Lina Lamont

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

Archive for the tag “NZFF”

NZIFF begins! Five films to check out

The seasonal gods having rammed home the point that it’s well and truly winter, we can once again cheer up in the face of the expertly-curated New Zealand International Film Festival which kicks off in Auckland this week, before making its annual expedition around the country. With an action-packed fortnight ahead, here are some of the treats we have in store.

The documentaries are often the highlight of any film festival, and certainly fall into the “catch it while you can” category, since few make it back for a general release. This year’s crop is no exception. Whether your thing is art fraud or human rights atrocities, you’re in for a treat.

Art and Craft is an expertly constructed exploration into the life and crimes of prolific art forger, Mark Landis. Well, if you consider painting a perfect reproduction of a classic artwork and then gifting it away a crime. Even the experts featured differ on the extent to which they believe Landis is a menace to the art world whose clinical compulsions must be stopped. The documentary is fascinating both in its character examination (Landis’ sad background and ensuing life story is just begging for a cinematic retelling with some young Oscar nominee as the lead) and its structure: as one scene follows the investigators who are hot on his trail, the next cuts to Landis in his cluttered apartment, caught in the act, paintbrush in hand. Bittersweet yet unmissable.

With opening titles which shamelessly evoke many a gritty TV crime drama, E-Team’s on-the-ground portrait of four members of the Human Rights Watch Emergencies Team gets its worthy message across effectively. Interviews with battered survivors of crimes against humanity (often perpetrated by their own governments) are interposed with archive newsreel which shows just how often an E-Team report has made it to the headlines and even to the White House. It’s inspirational stuff, none more so than when we see these quiet warriors for justice back at home in Paris, New York or Geneva, snatching moments of ordinariness with their own families before shooting off again to fight the good fight.

Reaching for the Moon isn’t a documentary, but it is based on the real-life love story of American poet Elizabeth Bishop and the radical Brazilian architect who upended her literary and emotional world. Australian actress Miranda Otto portrays the prickly Bishop with aplomb, pitching her uptight sensibilities against the flamboyantly free Lota (Gloria Pires) as passion blooms in the most exquisite setting of Lota’s Rio home. Melodrama (perhaps inevitably) ensues but this pseudo biopic never fails to enthral.

Passion, teasing but repressed, is at the heart of Roman Polanski’s latest stage adaption, Venus in Fur. His cinematic rendering of Carnage was notable for cramming four Oscar-worthy actors into a New York apartment to tear each other apart over their children’s dispute. Here Polanski raises the bar by situating the entire hour and a half on an empty Parisian stage where two players, the director (Mathieu Amalric) and the would-be leading lady (Polanski’s own wife, Emmanuelle Seigner) audition each other for a play. The conceit is frequently provocative and endlessly intriguing.

And finally, if you think an engaging two-person show is a cinematic feat, be prepared to marvel at a film which 85-minute running time simply constitutes one man in his car. Tom Hardy sports a Welsh accent and a slowly-unfolding backstory as the titular Locke, a man under pressure from all quarters of his life who must project manage said pressures via his mobile speakerphone on a night-time drive from Birmingham to London. The plot is gripping as revelations are delivered gently, but it is Hardy’s characterisation which is magnetic as the camera barely leaves his face.


Gardening with Soul

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 15th September 2013

Not quite as racy as Rush but just as captivating is a peek into the life of Sister Loyola, the unbelievably sprightly nonagenarian nun at the centre of a local documentary which captured the hearts of recent film festival audiences. Graciously returning to cinemas so everyone gets a chance to see it, Gardening with Soul takes a simple premise – four seasons in the life of a God-graced gardener – and invites you to share in this quietly stimulating observation of nature’s journey.

Living at the home of the Sisters of Compassion in Island Bay, Sister Loyola is 90 going on 70, all gumboots, pragmatism and extremely wise words, including astute observations about how children are raised, based on years spent helping unmarried mothers. Her bond with babies is palpable and her compassion evident: “Never let children down,” she says “and if you find you’re not working so well with children – stop.” Not afraid to express her firm views on childrearing, she jokes “Because who can sack you when you’re in your 80s!”

Her insights extend to the various fabrics used for nuns’ habits over the years, and the various perils of each (too hot, too heavy), finishing with a typically pragmatic “What’s Rome got to do with it?”

Director Jess Feast clearly established a warm rapport with her subject, enabling the sharing of a story that dips into Sister Loyola’s early life, lost loves and her spiritual calling. It’s a lovely, candid portrait of one’s path to becoming a nun – but the film is also so universal in its themes and attitudes that the Sister’s tale will be as resonant to many viewers as her subsequent decades, spent tending to those in need, will be inspiring.

NZFF’s Autumn Events season

As an entrée to whet our appetites before the main course which will run from July, audiences in Auckland and Wellington can sample some of the finest arthouse movies around in the NZFF’s Autumn Events season.

The typically world-class cinema on offer includes a fascinating documentary about the lives of women in modern day India. The World Before Her follows two distinctly different young women as they attend training camps for the realisation of their dreams. Ruhi is a wannabe beauty queen who is vying to be crowned Miss India; her antithesis is Prachi, a militant Hindu nationalist who spurns such vanity and Westernism, and instead wants to fight for her country. As sari-clad children learn the butt from the barrel in rifle training, their instructor cries “Are you going to spend your whole life chopping vegetables?” The tension between the worlds makes this an unmissable film.

For something completely different but just as enthralling, Antiviral represents an exciting debut from Brandon Cronenberg. The son of body-horror maestro, David, Cronenberg Jr’s movie is brilliant in its conceit: a celebrity-obsessed culture where viruses are harvested from sick celebrities and transmitted to willing, paying fans. Taking the notion of body fetishisation as far as it can go, the story’s bleak narrative is propelled by a superb central performance which should make a star of Caleb Landry Jones. With a bleached-out aesthetic and excellent acting, this is an impressive start to what is bound to be an interesting career.

To imagine what cinema-going was like before people ruined it with brightly-lit texting and popcorn-chomping, check out Jean-Luc Godard’s seminal Bande à part. A sublime black and white throwback to simpler times, where a sole camera swings from character to character and background noise makes up the soundtrack, it’s a quirky tale of two men beguiling a young woman into criminal activity. Film buffs will enjoy picking the references used by later filmmakers such as Tarantino. Mainly it is a delicious way to spend a chilly evening, soaking up the French language and effortless Gallic charm.

Also a must-see, to bring you back abruptly to the current day, Eugene Jarecki’s documentary on the United States’ War on Drugs will surprise those who thought they’d seen it all before. The House I Live In presents extraordinary access to prisoners, their families, the authorities, and those still free on the street just making a living, shining a fresh light on this seemingly unwinnable war. It is sobering to learn that most of those involved in the thirty-plus year campaign have lost sight of and faith in their mission. The Wire creator, David Simon, is one of the many fascinating interviewees.

NZFF – Reality

So good I chose to see it twice, here’s Reality.

At Cannes this year, Matteo Garrone’s follow up to Gomorrah was awarded the Grand Prix (which, however “grand” it may sound, is actually the second prize) by the jury headed by compatriot Nanni Moretti.  There was sniffing at the announcement, and critical mutterings that suggested Moretti had favoured a fellow Italian unjustifiably.  Granted, Reality has its flaws, as did its predecessor – but overall I found it to be one of the bravest, most exciting new pieces of work I’ve seen in a long time.

Garrone had said he wanted to make something lighter following 2008’s tale of crime lords and brutal killing in Naples.  Here he turns his creative gaze to the bizarre, reality-TV world of Grande Fratello (Big Brother) and the fame and fascination garnered by its contestants.

The film’s opening shot sets the tone gloriously: Alexandre Desplat’s score mimics the tinkly magic of Danny Elfman over a two-minute helicopter shot that scans first across the city of Naples before zooming in on a horse-drawn carriage driven by courtiers in powdered wigs.  Pulled through gritty, ordinary streets, this anachronism enters enormous wrought iron gates and pulls up to a lavish wedding venue.  Continuously tracking, the documentary-style camerawork sticks to the gaudy couple that emerges from the coach and proceeds through a routine of confetti and white doves.  The fact that neither looks very comfortable or to be having the best day of their lives is indicative of what’s to come.

Enter our hero, Luciano the fishmonger, whose gregarious extended family all love and applaud him as the life and soul of the party.  Luciano is struck by the hyperbolic popularity of Grande Fratello contestant Enzo, so when his children push him to audition for the show, Luciano enters into the spirit of things with great gusto.

Garrone may have gone a bit soft, but he certainly hasn’t lost his edge.  The larger-than-life family shout and cajole like Italian Eastenders, garishly sequinned on the outside, then pensively support-stockinged when the night is over.   With the exception of Gomorrah‘s lead who has a cameo behind the bar, most of this cast will be new to us, adding to the sense of non-fiction, fly-on-the-stucco film-making.  The camera swirls and gets up in your face, but the brilliant actors carry on oblivious to such intrusion.

Garrone has a touch for casting novices and getting incredibly realistic performances; none more so than our hero, as played by first-timer Aniello Arena.  Prior to this, Arena had only ever acted in prison where he is currently serving a 19-year prison sentence.  This staggering piece of information captivated the press conference at Cannes, and while there was no confirmation of what crime he is in for, the beefy, tattooed fellow with jaw as sharp as a blade presumably didn’t have to go method to play the small-time crook who runs a racket to support his meagre fishery income.  Apparently Arena was let out of jail by day to film, then locked up again each night.  (How ironic, then, that his first role is someone who longs to be incarcerated in the Big Brother house and under surveillance 24/7.)  Arena is supported by an incredible cast, and it is fascinating to watch the film a second time with the knowledge of his real life, and marvel at how naturally his “wife” and “kids” perform alongside him.

With sharp, gaudy colours, exquisite production design (Naples never looked balmier or quainter) and enormous energy, Reality is one heck of a ride.  It is somewhat disturbing, then, when Luciano’s bright-eyed enthusiasm (described by the director as being like Pinocchio) starts to take a sinister slide into the darkness of delusion and obsession, necessarily bringing us all down to earth with a nasty jolt.  Garrone is none too subtle in exploring his theme but film students will have a whale of a time dissecting this masterpiece for years to come.

NZFF – Sightseers

Well.  It’s good to see where the BFI (who now dish out the Lotteries funding since the disestablishment of the UK Film Council) are doling out the money.  For starters, there’s this delightfully black comedy about a desperately ordinary couple who go on a road trip and commit serial murder – but only of the very worst people, of course.  Natural Born Killers it mercifully ain’t, and the tone is kept so light that we don’t even have to get into issues of folie a deux such as struck other north-of-Englanders like Hyndley and Brady, half a century ago.  Sightseers is good wholesome fun, just for larks.

Director Ben Wheatley debuted with last year’s underground hit Kill List, which also involved a lot of death.  This time he’s left the writing to the film’s stars, Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, who play the least glamourous, most authentic couple you’ve possibly ever seen on screen.  Newly together, Chris and Tina take off on a week’s caravanning holiday around heritage sites in the countryside, where they encounter obnoxious middle-class writers, obnoxious middle-class heritage boffins, obnoxious… hang on.  There’s perhaps a class issue going on here – but in any event, it’s written so that the audience is nodding its head approvingly rather than baulking as the body count rises.

Peppered with laugh-out-loud dialogue and absurdly hilarious physical comedy, plus superb support from Tina’s misanthropic mum back home, Sightseers is a glorious example of low-budget filmmaking done well, and a very encouraging tip of the hat to Britain’s future industry.  If it feels like it goes on a little long, the story is completely exonerated by a splendid finale.


NZFF – Dreams of a Life

The big reveal in this movie comes within the first few minutes.  In 2006 council workers broke down the door to a bedsit in North London, after their attempts to rouse the tenant whose rent was £2400 in arrears went unheeded.  As they pushed through the mound of unopened mail, they made a gruesome discovery: a flat coated in dusty cobwebs, the television still on, and 38 year old Joyce Vincent’s skeleton in front of the sofa.  It turned out Joyce had died three years earlier.  The startling thing was that Joyce hadn’t been reported missing and no one who heard the news report even realised it was her.

Filmmaker Carol Morley heard about the story and was intrigued, setting out to piece together a picture of  the mystery woman whose friends and family thought she’d dropped out of touch because she was off “having a wonderful life”.  Morley gently interviews ex-flatmates, erstwhile colleagues and old boyfriends, interposing the talking heads with a reconstruction of Joyce’s presumed final moments.  Actress Zawe Ashton personifies the Joyce that her friends fondly recall in well-directed, understated scenes, including a stunning piece of karaoke filmed in one long take, which seems to perfectly capture the essence of a beautiful young woman living an ultimately lonely life.

The story itself is incredible, and in bringing the characters from Joyce’s world out to reminisce and grapple with their own response to the tragic outcome, it’s impossible not to be deeply moved.  Morley handles every element with utmost care and discretion – it would have been easy to slip into mawkish voyeurism, blame-throwing and judgement, but instead we see an affecting tribute to one of life’s bright sparks, along with a deeper message about human interaction and the busy-ness of life in a 21st century world.

NZFF – Killer Joe

This overblown piece of pulp fiction about a cop who kills people for money does exactly what it says on the tin – so given I took the tin off the shelf, opened it, gorged for nearly two hours and then felt sick, it was my own silly fault really.  Doubtless others in the audience may be feeling the same way.

Echoing last year’s The Killer Inside Me, Matthew McConaughey plays a law man who saunters through life as a law-breaker, hired by loserville Chris Smith (Into The Wild‘s Emile Hirsch) to kill Chris’ mother so he can reap the insurance payout and settle his own criminal dues.  McConaughey’s Joe encounters Chris’ family of reprobates, immediately sizing them up as the undesirables they will prove to be, though he takes a fancy to Chris’ innocent younger sister Dottie, and claims her as his “retainer”.

The similarities with Jim Thompson’s noir novel are several, including the brutal and explicit beating of women and the impassive countenance of a smooth but crooked copper.  However, in The Killer Inside Me Casey Affleck impressed as a physically timid-looking, squeaky-voiced protagonist with nuanced motivations, and the script and performances were neatly directed by the excellent Michael Winterbottom.  By comparison, McConaughey – although potentially a career-best performance (which is still a bit of a backhanded compliment) – is already strapping, strong and indisputably the cool guy in town, controlling the backward Smith family and delivering some nasty blows.

With a collaborative film like this, it’s hard to know where to criticise the writer or the filmmaker.  Gina Gershon’s introduction – naked crotch first – is as grating for her acting histrionics as the exploitative nature of her character.  Strangely, a dopey Thomas Haden Church (from Sidewaysand TV’s Ned and Staceyback in the ’90s) brings relief to the harshness of Hirsch and Gershon’s effing and blinding, although his disloyal father figure rather deserves his own comeuppance.  Chris brought the whole thing upon himself.  Frankly, everyone’s horrid.

The story comes from the pen of Tracy Letts (a TV actor whose play has been a hit on Broadway and also staged here in NZ, and who wrote the film’s screenplay).  Surprising, but then again not so much, is that the tawdry content has been directed by William Friedkin – legendary director of ’70s classics such as The French Connection and The Exorcist, and now 76 years old.  Friedkin has clearly not lost his touch for feeding audience appetites, but his ability to produce such a nasty piece of work as this is somewhat disturbing.  The worst scenes in the film are part-horror in their cruelty and part-genius for making us squirm and wonder at our own motives for watching.

For me, the revelation was Juno Temple’s characterisation of the slightly dotty Dottie, emotionally vulnerable and a little kooky yet the only shining light in the whole dismal picture.  Temple won’t be remembered for previous roles in Atonement and The Dark Knight Rises, but this outstanding performance ought to see her move swiftly on to great things.  Dottie not only serves as a justification for Joe’s own weakness, but ours for having thought we actually like this kind of movie.

NZFF – How Far is Heaven

This New Zealand-made and focussed documentary is as impressive for its provenance as its exquisite photography and delightful subject matter.  Co-directors Chris Pryor and Miriam Smith spent a year living with the community at Jerusalem/Hiruharama on the Whanganui river, but even before that they visited many times over a period of years, to gain trust and receive permission, not even knowing exactly what they would film or what story would eventually be revealed. 

Their faith, patience and hard yards paid off, as How Far is Heaven paints a stunning portrait of a village, a people, and three devoted nuns who “accompany” the community in its daily life.  The Sisters of Compassion have lived in Jerusalem since the 1880s, and these Pakeha women of God continue to live alongside the Maori families, teaching at the school, encouraging kindness and fairness, and learning their own lessons about life.

The film gently follows a selection of children, a couple of adults, and one nun in particular, Sister  Margaret Mary, who is newest to the village and speaks hopefully about her calling and her openess to learning from the locals.  The handling of religious subject matter is pitch-perfect, filming prayers, Bible readings and candid discussions between the nuns so we see how natural, unpressured and gracious their received wisdom can be.  Almost more importantly, the Maori community is treated without judgement or condescension – while we laugh at DJ’s hypotheses about heaven’s distance from earth and the existence of the local taniwha, there is a matter-of-fact solemness when another child talks fondly of his father in jail. 

Pryor and Smith must surely have had thousands of hours from which to sew this patchwork quilt, and they have created a magical picture of what will be, to many of us, an almost mystical world.  Without the need for a crazy central character or dramatic narrative arc, How Far is Heaven‘s grace and subtlety lends weight to how we can justify calling our country Godzone.

NZFF – Sleepless Night

For those who enjoyed the recent “24 hours in hell” story of The Raid, this French cop thriller is likely to be as enticing.  The story bursts onto the screen in a haze of gunfire and car-chases, delivering our protaganist to a nightclub where he spends the rest of the film, in real time, trying to fix one problem after another.

Corruption is rife, the goodies look (and behave) like the baddies, and initially it’s pretty hard to keep up with who’s on which side of the law.  What’s delicious about the narrative is its double-crossing of us, the audience, as we can’t tell where to put our allegiance and whether indeed we should be rooting for anyone.  Ultimately it’s the strong, charismatic central performance of solo dad Vincent (Tomer Sisley) that grabs our hand and drags us through the labyrinthine back rooms of the club as he gets in and out of some pretty bruising scrapes.

The less spoiled, the better.  Sleepless Night is edge-of-seat filmmaking, where any plot-holes are cemented up by faultless, impressively-choreographed fight scenes and any complaint we might utter about a character’s motivation is silenced by our admiration of the execution. 

NZFF – Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present

In most film festivals you just know it’ll be the documentaries that leave the longest lasting memory.  This surprising Portrait of the Artist is a case in point.  As George Emerson cried out in Room With A View:”Truth! Beauty!”  He was on to something.  Because it’s the truth and authenticity portrayed in this film that delivers an extraordinary sense of beauty about the world.

Marina Abramovic is a Serbian-born performance artist in her early sixties, renowned for using her (often naked) body in her art and producing provocative, sometimes shocking installations.  Termed “alternative” since she started out forty odd years ago, she wants to reject the term now, but even by today’s standards Abramovic’s interpretation of what can constitute “art” may be seen as ground-breaking.

The film introduces us to Abramovic’s world, with curators, assistants and other artists discussing her impact, before focusing on the lead-up to her recent three-month retrospective on all six floors of MOMA in New York.  Entitled “The Artist is Present”, the exhibition not only showcases the highlights of her illustrious career, but does what it says on the tin: for she is literally there in person, every single day, as part of one amazing performance.  Abramovic conceived to sit, still and silent, in a chair opposite an empty chair – and invite members of the public to sit, lock gaze with her, and just be.

To the untrained art-appreciator’s eye, this may not seem like much, although the film pays due attention to Abramovic’s consideration of the physical and mental toll such an ordeal could bring.  But what transpires is the incredible power of silent viewing /watching/ looking/seeing between two human beings.  For us, the cinema audience, it is nothing short of captivating.

In fact, “captivating” isn’t even the right term – it implies we’re just sitting there in the dark ourselves, watching people being watched, but this doesn’t capture it at all.  We are instead deeply moved seeing others deeply moved.  People sit in front of Abramovic and miracles happen.  It is human connection in its purest form, and presents one of the most touching, beautiful things you are likely to see all festival.

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