Nearly Every Film at the New Zealand International Film Festival, Reviewed A-Z

Screen

04.08.2017

Nearly Every Film at the New Zealand International Film Festival, Reviewed A-Z

Your daily coverage of this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival

The 2017 New Zealand International Film Festival is upon us and, like you, we’re ready to devour everything from the luscious to the weird to the spellbindingly profound.

Alongside our longer reviews and interviews, our team are reporting back daily with quick-fire reviews - brought to you this year by Doug Dillaman (Auckland), Jacob Powell (Auckland), Erin Harrington (Christchurch), David Larsen (Wellington) and Brannavan Gnanalingam (Wellington).

6 Days
A Date for Mad Mary
A Gentle Creature

A Ghost Story
A Monster Calls
Araby
Austerlitz
Bad Genius
Bang! The Bert Berns Story
Bangkok Nites
Beach Rats

Belle De Jour
Blade of the Immortal
Call Me by Your Name
China's Van Goghs
Claire's Camera

Columbus
Dina
Don’t Swallow My Heart, Alligator Girl!
Ethel and Ernest
Faces, Places
Félicité
God's Own Country
Good Time
Happy End
Hema Hema: Sing Me A Song While I Wait
Heal the Living
I Am Not a Witch
I Am Not Your Negro
In Times of Fading Light
 It Comes At Night
Kim Dotcom: Caught in the Web
Kobi

Leaning Into the Wind: Andy Goldsworthy
Loveless
Let the Sunshine In
Maliglutit
Manifesto

Menashe
Minute Bodies: The Intimate World of F. Percy Smith
Multiple Maniacs
My Life as a Courgette
My Year with Helen
New Zealand's Best

Ngā Whanaunga Māori Pasifika Shorts 2017
Nowhere To Hide
On Body and Soul
Pop Aye
Quest
Risk
Stalker
Starless Dreams
Super Dark Times
Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton

Secret Screening: The Belko Experiment
The Evil Within

The Farthest
The Inland Road
The Killing of a Sacred Deer

The Lost City of Z
The Love Witch
The Merciless
The Square
The Teacher
The Untamed
The War Show
Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present
Top of the Lake: China Girl
Tragedy Girls
Una
Western
What Lies That Way

Wind River
Working in Protest

Yourself and Yours


6 Days

A well executed exercise in slow-mounting tension, Toa Fraser’s 6 Days boasts a pleasingly restrained narrative and performances in a genre that would generally overplay its hand in search of adrenalised action sequences. Choosing to remain faithful to the historical events of the titular 6 Days terrorist siege of the London Iranian Embassy in 1980, Fraser’s film embraces its constraints to deliver a taut thriller threading three key perspectives into a lean 95 minutes. These perspectives include: the relatively inexperienced SAS team member Rusty Firmin, whose training is put to the ultimate test; Metropolitan Police Inspector Max Vernon bringing to bear his newly minted hostage negotiator skills; and BBC reporter Kate Adie who holds her ground as extraordinary and dangerous events unfold in front of her.

Probably one of the more conventionally approachable films of the festival programme, 6 Days occupies similar genre territory to Yann Demange’s 2014 Northern Irish military thriller ‘71. If Fraser’s film doesn’t play quite as poetically as Demange’s, it does share excellent production design, giving each movie a realism and immediacy upon which it can build its tension. Jamie Bell as Rusty Firman and Mark Strong as Max Vernon give well-pitched performances – Mark Strong’s nuanced evocation of Vernon’s discomfort at misleading someone he has built up trust with is a particular standout – but though I’m an Abbie Cornish fan (I loved her Fanny Brawne in Jane Campion’s 2009 Keats romance Bright Star) I wasn’t entirely convinced by her intrepid newswoman act as Kate Adie (though it’s worth mentioning that in our Auckland post-screening Q+A, Ms. Adie herself gave Cornish her seal of approval).

6 Days is a smartly constructed and entertaining thriller and probably one of the better historic event dramatisations you’ll likely come across. And for those with an interest in things military, the SAS training, tooling up, and direct action sequences should prove most satisfying. JP

Auckland | Wellington Christchurch | Dunedin


A Date for Mad Mary

This Irish story of twenty-something ‘Mad’ Mary coming to terms with herself is loaded with charm, in no small part added to by a slew of gorgeous East Coast Irish accents. Mary begins the film exiting prison after a short stint, having been sent up for a bar fight gone wrong, just in time to be the maid of honour at her best friend Charlene’s wedding in three weeks time. Annoyed that Charlene has given away her wedding +1 space – because who’s Mary’s going to bring, right? – Mary attempts to find a date to prove them all wrong, hence A Date for Mad Mary. The acknowledged bad girl of her neighbourhood – she seems to be on a first name basis with security staff from several local bars – Mary’s temper gets the better of her as she soon realises Charlene doesn’t seem to actually want to spend any time with her. Muddying the waters even more, Jess, the pretty and friendly videographer Mary visits to pay the wedding video deposit, takes a shine to Mary just as she is feeling on the outer from her old friends.

A Date for Mad Mary is engaging and relatable, with strong themes – wedding stress, friendships drifting apart, slowly burgeoning self-awareness and subconscious self-sabotage – and strong characters but it is occasionally let down by subpar writing at key moments. This is evinced in several clunky exchanges, such as a later argument between Mary and Jess, where their earlier more awkward sequences worked really well. Seána Kerslake’s grounded performance as Mary really drives the film, aided by good support performances (including Mary’s highly inappropriate nan in comic relief mode). For a character who is a very strong, often abrasive personality, Kerslake brings a nuance and sensitivity which noticeably lifts the drama despite the at times faltering script. JP

Auckland | Wellington Christchurch | Dunedin


A Gentle Creature

It takes a very special filmmaker to make me say “fuck you” under my breath twice, in the last two scenes of a movie, for two entirely different reasons. But I should start by acknowledging the breadth of Sergei Loznitsa’s talent and accomplishment. Named after a Dostoyevsky story but ignoring its plot, Loznitsa instead takes his inspiration for his excoriating portrait of Russia from Frenchman Robert Bresson’s taciturn, martyred, none-too-bright protagonists. Bresson himself made a film called Une Femme Douce, an adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s story, and the lead character in Loznitsa’s Russian-set film (Vasilina Makovtseva, impossibly dour) is actually credited as “une femme douce” in this French co-production. This is just one of the dozens of braids of referentiality woven into this work, many of which went flying over my head. From lingering shots of busts of Lenin to claims that Marx ruined Russia to numerous songs with obvious historical import, this feels like a film made for Russians, not international audiences.

Which is not to say the film is complicated. The plot is almost ludicrously simple: our protagonist is trying to deliver a parcel to her husband in prison, but the prison refuses it. She chooses to go to the prison to deliver it. The prison refuses it. She goes back. Et cetera. It’s a one-note story of obstinancy from Russia’s least street-wise woman as she endures an endless series of unpleasant claustrophobic settings, Kafkaesque encounters with bureaucracy, and sexist microaggressions that threaten to bubble over into macroaggressions at any moment. All of this is staged in long single shots with undeniable craft, accompanied by overheard anecdotes chronicling all the horrific aspects of Russia that can’t fit onscreen.

After two hours, you can’t help but feel the mechanistic grind of the degradation of our heroine, but just when the inevitable seems likely, the film takes what seems a sharp left turn in register, a lengthy scene out of Twin Peaks or Fellini, and my interest briefly perked up. It’s a welcome aesthetic shakeout and one that lays bare Loznitsa’s intention to place blame not on government but the very character of the Russian people. And then - well, as I said, I said fuck you twice. Suffice it to say that the humiliations for our heroine are not over. And for a director with two films in the festival, to have the concentration camp documentary be the film with the less bleak ending is some form of accomplishment, I guess. The question “is (x film) good” is always one I find frustrating, but it’s rarely seemed less relevant than with A Gentle Creature, a film of impeccable craft and thoughtful construction I find nearly impossible to recommend to any but the most masochistic or intellectually aspirational viewers. DD

Auckland | Wellington 


A Ghost Story

Apparently, the making of A Ghost Story almost defeated director David Lowery. As a creative person, I take some small amount of consolation from that, because the resulting film is the most towering creative achievement of the 2017 film world thus far, an audacious conceit and true work of genius, and he makes it look so damn easy. There’s a good chance you know that the ghost of the story is a person under a sheet - you may even know who that person is, and if not, with Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara as the leads, you’ve got a 50% chance of making a guess - but storywise, I recommend you know nothing else.

Which is not to say you should arrive entirely unprepared. I was recently reading an anecdote about Tarkovsky explaining how the Russian arts agency wanted the opening of Stalker to be pacier, to which he angrily replied that it needed to be more boring, so that the people who have wandered into the wrong film have time to wander away. A Ghost Story has a similar commitment to its slow pace, and I can’t imagine what sort of terrible CinemaScores people expecting an actorly showcase a la Manchester By The Sea will give this film. It’s this pace that makes the doggedly literal treatment of the ghost not an object of comedy - a vein mined already in Sergio Caballero’s Finisterrae - but a protagonist to be taken seriously as we experience a haunted house from the inside.

While the first third promises a meditation on grief, eventually it becomes something else entirely, something larger, more ambitious, and more cosmic than its seemingly modest premise and lo-fi aesthetic promises. I go to the cinema to get taken into a world I could never imagine, and it’s harder and harder to get that feeling the more you watch. Anchored by a distinctive and powerful score by Daniel Hart, quietly stunning low-light cinematography captured in a squarish frame, an amazing central speech by Will Oldham, and editing rhythms that capture the nightmarish flow of time slipping away in fluid but unpredictable ways (in part facilitated by additional editor Shane Carruth of Primer/Upstream Color fame). A Ghost Story is the first film of NZIFF 2017 to deliver a bold new vision, and it’s my favourite film of the year. DD

Auckland | Wellington | Christchurch | Dunedin


A Monster Calls

12-year-old Conor’s mum is dying of cancer. It’s unfair, and awful, and no one is there to help: his harried grandma is cold and distant, his Dad moved state-side years ago, and he’s even pitied by the kid who bullies him. As he stews in a mixture of anger and grief, he is visited by – and perhaps even summons – a huge arboreal monster who lives a nearby yew tree. The monster offers Conor some stories in return for the truth behind Conor’s recurring nightmares, but the tales don’t necessarily contain the answers that Conor wants to hear.

Patrick Ness has adapted his own young adult novel for the screen, and the transfer to film enriches the work immensely, thanks largely to some breathtaking SFX. The (genuinely scary!) monster, voiced with no-nonsense gravitas by Liam Neeson, is a tough love BFG, and its liminal, arboreal dream-world intrudes into the everyday with a sense of physicality that’s quite remarkable. The monster’s ambivalent morality tales are also animated richly: menacing faceless figures move fluidly through fairy tale worlds that blur and drip with wet-in-wet ink and watercolour work. All this visual panache serves the story; for all its size and noise, A Monster Calls is a powerfully intimate tale, and one worth seeing. As you’d expect, by the end it’s a real tear-jerker, although despite its DEFCON 5-level of emotional trauma it manages to avoid being trite or saccharine (except for a tacky, misplaced song over the closing credits). Instead, it’s a beautifully rendered (literally and metaphorically) exploration of difficult, conflicting emotional truths. EH

Auckland | Wellington | Christchurch | Dunedin


Araby

It’s early in the festival to miss the point of movies, only to work it out hours after the fact, but here we are. In my defense, this Brazilian film does a fair bit to wrong-foot the viewer, from its perplexing title (an apparent reference to a joke part-way through the film about the unquestioning work ethic of Brazilian workers) to an opening framing story that disappears 15 minutes in.

Initially a portrait of adolescent life lived in the shadow of a factory, Araby picks up the story of Cristiano, one of the workers who’s been hospitalised. The film jumps back in time, following his years on the road that brought him to this fate. I spent most of the runtime frustrated that it fell between my perceptions of what it wanted to achieve and its locked down photography preventing the woozy rural reveries of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, its largely charisma-free protagonist defying easy identification, andf its “tell-don’t-show” attitude to much of its narrative showcasing its budgetary limitations. This isn’t to say it’s without virtue, from its attentive use of sound and uncommon insights into rural labour to its precise attention to framing moments and objects, but the slow pace and over-reliance on narration left me increasingly frustrated.

It’s only in Araby’s closing lap that I began to get the hint that I was missing the point, as Cristiano settles into the bruising work of the factory. Throughout the film, much time is spent depicting the physical nature of work, and a closing cri-du-coeur underlines how exhausting, frustrating, and ultimately breaking the demands of labour have been for Cristiano. It’s not that we haven’t seen films that valorize the working class before, of course, but so many lead with “the plight of the worker” that their form feels functional. By devoting much of its runtime to hangouts with labourers and trips through rural roads, Araby grounds its message in much less manipulative trappings – than for example the cinema of Ken Loach – yet lands its final blow in a much more resonant manner. The sort of quiet film that only gets attention in a festival setting but can also drown there amidst more controversial titles, Araby will be easy to dismiss, but in its unassuming way, it feels more and more important at a day’s distance. DD

Auckland | Wellington 


Austerlitz

It stands to reason that a documentary about concentration camps – shot at Dachau and Sachsenhausen – would be one of the most misanthropy-inducing films of the festival, but perhaps not in the way you expect. The sheer rage that boiled in me throughout Austerlitz was not directed at the Nazis (my incoming opinion of them as reprehensible human beings remained constant), but at the tourists using the landscape of the concentration camp as a background for selfies, texting, snacking, and wandering around in stupefied boredom.

Ukrainian Sergei Loznitsa, simultaneously one of our most calmly analytical and savage filmmakers (and also represented at NZIFF in the forthcoming drama A Gentle Creature), employs a strategy similar to that seen in his earlier Maidan, using wide shots from fixed camera positions to document masses of humans (this time, in black and white). With all but tour guide dialogue muted to a dull roar – no subtitles appear or are needed for the first fifteen minutes – and shot lengths routinely measured in minutes, it can seem like a game of Where’s Waldo? at points. But the use of careful sound design helps direct our eye around the frame: a shutter click directs us to a woman “humourously” posing behind bars, a crunch to another balancing a water bottle on her head.

If at first Austerlitz (confusingly similar to Auschwitz, but named after W.G. Sebald’s wartime novel) seems like a petty and overlong exercise in indicting gauche tourists, its cumulative length eventually directs the viewer to a different conclusion. A relative recently asked me “Why should I go as a tourist to a concentration camp? I already know what happened.” As a good liberal, I want to say that there is value in confronting the reality directly. But as Austerlitz unspools, the sheer litany and variety of wrong ways in which to engage with the camps leaves one wondering if there is a right way. The distance between “tourist site” and “learning experience” seems increasingly unbridgeable, and tour guides often seem more intent on imposing their own values then providing an understanding. Moments of grace do occur, but are quickly obliterated by crass behaviour. By the time the crematoria are used both as site for fomenting questions about what “really happened” and backdrop for seductive portraits, one’s tempted to argue that we’re better off with the gates closed to visitors. Austerlitz isn’t easy to recommend, but the thorn in my side isn’t coming out anytime soon. DD


It'd be fair to say that a film featuring people walking through concentration camps for 90 minutes may be a hard sell. And yes, little happens in the documentary, except tourists being tourists. We watch tourists take selfies (including at the infamous "arbeit macht frei" gates), eat food (including in non-food areas), and rush to take photos and leave as soon as they've checked their cameras.

Loznitsa pointedly asks (drawing a reference to WG Sebald's masterpiece of the same name), what is our contemporary relationship to such important historical places? When you see the tourists' perfunctory glance at the horrors, and the casual way they are all dressed and behave, have the spaces themselves lost their original impact? For many of the tourists, it's as if they're ticking a box by visiting. The place itself has become ahistorical and decontextualized – when they walk out of the gates at the end, it's almost as if they've just left any other famous monument. Does the crowd's indifference mean we have forgotten the processes that led to such events – the rise of the alt-right and use of fascistic and "othering" language in recent European and American elections suggest perhaps.

Loznitsa's documentary however, does not let the viewer off. We end up watching the tourists, rather than examining the space itself, meaning the documentary formally questions our own relationship to the space. The tourists drift in and out of shot, almost with their own rhythm. The camera is placed often in locations where prisoners themselves would have been. With the sheer number of people now inhabiting such a space, you wonder what room is there for the ghosts of its former inhabitants. BG

Auckland | Wellington


Bad Genius

Expectations have been running high for this ripped-from-the-(Thai)-headlines exam cheating nail biter, and Bad Genius doesn't disappoint. It helps that the titular scholarship pupil Lynn is perfectly cast – Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying’s minimalist performance is captivating and a perfect foil to her more broadly comic partners in crime – but mostly it comes down to cracker jack direction. At times, Bad Genius is as slick and assured as any film I've seen this year, but director Nattawut Poonpiriya isn't afraid of a tripod and knows when to slow the pace to let character moments register, and when to tighten the screws with nail-biting intensity.

At 130 minutes, Bad Genius was the longest film of a five-film day. In practice, it felt like the fleetest. Some crowd-pleasing edges and a slight sheen of a youth melodrama may turn off the hardcore arthouse crowd, but a soupcon of blistering class critique goes a long way to allowing elitist audiences to feel good enjoying a crowd pleaser. Don't be surprised if a smart distributor picks this one up. Wait, we're in New Zealand, and it's not about old ladies drinking tea or World War II? Catch it while you have the chance. DD

Auckland | Wellington


Bang! The Bert Berns Story

All I knew going into this film was “American music documentary”. My heart sank fifteen seconds in when I saw the director had the same last name as its subject, turns out it’s his son. The first few minutes – a brief summary of the accomplishments of New York record producer Berns, driven by Stevie Van Zandt’s wise-guy voiceover ­– made it clear that this would be documentary 101 filmmaking. However, I found myself enjoying it more than I expected. It helps that Berns wrote and produced some flat-out great songs: “Tell Him”, “Twist and Shout”, “Piece of My Heart”, “Hang on Sloopy”, “Brown-Eyed Girl” … it’s cliché to say the list goes on and on, but in this case it really does.

If you’re going to base your film largely around talking heads interviews (there seems to be no archive footage of Berns, merely stills and some stray pieces of audio at the beginning of takes), it also helps to have great interviews. With family members, music greats (Solomon Burke, Ben E. King, Paul McCartney, Keith Richards), and one organised crime connection on camera, plus more than a few wild turns of plot, there’s enough moments of genuine interest, emotion and humour to overcome the onslaught of glittering generalities about Berns’s greatness. It’s the songs that speak most eloquently for his legacy, though, and hearing iterations of “Twist and Shout” as it developed or two (!) songs recorded by Berns after dragging their singers from funerals of loved ones was pure catnip for the music lover in me. Looking for a film that transcends its subject with bravura craftsmanship? Look elsewhere. But as a palette cleanser, it did the trick. DD

Auckland | Wellington | Christchurch | Dunedin


Bangkok Nites

I felt some consolation when I discovered that several other cinephiles were just as perplexed by Bangkok Nites as I was, if not more. Initially set in an area of Bangkok rife with nightclubs that service Japanese businessmen, Bangkok Nites introduces a cast of characters, then gradually expands its scope of inquiry... then keeps expanding. A trip to the countryside winds up taking forty-five minutes. The colonial legacy, wartime wounds, and Japan’s economic collapse all fall under the purview of the film. An appreciate viewer, such as Jeremy Elphick at 4:3, will fall under the spell of director Tomita Katsuya’s dense thematic stew.

In fact, I’d co-sign that review, with one additional closing sentence: “Also, the characters were unengaging, I cared about and understood nothing that happened in the narrative, and I spent great stretches of the film fighting off sleep.” To type that makes me feel a failure, a simpleton: “too long, too slow, too confusing” are charges leveled against films that I love, and the approval that Bangkok Nites has been met with in other quarters makes me feel like I missed the boat. But a late-breaking scene where a character buys a gun, and then does precisely nothing with it, left me convinced that Tomita hasn’t reached a satisfactory method for mixing narrative expectations with his greater artistic concerns.

Some similarly-challenging filmmakers, like Lav Diaz in Norte, The End of History, have a sharper grasp on narrative; others, like Apichatpong Weerasethakul in Cemetery of Splendour, transcend narrative expectations with aesthetic reveries. Tomita’s approach doesn’t satisfy either pole, and I suspect only those purely disinterested in narrative will find Bangkok Nites meeting their needs. Or perhaps it’s my expectations that were misaligned, and a second viewing would be revelatory. Either way, Bangkok Nites is exclusively for the viewer who wants to wrestle with their films. (Even those who use arthouse cinema as a cover for watching sexually-explicit material will be disappointed: despite its setting, not so much as a nipple as shown, simultaneously proof of Tomita’s seriousness of intent and lack of interest in catering to some - any - audience). DD

Auckland | Wellington


Beach Rats

In discussing the films on offer at the NZIFF, director Paul Oremland (100 Men) opined that Beach Rats “will possibly appeal just to a gay audience”. As a straight man who was highly anticipating the latest by Eliza Hittman (It Felt Like Love), I wasn’t sure how to take this. In the year where Moonlight won Best Picture depicting a blossoming gay romance, are there gay dramas that straight festival audiences still can’t take? I’m not sure, and I certainly didn’t take a straw poll at the door, but my wife noticed it was the most heavily male-skewing session she’d attended in years. So I’ll make the assumption that Oremland was right.

Your loss, blinkered straight people! With her previous feature, Hittman showed an exquisite sensitivity to the inner emotional state of a teen coming to terms with her sensuality, but also showed limitations by placing her in an underrealised world and getting a very limited, fatally deterministic tone out of both her narrative and her young lead. Returning to Brooklyn, Beach Rats is simultaneously a quantum leap forward and identifiably of a piece with her previous film. Her use of quietly observational camera work, sometimes exploding into tactile moments of grace (in bed, at a dance) out of a Claire Denis film has only become more assured, and a strong attention to a slightly stylised use of sound is evident. Exploring the world of a young man exploring his sexuality in a highly heteronormative environment has perhaps meant a greater attention to detail, and while the journey of Beach Rats is a rocky road, there are moments of grace and joy along the way.

What really elevates Beach Rats, though, is the performance by lead Harris Dickinson as Frankie, a massive step-up from the non-professional impassive lead of her previous film. It’s a horrible and toxic cliche to call actors playing gay roles “brave”, but as the film went on I felt that it was an appropriate adjective, not because of the more explicit demands of the role but because Dickinson either lays his vulnerability completely bare or is such a consummate performer that it feels like he is. Hittman constantly captures a sense that she’s tagging along capturing unforced reality, rather than staging scenes, and her knowing portrait of Frankie as he navigates both his own self-understanding and social strictures (particularly those of his perpetually shirtless hoodlum friends) is laced with tiny slivers of truth. At one point, his on-again, off-again girlfriend admits to making out with another girl, “because it’s hot”. He asks her, as a way of testing the water to reveal his own proclivities, if it’s hot if two guys make out. “No, it’s just gay.” It’s a shame that Beach Rats the film is as likely to be summarily rejected by straight audiences as “just gay”, but if you want an exquisitely observed portrait of a human being in crisis, and aren’t afraid of male genitalia, it’s superlative. DD

Auckland | Wellington


Belle De Jour

In most cases, having a woman near you bring a small wheezy dog (maybe a Papillon? I chose not to ask) into the Civic, then kiss it to attempt to quieten it, would be ruinous for a film. And yet I suspect Luis Buñuel would have appreciated that surreal touch. Returning to Auckland for the second time on its 50th anniversary lap after an April screening – someone give Aaron Yap a weekly program to curate, please! – Buñuel’s classic exploration of the maddening power of incomprehensible desire has lost none of its beguiling power. Many filmmakers have been emboldened to explore sexuality much more explicitly in intervening times, but few have been as respectful to the mysteries of desire.

On the big screen, the precision of Bunuel’s eye and his sublime sense of camera movement help illuminate his almost subliminal craft. I’d forgotten the strange gangster subplot, but from the moment the characters are introduced outside a movie theatre where the Herald-Tribune is being sold - the same paper hawked by Jean Seberg in Breathless – it’s clear that Buñuel’s aim (and co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière, working from Joseph Kessel’s novel) is to connect our desires as filmgoers to our other more carnal desires. We may never have our desires truly fulfilled, but each exploration of fantasy – on screen, or in our bedrooms – digs deeper into the great unknown question: what do we truly want, and will we know it when we have it?

As we follow Catherine Deneuve’s Severine through her exploration of desire (in one of the truly iconic, unattainable beauty-queen performances of cinema), the offputting-to-some specificity of her desire fades away, until we are released with her in a closing moment of overwhelming rapture. We may not want what she wants, but we all are powered by our own wants. In an era of over-literalisation, this sublime ode to the mystery of the human spirit seems impossibly fresh. DD

Auckland | Wellington


Blade of the Immortal

Takashi Miike is back! After a couple of middling efforts (at least the ones to reach our shores), on his 100th film the Japanese goreteur pulls out all the stops and fronts up with a veritable feast of viscera. Nearest kin to his other recent Samurai epics, 13 Assassins and Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, Blade of the Immortal mixes the classic chambara visuals of these films with the hyper-stylised violence of Ichi the Killer. Miike is a master cinema artist, painting the screen in balletically delivered spurts of blood and I loved every single stroke! Perhaps this came at the just time I needed something gloriously removed from reality, but it really hit the spot, right from the creative opening shot involving a stylised blood spatter resolving from a blank screen into a fight scene.

A tale of interconnected tragedies, we begin with Manji, an erstwhile samurai guardsman on the lam after being dishonourably used in plots of the more powerful. Manji has a run in with a bounty hunter, and his 100 lackeys, which turns into a bloodbath after they attack his sister. On his deathbed, after killing his assailants, Manji is involuntarily healed of his mortal wounds by a mysterious 800 year old nun and subsequently cursed with near immortality when all he wants is to die. Living apart from other people, he is eventually found 80 years later (after interference from the nun once again) by a teenage girl Rin, feisty daughter of the well-respected leader of a local academy for master swordsmen. Rin convinces Manji to let her hire him as a bodyguard as she plots revenge on the leaders of Itto Ryu – a school of swordplay who are forcing all other Edo schools into a choice of submission or death – who have slaughtered her family. Casual dismemberment ensues.

Based on a Manga series of the same name, which began in the 1990s, the film’s narrative is understandably tight and cohesive despite a number of plot and character twists. Manji slowly works his way through various (almost supernaturally) skilled members of the Itto Ryu like a (far more believably dangerous) Japanese Scott Pilgrim, dispatching evil-exes. Manji proves an amusingly gruff and fault-filled character who utilises his immortality as a weapon rather than as a ‘just in case’ back-stop. Blade of the Immortal’s fight choreography is exquisite, delivering artfully executed and differentiated one-to-one and one-to-many battles. And I wasn’t joking about the dismemberment. Not only does our (anti-)hero lose limbs, he also deprives many of his foes of hands, feet, and heads along the way. More than once a disembodied hand, still gripping hard to a sword, can be seen casually laying in the background of a scene. As is usually the case with Miike, the gore is fantastical rather than sickeningly realistic, and matched with a story you can sink your teeth into Blade of the Immortal delivers a toothsome, dark-edged action fantasy for those in need of some bloody good fun. JP

Auckland | Wellington | Christchurch | Dunedin


Call Me by Your Name

Director Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash) is one of the great cinematic sensualists of our time, but his collections of glorious moments – some might call them indulgences – haven’t always produced a satisfying whole. James Ivory (famous as a director, here providing script duties) has spent a lifetime chronicling the minute gradations of human passions under societal pressures with results which can sometimes be suffocating. The combination of these two talents could have been chalk and cheese, but here ­– working from Andre Aciman’s novel – their collaboration is breathtakingly sublime.

Set in the 1980s somewhere in northern Italy – literally, that’s what the opening title card says – the chronicle of a young man (Timothée Chalamet) and his rising passion for a visiting student (Armie Hammer), unfolds at a deceptively languorous and restrained pace. While two hours enjoying a summery Italian countryside (shot on grainy film, using a single 35mm lens) might be enough for some viewers, particularly with Guadagnino’s knack for capturing moments of sensual pleasure, there’s much more going on here than first meets the eye.

If the romance film is largely an escapist fantasy, then gay audiences have been historically given short shrift by Hollywood. My viewing companion and I struggled afterwards to recall another film of this scale which has depicted a homosexual romance, particularly in a period setting, without a homophobic antagonist. But while our protagonists are spared the slings and arrows of Brokeback Mountain-style discrimination, the subtler social pressures are never far from mind.

The result is a film whose final emotional payload is something far more devastating, but also more graceful, than one might expect. Some viewers might find its sometimes-glancing depiction of gay physical intimacy to be overly cautious – conversely, one couple near me fled the theatre after an orchard-centric gloss on American Pie, of all things – but personally, as an inveterate hater of “this was the summer that changed my life” films, I found everything about Call Me by Your Name damn close to flawless. DD

Auckland | Wellington Christchurch | Dunedin


Claire's Camera

There have been worse films at this year’s festival, but I don’t think I’ve seen one so frustratingly half-assed. Named after a magic camera that either transfigures people once the picture is taken or takes pictures of people as how they really are - the conceit is so underdeveloped as to be tediously opaque - Claire’s Camera was shot by 'four films a year' Hong Sang-Soo at Cannes 2016.

For Hong devotees like myself, there are minor pleasures to be had in wondering how much of the film business and relationship foibles are drawn from real life, but even fans will notice the failure to take advantage of the film festival setting, the rambling improv-esque distended dialogue, and the general half-assedness of what feels like either an overblown short or underdeveloped feature. Even the usually reliable Isabelle Huppert - the MVP of Michael Haneke’s Happy End, also screening - is left out to dry in a series of one-take drawn-out ESL conversations, spending half her time gawping like a stunned mullet and repeating what she’s heard. When the film abruptly cuts to its protagonist (Kim Min-Hee) taping up boxes to send home, it’s as if Hong ran out of shooting time, and needed to wrap up the film without an ending. Claire’s Camera has been one of the word-of-mouth duds of the festival, and I went in hoping to offer an ardent defense, but all I can say is: believe the hype. DD

Auckland | Wellington


Columbus

Less than a year after the stupendous Paterson shone a light on the artistic heritage of small-town America, pseudonymous video essayist Kogonada makes his feature debut by turning to another town’s heritage for inspiration: the unlikely architectural jewel of Columbus, Indiana. Despite its assonance with Jarmusch’s latest film, Columbus, the story of the gradual friendship between a young native (Haley Lu Richardson, in a performance achingly transparent and gorgeous) and the son of a visiting architecture expert (John Cho, leaving his stoner and Star Trek turns in the dust) has more in common with, say, the films of Richard Linklater, if Linklater were less of a jock and more interested in architectural photography.

Kogonada’s superb eye for composition – most of the film is shot in stunning locked-off shots – immediately sets Columbus above its Amerindie peers. And if its stately pace and emotional remove make it seem on the verge of floating into nothingness, the carefully paced reveals of the script and the terrific performances (in particular, a potent and revelatory turn by Parker Posey) provide the sturdy, barely visible foundation for its more heady moments, including an excursus on the distinction between interest and attention and the implicit parallels between parent/child and architect/building relationships. For patient viewers, Columbus is likely to stand as one of the gems of this year’s festival. DD

Auckland | Wellington


Dina

A filmmaker could easily find an inspirational, moving tale to tell about the irrepressible 48-year old Dina Buno. Living with a host of neurological conditions, most prominently Asperger’s, and having experienced multiple intense tragedies, her beau Scott even tells her at one point how inspirational she is. Her response is confusion: what does “inspirational” even mean? On the one hand, it’s a portrait of ASD understanding of language; on the other hand, it’s a scalpel to the hot air balloon of terms like “inspirational”, and a moment that reflects the simple fact that Dina isn’t trying to be inspirational. We don’t see her starting movements for understanding of neurological diversity, working for charities, or trying to change lives. Mostly, she wants to get laid.

It’s hard to sell Dina in part because it’s a film that builds slowly and in part because there are two very obvious ways that it can go wrong. The first would be the inspirational approach, which filmmakers Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini undercut by eschewing interviews and filming exclusively from fixed camera positions. There’s no zoom-ins at key moments or empathetic close-ups, and at times one wonders if the filmmakers have left the room entirely to give the subjects the space to act naturally. This approach carries a different potential pitfall, which is the “let’s make fun of people who are different” aesthetic that characterizes the work of filmmakers like Ulrich Seidl and Todd Solondz. And while a few scenes do brush uncomfortably against the “laugh at/laugh with” edge, a moment’s reflection turns that judgment back towards the viewer.

Dina is a woman who speaks frankly about her desires, and Scott (also on the autism spectrum) works to balance his love and respect for her with his own fears of the dangers of intimacy. If the frankness of seeing Dina peruse a sex shop or discussing BDSM with her partner embarrasses us, her unfailing love for Scott and their attempt to overcome their differences humbles those who routinely achieve less progress in ostensibly neurotypical relationships. With a pitch-perfect, understated ending, Dina is highly recommended. Especially if you hate inspirational tales. DD

Auckland | Wellington


Don’t Swallow My Heart, Alligator Girl!

Part Shakespearean tragedy, part 80s-referencing-coming-of-age genre piece and part Brazilian-Paraguayan socio-historical commentary, Felipe Bragança’s Don’t Swallow My Heart, Alligator Girl! proves to be the twisted, tonally-mashed fairytale its effusive title promises. Leaping out of the gate with neon pink titling and a synth score to match, it draws on many of the filmic tropes that a certain generation grew up with, including packs of hoody-wearing kids, BMXing their way through life’s challenges (see also: 2015’s post-apocalyptic genre piece Turbo Kid and Netflix’s Stranger Things. See also: E.T.The Lost BoysBMX Bandits, and pretty much any 80s film focusing on school-aged youth).

Fresh-faced Brazilian Romeo, Joca (Eduardo Macedo) and the more self-possessed titular ‘heart-stealing’ Guaraní girl, Basano (Adeli Gonzales) hold their own at the centre of this tale, as the various plotlines and genre facets swing around them. Underneath the recognisable elements – and in addition to the specific context of the long, bloody history of Brazil-Paraguay border clashes along the Apa river – Bragança and co. thread in a uniquely local sensibility. It's an oddly South American blend of ultra-emotional-machismo, syncretist religious imagery, and overt and subversive female power within a male-dominated context. The mesh of tones clashes to the point of confusion many times and the screenplay and shooting style switch between expected genre norms and a more contemplative pacing, making the film difficult to get a bead on. And if it feels a little lengthy at times, Don’t Swallow My Heart, Alligator Girl! is never anything less than engrossing. JP

Auckland | Wellington



Ethel and Ernest

Ethel and Ernest, faithfully adapted from artist Raymond Briggs’ portrait of his parents by animator Roger Mainwood, has received both overwhelming audience response and a reputation as a gentle, quietly observed love story. I’m fully on board with the former: from the start, Ernest’s cheerful charm and the gentle banter between the duo made me appreciate the rare gift of sensitively observed, non-dramatic life. (Critic Darren Bevan described it as the first 10 minutes of Up given the Paterson treatment, and I can’t improve on that.) As an American married to a half-British Kiwi, I also gained a fresh appreciation for how the simple pleasures of domesticity, such as dry sheets from the laundrette, are culturally ingrained.

Where I feel apart from the general tone of praise for the film is in the brush-over its more explicitly political content has received. Much of this content is endemic to Briggs’ book, where Ernest’s observations about Hitler’s rise to power are dismissed with pleasant asides about how nice it is Mr. Hitler’s book is being sold in England, only for the encroaching war to gradually intrude on their domestic bliss. Mainwood opens up the book a bit, leaving the couple’s side after their front fence is removed in a wartime effort – and we see a bicycle wheel transformed into the propellor for a Spitfire, making the reality of war more tactile. Combined, there seems a subtle yet strong critique of how domesticity makes us blissfully inattentive to larger threats. Similarly, a repeated focus on Ethel’s confused understanding on her place in the class system - and her political leanings as a Tory (in contrast to Ernest’s devotion to Labour) points to how relative privilege can blind us to what is in our best interests. Don’t get me wrong: Ethel and Ernest is a quiet, beautiful gem that’s a charming portrait of a lovely couple. But that’s not all it is. DD

Auckland | Wellington | Christchurch | Dunedin



Félicité

A true rollercoaster of a ride, Félicité begins with a stunning scene in a Kinshasa night club, fragments of interactions assembled in mosaic form as our titular heroine begins to sing. I'm well in the tank for African music, perhaps why I swooned head over heels to the percussion-based thrum of the Kasai All-Stars.

Alas, a plot quickly appears, a sister to the miserablist A Gentle Creature. Bearing a similarly grim expression as Creature’s lead (they even have matching forehead moles!), Félicité (Véro Tshanda Beya) must find a way to pay for his son's operation after an accident. With the largely cynical tour of Congolese society that follows and a grimly mechanistic downwards journey, I found it almost unbearable, if leavened by additional musical sequences, the stray moment of grace, and dreams of a crepuscular forest.

Once it reaches the logical conclusion of its grindingly cynical narrative, Félicité continues on for bloody ages, with the obligatory Haircut of Sadness, a dream that visualizes drowning in sorrow by submerging Felicite underwater, and lengthy digressions with supporting characters and more music. (Did I mention the unmotivated cutaways to an orchestra performing Arvo Part music?) I'm not 100% sure if the film lost me or lost itself, but as yet another genre emerged in its waning hours, I found myself in a state of critical surrender. Too ambitious to dismiss and too frustrating to embrace, Félicité is simultaneously like many films I've seen and its own unruly beast - much like its protagonist. Maybe that’s the point? DD

Auckland | Wellington


God's Own Country

Francis Lee grew up on a Yorkshire farm and it's clear that that background helped in the making of his debut film God's Own Country. The film almost resides in the mud and the mist and the rain of the Yorkshire moors. In many ways, it ends up as elemental as some of the famous art from the area (Lee in fact lives on the same moor that the Brontës did).

Johnny (Josh O'Connor) is a taciturn, angry young man. He's forced to look after his family farm following his father's stroke, and he's barely coping with the stress of the job. His father forces him to take on a new worker, Romanian migrant Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), to help. Their relationship is explosive and raw, as Johnny has to reconcile his own self-destructive nature with his attraction to Gheorghe, while Gheorghe has to deal with a village that doesn't really welcome him.

The film gets very close to its protagonists with its restless camera work. For a film with limited dialogue, it ends up being particularly intimate. He doesn't give his protagonists an easy way out and its ending is particularly hard-fought. Lee brilliantly captures the mercurial moors as well, and it's obvious that their relationship is firmly of that place. While it was made pre-Brexit, in many respects, God's Own Country perfectly captures a Britain that split so evenly in that vote: families, who have laid claim to the land for generations, trying to reconcile this past with a changing modern Britain. Movingly, it also offers a way for those two sides to find a common ground, which does justice to the unblinking land in question. BG

Auckland | Wellington | Christchurch


Good Time

Connie Nikas is an asshole. He’s an asshole to pretty much everyone he meets, and most of all, to the ones who actually love him: whether he’s exploiting his needy, smitten friend Corey (In the Cut-mode Jennifer Jason Leigh), taking full advantage of a kind elderly black lady and her bored teenage granddaughter, or bullying his trusting brother. Only: Connie’s not really aware he’s being an asshole, because his focus is limited to himself and the ‘next thing’ he has to face.

As narratively loose as it is fast-moving (featuring handheld camerawork care of Kate Plays Christine cinematographer, Sean Price Williams), the Safdie brothers’ Good Time is grippingly unpredictable. It’s a sad-sack comedy of god-awful errors, which deals in the lives of the people at the margins: Connie (a convincingly rough-edged Robert Pattinson) and Nick (Co-director, Benny Safdie) are a pair of down-and-out brothers: Nick has a developmental disorder and Connie is an incompetent, two-bit criminal. Each brother proves the undoing of the other, while simultaneously being as committed to one another as anyone can be.

Taking place over a couple of days on the streets of New York, the film is bookended by scenes of Nick, uncomfortable, in therapy. In the opening scene, he is interrupted and forcibly pulled out of a session by his brother – though to be fair, Nick doesn’t need much prompting. What Connie does is a clear mix of incredibly misguided brotherly care and ruthless self-interest. On the one hand, he doesn’t see his brother in need of ‘fixing’, and on the other he needs help to complete his ‘planned’ bank robbery. The authors of their own misfortune, the brothers stumble from one bad decision to another in a downward spiral.

I can’t imagine how this screenplay came together, as the action is so haphazard. The Safdies manage to eke out some sympathy for their difficult lead by virtue of their non-judgmental and unsentimental treatment of poverty (something they did perfectly in their ‘crazy love’ tale set amidst homelessness in 2014’s Heaven Knows What). The film also indirectly addresses issues of racial discrimination, profiling, and white privilege – the brothers commit a robbery wearing blackface masks and later Connie undertakes a forcible, unquestioned-by-police identity swap with a black character, all the while acting in ways that would likely get a black person arrested or harassed. This is not to say that Good Time is primarily a cautionary moral tale. Rather it plays foremost as an enthralling misadventure in a New York that feels as grimy and dangerous as it was in the ‘70s. JP

Auckland | Wellington | Christchurch | Dunedin


Happy End

Happy End was a strangely tepid film from Michael Haneke. The Austrian provocateur has mellowed out a bit in recent films, especially when compared to his more confrontational compatriot Ulrich Seidl. However, I hadn't quite expected such a lack of bite.

The film focuses on an upper middle class family, featuring a world-weary patriarch (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a single mother, Anne Laurent (a strangely listless Isabelle Huppert), her adulterous brother (Mathieu Kassovitz), and his recently re-connected teenage daughter. They are living around Calais – obviously a focal point for refugees in France – and all are miserable. The narrative itself captures various incidents in the family's lives, such as dealing with a major accident at work, drug overdoses, suicide, and random violence and racism. The usual, as far as Haneke goes.

The problem with the film is that characters and narrative are all drawn so thinly, that any actual social commentary is disappointingly muted. You don't usually have to like Haneke's characters to feel the intensity of Haneke's gaze.  However, in this film, the characters are drawn far too clinically that the social commentary is easily signposted. The narrative doesn't have the usual Haneke tautness and many of the authorial moves – uncomfortable surveillance, sudden tonal shifts, detached tone – seem verging on self-parody. That said, it was the funniest film Haneke's ever made, so go figure. BG

Auckland | Wellington | Christchurch | Dunedin


Hema Hema: Sing Me A Song While I Wait

Intriguing to watch, curiously bland in retrospect. We follow a lone walker deep into the Bhutan back country, where he's surrounded by a group of armed strangers in fantastical full face masks. They shepherd him to a compound, where it emerges that he isn't a prisoner: he's here by invitation, to participate in a once-every-twelve-years ritualised purging of identity. Everyone present wears face masks and shape-concealing robes, and remains entirely anonymous over a period of many days. Stern Buddhist monks police the group, ready to imprison, expel, or execute anyone abusing the privilege of incognito.

We don't know the point of any of this, or how the members of the group are chosen, or anything about them. As with any story trading in withheld information, the danger is that the possibilities we project into the negative space the film offers us will be more interesting than the things we eventually find out. The experience of watching literally faceless strangers interact initially has a mesmerising charm, but there's no great insight or power hiding behind the masks. Not to give away too much, but someone is tempted into bad behaviour, and has to live with the consequences, which turn out to be boringly pat. You're invited to draw a moral. The only one I'd draw is that films inclined to moralise could usefully present a more complex picture of human interactions than this one does. DL

Auckland | Wellington


Heal the Living

On paper, Heal the Living’s premise – following the ripples in lives from a teen dying in a car accident to the woman who receives his heart – sounds baldly mechanistic and terrible, like Crash crossed with a seatbelt PSA. Straight out of the gate, Heal The Living proves it’s up to more with three stunning attention-grabbing scenes. A credit scene of said teen leaving his girlfriend’s house to bike down the streets at night, set to Girlpool’s “Paint Me Colours”, captures the yearning of youth. He and his friends go for an early morning surf, in a scene of elemental power and reverence. And then on the way home the driver gradually falls asleep, as the road turns to ocean. Then a giant wave hits.

Establishing her potent ability with setpieces, third-time filmmaker Katell Quillévéré (Love Like Poison, Suzanne) immediately puts them aside for something more superficially quotidian. While there are more than a few tears as the grieving parents decide whether to donate their child’s organ, this is more about an oft-repeated tendency to allow emotional processing to unfold in realtime than an attempt to milk emotions from the audience. There are also digressions into the private passions and fantasies of the hospital staff, and everything starts feeling a bit scattered. And yet. A simple, seemingly unnecessary shot of parents walking from one room to another moves them through light into darkness in an expressionistic way. Dialogue scenes are played not to maximisze conflict – as with another car-accident driven drama, The Inland Road, our characters are largely decent people trying their best to be decent – but for verisimilitude, and in doing so, a quiet power accrues.

What becomes clear as the film unfolds, and we abandon the grieving parents for a prospective donor, is that Quillévéré is interested, more than anything else, in being true to process. This is not to say that Heal the Living is a coldly analytical film, but it is one that entirely eschews melodrama and bullshit suspense in favour of showing both the organisational and logistical process (in both gory and tender detail) and the texture of the lives of those involved. By showing exceptional restraint throughout, Quillévéré earns her right to the emotional knockout punch at the end of the film: a song, familiar to most, that unlocks the theme of the film with a simple lyric. In an era where selfishness rules the roost and other humans are far too often seen not just by government but fellow citizens as liabilities, the film reveals itself as a quiet but potent testament to the importance of interdependency, and in doing so I found it overwhelmingly moving. It suddenly became clear to me why the film had spent so much time caring about details of the lives of characters that don’t seem important to the narrative. Caring itself, it turns out, is the reason. “I never thought I’d need so many people”, indeed. DD

Auckland | Wellington Christchurch | Dunedin


In Times of Fading Light

Its emotional range is narrow — from mordant to melancholy — and it suffers from comparisons with other recent ensemble house-party films, notably last year's astonishing Sieranevada. Still, Matti Geschonneck's In Times of Fading Light is a weighty, involving study of the collapse of the Soviet Union, although the East Germany family gathering to celebrate their party stalwart patriarch's 90th birthday don't yet know it's collapsing. All they know is that more and more people are defecting, and that things feel badly wrong. But appearences must be maintained. Even if one of the defectors is a grandchild of the family, and even if his mother is drunk and out of control.

The title is an idiom for Autumn, imported into German from its Russian origins by way of some dark family history. Visually as well as thematically, the film is autumnal, with browns and greys the dominant colours. The camera work is pleasant rather than striking, but that's good enough: this is an easy film to watch. The cast is solid, the low-key story is involving, and the currents running below its surface gradually become strong enough to convey a real sense of historical gravitas. This is a film about the final failure of an entire civilisation, as viewed in its final months by people who have committed their lives to maintaining it. A final coda in which Geschonneck states this openly is his only major misstep. DL

Auckland | Wellington


I Am Not a Witch

Zambia-born Welsh director Rungano Nyoni’s first feature is an assured, sometimes idiosyncratic exploration of misogyny, social abjection, and the appropriation of traditional knowledge and practices by craven, corrupt government officials. It’s also often really funny. This tonal playfulness, alongside some unexpected music cues and some playful cinematography, lightens some of the content, but it also adds to the film’s satirical bite. 

After being accused of witchcraft, Shula (played with remarkable, watchful grace by 9-year-old Margaret Mulubwa), joins a travelling witch camp – home to dozens of women who have been cast out of their communities for ridiculously banal transgressions. They are attached, by harnesses, to giant spools of ribbons so that they may not fly away. They travel the area (in a state-funded bright orange truck) doing menial, manual work. They are put on show to gormless tourists. They sing songs in praise of the government. Shula casts verdicts in small claims trials, dances for rain, and is paraded on national television by the corrupt, foolish government employee who acts as the witches' minder. If they want to leave they can, but those who cut their ribbons will be turned into goats and become prey. One not-so-ex-witch boasts that marriage has given her respectability, but there is no such thing as a respectable witch – they are utterly excluded, and this says volumes about the community and nothing at all about the women themselves. This exclusion takes many forms – some comic, and some tragic – but the somewhat meandering narrative leads to a killer final image that re-centres our focus on the vulnerable but strong women at the story’s core. Recommended. EH

Auckland | Wellington | Christchurch | Dunedin


It Comes At Night

Horror film is in a strange place of semi-legitimacy right now, with films such as The Babadook, The Witch and It Follows garnering mainstream plaudits but also skepticism from horror fans. As with It Follows director David Robert Mitchell, Trey Edward Shults follows his semi-autobiographical debut Krisha - unseen by me, but often described with the caveat “but really it’s a horror movie” - with an actual horror movie. Or so the marketing department says. Unlike the other aforementioned films, It Comes At Night doesn’t really convince as either a classy take on the genre - were it not for five (!) dream sequences, it would basically be a slow-burn contagion thriller - nor as a use of genre as compelling exploration of a deeper theme, like The Babadook’s exploration of the darker side of motherhood.

What Shults leans on, instead, are atmospheric aesthetics - slow, creeping zooms; dissonant strings; long moving Steadicam takes - and those bloody dream sequences in an attempt to create an oneiric sense of suffocating dread. Occasionally, it’s impressively executed and elementally effective, but it also makes it clear that what Shults is really aiming for is the throne of David Lynch. But when you come at the king, you best not miss, and Night’s naturalistic acting style, plotting and setting sandbag any attempts to truly unhinge the viewer. And with a new season of Twin Peaks on air reminding us of Lynch’s full powers on one hand, and a bajillion seasons of The Walking Dead et al combining similar trust-based survival situations with actual horror, I was left in the dark as to whom this film was truly for. DD

Auckland | Wellington | Christchurch | Dunedin


Kim Dotcom: Caught in the Web

One of Annie Goldson's great strengths in her films is to identify stories with competing narrative. Her films as a result become morally ambiguous and ultimately highly incisive pieces of social commentary. In Kim Dotcom, Goldson has found a perfect figure. Dotcom, as anyone with even vague political or legal opinions would know, found and lost favour with both the right and the left in New Zealand. 

He left an indelible mark on New Zealand politics – from making John Key and John Banks look particularly shifty, to his disastrous involvement with Mana in 2014's general election. The legal cases that spawned from the ridiculous police raid on his Coatesville mansion resulted in some damning judgments (eventually overturned). The government also hurriedly changed the law in favour of the GCSB who breaching it, resulting in the GCSB now being able to lawfully spy on New Zealanders. What did everyone get out of it all? Not much, the documentary suggests.

It did seem as if the documentary could easily have been a mini-series. There was so much that Dotcom revealed (inadvertently or otherwise) about New Zealand politics, law, and international relations, that you felt like the film could have taken more time and drilled down further. 

That said, the final film is compelling and visually impressive. The documentary adds some depth to someone who seemed almost cartoony in his prior media representations. But ultimately, the least interesting thing about Kim Dotcom was Dotcom himself. Instead the documentary presents him almost as a contemporary trickster – someone who shows up out of the blue, causes others around him to self-immolate, and who ultimately disappears with the damage done. BG

Auckland | Wellington | Christchurch | Dunedin


Kobi

Early on in Kobi, a portrait of a groundbreaking Swiss-born New Zealand jeweller, co-directed and narrated by his daughter Andrea Bosshard (working with her regular filmmaking partner Shane Loader), she notes that her father’s stories have a schematic quality and lack detail. The screen then bursts into colourful hand-painted animation reflecting remembered anecdotes from Kobi’s youth. It’s an insightful and imaginative moment, one I wish the film had more of.

I’ll have to cop to 100% not being the audience for this film - not only am I mistrustful of filmmakers making films about their family, but I have no particular interest in jewellery, and 95% of Kobi Bosshard’s work as depicted does nothing for me. (My failure of perception, obviously, as his influence on New Zealand jewellery seems beyond dispute, and I respect the technical work that goes into his creation.) And I got the impression that the film worked much better for the largely-older audience around me, one who could remember a day when the notion of wearing a large piece of jewellery was a massive paradigm shift. But for me it was lacking focus and overrun with minute detail. Once a family friend starts recounting the origins of the box in which she keeps the Kobi jewellery she has, I started tuning out, and I didn’t find a lengthy trip to Europe where Kobi recounts anecdotes from his youth enough to draw me back in.

I don’t wish to dissuade sympathetic viewers. There are plenty of fascinating details at the margins of Kobi, from his involvement in the secession of Aramoana and the Springbok tour to the unusual family history of the Bosshards. Andrea’s early super-8 footage and animation experiments give the documentary an additional layer of visual interest. And the man’s humour shines through in scenes where he reads old letters with judgmental views of Kiwis. But in a festival full of portraits of artists, Kobi can’t help but suffer in comparison. Perhaps viewed in isolation, it will shine more brightly. After all, as jewellers know, setting is everything. DD

Auckland | Wellington | Christchurch | Dunedin


Leaning Into The Wind: Andy Goldsworthy

If you’ve showed up at the film festival for a respite from unnecessary sequels, you may be in for a rude shock with Thomas Riedelsheimer’s follow-up to his 2002 Andy Goldsworthy documentary, Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working in Time. As with his earlier film, Riedelsheimer takes a largely observational approach to his artist subject, watching Goldsworthy work in nature, occasionally to music by Fred Frith. As artists, both Riedelsheimer’s and Goldsworthy’s progress has been relatively marginal. Riedelsheimer has added drone shots to his arsenal, which admittedly can be a cool perspective from which to take in Goldsworthy’s sometimes-vast work; Goldsworthy himself now sometimes works in urban settings as well. A brief foray into Brazil in the beginning suggests the possibility of collaborative practice having entered his vocabulary, but that quickly vanishes, apart from his daughter’s work assisting him. Once again, matters of commerce are left entirely aside in the interest of myth-building Goldsworthy as a peripatetic emissary of transient glories, rather than as an artist who exists in a capitalist system.

Lest I seem snidely dismissive, I should note that I genuinely liked Rivers and Tides quite a lot. But the repetitive qualities of this new film make the faults stand out more sharply here. The strongest elements are the newest, particularly an expansion of Goldsworthy’s practice into performance-based motions like crawling through hedges. By the time the film reaches its climax with the titular performance, one is reminded of the work of Bas Jan Ader, an unusual influence at first, given the visual aesthetics of Goldsworthy’s other work seems miles off. But each is concerned with inevitable collapse. Perhaps Goldsworthy’s strongest work is a subterranean stone chamber that, when illuminated, becomes sepulchral.

And so I find myself, initially dismissive, gradually convincing myself that perhaps Leaning into the Wind’s seeming lack of aesthetic advance is actually quite a clever stratagem in creating space to contemplate Goldsworthy’s practice, one that’s certainly worthy of considering at scale. Whether it really merits feature length is a separate consideration, but regardless, it’s a pleasing backdrop to let your mind wander. DD

Auckland | Wellington


Let the Sunshine In

You wouldn’t think The Love Witch would jump to mind during a talky French film starring Juliette Binoche, But both feature brunette painters longing for men who will fulfill their impossible expectations, and a cavalcade of men patently incapable of filling the task. It may be a stretch, but it’s also a testament to how much my mind wandered during Let the Sunshine In. Claire Denis is one of my favourite directors: Beau Travail, Friday Night, The Intruder, and 35 Shots Of Rum all stand among the great films of the last twenty years. But here she’s playing against her strengths, filming a series of dialogues between Binoche and her maybe-lovers. Apart from an early impressionistic sex scene and an artfully-staged bar chat with a banker, the usually stunning work of cinematographer Agnes Godard is largely muted, and while Binoche does what she can to liven up the proceedings, my patience for hearing about a lukewarm mess’s confusing love life wore thin well before the 90minute mark. Even the movie itself seems to recognise it’s outlasting its welcome: the credits start and finish rolling during the final scene, a seemingly interminable chat with psychic Gerard Depardieu. The restless Denis rarely makes two films alike, so I’ve hardly lost faith for her upcoming Zadie Smith/Olafur Eliasson sci-fi collaboration High Life, but Let the Sunshine In currently leads the queue for my most crushing disappointment of NZIFF 2017. DD

Auckland | Wellington Christchurch | Dunedin


Maliglutit (Searchers)

Can you think of any great films shot entirely on snow and ice? No trees allowed, no interior scenes featuring other colours or textures. Let's make it harder: you can have close-ups of faces, but your actors are only allowed to wear bulky grey and white furs, and by "bulky" I mean "shape-concealing", so that when viewed from a distance or from behind the actors will be difficult to distinguish.

Zacharias Kunuk is a Canadian Inuk film-maker. Maliglutit is reportedly inspired by John Ford's The Searchers; the story, as brutally simple as the landscape, consists of a wife-snatching and the husband's attempt to overtake the fleeing captors. So the film can be viewed as a cross-cultural adaptation, and as a work of cultural insider art; by the same token, my utter failure to enjoy it could be seen as a predictable outsider response. Did I just not get it? This being the most interesting question the film seemed to offer, I spent as much time chewing on it as I did wondering how the endless snowscapes could have been shot better.

Kunuk does achieve one visually arresting moment, very early on: the four men who will shortly attack an isolated Inuit family are expelled from a nearby community in the midst of a celebration. We see a wide shot centered on a large communal igloo, lit from within and glowing like a lantern, giant shadow-shapes dancing inside it. Off to the left of the screen, the dark outlines of the expelled men move in the half-light. The complexity and power of the image is striking, and it suggests that Kunuk has the capacity to find the inherent strengths of his material. Nothing that follows lives up to this promise. Instead we get bizarre intrusions of shaky-cam close-ups, seemingly employed to vary the endless alternating shots of dogsleds moving against wide horizons. The monochrome, monotonal chase story gets dull very quickly, and it really doesn't help when Kunuk breaks things up with a protracted rape scene.

There is an honesty to this, and you could read it as an implicit comment on the patriarchal hypocrisies of the Ford source material: violence against women is at the core of the plot, so let's not pretend otherwise. This is basically the Game of Thrones argument for dramatising rape, and in both cases the correct response is to call bullshit. The film uses sexual violence purely as an intensifier, to justify the violent consequences that serve as its final act. These are shot confusingly, with an over-reliance on close-ups making it difficult to know where characters are relative to each other; more clarity would have helped, but it would not make the story more fundamentally interesting.

So, did I just not get this film? It's always a question worth asking when an outsider tries to assess a story from another culture. My sense -- but of course I would say this -- is that I got it all too well. DL

Auckland | Wellington


Manifesto

The great surprise of my festival so far: authoritative camera work, spectacular acting, canny editing, and a plethora of powerful texts somehow mined and undermined simultaneously. You have not fully lived until you've seen Cate Blanchett deliver the Dada manifesto as a funeral oration. (Or rather – as I discovered when I went looking for the various texts she reads in the film – a palimpsest of eight different Dada manifestos, seamlessly stitched together. So a fake document, in a sense, which, for a Dada manifesto, is as authentic as it gets.)

Context is everything, so let me acknowledge that I had heard only negative things about this film before I saw it. A friend who saw the installation version in Sydney commented that it was hard to imagine it working as a linear film. But I'm inclined to think I would have found it delightful even without the gift of low expectations. There's so much wit in the way Julian Rosefeldt frames the various texts he repurposes, both within the individual scenes, and in the way they're interleaved. The concept is simple: Blanchett plays 13 different characters, and delivers 13 different monologues, most of them fusions text taken from manifesto statements produced within various artistic movements. (The prologue opens, over the low-res image of a burning fuse, with the words "All that is solid melts into air...", from the Communist Manifesto; political ideas keep coming into the film, but this is the only explicitly political text used). A conservative Christian mother pronounces a lengthy grace while her hungry children eye the food they're not yet permitted to touch; her words come from Claes Oldenburg's I Am For an Art. A broker expounds futurist dogma. A preschool teacher explains film theory to her class. A newsreader and a reporter doing a live cross – Blanchett plays both – exchange sententious mouthings on minimalism.

So first, this is very funny. Second, and crucially – because the joke would drain dry very quickly if this were all the film had going for it – the texts are eloquent and vibrant, and Blanchett gives them so much life. Frequently the effect is to hold them up for ridicule, but not always, and not in a simple way. Anyone attempting to decide whether the funeral scene's passionate solemnity is a mockery of Dada's refusal to give in to meaning, or vice versa, or both, is facing a tricky interpretive challenge. Blanchett's rendering of the speech rhythms of mainstream American newsreading, on the other hand, is pure satire, and viciously effective. She uses a wide range of accents, from Southern American (Texan I think, but my ear isn't good enough to make that call) to Northern English to Scots to Russian to... the list keeps unspooling. Rosefeldt matches her virtuosity with inspired shot after inspired shot, so that you can enjoy the film purely as an extended technical exercise, a cinematic equivalent to the musical tradition of the suite of Etudes. But as with the best Etudes, there's more going on here than technique. The ideas in play resist easy synthesis, but they also resist mutual cancellation; I did not come away thinking, as you easily might when presented with so many conflicting certainties, "Well humans do like to talk nonsense, don't they". Instead, I came away feeling exhilarated, and thinking this is a film I could easily watch again. DL

Auckland | Wellington


Menashe

Menashe, Joshua Z. Weinstein’s first fiction feature, dissects the unique interplay of religion and family for its eponymous widower and the hasidic Jewish community at its centre. Shot over a two year period, on location in Brooklyn’s Borough Park (one of the USA’s largest centres of Orthodox Judaism), the film provides a sympathetic yet not uncritical window into this distinct society. The authentic context and Weinstein’s shooting style carry shades of the director's non-fiction background, giving the film a very fly-on-the-wall documentary sense.

Menashe is the first Yiddish feature I’ve seen (I was reminded of the opening to the Coens’ A Serious Man) and is captivating in the contrast of its cultural ‘alienness’ (to a New Zealander, at least) within the recognisably Brooklyn setting. A setting that is majestically captured with fantastic use of light and a plethora of creatively framed, medium versus close-up shots.

Weinstein and co. make great use of closed in locations, such as between stock shelves, in cramped apartment rooms, and stairwells, which mirror the life of Menashe – a character loosely based on the life of lead actor Menashe Lustig – and his felt sense of confinement. Ultimately, it is the thoughtfully restrained writing of this melancholy-laced tale that makes the film. Baulking at the theological restriction that as a (now) single man he is not equipped to raise his child, Menashe struggles to be the kind of father to his son that many in his community think he is incapable of being. It doesn’t help that he simultaneously struggles with the fear that, just maybe, they’re right about him after all. JP

Auckland | Wellington


Minute Bodies: The Intimate World of F. Percy Smith

In a festival year light on the avant-garde, Minute Bodies is a welcome journey into the abstract and a glorious cinematic trip. With precisely zero interest in the scientific content of footage shot by micro-filmmaking pioneer F. Percy Smith, director Stuart Staples has reconfigured Smith’s educational films into context-free abstract meditations ordered by visual affinities.

As much an aural journey as a visual one, the film rests on the music of his band Tindersticks, known in film circles for their work with Claire Denis. By turns sinuous, sultry, spooky and ethereal, each track provides a window into a different aspect of Smith’s groundbreaking work, recontextualising him as not an educator but an avant-garde filmmaker. It sounds like a stretch, but the work earns it: some wild cell-on-cell action mirrors Len Lye’s Tusalava, while pulsing fields of cellular activity presage the work of Stan Brakhage.

Other images of runners growing around branches or blooms unfolding are more immediately recognisable, but no less compelling. Smith himself remains a spectral figure for most of the runtime, the stray finger or pencil tip sliding into frame, but the images (shot largely in his garage) always carry with them his sensibility. At 54 minutes, Minute Bodies doesn’t outwear its welcome, and is a perfect mid-fest tonic for those ready to put heady concerns aside and bliss out. DD

Auckland | Wellington 


Multiple Maniacs

Most definitely one for the midnight crowd (or perhaps someone doing PhD research on alternative applications of Stations of the Cross!), John Waters’ 1970 film Multiple Maniacs is a triumph of seedy, no-budget individualism. The kind of little-seen exploitation film that’s mostly been viewed by b-grade cinephiles on fourth generation dubbed VHS cassettes, it is a real treat to see. This great looking digital restoration (c/o Janus Films and The Criterion Collection in 2016) on the big screen is in its full 1.66:1 aspect ratio.

The film, as with many of Waters’ earlier works, is as challenging for its shrill audio as it is for its depravities (echoed in the brain wrecking audio of Waters’ later film Desperate Living). And Devine is the kind of star who only has one setting: maximum mania. Alongside a complete disregard for narrative cohesion this makes for trippy cinematic experience, refreshingly unlike anything out of the Hollywood studio system or even most independent production companies.

Loosely following the disintegration travelling show Lady Devine’s Cavalcade of Perversions, the film begins with a presentation of the show itself, which is free to enter but, as it turns out, expensive to leave. With relationship troubles brewing between Lady Divine and her boyfriend Mister David (also the show’s master of ceremonies) and an unintentional murder to get clear of, the cavalcade skip town and go to Lady Divine’s daughter Cookie’s place. Mister David sneaks out to meet up with his bit-on-the-side Bonnie, who really likes to “perform acts”. In fact, after they perform some acts she memorably declares: “Oh Mr. David, this is even better than amyl nitrate!”

Independently, these Cavalcade factions start plotting against each other, leading up to a violent confrontation. Things quickly spiral into cheap – in every sense of the word – madness, including, but not limited to: sacrilegious use of a rosary, with accompanying Stations of the Cross dramatisation; a Reservoir Dogs style stand-off; a Benny Hill street chase, finishing the film with the National Guard bearing arms to the strains of Kate Smith singing "God Bless America". Oh, and of course, nobody expects the crustacean inquisition! JP

Auckland | Wellington 


My Life as a Courgette

Exceeding my already high expectations, Claude Barras’s stop-motion drama about life in a home for kids from rough circumstances is a cannily joyous treat. From the brightly-coloured visuals and unique design of the character heads to the superbly adapted screenplay, care of Céline Sciamma (Tomboy, Girlhood), the streamlined 66-minute mini-feature hits all its marks and then some.

My Life as a Courgette sensitively presents some realistically grim circumstances in a way that younger kids can digest – both my 6 and 8 year-old daughters felt ‘all the feels’ without getting too freaked out by the stories of murdered parents and extreme neglect, and grasped all the plot elements with the aid of only the odd question here and there. There is also humour and references thrown in for adults but the story of kids finding solace and community in their seeming dysfunction is a good one for any age group. Characterisations are nicely fleshed out, particularly a bully kid, Simon, who gets a decent arc and context for his behaviour. The positive portrayal of the group home and its staff also sits nicely in opposition to the prevailing ‘awful orphanage’ stereotype. It’s refreshing to see adults who work in public institutions – including a local policeman – actually give a shit about the welfare and desires of their charges.

On a completely different note: I take it the that the average American viewer might not know what a ‘courgette’ is, hence they have retitled the English dubbed version of the film - and it’s eponymous lead - as “Zucchini” (the Italian term for courgette) despite multiple instances of the artwork referring to “Courgette” as the central character's name. I presume this nickname (the kid’s birth name is ‘Icare’) is his harsh, hard-drinking mother’s perversion of the French term of endearment for children “petit chou” or “little cabbage”. Whatever the case, Zucchini/Courgette clings to this moniker as a connection back to his deceased mother in the same way that he does to the kite that stands in for the memory of his long absent father.

For a rugged story of childhood in tatters, My Life as a Courgette feels like a surprisingly hopeful film. Not everyone has the same circumstances. Neglect and mistreatment can be found in the spaces that are supposed to nurture us, but so too can love and acceptance be supplied from unexpected quarters. We can choose to be the kind of people who provide sanctuary for those who may not get it at home. This is the message the film conveys with great warmth and humour, and is one I am glad my kids (and I!) have been able to experience. JP

Auckland | Wellington | Christchurch | Dunedin


Nowhere To Hide

“To be independent is a beautiful thing.” These words, uttered contemporaneously with the withdrawal of American soldiers from Iraq in December 2011. This sentence curdles in the mouth as soon as it’s uttered, for even if we’re historically illiterate, we’ve already met our documentary’s subject in 2014, under much worse straits. Nori Sharif is a medic in Dayala province, and filmmaker Zaradasht Ahmed early on gives him a camera to show the impact of war. But as time progresses, the expectations of stability give way to a slow-motion collapse into civil war. Sharif won’t win any cinematography awards, but his oft-ramshackle lo-fi coverage is assembled with exquisite care, and his insider perspective of both joyful times and bloody scenes of violence captures an unforced reality that contrasts mightily with the staged exposition in ostensibly slicker films like Last Men In Aleppo.

As Sharif and his family is forced to flee their hometown, he leans more and more heavily on the camera, as if photographing the atrocities around him can provide…what? Even he seems unable to answer. And yet his insistence on continuing to film speaks powerfully to the viewer, as we share with him our inability to fully understand the “why” behind it all. “There has to be a mastermind behind all this”, argues a colleague at one point. If only. DD

Auckland | Wellington


On Body and Soul

Quite the oddball romance, On Body and Soul is at its best when it leans into its stranger elements, of which there are more than a few. But before we go any further, perhaps I should venture a warning: beware vegetarians! Or those with squeamish constitutions. Being set in an abattoir, writer-director Ildikó Enyedi is certainly not shy of a bit of viscera. This is the first film where I’ve seen the end credits disclaimer read: “Animals were harmed in the making of this film”, and indeed the camera takes us through various stages of the bovine slaughter process, lingering on the blood sprayed tiles of the abattoir floor and walls. Enyedi’s shooting style is strong throughout, the director making creative use of observational long shots and (perhaps an overabundance of) reflections – often disturbed by motion, such as wind on a lake surface or the movement of glass doors – to give a visual sense of the difficulty of establishing and maintaining meaningful human connection.

At the centre of an awkward relational dance is dour middle-aged financial controller Endre (non-professional actor Géza Morcsányi in a similar, if non-comedic, mold to sock factory owning Jacobo in excellent Uruguayan deadpan Whisky) and socially awkward young quality inspector Mária (who could be Hungary’s answer to The Walking Dead’s Emily Kinney!) It is Mária’s refreshing directness that appeals to Endre’s dry reserve, and though she initially shows a lack of interest in his friendly advances, the couple form a bond via an inexplicable shared dreaming experience, in which they both appear, each night, as a doe and a stag roaming snow-laden woods. I was fully engaged with this story, right up until the point where a final act plot contrivance appeared: a significant narrative event, which seemed both out of character and unnecessary. This, unfortunately, took the sheen off of what was otherwise a fairly captivating film. JP

Auckland | Wellington


Quest

Why is it so hard to make it in America?” asked soul singer Charles Bradley. Shot over a decade by first-time filmmaker Jonathan Olshefski, the exquisitely observed Quest intimately documents the life of one man and his loved ones in North Philadelphia. Wisely, Olshefski doesn’t attempt to answer Bradley’s question, instead allowing us to observe our titular patriarch/hip-hop producer/handyman/paper deliveryman - real name Christopher Rainey - as he and his loved ones soldier through the ups and downs of a decade of life as an urban black family.

From its opening shot - Rainey’s young daughter, PJ, absentmindely drumming on a windowframe with her bare knuckles - it’s clear that this is not a film designed to illustrate social ills, but one that wants to share the fine details of life as it is lived. For that reason, the blows that the Raineys bear hit especially hard - you’re a harder person than I if you don’t shed a tear (or a couple dozen) - but Olshefski miraculously manages to maintain a front-row seat that doesn’t feel exploitative, and his editor Lindsay Utz has crafted the film perfectly, making gentle intuitive associations that propel the film forward through its extended timeframe. In an early scene where he claims (lovingly) he has nothing in common with his wife, Quest defends his preference for watching cartoons over CSI-style procedurals: "I like to get away from the real world as much as I can, because I'm always in the real world, so to speak." Funny, then, that his real world has produced one of the strongest documentaries of the year. DD

Auckland | Wellington


Stalker

One-way journey, waterlogged; shadowed by a dogged black dog.

You probably already know whether a two hour forty minute, slow moving, Russian, existential drama is gonna be your bag or not, but if you’re on the fence, then I would highly recommend giving this one a try. In this day and age, where films are designed, from the ground up, to be viewed in all manner of contexts, and on all manner of screens – cinema screens not necessarily foremost on that list – we do not always remember what a true cinematic work is like. An acknowledged master of the form, Andrei Tarkovsky’s films are made to be viewed on the biggest screens available, so the chance to see a newly restored version in a cinema (especially one like The Civic or The Embassy) is not to be missed. Stalker fills cinematic space in way that is comparable to an Akira Kurosawa film (a newly restored version of Kurosawa’s epic King Lear adaptation, Ran, played The Civic as part of the Autumn Events 2016 programme, and produced a similarly overwhelming visual experience). Not that the bigger images demystify Stalker’s sparse narrative at all, but rather the composition and detail within Tarkovsky’s frame, writ large, is a beauty to behold. He uses the cinematic image to speak directly to the viewer, the visual elements enveloping you as the philosophical debates on faith, knowledge, and creativity, between the Stalker and his two clients ‘The Professor’ and ‘The Writer’, continue in the background. Did I mention that there is an enigmatic dog? JP

Auckland | Wellington | Christchurch


Starless Dreams

They play volleyball, gossip, joke around, build snowmen – they’re normal teenage girls. They also talk about brandishing guns, hitting their mothers, and self-immolation. Meet the young women of Starless Dreams. Set in a female juvenile delinquent facility in Iran, veteran documentarian Mehrdad Oskouei has used his hard-earned access to quietly stunning effect. Keeping his camera trained on the inmates and largely ignoring the adults in the facility, Oskouei interposes observed scenes of prison life, ranging from the nakedly emotional to the amusingly banal, with interviews that reveal the stories behind the bravado.

It will surprise few familiar with adolescent offenders that typical causes (parental abuse, neglect, and drugs) are at play, and that the young offenders often feel safer behind bars than in their own homes. Oskouei wisely leaves the viewer to come to their own conclusions, however. This isn’t a film with an agenda, and whether that’s out of artistic intent or a necessary byproduct of governmental interference, it’s all the stronger as a result. DD

Auckland | Wellington


Super Dark Times

Not a comfortable film, but blazingly well made. Four bored teenage boys hang out in a small upstate New York town. A certain distance into what feels like a fairly standard-issue (if unusually well shot) study of adolescent wheel-spinning, an event occurs which plunges them into a black hole of panic and paranoia. From this point on we're penned inside one character's head, struggling to work out whether any of the things he's seeing mean what he thinks they do. The film could now be moving towards any of several very different final acts, none of them pleasant. As an exercise in the creative uses of uncertainty, this is less visceral and ultimately not quite as rewarding as It Comes At Night -- another use of an upstate New York setting to explore the breakdown of American social bonds -- but it's still one of the stronger films I've seen at this festival. DL

Auckland | Wellington


Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton

Not your usual New Zealand International Film Festival fare, Rory Kennedy’s bio-doc of big wave surf legend, Laird Hamilton, wends a pleasingly personal story into a genre more used to lionising sound bites sandwiched firmly between quick-cut epic wave sequences. I come into this film as a surfer (of relatively tiny, kitten-like waves, not the horrific monsters on display in Take Every Wave!) and with some familiarity with the subject. Anyone who has seen Endless Summer II (Bruce Brown’s 1994 follow up to his iconic 1966 ‘surf safari’ film) will recognise Laird as the crazy, big wave ‘waterman’ who sits slightly on the outside of the mainstream surfing community.

A true boundary pusher, Take Every Wave covers all of Hamilton’s well-known (in the surf community), and often highly controversial developments in the big wave arena: from the genesis of tow-in surfing – facilitating the riding of waves so big they can’t be paddled onto – to the development of hydrofoil boards, in an effort make impossibly large waves rideable by reducing friction and tapping into the power core of the wave which lies beneath the surface of the water. His efforts on the latter idea have even seen him co-opted by the Oracle America’s Cup design team to help them work on their larger scale application of hydrofoils. In true Laird Hamilton style, the prestige of this Oracle deal appears utterly secondary to the opportunity for him to access the Oracle team’s engineering technology and expertise to help improve his board stability.

This is the picture carefully pieced together by Kennedy: Laird Hamilton as a man of singular focus. A focus that has enabled him to live his dream life, in the sea he loves so dearly, while sidestepping much of the corporate responsibility that plagues other professional sports people; seen him innovate in his chosen field to a degree that few others can boast; but also cost him a number of close friendships and, almost, his marriage.

An experienced documentarian, this is the first sports based story Rory Kennedy has had a significant hand in. As such she ignores the standard structure of a ‘surf film’, which tend to be heavy on the waves and light on everything else. Eschewing a simple linear narrative, Kennedy intercuts the historical throughline with in-depth asynchronous interview footage with key people and around key events in Hamilton’s life. As one non-surf friend put it: if not quite warts and all, this film paints a full, complex portrait of an extraordinary person. And when the judiciously spaced wave sequences do come – and there are plenty – they hit with a ferocity that does justice to the footage. JP

Auckland | Wellington


The Belko Experiment

Before the secret screening, speculation ran wild through the Hollywood’s foyer as people guessed what we might be about to watch. One friend suggested it might be The Belko Experiment. I had my money on Mayhem (this is why I don’t gamble). Written by James Gunn (famous for Guardians of the Galaxy, though Slither and Super are far more relevant to the case at hand) and directed by Greg McLean (Wolf Creek, most famously), The Belko Experiment is essentially a mash-up of Battle Royale and Das Experiment with a sprinkling of Office Space. Being a philosophy major and having bored people at parties for years with the trolley problem, I was particularly intrigued to see a film take on this ethical problem, and early scenes indicated it was going to be taken seriously.

More fool, me: the MO is to punish an audience who decides to care about its characters, scoring bloodshed to pop songs, and putting characters through impossible survival situations only to have them ruthlessly dispatched with no warning. Perhaps I wasn’t wired into its frequency, having come off the quiet humanist observations of Western. But I also think The Belko Experiment is caught between two poles: wanting the satisfaction of being about Big Themes (it’s set in Colombia, but features Americans working remotely for the government in a nebulous job) but also wanting to be a lurid, tasteless exploitation film. I’m not against the latter, and sometimes the combination works to spectacular effect (see Fight For Your Life! for a jawdropping example). But the critique feels like window-dressing here, and the cynicism feels empty. Don’t get me wrong: I had a lot of fun, there’s some hysterical gags, and the atmosphere heightened the experience. (Can I just take a moment to demand that the Hollywood Avondale remains a permanent fixture of NZIFF from now on?) The Belko Experiment won’t rank high on my favourite films for the festival, but as a fun night out, the Secret Screening will rank near the top. DD


The Evil Within

If you’re coming to The Evil Within to laugh at bad filmmaking, the joke’s on you: this film is not funny, and it is not fucking around. True, it’s not good: a friend evoked The Room, and it earns the comparison in every scene where two humans are supposed to be interacting like normal human beings. But 90%+ of the movie is trapped in a dreamlike hellscape of questionable reality, and it’s here where writer/director Andrew Paul Getty feels at home.

From its opening, a fantastical memory passage wrought with insane and ill-considered digital effects, three things are clear about The Evil Within: there is a budget, there are some people involved that have a degree of technical skill, and these talents are being put to highly specific use in ways that your rational mind will not make work. Even in a crowded cinema of trash connoisseurs, after fifteen minutes the laughter had entirely faded, as the pervasive grimness of the whole exercise set in. An initially laughably bad monster becomes progressively more haunting for its digital unrealness; a wildly offensive and tooth-grinding depiction of mental illness moves from offputting to harrowing; setpieces with mirrors flatfoot us with technical prowess, only to be followed by scenes with student-film level staging.

Some have posited that Getty’s dream/nightmare project - posthumously completed after meth addiction led to his demise - will be the next big cult hit. But it’s too unpleasant for that. Nightmarish and unforgettable, The Evil Within has a permanent home in a dreamland beyond good and awful, as a wholly unique feel-bad trip. Or, perhaps, as the best advertisement against recreational meth use ever. DD

Auckland | Wellington


The Farthest

I loved Terrence Malick’s ode to creation Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey, which screened at NZIFF’s Autumn Events earlier this year, but many found it utterly insipid and frustrating in its lack of scientific rigour. Consider, then, The Farthest to be the left-brain analogue to Malick’s right-brained approach. Profiling the history of America’s two Voyager probes on their journey past Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune – and beyond – director Emer Reynolds tells its story through extensive interviews with the surviving technical crew responsible for the mission. These interviews strike a good mix of technical rigour and accessibility to a general audience while leaving room for amusing bits of character.

While the storytelling is augmented by CGI renderings of Voyager’s journey and some well-chosen clips of archival footage (most notably featuring Carl Sagan), where The Farthest shines is in its exhaustively imagined visualisations. From an opening series of upward-looking tracking shots to woozy out-of-focus shots of traffic, Reynolds and cinematographer Kate McCullough conjure the cosmic from the mundane. In a time of global pettiness, two hours exploring our solar system and celebrating the power of human ingenuity is a tonic. While my inner editor couldn’t help thinking it could be tightened by a few minutes, The Farthest earns its place on our biggest screens, both as a visual marvel and as a communal experience. DD

Auckland | Wellington Christchurch | Dunedin


The Killing of a Sacred Deer

The first thing I noticed watching Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer was the grain. It reminded me (oddly) of the last time I watched John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London; both movies (almost 40 years apart!) were shot on Arri 35mm cameras and have a pronounced film grain. Lanthimos and his regular cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis (who, incidentally, also shot Una, another film playing NZIFF 2017) use the camera as a means of building their distinct, not-quite-horror sense of discomfort. Slow, creeping zooms, strange angles – some low and off to the side, many from overhead (including one memorable tracking shot, patiently following a character along a spare hospital hallway like some kind of spectral observer) – and unexpected framing (several close-up shots of conversations between two characters were shot from below and framed to show only part of the face of the speaking character).

Both in Sacred Deer and his previous film, The Lobster, Lanthimos employs intentionally stilted, well-crafted dialogue. This kind of ‘offness’ perfectly suits the Greek auteur’s filmmaking sensibility and is becoming a hallmark of his English language films (if two films can be counted as ‘hallmark’ forming – I do not know if he uses the same technique in his native Greek cinema). Selective use of very forward scoring – mostly a mix of atmospheric classical tracks and injections of jarring, almost industrial, noises – is contrasted with similar scenes using only diegetic sound. These various auditory and visual elements combine to leave the viewer feeling very off-kilter.

Beginning with moody classical music playing over a blank grey screen, the picture fades into a surgical procedure: a full-screen close-up of a beating heart. For a few brief moments I wondered if this was a deer. Spoiler: it wasn’t. I was about 30 minutes in before I realised we weren’t going to be seeing any actual deer in this film (I’d avoided trailers, interviews and write-ups beforehand). The metaphorical sacred deer turns out to be something much more sinister in nature, and could be seen as a loose link back to The Lobster (where single people are forced choose an animal form to assume if they cannot find a partner in an allotted time period). Sacred Deer sees Lanthimos re-teaming with the well-matched Colin Farrell, this time playing cardiac surgeon Steven Murphy (markedly less schlubby than The Lobster’s David). Stephen is married to an ophthalmologist, Anna (the kind of emotionally and motivationally ambiguous role Nicole Kidman excels in), with a couple of school-aged kids, Kim (Tomorrowland’s Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic).

The film’s nearest tonal neighbour might be the ominous, fucked-up unease of Haneke’s Funny Games (take your pick of versions) with a slight surrealist vibe that isn’t present in the Austrian filmmaker’s work. Sacred Deer presents a relatively straightforward psychological-thriller narrative – a surgeon’s family suffers mysterious illnesses, which appear related to the death of one his previous patients, and the patient’s obsessive son has something to do with it – but it’s themes (guilt, complicity, reparation etc) are less well-defined. This is the opposite to The Lobster, which was a clear social satire on relationship norms with a bizarrely twisted narrative. This opaqueness around the ‘why’ of the film may prove a challenge to some current Lanthimos fans but the story hangs together well and makes for smart, thrilling, messed-up viewing. JP

Auckland | Wellington Christchurch | Dunedin


The Lost City of Z

Stepping back in time, both in terms of its early 20th century setting as well the style of film, James Gray’s The Lost City of Z matches the grandness of scale to the vision of its real life subject, British explorer Percy Fawcett. An old-style epic, along the lines of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia,

The Lost City of Z sketches an impressionistic portrait of Fawcett’s attempt to re-attain his family’s social station, lost by the licentiousness of a long absent father, morphing into an all-consuming, lifelong obsession with proving the existence of a lost Amazonian civilisation. Having distinguished himself to the best of his ability in military service, Major Fawcett is initially cautious when offered the opportunity to lead a small party to map uncharted border territory between Bolivia and Brazil. Upon receiving the promise of reinstatement into ‘society’ he leaves hearth and home (including a wife, young son, and another baby on the way) but it isn’t long before his core motivations shift, prompting a string of dangerous return journeys much to the frustration of his long-suffering family.

Gray’s direction and handling of production design are top notch. He and his team create a visual aesthetic that finds middle ground between retro-realism and something more dreamlike. Charlie Hunnam and Robert Pattinson both give worthy performances but for me the film’s MVP would be Sienna Miller as Fawcett’s fiercely independent wife, Nina (aka ‘Cheeky’), who is forced into the backseat role of keeping the home fires burning. I’d have been keen to see ‘Cheeky’ out in the jungle, as Miller dominates the screen in all her scenes.

The Lost City of Z is one of those (all too rare) modern films that is made specifically for the big screen, Gray’s lush, slightly desaturated jungle-scapes making full use of the 4k resolution and the wide cinemascope frame. If it isn’t the best Amazon river adventure I’ve seen on the big screen this year – to be fair, it’s a hard ask to be pitted against Herzog’s insane vision in Fitzcarraldo, which played at the New Zealand International Film Festival’s Autumn Events 2017 season – it is a most worthy epic adventure and perfect for that classic ‘night out at the movies’ experience.

As an afterthought, The Lost City of Z would make a great double feature with Ciro Guerra’s excellent Embrace of the Serpent (2015). The former playing in classic epic explorer story mode, the latter, as the ultimate subversion of this, a similar grand tale but from an indigenous point of view. JP

Auckland | Wellington Christchurch | Dunedin


The Merciless

At their best, Korean thrillers have been absolute highlights of previous NZIFFs: think Oldboy, The Chaser, I Saw The Devil or Mother. And last year was an absolute corker for Korean cinema, with The Wailing, Train To Busan, Age of Shadows, and The Handmaiden all impressive. So maybe I went into The Merciless with too high of hopes. But I certainly wasn’t expecting such a slavish cosplay of the director’s DVD collection. There’s the obligatory Scorsese tracking shots, Edgar Wright fast-cut montages, John Woo-style standoffs, a flat-out lift from Reservoir Dogs, and a story that’s either a gloss on Infernal Affairs or The Departed (or both). Byun Sung-hyun executes this all quite competently – he’ll certainly have a career in ads, if nothing else – and veteran lead Sol Kyung-Gu is compulsively watchable. But mostly The Merciless is an overburdened pile of twists lacking a personal point of view, and 25 years after Reservoir Dogs – itself famously lifting much of its plot from Ringo Lam’s City on Fire – it can’t help but feel like the viewing equivalent of being the third link on a human centipede. If you’ve never seen any of the films I’ve talked about and you feel like a tense violent thriller? You might love it. Or you could stay home and enjoy the originals. They’re a lot more nourishing. DD

Auckland | Wellington


The Square

All about its myriad themes – privilege, compassion, self-awareness (and lack thereof), trust (ditto), middle-class guilt, classism and intellectualism – Ruben Östlund’s The Square is at once unsubtly confronting and complexly layered. It’s one of those films where everyone seems to be laughing at different times, and feeling uncomfortable when others are and they are not. The film plays as a series of interlinked vignettes in the life of unsure-if-we-like-him-or-not protagonist Christian, the high flying head curator of a fashionable Swedish Art Museum. The film systematically grinds away the ‘critical distance’ of its privileged character set as the museum’s exhibitions reach the realm of the personal and end up landing at our (the cinema audience’s) doorstep.

Primarily Swedish dialogue is broken up by a number of English-language segments, including a fantastic, if intriguingly contrived, through-line by way of the ever excellent Elisabeth Moss playing some kind of arts writer. Her opening interview scene with Christian is exquisitely awkward, and is as telling as it is ridiculous. Another vignette involving an exclusive museum patron’s dinner (from which the film’s primary PR still is taken) would make a taut, thrilling short on its own, but adds cumulative heft to Östlund’s unpicking of social niceties.

Ultimately, the film leaves us with a question: how do we bridge the gulf between what we espouse as fundamental human rights and the contradictory extremes of living humans' actual experience? Especially when those with the resources talk all about how wonderful the bridge could be but refuse to pay to have it built. And, true to its title, the film is choc full of artfully-framed squares. JP

Auckland | Wellington | Christchurch | Dunedin


The Teacher

Dishing up equal measures of grim drama and pitch-black comedy, in that classic Eastern European mode, Jan Hřebejk’s The Teacher plants us into everyday of life behind the iron curtain of the smallest players.

Comrade Drazděchová maybe a lowly primary school teacher but she is also the local Communist party representative and has ‘connections to Moscow’ (her sister lives there, at the very least); facts she has made widely known so she can leverage them for her own benefit. Drazděchová presents an unctuously pleasant visage but with the threat of inevitable reprisal hovering unspoken in the background of all her interactions – the Dolores Umbridge of 1980s Czechoslovakia! She begins each school year by having her students stand up and introduce themselves, then explain what their parents do for a living. She courts the ‘generosity’ of her students’ parents, by way of favours and gifts related to their livelihoods: a handyman fixing a lamp here, an airport worker smuggling forbidden goods out of the country there, and so on. Anyone who appears reticent finds their child’s grades suffering accordingly.

An elongated parents meeting with the head teacher, to discuss complaints about Comrade Drazděchová’s alleged behaviour, is threaded through with flashbacks of her teaching and various moments of unacknowledged bribery. For the most-part she keeps threats implicit but when challenged, the claws come out. Using this structure Hřebejk interrogates themes of fear, mistrust, and how people accommodate injustice when under strong peer or state pressure. Such themes find resonance in the current international political climate too (particularly thinking of the apparent nepotism and tip-toeing of officials in the Trump Administration around the whims of their leader).

The ensemble cast is uniformly excellent, child actors included, giving believable yet enjoyable performances, smartly stitched together by Hřebejk’s sharp direction and Vladimír Barák’s editing. Petr Jarchovský’s screenplay really captures the bleak sense of resignation that seems to permeate much introspective Eastern block cinema. Think of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan – but tempered by a layer of deftly applied and delivered deadpan. These qualities lift The Teacher above the depressive mire such a film might otherwise get stuck in, making it one of the highlights of my festival viewing. JP

Auckland | Wellington | Christchurch | Dunedin


The Untamed

Bold filmmaking has to take the risk of being considered absurd, and it’s certainly a tight-rope act to combine what might be an otherwise straight up kitchen-sink portrait of toxic machismo and deeply repressed homosexuality with something like Stalker, but hentai. Maybe it’s not that much of a risk, though: Escalante hedges his bets by referencing or drawing influence from not only Tarkovsky but a murderer’s row of artsploitation classics that will be catnip for cult film fans: Possession, Under the Skin, Antichrist, Post Tenebras Lux. It’s important to note for those seeking a gonzo freakout that much of The Untamed takes place in a much more conventional register, a grimy observational tone closer to Mike Leigh, if he were prone to confrontational sex scenes and full-frontal nudity. Call it social unrealism, and whether you find it deeply enriching or wildly pretentious - one scene that evoked what an XXX remake of Noah might be like made me burst out with laughter - it’s 100% guaranteed to be like nothing else at this year’s festival. But if you’re looking for a first-date movie, run screaming. DD

Auckland | Wellington | Christchurch | Dunedin


The War Show

As messy looking as the context that produced it, Obaidah Zytoon and Andreas Dalsgaard’s documentary assembles the grim personal observations of a country and a people lost in a hard cycle of war and violence. Tracing the tragic trajectories of both a group of young activist friends as well as a revolution slowly derailed by regime propaganda and extremist infighting, The War Show traverses various Syrian cities from the hopefulness of the Arab Spring in 2011 into the desperate humanitarian crisis of 2016. In this War the camera is key, seen on all sides as something to be both feared and weaponised. Zytoon (and others responsible for footage) have a never-ending stream of subjects who wish their stories to reach...well, somebody. Families torn apart, buildings reduced to rubble, and preteen children waving around loaded automatic weapons share the screen with young lovers at the seaside and shepherds corralling their livestock. Stating early on that truth is indeed the first casualty of war, Zytoon spends a fair chunk of time trying to decipher what is fact and what is factionist propaganda. At one point she’s questioning a group who remark about the street they’re on being the most dangerous in the city. They proceed to lift clothing and it seems almost all are sporting, on their persons, the flesh puckered evidence of warfare and torture – sobering stuff!

As revolution turns to regime retaliation, then to confused resistance, the self-defeating twists recorded are reminiscent of a Louis de Bernières satire, which has been drained of all mirth. And yet the film is shot through with moments of unexpected humour, such as when a conversation regarding the whereabouts of a pistol devolves into unintentional physical comedy involving a large cabbage. And just when you think the film has left the group of friends who dominate its early chapters, they are brought back in shocking, stark relief. Uncomfortable viewing this may be, but it highlights the myriad of brave personal struggles to promote peaceful solutions to violent problems. In an international media-scape dominated by narratives of totalitarianism and extremism, these are Syrian stories that deserve to be aired. JP

Auckland | Wellington 


Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present

Tony Conrad is an essential and obscure figure whose influence on the film and art world dates back to the 60s, and whose influence is still only gradually being understood today. Those who have come across his work in the context of LaMonte Young, Faust or Jack Smith will find a lot of satisfaction in this career-summing doco, as jigsaw puzzle pieces of Conrad’s wide-ranging creative output fall into place. But even viewers who don't know John Cage from John Cale should have a fully satisfying (if occasionally confrontational) experience.

Best known for his distended and dissonant violin drone music and flicker-based filmmaking (epileptics avoid at all costs!), Conrad's true work is in destabilising traditional hierarchies. From picketing museums and championing the death of the concept of the composer to running public-access television shows about homework, Conrad's lesser known work continually surprises, challenges, and occasionally infuriates the viewer (I found much of his 80s video work unproductively offputting, and yet one piece involving his son was incredibly moving). But even work that challenged my aesthetic sensibilities proved thought-provoking, and any art practitioner, regardless of medium, should find at least one exciting provocation to latch onto. For those who can take a bit of aural and visual assault, Tony Conrad: Completely In The Present provides a richly deserved capstone to the recently-deceased, constantly vital artist. DD

Auckland | Wellington 


Top of the Lake: China Girl

Are you sick of police procedurals? Don’t worry, so is Jane Campion, apparently. I haven’t seen the first Top of the Lake, so I’ve no idea if the policework is as slipshod as it is here (at one point, a character asks Elisabeth Moss’s character, not without reason, if she’s even trying to solve the investigation), but if coincidence, contrivance, and a general lack of plausibility bothers you in cop shows – or if you get annoyed when you can guess a plot twist more than an episode in advance, Top of the Lake: China Girl will drive you mad.

It may be a bit shit as a procedural, but thankfully what Campion (co-writing with longtime collaborator Gerard Lee and co-directing with Partisan director Ariel Kleiman) has on her mind is a lot more interesting. 2017 is shaping up to be a year of films with strong but damaged women surrounded by useless men (see also: The Love Witch, Let The Sunshine In, Yourself and Yours), and with this season of Top of the Lake, Campion has continued in that tradition, using a tired form as an excuse to explore deeper thematics about what it means to be a woman. The heart of the script is around motherdom and what constitutes a real mother, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg: being a professional, a daughter, and a feminist are all floating around her studies. The mother-daughter relationship that’s the strongest, though, is Campion’s direction of her daughter Alice Englert. From a hilariously foul-mouthed early scene, she not only holds her own against Nicole Kidman but provides the emotional centre of a story that sometimes threatens to spiral out of control.

As far as the film festival context: I was cynical going in, particularly given that films by masters like Lav Diaz and Frederick Wiseman garner “too long” complaints at half the length. There’s a much longer discussion about film versus television that could be had, but one advantage of seeing it theatrically was the power of laughter underlining small moments of absurdity, such as Gwendoline Christie (Brianna from Game of Thrones, hysterical) spreading her arms at the bottom of a beach pier to catch Moss, who has no intention of jumping. All in all, it’s a mixed stew of tones that doesn’t always gel, but an easy compulsive sit, and Campion and Kleiman’s visual style holds up well on the big screen. DD

Auckland | Wellington 


Tragedy Girls

The second feature from Canadian, Tyler MacIntyre may be being hyped as “Scream meets Clueless” – alternately, “Heathers meets Behind The Mask” would work just as well – but it’s got purely modern blood in its veins. Sadie and McKayla are two typical young high schoolers with ambitions of achieving fame by “going viral” across multiple social media platforms that they breathlessly hawk, when they’re not plotting murderous schemes to help propel their rise to fame. Often breathtakingly funny and unabashedly gory, MacIntyre’s pure commitment to crowd-pleasing entertainment and pace helps propel the film through confusing character motivations, an avalanche of quotation marks, and a giant clutch of underdeveloped supporting characters. Those minor faults – and an ambition not quite matched by its budget – may keep Tragedy Girls from reaching the timeless fame of its forebears, but it’s still a bloody good time that’s more than a cut above its competitors in the horror-comedy genre, and the most fun I’ve had in a cinema thus far this festival. DD

Auckland | Wellington 


Una

Una, the haunting debut feature from Australian theatre director Benedict Andrews, is really not the sort of film you want to see on a date; it’s a film about the complexities of abuse, and it presses down on your windpipe for 94 minutes.

At the age of 13, the titular character had a furtive, three-month-long sexual relationship with her neighbour Ray, who was approaching 40. They planned to elope, but he was arrested and jailed. Fifteen years later he has new name and a new life, but by chance, Una sees his picture in a trade magazine, so she heads to the warehouse where he works to confront him.

Rooney Mara’s brittle, wide-eyed Una remains utterly fixated on her lover-abuser. She is a Gordian knot of confusion, revulsion, devotion, and guilt, and part of the film’s horror is that we cannot comprehend the extent of her damage. Not so Ray, played with a disarmingly lugubrious ‘aw shucks’ charm by Ben Mendelsohn. He is fearful but self-righteous, and he still sees himself as different to other, proper child molesters. “We knew the risks,” he tells her, implicating her in his grooming. In return, she spits on him, but she cannot bring herself to leave. Intermittent appearances by Riz Ahmed as Ray’s genial but underwritten workmate Scott are a gasping, welcome relief.

The film is a tense, worthy psychodrama but is compromised in places by its didacticism, which at times betrays the film’s origins as a two-person play (screenwriter David Harrower’s Olivier-award-winning Blackbird). The shipping warehouse’s labyrinthine spaces express a type of sterile memory palace, where nasty morsels are wrapped in brown paper and tidily shrink-wrapped in plastic. It’s a laboured metaphor, but later scenes, freed from the depot’s claustrophobic angles, have a greater sense of dynamism. In conjunction with the sparse score, they offer an ambiguity that is just as complex but less relentlessly oppressive.

Most unsettling are the ways that we are stitched into a perverse, paedophilic voyeurism. Flashbacks featuring 13-year-old Una (portrayed with a stellar combination of vulnerability and adolescent self-confidence by Ruby Stokes) repeat or linger, revealing that we have been watching from Ray’s point of view. By contrast, adult Una is often framed in –  or doubled with – mirrors, split into pieces, both watcher and watched. There is no possible good outcome to this entire encounter. Stay for the terrific acting, but programme in a palate cleanser: it’s rough going. EH

Auckland | Wellington | Christchurch | Dunedin

 

Western

A laconic stranger with a weathered face and mysterious past starts a new life at a frontier outpost. Unlike his boisterous, incurious colleagues, he begins to get to know the natives. Their burgeoning relationship, however, begins to draw ire from those at the outpost, who mistrust the primitive locals. Also, just in case you think this sounds overly familiar, the time is present day and the location is Bulgaria.

This repurposing of the western genre for a critique of German development efforts sounds like a potential example of intellectual frameworks overpowering story. But a huge part of Valeska Grisebach’s talent - her 2005 film Longing was one of the left-field highlights of 2006’s festival, and it’s taken twelve years for this followup - is integrating intellectual concepts into the fabric of reality so that their presence is barely visible. A general commitment to seemingly unforced realism and cultural specificity drives the whole film, in fact. There’s no score, the camerawork is unshowy, the cast look more like real people than actors, and the narrative unfolds slowly and unpredictably. Some events seem to foreshadow major turning points, only to be quickly forgotten, while smaller incidents gradually bubble up into larger issues.

Grisebach is part of a larger group of Germans critiquing the country’s involvement in international ventures - Maren Ade, a producer on Western, made last year’s superlative Toni Erdmann, whose focus on globalisation’s impact on Romania was often overlooked in favour of its more showstopping aspects. Western is no comedy, but is in some ways the reverse - whereas Toni Erdmann presented a boardroom’s eye view of business incursion, Western is told entirely from the point of view of the labourers. They can’t understand why, seventy years after German troops occupied the village, the locals are so bothered. After all, they’re here to help (they’re making a water power plant).

Western isn’t a film that will blow the casual viewer away. Devoid of show-stopping scenes or cinematic fireworks, it may seem a bit superficially plain in comparison to the self-conscious ostentation of films like the aggressive musical scoring of The Killing of a Sacred Deer or the overcrowded long takes of A Gentle Creature, which might be why it was consigned to Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section instead of its official selection. But does this say more about the way we privilege certain forms of aesthetics based on their superficial level of accomplishment? In its quiet dissection of myths of cultural superiority and masculine foibles, its repurposing of the western genre, its analysis of the ripples of World War II, and its finely observed window into Bulgarian culture, Western’s accomplishment isn’t made less by its formal modesty. In fact, perhaps, it’s greater.

*

Two small caveats. One is the ending. For viewers who haven’t seen Claire Denis’s similar but very different study of masculinity in remote frontiers, Beau Travail, the ending might seem merely inconclusive and slightly frustrating; for those who have, it may seem curiously familiar, an odd decision given that an early line of dialogue (“This ain’t no Foreign Legion!”) almost self-consciously evokes Denis’s masterpiece, a comparison that does Western no favours. The other caveat is the subtitling. Much of the film involves the difficulties of Bulgarians and Germans communicating, and I’m reasonably sure Greek enters the picture as well (the film is set near the Greek border). The Handmaiden handled a similar challenge last year by using different coloured titles for different languages, but here, all the dialogue is rendered identically, so unless you’ve an ear for languages, you’ll struggle to understand when characters are talking past each other or reaching a primitive accord using bits of shared language. DD

Auckland | Wellington 


What Lies That Way

A white man travelling to a remote Papua New Guinean island to make a film – essentially the narrative of What Lies That Way - is a risky proposition. It could easily become a tone deaf portrayal, or indulge in Margaret Mead-style patronising of its subjects, but Wellington filmmaker Paul Wolffram's ethnomusicologist training has no doubt sharpened his gaze.

Wolffram has returned constantly to the Lak people in New Ireland, ever since he originally visited in 2001 to study its music and dance traditions. It's obvious from What Lies That Way that he has a deep connection with the people. His earlier film, Stori Tumbuna transformed local legends into a self-reflexive film, and he let the Lak people themselves tell their story. What Lies This Way is more personal. Wolffram films himself undertaking a bouai ceremony, a kind of initiation that opens the mind up and gets in touch with specific Lak cultural traditions. The initiation includes fasting – no proper food or no water or sleep – for four days. During that period, the mind ends up wandering and warping.

While Wolffram is on screen almost all of the time, he doesn't say much. The voices instead are the Lak people themselves, explaining and sharing their traditions. The film also captures daily life in a way that simply shows it as it is – you don't get the sense that Wolffram is trying to advance any particular agenda, except to illuminate the particular bouai initiation. It also widens the camera's gaze and means the focus isn't simply on the filmmaker himself. Wolffram is aided by some frankly quite astonishing camerawork by cinematographer Luke Frater, who represents Wolffram's warped state (no eating / drinking / sleeping for four days) but also captures little details of the location and the people in a potent way. When Wolffram breaks down at the end of the film, you can tell that it's hard fought – but the film itself is weightless and illuminating. BG

Auckland | Wellington


Wind River

Taylor Sheridan sure knows how to write a riveting thriller, and how to bring the grasping insecurity of the Wild West into modern, and not so ‘Western’, contexts. In place of Mexican border towns (Sicario) or the under the wide-open Texan skies (Hell or High Water), the screenwriter’s latest tale, Wind River, plants us in the middle of a murder investigation in the frigid reaches of Wyoming (although the film was actually shot in Utah). Sheridan’s ability to both ratchet tension and turn it on a dime remains intact, even if the narrative plays out a little less tightly than his previous collaborations.

A popular pick, the middle-of-the-week daytime screening I attended was completely sold out - and the film met with general approbation, if overheard exit commentary is to be believed. Certainly this film sits at the most mainstream end of the festival programme, sporting recogniseable leads Jeremy Renner as US Fish and Wildlife Service hunter, Cory Lambert, and (the ever excellent) Elizabeth Olsen as underprepared FBI Agent Jane Banner, who finds herself thrust into this investigation purely by virtue of her location at the time it was called in. Cory and Jane join forces with local ‘Res Police’ chief Ben (Longmire’s Graham Greene) to investigate the brutal rape and subsequent death – barefoot in the snow and miles from anywhere – of local reservation teenager, Natalie.

The layering of relationships in the plot are slowly uncovered as the investigation progresses, leading to a brutal stand-off as well as a more personal settling of affairs. The film makes fantastic use of the often remote, snow-laden locations to undergird the frontier sense of these characters and the hard measure of their justice. As he did with both Sicario and Hell and High Water, Sheridan takes the opportunity to dig into issues of gender and ethnicity. There’s a great scene near end, where Natalie’s grieving father Martin, in a posture of mourning, is wearing seemingly traditional face paint. When asked about it by Cory (they’re long-time friends) he admits to having made up his own ‘death face’ as there is nobody left with the knowledge to show him how it should be done.

The film’s score is also a solid fit, as spare and moody as the terrain in which the action takes place; punctuated by heartbeats, breathing and strains of poetry. Little wonder, given the composers are totally on point duo Warren Ellis and Nick Cave, who have been collaborating on film soundtracks since Cave’s Australian outback Western The Proposition in 2005.

Wind River might not be gunning for the Palme d’Or (though Sheridan did win Best Director in the Cannes Un Certain Regard selection) but it is a gripping cinematic story that proved the perfect tonic for this weary viewer. JP

Auckland | Wellington | Christchurch | Dunedin


Working in Protest

What is the role of the filmmaker in a protest? At its best, Working in Protest acts as a taxonomy of means of possible engagement. Focusing on footage from 2000 forward shot by veteran filmmaking partners Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley, the camera variously acts as observer, confidant, recorder of solicited opinions, a vehicle for presenter, and a window into unexpected viewpoints. While anti-Trump, Iraq War, and Occupy Wall Street protests may feel familiar, seeing a black man supporting the Confederate flag and his white compatriot denounce white supremacy and its corrosive influence on the legacy of confederacy effectively overturns many liberal pieties and presumptions.

Being a personal document of the filmmaker’s work, Working inProtest is neither encyclopedic nor (at least superficially) analytic in its approach, and those familiar with American history will notice many absences and dropped threads that are a necessary byproduct of its focused point of view. (The resurgence of the KKK and the fall-out of the Occupy Wall Street movement, to name just two, could command films of their own.) More curiously, Working in Protest isn’t as personal as one might imagine. Footage is presented in a linear manner with only the most limited contextual information. While editing occasionally echoes across the years, there is no use of voiceover to draw a sense of lessons learned as filmmakers or observers of protests. Some may find this a strong decision, but as the closing of the film (which leans heavily on Trump) approaches, I longed for less observation and more analysis. Nonetheless, politically minded viewers (particularly younger ones) will find this film provides both an interesting historical sweep and space to contemplate the methods and efficacy of protest; most notably, in an era where protest can feel uncomfortably fashionable and therefore transient, it’s a full-throated defense of the commitment to opposition. “Revolution has to be a lifestyle”, says one viewer. Here’s what that lifestyle looks like. DD

Auckland


Yourself and Yours

You don’t get four films finished in a year by being fancy in your craftsmanship, but despite being relatively quotidian in shooting style, this 2016 Hong Sang-Soo film (one of two in the festival, along with Claire’s Camera) has a cleverness that completely eluded me in the cinema. Like most of his recent films, Yourself and Yours is shot in a series of single long takes with zooms used to reframe shots, and it’s easy to mistake his unfussy simplicity, along with his recurring propensity for soju-soaked rambling disagreements, for laziness. Hong’s films often rely on some sort of structural bifurcation, and when Min-jung claims in an early scene where she is erroneously recognised that she has a twin, I groaned. Is this the flimsy straw the film is resting its back on?

More fool I. If you’re as stubborn as I am, and refuse to read reviews beforehand, you can cling to this explanation even as it becomes more and more implausible, but in fact what Hong has in mind is a quiet magical realism, where Min-Jung is both her own person and a projection of male fantasies at once. Man after man badgers her, insisting they know each other and remembering her in an idyllic way, yet she has no memory of these encounters. The more they badger her into being the woman they want her to be, the farther they get from achieving intimacy. Always a chronicler of the foibles of feckless masculinity, Hong has quietly moved into a different register of ambition in this film, even if a flippant reading of the film’s ultimate message - that you should accept your partner’s excessive drinking - is as purely Hong of a moral as one can conceive. DD

Auckland | Wellington


 

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