14 August 2018

Film Festival roundup 2018

Now the 2018 festival's over, it's time to reacquaint ourselves with our homes and sofas, having been long neglected as we've lived our lives in the Embassy and Reading cinemas. It's been a solid year for the New Zealand International Film Festival, with some undoubted classics to savour. Here's the 20 films that I managed to see in Wellington:

In the Aisles (dir. Thomas Stuber, Germany, 2018)
In den Gängen
Gentle, generous observations of life and slowly-budding romance among the supermarket shelves in this German tale featuring an appealing lead performance from the quiet, brooding Franz Rogowski and talented support from Sandra Hüller (Toni Erdmann, NZIFF16), who is fast becoming a must-see German star. Features adroit cinematography and a pleasing array of forklift-based humour for those familiar with the shelf-stacker's creed.

Monterey Pop (dir. D.A. Pennebaker, USA, 1968)
The wonderful thing about Monterey Pop, aside from the fact that it helped launch Janis Joplin's solo career and was an amazing document of the raw star power of Otis Redding shortly before his untimely death, is the irony that of its stellar performance roster, arguably the 'pop' material is the least interesting. John Phillips organised the festival so the Mamas and the Papas get two songs intended to bookend the performances - a strong California Dreamin' and a passable Got A Feelin' - but it's the knockout performance by sitarist Ravi Shankar that instead closes the film. Shankar's bravura set is just one of the riveting performances on offer, but the impact on the California crowd is the most completely documented, and suffice it to say the crowd's mind is officially blown, leading to a rapturous standing ovation. This is also the festival at which The Who and Jimi Hendrix struggled to outdo each other with brilliant and hilarious rock excess, with The Who trashing their instruments at the end of their set and Hendrix famously setting his guitar alight. (You can see what's left of it in a Seattle museum). There are fun insights into the performers' reaction to their fellow artists, like Mama Cass' obvious admiration for the huge energy Joplin brought to the stage. And I'd never noticed the sly dig before the Jefferson Airplane set, with a hippie chick decrying 'rock bullshit' immediately beforehand, filmed during another part of the day entirely.

Garry Winogrand: All Things Are Photographable (dir. Sasha Waters Freyer, USA, 2018)
A commendable photography biopic, which performs the usual key service of displaying and discussing some of the photographer's best-known work, but also delves into the interesting dilemmas of his ill-judged and much-criticised Women Are Beautiful book in 1975 (Winogrand could hardly have been described as a feminist) and his work in the years leading up to his untimely death in 1984, when he was shooting pictures at his traditional fearsome pace but not actually printing and editing them. Art critics are still uncertain if the latter archive represents a late-career decline in talent or if it's just that others fail to understand how the photographer would have curated his own work, if he'd ever seen it.

Leave No Trace (dir. Debra Granik, USA, 2018)
A very fine depiction of a close father-daughter relationship, which benefits from accomplished and naturalistic lead performances from Ben Foster and the teenaged Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie who flew half-way across the world from little old Wellington to the Pacific Northwest. The off-the-grid wilderness life the two live out is largely driven by the father's PTSD, but when they are involuntarily returned to life within the bounds of conventional society it becomes increasingly clear that despite their love, father and daughter may not want precisely the same way of life. There are no bad guys here, and it's so pleasing to see an American film that avoids the easy route of establishing an antagonist as a villain to unite against; the social services and random strangers the pair encounter all display the unfailing generosity of spirit that Americans often exhibit. The acting never descends into melodrama or milks what could easily turn into histrionics - rather, the quiet struggle of these very real characters is allowed to evolve organically without showboating. It was a real treat to have director Debra Granik (Winter's Bone) and hometown co-star McKenzie at the Embassy for a film festival Q&A session, in which both offered generous explanations of their film-making process and the spirit of the film. Like recent films Captain Fantastic and Walking Out, Leave No Trace portrays family bonds purified by nature, but while the former two films are solid and appealing portrayals, Leave No Trace is an even more enduring artistic achievement.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (dir. Alexandra Dean, USA, 2017)
The multiple lives of cinema sex symbol and gifted inventor Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000). Bombshell is a compelling examination of the life of one of Hollywood's greatest screen beauties, whose main contribution to the world was actually her remarkable gift for technological invention. Her 1942 frequency-hopping patent designed with a colleague with the intention of creating unjammable radio-guided torpedoes eventually formed the basis of much of modern telecommunications technology, including wi-fi and Bluetooth. Throughout, you're impressed by the pluck and drive of the glamorous Austrian, who seems to have had to constantly reinvent herself, at great personal risk, to secure her position in life. Unlucky in love, Lamarr chalked up six husbands; perhaps there's an interesting documentary to be made about the lives of Hollywood celebrity mothers because it all sounded impossibly difficult to balance (see also Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words).

And Breathe Normally (dir. Isold Uggadottir, Iceland, 2018)
Andið eðlilega
Like Aki Kaurismaki's The Other Side of Hope, this Icelandic film illustrates the intersection between western society and asylum seekers and migrants, putting a face and a name behind the statistics. While the relationship between the Icelandic solo mum who takes a job as an airport border guard and West African migrant seeking a better life for her family is somewhat far-fetched, the film does a good job of illustrating the plight of would-be migrants (and in this film Babetida Sadjo's character is only passing through Iceland en route to Canada - she's not intending to stay in the country at all). The child actor who plays the border guard's son is very good, particularly his wistful longing to visit a country where people can actually wear shorts.

Three Identical Strangers (dir. Tim Wardle, USA, 2018)
The difficulty in reviewing Three Identical Strangers, which appears to be the breakout star of NZIFF 2018, is that providing a description of the documentary flirts with revealing the premise. And it's a delicate balance to tell a story like this, which - no spoilers - commences with a tremendous fairytale story that soon becomes tainted with dark secrets. It's both chilling and fascinating to watch elderly interviewees tell a decades-old story with a chuckle, as a detective story unfolds. Recommended viewing, particularly for people with twins in the family, but if at all possible avoid trailers or reading the backstory.

Beirut (dir. Brad Anderson, USA, 2018)
Harking back to the '70s espionage genre, this solid and watchable thriller offers few surprises but holds the viewer's attention, particularly thanks to the strong leads of John Hamm as the hard-bitten negotiator and Rosamund Pike as a CIA operative. The film has been fairly criticised for featuring no Lebanese actors, although this may be a function of being filmed in Morocco. Would've been a constructive gesture to cast some, I'd've thought. And as Hollywood revisits the dramatic newsreel of an earlier generation, what are the odds on Grenada: The Movie next?

The King (dir. Eugene Jarecki, USA, 2017)
It's an appealing idea, driving around America in Elvis Presley's old Rolls-Royce Phantom and asking people what the man's music meant to them. Recording musicians playing in the back, charting his cultural impact as the limo crosses the land. Another appealing idea is using Elvis as a metaphor for the American dream, in a modern age in which that concept is increasingly discredited or at least questioned. While The King is an engaging viewing experience, it feels stretched too thin trying to cover both angles and fails to address either comprehensively. The end credits feature intriguing musical performances that cried out for space in the movie itself; talking heads dissect Elvis' career but it's left to archival footage of John Lennon and a few others to try to measure the huge impact he had on 20th century music. It's commendable that eloquent dissenting voices like Chuck D ("Elvis never meant shit to me") are able to dispel the myth of universal adulation, and co-producer Ethan Hawke paints a picture that indie music fans will all be familiar with - that after an incendiary rise to stardom it all started to go horribly wrong, musically speaking.

Shoplifters (dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan, 2018)
Manbiki kazoku

Another classic modern drama from Hirokazu Kore-eda, charting a year in the life of an atypical family unit living on the semi-legal fringe of Japanese society - a society that takes great exception to grifters who don't pull their weight. Encountering a charming five-year-old girl, Yuri, who is living with abusive parents, the father Osamu 'adopts' her, taking her into the initially wary but ultimately loving and caring ramshackle household. Yuri's new 'older brother' Shota takes her under his wing and finds an able accomplice in his regular shoplifting forays; these scenes are superbly handled, being both poignant and charming. As Yuri encounters love and affection for the first time she brings the family closer together, but ultimately and invariably, the real world intrudes. Shoplifters bears all the traditional hallmarks of Kore-eda's productions - absolutely winning performances from child actors, a genuinely powerful evocation of familial affection and the power of companionship and kindness, and a wry humour for the challenges of modern life. But in its conclusion Shoplifters takes the examination of family bonds further than in any of his films. With a bravura plot twist he pulls the rug out from what was already a compelling and warm family drama and turns it into a searching and even haunting moral quandary. Like his other films, Shoplifters asks 'what is family?', but this film also asks some troubling questions about society's expectations, surviving modern poverty and the nature of parenthood itself.

Stray (dir. Dustin Feneley, NZ, 2018)
Certainly well-shot in the beautiful wintry South Island, and the lead performances from Kieran Charnock and Arta Dobroshi are commendable, particularly given the minimalist dialogue they have to work with. While Stray is a solid technical achievement, it falls into the well-rehearsed New Zealand film genre of Tortured Miserablism, so there's sadly little fun to be had watching it. Overlong shots amble to their drawn-out conclusion, a wildly implausible sex scene is thrown in, and there's a desperate need for a satisfying ending.

Arctic (dir. Joe Penna, Iceland, 2018)
Go Mads! The wilds of Iceland offer plenty of challenges for this far northern survival-against-the-odds tale, and lead actor Mads Mikkelsen gives a splendid performance as plane-crash survivor Overgard, who is the human embodiment of indefatigability. The script throws every obstacle in the book at the craggy Dane, and the brisk 90 minute runtime fairly races along as everything under the Arctic sun that can go wrong, does. Pity this probably won't be seen by many American viewers, because if there's a performance worthy of an Oscar nomination, both in terms of the quality of the performance and the sheer endurance it must've taken to make the film, Mikkelsen surely deserves it.

First Reformed (dir. Paul Schrader, USA, 2017)
Despite First Reformed's wildly implausible premise, Ethan Hawke delivers a strong and highly watchable performance as a troubled priest whose environmental consciousness becomes awakened by an encounter with an eco-warrior parishioner. Amanda Seyfried provides commendably unshowy support as the eco-warrior's pregnant wife.

Woman at War (dir. Benedikt Erlingsson, Iceland, 2018)
Kona fer í stríð

Benedikt Erlingsson's deft comedy-drama shows his growing skill and confidence as a director, and offers a superb central performance from the very game Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir as unstoppable environmental saboteur Halla and her yoga instructor twin sister Asa. The film benefits from the playful inventiveness of its director, with plenty of tricks to keep the audience guessing, particularly in a masterful Icelandic wilderness chase scene in which the 49-year-old Halla evades her would-be captors using her splendid ingenuity. While I didn't relish it as much as the rest of the audience, Erlingsson's choice to have incidental music provided by an on-screen trio of Icelandic musicians and three Ukrainians folk-singers is suitably quirky. Also featuring the return of the Spanish cycle tourist from Of Horses & Men to provide light comic relief, Woman At War is both a great deal of fun and a successful exemplar of how to depict environmental activism both sympathetically and persuasively.

The Third Murder (dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan, 2017)
Sandome no satsujin
Bringing his talent for characterisation and dialogue to a courtroom drama, Kore-eda starts with a murder and a perpetrator that confesses his guilt, wrong-footing his defence team and the audience from the outset. The truth is hard to pin down though, and his experienced defence lawyer happens to be the son of the judge who sentenced the same man to decades in jail for two killings in the 1980s, which he also confessed to. Playing with the notion of unreliable narrators and a legal mind trained to target success over justice, The Third Murder is strong work and always watchable, if not quite as engrossing as the director's family dramas.

Filmworker (dir. Tony Zierra, USA, 2017)
While the natural curiosity for an insider's tale into the work of film genius Kubrick is what you're signing up for by watching the Leon Vitali biopic Filmworker, what you emerge with after viewing it is a real admiration and sympathy for the dedication and selflessness of the film's actual subject. Vitali was so trusted and giving that he could work for the endlessly demanding and perfectionist Kubrick for decades. It's telling that the film never asks Vitali, 'why didn't you take what you'd learned from Kubrick and make your own films?', presumably the idea would be ludicrous. Why, after all, would you give up the opportunity to work with one of the 20th century's greatest film minds? It's just a pity that Vitali never gained the riches so many other film professionals accrued; perhaps this film will help rectify that in some small way.

Wings of Desire (dir. Wim Wenders, West Germany, 1987)
Der Himmel über Berlin
For many years my favourite film ever made, presented in a sumptuously beautiful 4K restoration. Here's what I wrote about it back in 2012.

Juliet, Naked (dir. Jesse Peretz, USA, 2018)
This enjoyable romantic comedy isn't really a festival film per se but I presume it wouldn't get a New Zealand release outside the festival. Rose Byrne and Ethan Hawke have a nice, relaxed chemistry, with reliably amusing support from Chris O'Dowd as the music obsessive loser boyfriend. It naturally has the traditional artfully-chosen soundtrack that all Nick Hornby features must by law possess, and plaudits also to Byrne for her English accent. The only downside for me was that while Ethan Hawke is very watchable in it, it's a bit distracting how much he resembles Bill Oddie.

Burning (dir. Lee Chang-dong, South Korea, 2018)
It's a delight to see a film devoted to allowing its narrative to develop in such an unhurried yet purposeful way as this Korean drama. I'm so glad I managed to avoid trailers and preview articles because I'm guessing they'd reveal elements of the plot that are better left discovered on the big screen. The investment of time makes the film's conclusion exponentially more powerful and memorable. With skilled direction, unshowy performances, a top score and restrained yet beautiful cinematography, Burning is a subtle gem.

Cold War (dir. Pawel Pawlikowski, Poland, 2018)
Zimna wojna
The musical heart of this Polish drama spanning the late '40s to the mid-60s is as vibrant and engrossing as any cinematic musical, and its depictions of Polish folk music, Parisian jazz in the 1950s and the electric shock of rock 'n' roll are fascinating to watch and a delight to listen to. The Parisian night-club scene featuring Bill Haley's Rock Around The Clock is pure joy to watch. The two Polish leads command the screen and the sumptuous black-and-white cinematography is a stunning achievement. Have a care and cut back on those ciggies though, Wiktor!

See also:
Movies: Film festival roundup 2017
Movies: Film festival roundup 2016 part 1part 2
Movies: Film festival roundup 201520142013201220112009

01 August 2018

Flights of fancy

He ducked his head down inside the cockpit. The phosphorescent needles had begun to glow. One after the other he checked the figures and was happy. He felt himself solidly ensconced in this evening sky. He ran a finger along a steel rib and felt the life coursing through it; the metal was not vibrant but alive. The engine's five hundred horse-power had charged the matter with a gentle current, changing its icy deadness into velvet flesh. Once again the pilot in flight experienced neither giddiness not intoxicating thrill, but only the mysterious travail of living flesh.

He had made a world for himself once more. He moved his arms to feel even more at home, then ran his thumb over the electric circuit diagram. He fingered the various switches, shifted his weight, settled back, and sought to find the position best suited for feeling the oscillations of these five tons of metal which a moving night had shouldered. Groping with his fingers, he pushed the emergency lamp into position, let it go, seized hold of it again after making sure it wouldn't slip, then let go to touch each throttle lever and to assure himself that he could reach them without looking - thus training his fingers for a blind man's world. His fingers having taken stock of everything, he switched on a lamp, decking out his cockpit with precision instruments. Attentive to the dial readings, he could now enter the night, like a submarine starting on its dive. There was no trembling, no shaking, no undue vibration; and as his gyroscope, altimeter, and r.p.m. rate remained constant, he stretched his limbs, leaned his head back against the leather seat, and fell into an airborne meditation rich with unfathomable hopes.

- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Night Flight, 1931 (trans. Curtis Cate, 1971)

26 July 2018

The peculiar wretchedness one can feel while the wind blows

As a writer, Katherine Mansfield absorbed the Wellington wind as deeply as the Romantics, making it something like her literary accomplice, even if its vehemence often tested the relationship. She wrote, '[I]t moves with an emotion I don't ever understand'. The wind stirs beneath her words, snuffling, as she puts it, around the corners of the page. In 'The Wind Blows' she asks: 'Hasn't anyone written poems to the wind?'...

Wind adds a feather-ruffling frisson to many of her stories. She often uses weather - especially the wind - as a conventional literary device to evoke mood, setting and narrative jumps. In 'Psychology', 'a cold snatch of hateful wind' underlines the anguish of the parting. In 'The Wind Blows' the gale is centre stage, the noisy, lurching main actor. The story 'Revelations' ships the tempest to France where 'un vent insupportable' roils the protagonist: 'the wild wind caught her and floated her across the pavement'. 'The New Baby' gives the breeze a calmer quality, with 'the soft moist breath of the large wind breathing so gently from the boundless sea'.

In her hands, her hometown wind also gains omnipotent powers, sometimes for better, mostly for worse. 'A Birthday' illustrates its impact on the civic mood. A doctor reassures a patient: "'You're jagged by the weather," he said wryly, "nothing else"'. And like most Wellingtonians, Katherine Mansfield was highly sensitised to the breeze: 'To remember the sound of the wind - the peculiar wretchedness one can feel while the wind blows'. 'The Wrong House' evokes the same mood: 'It was a bitter autumn day; the wind ran in the street like a thin dog'. In 'Juliet', she says of the protagonist: 'the wind always hurt her, unsettled her'.

Wellington's is no ordinary wind. 'A Birthday' outs its gales as pitiless, dominating, even bullying: 'A tremendous gust of wind sprang upon the house, seized it, shook it, dropped, only to grip it more tightly'.

- Redmer Yska, A Strange Beautiful Excitement. Katherine Mansfield's Wellington 1888-1903, Dunedin, 2017, p.72-3.

16 July 2018

The grooviest place on the planet

A pal sent me this tremendous clip of Soho in July or August '67, which looks fantastic in HD. It looks like the rough footage for a film-magazine piece. The first part is in Carnaby St (above-knee hemlines mandatory), which was probably the trendiest place on the planet at the time, and it goes on to Portobello Rd markets.

10 July 2018

Getting Welly (and Auckland) moving

I enjoyed listening to a talk by Vancouver's city transport manager Dale Bracewell at the Sustainability Trust here in Wellington last week, and this 9-minute interview by RNZ's Jesse Mulligan is a good summary of the optimistic appraisal Bracewell has of the prospects for expanded transportation options for cycling, walking and public transport in Auckland and Wellington. (And elsewhere, but those were the two New Zealand cities he visited on his Australia-New Zealand tour). I can vouch for the Vancouver Skytrain, having used it last month, but I promise I'm not (yet) advocating building a monorail here, if only because of the Lyle Langley jokes it would spawn.

Interview: 'Transport solutions: Advice from Vancouver's Dale Bracewell', Jesse Mulligan 1-4pm, Radio New Zealand, 9 July 2018