The Pantograph Picks: NZIFF 2015

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15.07.2015

The Pantograph Picks: NZIFF 2015

From a tell-all from the people who've concealed the health risks of nicotine to psychosexual techno-thrillers to an ambitious profile of a literary icon, here are our picks of this year's New Zealand International Film Festival.


Democrats
 

Timeline it back to 2008, and Robert Mugabe and Zimbabwe's ruling Zanu-PF party were (literally) all the rage. As the first round of that year's presidential elections were beset by foiled assassination plots, beatings, and the arrest of opposition candidates, everyone got talking sanctions and internet petitions. I remember that Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) got bestowed with what's probably the ultimate in Western cuthrough - University of Auckland law undergraduates 'liking' him on Facebook en masse. A round of heated post-election talks brokered an unprecedented power-sharing deal between Mugabe and Tsvangirai - and the hardest and most agonising work came after, not that we paid any attention to it. That's where Camilla Nielsson's blistering Democrats picks up the slack. 

Nielsson spent three years documenting the road to Zimbabwe's 2013 constitution. It's a journey that reveals how hollow and dispiriting that power-sharing deal was, focusing on two elected co-chairs of a parliamentary select committee tasked with public consultation and framing of the text, and the mounting bureaucracy (and state terror) that accompanied what sounds like a tedious process in theory. As a snapshot of the sort of reconstruction ex-colonial states face, it's said to be gripping and occasionally frightening - and imbues its two main protagonists with a complexity that their public roles might not otherwise show.


Ex Machina
 

Techno-dystopian thrillers have hit their stride in the past decade, with TV shows like Black Mirror and UnREAL showcasing the spectacularly human ways we're using technology to fail ourselves. It doesn't feel right to call them science-fiction, because it feels so close to where we already are, and in the case of UnREAL, where we've already been. Add to the list Ex Machina, Alex Garland's directorial debut. It follows Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), an employee at a tech firm who wins the opportunity to test a new artificial intelligence being developed by his boss. Her name's Ava (played by Alicia Vikander). Caleb's task is to put her through a series of tests: to see if she passes as human, even though he knows that she's not. I'm excited and spooked by the limits Ex Machina promises to take us. It's Her without the sweetness. It's the cybernetic revolt, but not as we anticiapted: because it's not that robots are smarter, it's just that we're fallible. Ex Machina poses a certain type of defeat: one that occurs not despite our best human traits, but because of them. 


While We're Young
 

If someone were to compile all the major anxieties of the semi-privileged intellectual (filed under: worst indexes of our time), it'd bear a striking resemblance to the devastatingly rewatchable filmography of writer/director Noah Baumbach (Greenberg, The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding). His latest dark, neurotic comedy, While We're Young, plunges mercilessly into the unassuming well-groomed heart of the mid-life crisis. Ben Stiller plays Josh, a 40-something film tutor who's been toiling on a sci-fi pet project for the past eight years (weirdly, the same amount of time he could have spent raising an eight-year-old child...  a fact that's playing on both his and his wife Cornelia's (Naomi Watts) mind). In a whirl of self-doubt and dulled despair, they don't buy a car, nor do they have an affair. Instead, they meet a captivating pair of twenty-somethings, Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfriend, of Girls and Mean Girls respective fame) and become friends with them. 

The generational gap offers a rich breeding ground for all that fear and uncertainty and regret to bloom.  In anyone else's hands you might worry about it degrading to cliche or projected self-pity, but I'm looking forward to Baumbach's slicing wit and ruthless character sketches. 


Pervert Park 
 

Frida and Lasse Barkfors’s debut documentary isn’t the flashiest or most visually striking thing on offer in this or any other film festival this year. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine a scene where a man fishes a bag of dead rats out of the washing machine on his porch conveyed with so much mid-shot torpor anywhere else. But the spare style of this brave and uncomfortable film manages to avoid glamourising or stylising its subjects, while also hitting home the reality of a diminished, demonised and scared community.

Pervert Park is the neighbour and tabloid media term for Florida Justice Transitions, a facility founded by the mother of a convicted sex offender in 1990. Terms like “boarding house” or “halfway house”, with the transience that suggests, don’t really fit – in Florida, sex offenders convicted of crimes involving underage victims may not live within 1,000 feet of a school, child care facility, or other places children congregate (think parks, public transport hubs, etc). The result is a sort of satellite shantytown – ex-convicts in need of a roof over their heads cohabitate regardless of gender, the gravity of the original offending, or the progress of their rehabilitation and reflection.

Baldly unsentimental, the film allows its protagonists to speak for themselves. In unflinching accounts, many disclose patterns of being abused and abusing with a heartbreaking nuance I’ve never encountered anywhere else – while others still show a disquieting ability to rationalise their actions. Most impressively, the film doesn’t pass judgment on the facility itself – neither a de facto prison, nor a transformative miracle of community development, it’s simply a way of living.

The film asks some tough questions about criminal procedure, punishment, rehabilitation and defining victims, and they deserve further airing afterward. It definitely mandated the kind of rigorous panel discussion it got when I saw it at the Melbourne Human Rights Film Festival in May, and it’s a pity that the Festival doesn’t appear to be putting something similar on for Auckland audiences.  


A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence 
 

Whenever I think of pigeons, I think of Tesla, a man who loved all of the species, but one in particular

He described it as being a beautiful female bird, pure white with light gray tips on its wings. One night the bird flew into Tesla's room at Hotel St. Regis, and he perceived that she was attempting to tell him she was dying. Tesla said a light came from her eyes more intense than he had ever produced by the most powerful lamps in his laboratory. The bird then died and Tesla said that at that same moment, something went out of his life and he knew his life's work was finished.

Ordinarily an anecdote like that would feel like a tenuous link at best, but Swedish director Roy Andersson's A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence seems to invite it. The last in a fifteen-year-in-the-making trilogy about 'being a human being', A Pigeon is an absurdist meditation on the grey futility of living. Composed of stagic vignettes painted in puke and bile colour schemes, it transports us from grimy studio to damp dunes to mouldy shoebox apartments. Andersson's humour is one that's borne of tragedy and despair and cruelty and pleasure, and his latest film is sure to be one of the strangest experiences of the Festival. 

More weird we're looking forward to: Finders Keepersa documentary about a man trying to buy back his mummified leg after it was accidentally sold, and The Lobster, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos' black comedy in which people have 45 days to find a romantic partner or be transformed into an animal of their choice. 


The End of the Tour
 

The great irony of The End of the Tour is that it inherently refuses to please: it's a slice-of-life biopic depicting a man who would've hated the film (and, in fact, kinda does). And yet: David Foster Wallace is one of the only writers of his generation enigmatic enough to warrant a film like this. Truth be told, he would have secretly loved it, secretly craved it, such was the complexity of his relationship with the world. Everything about the whole enterprise is as contradictory and seductive as our experience of the guy himself. Since his suicide seven years ago, he's been elevated to a kind of divine status: we covet everything he ever wrote, even the stuff he never finished, even his teaching notes, even every book in his personal library, as though poring over these details will somehow reveal humanity's most hallowed secrets. 

Set over five days during his Infinite Jest tour in '96, The End of the Tour is based on conversations Wallace had with David Lipsky, a journalist who'd been commissioned to write a profile on him for Rolling Stone. The profile was never written, but the transcripts were later published as a book and gave off a real chilled-out-hanging-with-Jesus vibe. They go to the mall. They shop for sneakers and talk about dogs, depression, books. It has all the dumb details that never get catalogued: his love for Seinfeld, the way he licks his fingers when he turns a page, his long-held college obsession with both Alanis Morissette and Margaret Thatcher ("All through college: posters of Margaret Thatcher"). 

As for the film version, it has the potential to be great. It's a chance for Jason Segel to play a serious character and for Jesse Eisenberg to not be an asshole. If director James Ponsoldt's last film, The Spectacular Now, is anything to go by, he'll give these characters not just room to breathe, but a chance to truly pause. And, ultimately - given the origins of the script - it's a suitably ambitious attempt at a profile piece. 


Inherent Vice
 

Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of Pynchon's Inherent Vice is one of the most badass films on this year's line-up, with a cast and crew that promises a tantalisingly neon-bright '70s noir. Joaquin Phonenix stars as Doc, a stoner detective whose ex (Katherine Waterston) turns up on his doorstep asking him to investigate the sudden disappearance of her new property hot-shot lover. The plot thickens, unfurling its tendrils into the alleyways of LA, and while a handful of critics are saying the film feels too stoned for its own good, I'm looking forward to the narrative incoherence, the messiness, the fun - and the first ever attempt (the first time permission's been granted!) to make a Pynchon film.


Dope
 

A film that should easily have enough cultural touchstones and verve to see general release a couple of months post-fest, the advance hype on Rick Famuyiwa's Dope is that it's a pitch-perfect teen-comedy circa 2015 - the kind that sends its heroes on a 'weak become heroes' journey and serves up a fair amount of pathos on the way. Famuyiwa returns to his own childhood stalking ground of Inglewood, California for the first time since his early pictures, fulfilling a drive he'd had for years to make a black geek film and engage in some wish fulfillment in the process (speaking to CoCreate, he described the ability of fish-out-of-water kids to find like-minded people in a way his generation couldn't - a definite "confidence in otherness...in geekiness" he didn't enjoy). Consensus is that it's a fresh, spirited triumph.

Oh yeah, and the odd caution I've seen that its reference points - YouTube, Bitcoin, Neil deGrasse Tyson, A$AP Rocky cameos - are somehow going to date it sound like harrumphing as well, as if the whole point of all the canonised coming-of-age flicks isn't that they're generally capturing and celebrating a moment in time, and that the infectious glee bundles all the cultural ephermera into something enduring. 


Merchants of Doubt
 

In 1981, Exxon was evaluating the value in developing a portion of Natuna, South-East Asia's biggest gas field. They were looking at a 50/50 venture with the Indonesian government - lucrative in principle, but stymied by the 71% carbon dioxide content in the field. It made extraction difficult and expensive - and what's more, Exxon factored in early and potentially devastating findings about the impact of a huge amount of CO2 into the atmosphere, and the havoc it'd wreak. 

That was the Guardian's bombshell report this month - we'd known that energy companies had been funneling money into climate change denialism, but not quite how long they knew they had something to deny. Given that we've only got that story through an inartful email sent by an ex-oil firm climate expert, it's amazing the amount of access documentarian Robert Kenner gets into the corporate PR industry with his new documentary - not just climate scepticism, but tobacco, acid rain, and pesticides. Nor is it surprising that having gained that access, their main denialist, Fred Singer, shortly turned septic. He's since threatened both Kenner and Naomi Oreskes, the co-author of the book on which Merchants is based, with boycotts, legal action and spindly vaguely libellous blogposts from his boys, so it's probably especially worth showing this one your support. 


Out of the Mist
 

More than a potted Lonely-Planet guide to New Zealand's film history, Out of the Mist takes us down the hallways both well lit and less travelled. In this 80-minute overview, Lumiere Reader's Tim Wong looks at the films that have made the canon as well as the ones that rarely make the shelf, let alone the Top Ten. From a 50s travelogue narrated by Orson Welles to Annie Goldson's experimental documentary pairing colonial paintings with the films her father made when he first migrated to the country, this'll be a must-see for anyone wanting to delve beyond the Pork Pies and Hobbits of our country's filmmaking history. 

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