producing one of the highlights of my festival.

By comparison, Sofia Coppola’s heralded The Bling Ring is made of fluffier, ickier stuff. Starring Emma “Hermione Potter” Watson in a breaking-the-mould role, she’s actually terrific as one of a bunch of real-life spoilt Hollywood kids who broke into celebrities’ homes and stole beautiful things. As we see inside the boudoir and Nightclub Room of Paris Hilton (better than any episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and almost worth the ticket price on its own), you soon feel as though you’ve eaten too much candy. The overall experience left me a bit soiled, like when I’ve read a WHO Weekly magazine. Definitely enjoyable but hardly “improving”.

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However, capping off an excellent two days was another stunner, What Maisie Knew – an excoriating tale of parents splitting up and doing everything you shouldn’t for the sake of the child stuck in the middle. The film takes Maisie’s point of view, gently following the eccentrically dressed wee child from home to home, step-parent to step-parent. Remarkably, every performance is brilliant here, too – Steve Coogan is the best I’ve ever seen him, perfectly personifying a bad father against Julianne Moore’s Oscar-deserving turn as the narcissistic rock star mother. Support from an unfathomably gorgeous Alexander Skarsgard softens a few of the emotional blows that render this film incisive and insightful, devastating but delicious.

Murder, media, military and Malick

This post was first published on http://www.stuff.co.nz on 31st July 2013

When I lived in London, my mobile phone message told callers I was probably in a tunnel or a cinema. Having seen more than 20 films in the last week and half, I find that life feels very much the same way now.

So I took it easy over the weekend, entering the darkness only to see Hitchcock’s wonderful Dial M for Murder on Saturday night – in 3D, no less, which is a technological advance I’d naively not realised was around back in his day. I loved it. The relentless dialogue (something I’m quite partial to if well written, which this is) keeps the momentum up for a snappy 106 minutes, as a married man suspects his cheating wife and devises an ingenious plot to get rid of her. Golly, that Hitchcock was one smart fellow I’d not have wanted to live with. The plotting is suspenseful as the supposedly perfect crime starts to unravel. Far from having knives and flailing arms jump out of the screen at you, the 3D merely adds depth of field. What a perfect film.

Dirty Wars

Back to the world of serious documentaries, I joined a large crowd next day for Dirty Wars. Clearly New Zealanders love a movie about Evil America killing innocent civilians in foreign lands. Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill goes to great lengths to uncover military wrongdoing in an Afghan village whose people died in a botched US raid. It’s harrowing stuff as we watch mobile phone footage of a family dancing in celebration who, within hours, will be rendered lifeless, their bodies butchered. Scahill’s particular feat is in crafting his non-fiction story more like the latest Hollywood thrillers, which in turn adopt a documentary-like shooting style. Though he eschews reconstructions, Scahill still manages to take us right into the heart of the problem. It’s fascinating, gripping, and deeply troubling.

Just as disturbing is the more first world problem of privacy on the internet. How apposite that while our country is protesting at the Government’s intention to bring in privacy-slashing legislation, I watched another US documentary, Terms and Conditions May Apply. How many of us read the terms when clicking into a new app, website or update? I’ve always foolishly assumed that there couldn’t possibly be anything bad in them, and it turns out most people are the same. Plus, I don’t have a spare year in my life to read all that fine print.

Well, more fool me. And you. This deeply alarming film does a Michael Moore on social media, the Googles and Amazons, and on various phone companies (admittedly in the States – but it’s all just a template for the rest of the world). Far from being dry or obvious, filmmaker Cullen Hoback manages to inform (i.e. perturb) and entertain. Did you know Facebook employs 25 people solely to work on US agency surveillance applications? The axiom “I have nothing to hide” no longer applies.

2 Autumns, 3 Winters

After all this non-fiction, a few “normal” narrative-driven tales were in order. 2 Autumns, 3 Winters is a gentle little French romcom with a distinctly Amelieesque taste. Thirty-three-year-old Arman talks directly to camera in recounting the trials of his latest love affair. His tale is interspersed with comment from the girlfriend in question, ironically named Amelie, and their two friends. It’s sweet, it’s witty; there are pop references and quirky supporting characters. The charm of the film, divided into opaquely entitled chapters, started to wear thin as it went on, but there is delight to be had in the beautiful aesthetic and the dulcet tones of the French language.

Much more gritty and for me more fulfilling, What Richard Did poses the titular question and keeps you on edge until it is answered. Richard is a well-adjusted, parentally-loved and popular Dublin lad. Beloved by his friends and rugby team-mates, his 18-year-old life seems assured. When tragedy calls, the situation is as devastating for its plausibility as its narrative impact. The film’s triumph is Jack Reynor’s portrayal of Richard – in such a story you need a protagonist you can understand, admire, and ultimately root for even if with reservations. Reynor manages all this, flawlessly embodying the lad who had it all, his future now horribly in peril.

To cap off a few days’ gentle viewing, a jaunt into Terrence Malick territory for To the Wonder. One wonders how many people in the audience chose it for “the movie with Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams and that chick from Oblivion.” They should have learnt their lesson from last year’s “Brad Pitt movie”, Tree of Life.

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Malick is masterful at collating images (the photography is frame-by-frame sensational) and an incredible soundtrack, with maybe a spot of narrative but very little dialogue. The script here, amounting to surely no more than a page, consists of whispery voiceovers in French, Italian and Spanish, while Affleck drifts in and out of frame only to convey he’s not very good at communication, or possibly commitment, either. Meanwhile, Olga Kurylenko and McAdams get to swoon over him in different unspoken ways.

The incessant pirouetting and childlike fascination expressed by the lovely Kurylenko starts to irritate eventually, but if you suspend your cynicism and let Malick do his magic, To the Wonder will deliver a very affecting cinematic experience.

The youth of today – When child actors steal the show

My favourite Oscar memory is from 1994. New Zealand is perfectly situated on the globe to enable us to watch the livecast ceremony on an otherwise boring Monday afternoon each year. Two decades ago a bunch of us eschewed uni lectures (gosh, this is becoming a theme…) and took over a table at the uni pub, instructed the bartender to switch the channel from sport, and sat for four glorious hours as The Piano took home lots of trophies. It was on this afternoon that a wee Anna Paquin, wide-eyed and hyperventilating in an aqua beret but ever the professional, proclaimed a breathless, Antipodean-accented “I’d like to thank the Academy” as she took the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

Kids on film are great. For some reason there are far more bad adult actors than there are children, and this isn’t just because the casting director got lucky. Kids often have a guileless honesty about them, and therefore deliver performances that lasso you with their heart-aching simplicity.

Weight of Elephants

The Weight of Elephants is one such example. The New Zealand-Danish production takes us into the strained life of young Adrian who lives with his fraught grandma and mentally ill Uncle Rory (Matthew Sunderland, terrific as always). Adrian’s little face is in frame for most of the movie, and though his travails are those of many a young Kiwi lad – the longing to be accepted by friends and family – novice actor Demos Murphy moves like he’s living the experience rather than acting it out. Filmmaker Daniel Borgman has created a stunning film that indulges the audience with sweeping slo-mo shots set to an exquisite soundtrack. The plot is gently involving, opening up myriad threads that feel urgent in their resolution, so if I have any complaint it’s that this truly cinematic and beautiful film stops more suddenly than you might wish.

Two more great kids steal every scene in the superlative The Selfish Giant. Despite glowing reviews from the UK, I was still surprised to see a totally packed out audience at my screening; the type of crowd who usually flocks to something cheerier. I worried one of us must have misread the programme, until the story began and I knew that it wasn’t me…

It’s grim up north and director Clio Barnard sure knows how to paint an authentic portrait of life below the poverty line as wiry, hyperactive Arbor and his best friend Swifty, counterpoint to Arbor in every way, search for scrap metal in order to raise money to “pay the electric”. Set in Bradford, life is grey and grimy and extremely hard, as evidenced on the faces of all the adults (including a welcome turn from Downton Abbey‘s Miss O’Brien playing a contemporary, downtrodden mother). But despite the universally hard knocks, there is a glimmer of hope that their lot may improve thanks to Swifty’s acuity with gypsy horse racing.

With intensely natural dialogue, every performance is heart-breakingly real – think Ken Loach or Mike Leigh when he’s not being funny. Aided by stunning cinematography and a knack for pacing, this is effortless filmmaking.

Slightly older kids, and closer to home, are Romeo Montegue and Juliet Capulet, two beautiful young things living in the Verona Campground just outside Auckland. Their families are rivals, so it doesn’t bode well when they clap eyes on one another at a boozy party and fall instantly in love. Given the bad odds for marriage nowadays, is their fate sealed or doomed?

Capulet

Forget Baz Luhrmann’s madcap updating of Shakespeare’s classic tale – Romeo and Juliet: A Love Song presents the star-crossed lovers as you’ve never seen – or heard – them before. Set entirely to a newly written rock opera soundtrack, the Verona Campground is a haven of Westie attire and rough but loving family values, peopled by tough-looking folk with angelic voices. The acting is by turns hilarious or heartfelt (as appropriate), and the music an exciting compilation of rap, rock and ballad – all photographed like one long glorious music video.

My friend, an accomplished musician and high school English teacher (thus aptly qualified to comment) was so rapt she described it as better than Jesus Christ Superstar. Indeed, it’s not just local audiences who will dine out on the Kiwiness of it all, but this innovative and incredibly accomplished rendering of one of the oldest stories in the book deserves to be appreciated worldwide.

A final shout-out to the youth of today: Greta Gerwig’s charming performance in Frances Ha. Far away from Waipu Cove, Frances lives in a black and white New York City with her best gal-pal, Sophie. Frances is 27, still finding herself but not even really knowing where to look, as she drifts between college and a grown-up career as a dancer. Quirky and undeniably lovely, she nonetheless suffers the slings and arrows of being told she looks older than her age “but less mature”, and that she’s “completely undateable” by the evidently keen Benji.

Frances Ha

Directed by The Squid and the Whale‘s Noah Baumbach, and co-written with Gerwig, this is economical filmmaking at its best (and a mere snip at 86 minutes). An ill-fated trip to Paris provides a ruefully funny anti-cliché. She’s awkward at dinner parties, but pirouettes neatly along the fine line between foolish and funny.

Though Frances Ha is inevitably reminiscent of TV’s Girls (enhanced by the presence of Adam Driver), Frances is less angsty and self-conscious than Hannah. This girl deserves accolades in her own right.

It’s a cruel, cruel world – more NZFF rough gems

My latest jaunt to the cinema has taken me to two extraordinary (and not necessarily in a “good” way) documentaries which stay with you for ages, bookended, thankfully, by some comedy. That’s how this film festival lark goes – one day can produce such a range of emotions and responses, it’s little wonder many of us die-hard (ie. greedy) screen-crawlers fall ill as soon as it’s over.

The Spectacular Now, 2013 Sundance Film Festival

But I’m not sick yet, and the good times just keep on coming. The Spectacular Now is just the sort of thing you hope for at a daytime screening at the Civic – a coming-of-age movie where the cocksure young protagonist gets dumped by a girl, meets another girl, upsets his mom, worships his absent dad, and drinks too much – all the while with a winning smile that makes you root for him nonetheless. Sutter Keely is our purported hero, played with easy charm by Miles Teller (from Rabbit Hole, and a whole bunch of dumb, he’s-better-than-this teen party movies). The Descendants’ lovely Shailene Woodley dons gawky get-up, and there’s even a cameo from The Wire’s Bubble.

Written by the lad who created 500 Days of Summer, The Spectacular Now displays a similar charm in its burgeoning romance, peopled by troubled souls who mean well despite their flaws. It wasn’t until the next day my happy mind started to query some of the plot choices, but overall it’s so lovely, you’ll want to turn a blind eye.

Frontline from Here

Do not look away from my Top Tip of the festival, however. I’d been looking forward to Which Way is the Frontline from Here? but it still surpassed my expectations. Filmmaker and war correspondent Sebastian Junger has made a fascinating, moving documentary about his friend and colleague, Tim Hetherington, who was killed in Libya in 2011. The two men made Restrepo only a couple of years ago, and this film includes out-takes from that Oscar-nominated documentary, interspersing talking head interviews with the magnificent photos that make up Hetherington’s legacy. The film is endlessly affecting, and so captivating I could have continued watching it for days. Hetherington comes across as warm, engaged and so approachable, his loss is felt strongly. It’s a sensational film, and I cannot recommend it more highly.

By comparison, The Act of Killing is an incredible film although not necessarily one I would promote unreservedly. This documentary is notable for many things: its Executive Producers (the names behind a project whose endorsement usually delivers the clout factor) include Errol Morris and Werner Herzog. When you hear the story concept, you’ll appreciate why: death squad leaders who were among those responsible for the massacre of hundreds of thousands of their fellow Indonesians in 1965 are invited to “tell their story” however they wish – and consequently decide to re-enact scenes of the torture and murder they perpetrated, for the cameras and thus posterity.

It’s an outrageous premise, all the more so when you see how willing – nay, enthusiastic – Anwar Congo, Herman Koto and their motley crew are to dress up and direct one another through graphic reconstructions of the terror they inflicted. Audiences will flinch and cower, but the main feeling I took away after a gruelling 2 hours 40 minutes was bewilderment. The seeming audacity with which the leaders describe their crimes; the hobnobbing with present-day politicians and admiration bestowed up on them by sycophantic talk-show hosts – it’s all extremely bizarre, and the grotesquerie that is the mass murder itself is both enhanced and dulled by the completely unexpected behaviour of the players.

The Act of Killing

I’m still at a loss to describe both quite what I saw and how I feel about it, but The Act of Killing is without doubt an Important Film on myriad levels. The disturbing and bemusing “magical realism” in its tone comes not from filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer (who seemingly just lets them get on with it, as they talk to him behind the camera as “Josh”) but the gangsters themselves. It’s a deeply problematic film in many ways (not for discussion here in the happy realm of Stuff) and this makes it a hard watch, but if you’re going to tackle it, see it through to the end.

And finally, some light relief allowed me to come up for air. Sleepwalk with Me is a largely autobiographical tale, a sweet little movie about a sweet, dopey, wannabe stand-up comedian (Mike Birbiglia, playing himself) who isn’t sure he wants to marry his glorious girlfriend of eight years. But this is the least of his worries, since Mike suffers from REM sleep disorder – a severe form of sleepwalking that sees him acting out dreams and getting into terrible scrapes. Hmmm – perhaps it’s an indication that all is not well in his state of mind? The film is a fictionalised account of an at-times hilarious life, peppered with choice lines and wonderful supporting performances – Mike’s dad (the fabulously droll James Rebhorn) in particular.

The stand-up scenes deliver hearty laughs as this 30-something slacker tale traverses familiar but perennially entertaining ground.

Thank goodness for that.

Utu Redux

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 28th July 2013

Three decades after Utu became our industry’s biggest budget and arguably most lauded film (at the time), audiences have the opportunity to experience this piece of historical and cinematic heritage on the big screen once again. Exclusive to the travelling New Zealand International Film Festival (which is making its way around the country over the next couple of months), this vibrantly restored masterpiece is absolutely worth (re)visiting.

Since 1983 the original film has been subject to a slicing and dicing that spawned a Director’s Cut that in fact had nothing to do with director Geoff Murphy. Happily, Murphy, director of photography Graeme Cowley and other original crew members have lovingly restored Utu to its former glory (with a few improvements to sound and editing). Still resolutely a NZ movie of the early ‘80s, it’s thrilling to see Bruno Lawrence, Ilona Rodgers and a bunch of supporting actors whose faces have continued to grace our screens over the decades (though sadly Kelly Johnson left acting to become a lawyer) – but even with that ‘80s aura, boy does it hold up.

Playing out like a Kiwi western, the 1870s story revolves around an embittered Maori soldier, Te Wheke (a charismatic Anzac Wallace), who deserts the British Army when his family’s village is destroyed, and seeks revenge (utu) on the Pakeha invaders.

The wonderful performances count too many to single out, but what’s notable is the acting and diction in this period piece is totally captivating, and despite being about a serious (and often distressing) subject, the script frequently provokes wry laughs.

The soundtrack is shamelessly bombastic, sensational as an accompaniment to wild scenery and brutish behaviour. Catch it while you can.

Omar goodness – Tales from cinema heaven

This post first appeared on Watt to Watch, http://www.stuff.co.nz on 24th July 2013

Well, we may only be five days into the festival, but I can comfortably declare that the award for Most Handsome Newcomer goes to Adam Bakri in Omar. Crikey. When this chap runs from police across rooftops, it’s less the fancy parcour from the Bond movies and more the breath-holding desperation of someone in real peril.

In only his second ever screen acting role, Bakri is in every scene of this excellent West Bank thriller and although he’s aided and abetted by a terrific cast, his natural charisma oozes movie star. If anyone in Hollywood has any sense left, we should be seeing him in thrillers and action movies pretty soon. (If not – Adam, call me!)

Omar is your average Palestinian lad, who is incited to violent rebellion against the occupying Israeli army. He’s unfailingly loyal to his two best friends, and also has a thing for his mate’s sister, Nadia (Leem Lubany, also in her first screen role, also utterly captivating). The couple’s encounters are surprisingly (and refreshingly) chaste as two parallel stories unfold; the burgeoning love affair, alongside the fallout from the young men’s attempted revolution. Omar is soon faced with a Hobson’s choice: Take one route and he loses everything or take the other and he loses everything else. Omar is tight in its storytelling, the performances uniformly superb, and the final revelations quite devastating.

Next up, no heartthrobs, but instead a curious little “essay film” that might even be considered a tribute of sorts to an otherwise bland Auckland suburb.

During my years spent living in England I would race to New Zealand films in anticipation of feeling that frisson of recognition – whether on seeing Aotearoa’s very distinctive light, or a familiar setting that would provoke happy memories of home. As I currently live on Auckland’s North Shore, watching Oracle Drive was a bit like that – only less exotic.

Local filmmaker Gabriel White went to Albany, and he filmed the sorts of things many of us drive past every day but never stop to notice. White’s voiceover gets whimsical about billboards and the origin of street names, while cars circumnavigate roundabouts and a distant black-clothed figure appears and disappears from frame. Special effects and an abstract bedroom-produced-like soundtrack lend dissonance as well as greater perspective to a sprawling suburb which used to be just poo-ponds, but is now so much more. Albeit mostly new-build homes with ugly Grecian columns. And a long motorway. Anyway, Oracle Drive unashamedly embraces the abstract and will delight those with broader minds and a meditative temperament.

One of the festival’s most eagerly awaited films has been delivered straight from Cannes, and based on the director’s last film, audiences should be snapping it up greedily. The Past is Asghar Farhadi’s latest film after A Separation, and once again the Iranian writer/director has crafted an exquisite family drama that effortlessly layers nuance over the top of subtle, credible performances.

Berenice Bejo (much less glam than in her breakout movie The Artist) plays Marie, a Parisian woman whose estranged husband visits from Tehran to sign divorce papers. From the opening moments it’s evident they still know each other well, as they communicate wordlessly through airport glass, although we the audience cannot discern what’s being said. But it is soon clear things at home are in strife, as Marie attempts to forge a new life with her boyfriend (A Prophet‘s Tahar Rahim, brilliantly inscrutable as always) while battling her daughter’s strong-willed opposition.

I don’t subscribe to the notion that movies over two hours (or even more than 100 minutes, as seems to be the trend) are “too long”. Farhadi has a lot of story to tell, and it takes the full 130 minutes for our protagonists to travel the winding path towards truth and resolution. No one does moral dilemma quite like Farhadi, and his writing is, as ever, spot-on in describing how real people behave in realistic (though horrible) situations. The Past rightly delivered Bejo the Best Actress prize at Cannes, and it will deliver New Zealand audiences yet another enthralling cinematic experience.

COMING UP: I’ve plenty more to look forward to as the week rolls on, including Which Way is the Front Line from Here? a documentary about the late photo- journalist, Tim Hetherington, made by his friend and colleague Sebastian Junger. I’ll be girding my loins for the Chinese crime drama A Touch of Sin and drinking in the quirky coming of age indie flick Frances Ha before Friday night’s Kiwi rock opera Romeo and Juliet: A Love Song which sets the most famous love story of all time in a Kiwiana campground. Mint.

Around the world in three films

This post first appeared on Watt to Watch, http://www.stuff.co.nz on 22nd July 2013

Yesterday I travelled around the world from the comfort of my seat.

I shouldn’t have been surprised that the Civic Theatre was packed out for the World Premiere of Antarctica: A Year on Ice. Kiwi filmmaker Anthony Powell has spent most of his adult life working on the great freezing continent, and has thoughtfully created a mind-blowing account of life there for those of us who will never get the chance to experience it for ourselves.

I have to admit, I wasn’t necessarily going to see this one – not much of a National Geographic girl, me – but my father visited Antarctica briefly some years ago, and I thought he’d enjoy it, so I dragged him along.

antarctica_cold -40 degrees

I was therefore (naively) quite unprepared for how simply stunning and enthralling every minute of footage was. Not only is Powell a keen user of time-lapse photography, he thought to interview the various people living at McMurdo and Scott bases throughout nightless summers and sunless winters. We therefore get an incredible insight into Polar T3 syndrome (the vague madness that seemingly prevails when one hasn’t seen sunlight for months) as well as the fun that incarceration produces.

If you missed Sunday’s screening, Aucklanders have only one more chance to see amazing night skies and 24-hour sunscapes in the best possible format. Get along to Tuesday’s session – you won’t regret it. (Those of you in the rest of the country – book your tickets now!)

Then I was off to Israel to interview the former heads of its Shin Bet secret service agency, in the documentary The Gatekeepers. It’s the first time any of the men has spoken publicly about the controversial and sometimes seat-squirming work carried out since the Six-Day War of 1967 in the name of Israel’s own War on Terror.

The documentary is subtle in form, but the message is profound. There is nice use of historical still photographs rendered almost like a moving image to give a sense of re-enactment – otherwise, mostly through talking heads, we hear about torture and collateral damage, and in some cases the growing regrets felt by certain Shin Bet leaders about actions taken. But for every equivocal response, there is another who makes no bones about the necessity of crushing the opposition. It makes for uneasy viewing.

The Gatekeepers is fascinating, and provides a helpful snippet of background for those of us gearing up to see the festival’s other Middle East stories (I’m looking forward to seeing Omar this afternoon, a West Bank thriller that won the Jury Prize at Cannes this year).

charulata_jpeg

I finished my cinema-going day in India, with the beautifully restored classic Charulata, by acclaimed director Satyajit Ray. WHAT a delightful surprise this was. Black and white, set in 1870s Calcutta, the subtitles call the film “The Lonely Wife” which sets the scene for our eponymous heroine to develop feelings for her husband’s young cousin. You can’t take your eyes off lead actress Madhabi Mukherjee, not because she is beautiful, but because of that indescribable X-Factor that true movie stars possess. Whether embroidering a hanky or dishing out withering glances, she is captivating.

Granted, if the film were in colour I would be raving about the costumes and jewellery too, but perhaps it’s just as well this is muted into greys, so we can concentrate on the action.

All the performances are charming, with no one drawn as such a villain or a spoilt brat that our loyalties are decided for us, and therefore the narrative is all the more moving. I’m so glad I got to see this in a proper cinema context, too. Catch Charulata if you can.

I’ve been lucky enough to see a couple of other gems now playing that are worth special mention. Stories We Tell is a deeply personal documentary by actress/director Sarah Polley, who interviews her father and siblings in an effort to paint a portrait of the mother who died when she was young. Well, every family has skeletons in its closet, right? but it’s not every day your investigations blow open the whole question of your identity AND you capture it on film. Polley’s home movie is nothing short of fascinating.

Stories We Tell

Matthew McConaughey has been on our screens a lot in the last year, playing increasingly edgy characters from the stripclub entrepreneur in Magic Mike to the serial killing statutory rapist in Killer Joe. In Mud he plays a much softer kind of outcast, an ex-crim, granted, but a man mostly driven by love for his former flame (Reese Witherspoon). He’s aided and abetted through the roughness of river life by young Ellis – the incredible Tye Sheridan from Tree of Life – and though some may feel the film’s ending doesn’t live up to its considerable efforts, most of it is terrific. And at least it’s not Killer Joe.

Candelabras, criminals and goblins

This post first appeared on Watt to Watch, http://www.stuff.co.nz 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.

Suspiria

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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