18 August 2019

Film festival roundup 2019

After a wintry final night of the Wellington film festival, the capital can now start the long process of preparing for NZIFF2020. Despite the depredations of the usual cavalcade of sweet-unwrappers, late arrivals and mid-film chatterers, it was a great fortnight of film-watching. Here's my brief rundown on the 20 films I experienced, in a rough order of personal preference.

Apollo 11 (dir. Todd Douglas Miller, USA, 2019, trailer)
A grand technical achievement to capture a spectacular scientific achievement, this film illustrates the still vivid power of genuine photography over the art of CGI. So many scenes are shockingly beautiful in their realism, and the hitherto unseen IMAX-quality video footage of the Command Module capsule there and back show just how accurate Ron Howard's Apollo 13 actually was. A brilliant electronic score using only period instruments accentuates the high drama, and expert documentary photography, particularly at Cape Kennedy for the launch sequence, make this a thrilling visual experience.

Daguerréotypes (dir. Agnès Varda, France, 1976, trailer)
Perhaps when it was released Varda's homage to the shopkeepers of her beloved Rue Daguerre seemed rather esoteric, but its charm is immediately obvious, and its importance as an irreplaceable record of a now-vanished way of life makes it hugely valuable. The trust these varied shopkeepers seem to have for the small, peculiar filmmaker who squats in the corners of their shops, filming away and presumably inviting her subjects to pretend she's not really there, is a tremendous asset, because the small life stories she elicits from her subjects are a rich tapestry of Parisian life. Many seem to be migrants from rural France over a great span of decades, and all have a tale to tell, of personal heritage, professional ambition or romantic endeavour. By design the film recreates the retail documentary form of Eugene Atget's vital shop-front photography, but Varda also imbues the film with plenty of warm-hearted humour and sympathy for her cast of oddballs. A standout scene is the long sequence featuring a magician entertaining the locals, which seems unpromising but builds into a wonderful tribute to the art of prestidigitation and old-fashioned hocus-pocus.

Peterloo (dir. Mike Leigh, UK, 2018, trailer)
If you're watching a film about the 1819 massacre at St Peter's Field, Manchester, by army troops of peaceful protesters calling for basic democratic rights for workers, you probably already know that this film isn't going to end well. One character in particular ambles through the film almost as if he has a gigantic target on his back. But the process of getting to the grim conclusion is expertly realised, with Leigh following the grass-roots campaigning in tavern back rooms, industrial break-rooms and disused country factories, as ordinary English workers join the campaign to demand rights equal to those of their privileged masters - well, for male voters anyway. It's a special thrill to see Pearce Quigley in a supporting dramatic role, having stood a mere metre away from him as a Globe groundling as he gave a hilarious performance as Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor back in June. Rory Kinnear gives his traditional highly watchable performance as the mercurial, vain master orator Henry Hunt, who was the star attraction for the tens of thousands gathered at the St Peter's Fields. The massacre scene itself is gripping, and increasingly hard to watch as the chaos spirals out of control and the barbaric army forces, particularly those from the drunk yeomanry, wreak havoc upon the unarmed crowd. A finely honed study of the banality of institutionalised prejudice.

Kind Hearts and Coronets (dir. Robert Hamer, UK, 1949)
Imagine the brutal indignity of a man of taste and breeding being compelled to live in Clapham! While the protagonist who cuts a swathe through the English aristocracy is ostensibly the focus of this blackest of black comedies, in practice it's the ludicrously entertaining star turn by the then-35-year-old Alec Guinness as eight different members of the ducal family being heartlessly offed that is the central attraction here. A great British comedy for the ages, now beautifully remastered for its 70th anniversary.

La Belle Époque (dir. Nicolas Bedos, France, 2019)
Care to recapture your lost youth and rekindle the spark of a decaying marriage? La Belle Époque is a confident French comedy with broad, inter-generational appeal, featuring a delightful cast and enough genuine humour to keep audiences engaged throughout. With its blend of bittersweet nostalgic reminiscence and youthful infatuation, and a convincing dual relationship between the aged Daniel Auteuil pretending to be a young, 1974 version of himself and the radiant Doria Tillier portraying both the youtful incarnation of Fanny Ardant's character and the unlucky-in-love actress who plays the role, the film charts a delicate and rewarding course between sheer fantasy and droll farce. It's interesting to note that this fond remembrance of mid-'70s France is soundtracked almost exclusively by music from English-speaking countries - apart from the suitably saucy Yes Sir, I Can Boogie by Baccara. (Which is from 1977, but hey, who's counting?). Notably, we're seeing it in New Zealand even before French audiences - it's not out there until November.

Capital in the 21st Century (dir. Justin Pemberton, NZ, 2019, trailer)
A sweeping history lesson providing insights into the profound impact the regressive power of institutionalised capital on democracy and society. Having regrettably not yet read Thomas Piketty's enormous 2013 book, it did come as a small surprise that so much of this film was historical context, but this is a valuable contribution to international economic debate in an environment in which certain orthodoxies are seldom questioned. Convincing storytelling with a blend of deftly-selected talking heads (from a more diverse background than usual), archival film and period music, reminding viewers that the taxes that are so often avoided by the wealthy are the membership fee for what most of us regard as a civilised society. Great use of Lorde's Royals, too.

2040 (dir. Damon Gameau, Australia, 2019, trailer)
I initially approached 2040 as a bit of frothy infotainment, a useful antidote to the understandably dire environmental prognostication of many other films that seek to wake up audiences to unsustainable politics and practices. And its use of the cute devices of having an actress playing a grown-up version of the director's 4-year-old in the 'future' sequences, and interspersing the globetrotting (but carbon-offset) ideas clips with voxpops of primary school kids from around the world giving their ideas for the future, initially suggested this would be entertaining, but perhaps a bit lightweight, like a feature-length episode of Beyond 2000. Luckily, director Damon Gameau (That Sugar Film) was on hand for a Q&A afterwards and was able to dispel some of my concerns about the scientific rigour. In many of his answers to detailed audience questions he referred to informative extra material shot for the long cut of the film, or ideas that will feature in the upcoming TV spinoff episodes, or in the supporting material for schools and other users on the What's Your 2040 website. There's a lot going on in this multi-platform movement, and I look forward to hearing about the impact it has when a 2-minute extract is screened to the world's leaders at the UN General Assembly in November.

Amazing Grace (dirs. Alan Elliott & Sydney Pollack, USA, 2018, trailer)
As a filmed record of a singing performance this is far from ideal. The camerawork is frequently sloppy, out of focus and intrusive; there are umpteen cameramen but shots are frequently obstructed; Sydney Pollack's largely white crew seems intent on filming the interloping Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts rather than the exuberant audience; and so much of the performance is impinged upon by the mechanics of actually shooting the film. The church setting seems singularly ill-suited to such an intimate performance. And ultimately Pollack's catastrophic error of failing to use clapperboards on his 20-hour shoot meant it was impossible to sync the film with the audio recording, so the footage was never released at the time.

But of course the limitations of the setting are what makes this an utterly legendary concert performance. Without the emotional resonance of the gospel audience, Aretha's performance would merely be her usual excellence. But with that audience urging her on, with the Southern California Community Choir powering behind her, with James Cleveland MC-ing, hammering away at the keys and even seemingly rescuing Aretha from a wardrobe malfunction, the performance is elevated to the spectacular. And spectacular is seemingly insufficient to describe the range, power and emotion of Aretha's art here; at times it's a thrill just to watch the choir reacting to her seemingly impossible vocal feats.

Beats (dir. Brian Welsh, France/UK, 2019, trailer)
A cheerfully energetic evocation of the mid-'90s Scottish rave scene featuring two charismatic and convincing young actors, Beats pokes fun at the knee-jerk legislation that foolishly attempted to ban rave gatherings amidst a climate of misguided moral panic. The inevitable climactic rave scene is as joyous a celebration of the positive influence of the shared experience music as you're ever likely to see, and a fondness for the musical genre is by no means a prerequisite to garner the full emotional impact of this coming of age tale shot through with the rude energy of Glasgow youth. 

Andrei Rublev (dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, USSR, 1966)
A quite spectacular technical achievement, flecked with touches of cinematic brilliance; a film about a painter that never shows the process of painting; another reminder that Russian history is a thousand-year tale of woe and degradation with the added bonus of a somewhat masochistic tendency amongst the locals. While this is by and large a defiantly bleak tale of a spiritual wilderness and the travails of the people who inhabit it, every bit of Andrei Rublev is memorable - even if, like me, you struggle at times to follow the moral lessons being imparted.

The Day Shall Come (dir. Chris Morris, UK/USA, 2019)
This traditional Chris Morris fare, with a screenplay by Morris and Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show, Fresh Meat, Four Lions, In The Loop) sees Anna Kendrick working as an FBI operative monitoring a black activist who the agency is trying to entrap to meet its quota for terrorism charges, but who she is increasingly and justifiably convinced is a harmless nutjob. While The Day Shall Come doesn't reach the heights of In The Loop or Armando Iannucci's The Death of Stalin, its darkly satirical depiction of the amoral pursuit of fall guys irrespective of the tenets of justice is a wry, if bleak, hallmark of US politics in 2019. (I'd link the trailer but it reveals all the best jokes. Damn you, trailer editors everywhere!)

Bellbird (dir. Hamish Bennett, NZ, 2019, trailer)
A polished local production with the added USP of a director writing and directing a film set in his own hometown of Maungakaramea in Northland. A convincing script, talented cast and suitably low-key New Zealand humour underpin this increasingly rare beast, an actual New Zealand feature film drama. Particularly strong depicting the challenges of male communication in an intensely taciturn rural culture.

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound (dir. Midge Costin, USA, 2019)
A well-constructed and thorough survey of the history of sound in film and how the various aspects of the sonic palette are combined in the service of story-telling. An ideal companion to documentaries such as Christopher Kenneally's 2012 film-versus-digital debate Side By Side for those of a film nerd bend. Also, as an unexpected bonus, Making Waves' director and USC film academic Midge Costin attended the Wellington screening for an impromptu Q&A, having made her own way to New Zealand. Now that's commitment.

This Changes Everything (dir. Tom Donahue, USA, 2018, trailer)
It would be hard to edit the multitude of (justifiably mostly female) talking heads collected for This Changes Everything in a way that respects the contribution so many women have made to the often fruitless and thwarted drive to hold Hollywood to account for its decades-long ingrained sexism and flagrant breaches of human rights laws. There’s so much material and such a consistent message from the articulate, frustrated and legitimately angry women who have been shut out of the careers they deserve. Rather than the recap of the impact of the Me Too movement on the cinema industry that I was erroneously expecting, this is more a history lesson on Hollywood’s conscious eviction of women from leadership roles after the 1920s and its stubborn and disingenuous campaign to avoid its legal responsibilities to operate without discrimination. Geena Davis’ 15-year celebrated campaign through her Institute on Gender in Media understandably features prominently, but the film also sheds light on a range of other noble attempts to hold the studios to account over the decades, which have all been torpedoed by dark forces. The film also raises the serious chicken-or-egg question: is American entertainment sexist because America itself is sexist, or is America sexist because its entertainment is sexist? Certainly the deeply creepy way women and girls are portrayed in many forms of American media should be a concern for us all.

Koyaanisqatsi (dir. Godfrey Reggio, USA, 1982)
Imagine a world in which Americans actually build TVs and make blue jeans! But seriously, the urban day and night time lapse photography in the second half were particularly influential on '80s filmmakers and music video producers in particular, amplified by the arresting synth sculptures of soundtrack maestro Phillip Glass.

We Are Little Zombies (dir. Nagahisa Makoto, Japan, 2019)
A pleasingly unpredictable indie effort with little time for adult sensibilities and a nice line in disparaging dismissals from its pint-sized protagonists. Loser parents all dead in a variety of grisly fashions and you can't see the point of feeling sorry for yourself? Form a nihilistic punk-pop group and storm the charts. Or not, whatever: 'That's so emo'.

A White, White Day (dir. Hlynur Pálmason, Iceland, 2019)
Hvítur, Hvítur Dagur
Wildly implausible but commendably acted, A White, White Day's protagonist Ingimundur is more believable as an embodiment of an Icelandic revenge saga than of a 21st century grandad, but if you suspend belief sufficiently, there's plenty to savour, particularly the relationship with his 8-year-old granddaughter Salka, which has genuine warmth and colour. As usual, the Icelandic wilds provide a sumptuous, brutal backdrop.

Loro (dir. Paolo Sorrentino, Italy, 2018, trailer)
Worth the price of admission for two key scenes: one, in which Toni Servillo as a barely-fictionalised version of Silvio Berlusconi cold-calls a stranger late at night to sell her a fictional apartment to rediscover his huckster salesman's mojo, and a second in which he and Elena Sofia Ricci as wife Veronica engage in a legendary verbal fencing match as their marriage falls apart amidst the vulgar splendour of limitless wealth. If only the rest of the film, which is over-burdened with lavish ogling of a legion of bunga-bunga women, was this snappy and vital.

Hale County This Morning, This Evening (dir. RaMell Moss, USA, 2018, trailer)
A commendable if unspectacular glimpse into the black communities of Alabama that cinema generally shuns, Hale County is a valuable social document, but lacks a compelling narrative to attract a broader audience. Makes a compelling point about the whiteness of the photographic medium, which this film helps to remedy.

High Life (dir. Claire Denis, UK, 2018)
You have to give her credit: the baby's method acting was unimpeachable. As for the rest, Claire Denis' first sci-fi attempt bears the hallmark of half-baked ideas and highly variable acting. Robert Pattinson and the afore-mentioned baby are highly watchable, however.

See also:
Blog: Film festival roundup 2018, 2017, 2016 part 1 / part 2, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2009 

17 August 2019

The birth of Athena

Hephaestus, who would have approved of [the] rudimentary but effective metalworking, returned to the crowded beach carrying a huge axe, double-bladed in the Minoan style.

Prometheus now persuaded Zeus that the only way to alleviate his agony was to take his hands away from his temples, kneel down and have faith. Zeus muttered something about the trouble with being the King of the Gods was that there was no-one higher to pray to, but he dropped obediently to his knees and awaited his fate. Hephaestus spat cheerfully and confidently on his hands, gripped the thick wooden haft and - as the hushed crowd looked on - brought it down in one swift swinging movement clean through the very centre of Zeus' skull, splitting it neatly in two.

There was a terrible silence as everyone stared in stunned horror. The stunned horror turned to wild disbelief and the wild disbelief to bewildered amazement as they now witnessed, rising up from inside Zeus' opened head, the tip of a spear. It was followed by the topmost plumes of a russet crest. The onlookers held their breaths as slowly there arose into view a female figure dressed in full armour. Zeus lowered his head - whether in pain, relief, submission or sheer awe nobody could be certain - and, as if his bowed head had been a ramp or gangway let down for her convenience - the glorious being stepped calmly onto the sand and turned to face him [...]

'Athena!'

'Father!' she said, smiling gently in return.

- Stephen Fry, Mythos, London, 2017, p84-5.

 

12 August 2019

Johnston Hill

East- to southeast view from Karori the morning after a lightning storm, elev 350m, tripod-mounted panorama stitched in Photoshop Elements 14 from four RAW originals, f/6.3 1/250s ISO200.


02 August 2019

My road has been a little rocky on my way home

As a filmed record of a singing performance, Aretha Franklin's Amazing Grace is far from ideal. The camerawork is frequently sloppy, out of focus and intrusive; there are umpteen cameramen but shots are frequently obstructed; Sydney Pollack's largely white crew seems intent on filming the interloping Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts rather than the exuberant audience; and so much of the performance is impinged upon by the mechanics of actually shooting the film. The church setting seems singularly ill-suited to such an intimate performance. And ultimately Pollack's catastrophic error of failing to use clapperboards on his 20-hour shoot meant it was impossible to sync the film with the audio recording, so the footage was never released at the time.

But of course the limitations of the setting are what makes this an utterly legendary concert performance, and one of the greatest achievements of Aretha's career. Without the emotional resonance of the gospel audience, Aretha's performance would merely be her usual peerless excellence. But with that audience urging her on, with the Southern California Community Choir powering behind her, with James Cleveland MCing, hammering away at the keys and even seemingly rescuing Aretha from a wardrobe malfunction, the performance is elevated to the spectacular. And spectacular is seemingly insufficient to describe the range, power and emotion of Aretha's art here; at times it's a thrill just to watch the choir reacting to her seemingly impossible vocal feats.

20 July 2019

Advice for omnibus passengers, 1836

Omnibus Law

1. Keep your feet off the seats.
2. Do not get into a snug corner yourself and then open the windows to admit a north-wester upon the neck of your neighbour.
3. Have your money ready when you desire to alight.
4. Sit with your limbs straight, and do not let your legs describe an angle of forty-five, thereby occupying the room of two persons.
5. Do not spit on the straw, you are not in a pig-sty but in an omnibus.
6. Behave respectfully to females, and put not an unprotected lass to the blush, because she cannot escape from your brutality.
7. Reserve bickerings and disputes for the open field, the sound of your own voice may be music to your own ears - not so, perhaps, to those of your companions.
8. Refrain from affectation and conceited airs. Remember you are riding a distance for sixpence, which if you made in a hackney coach, would cost you many shillings.

- The Times (1836), quoted in Ivan Sparkes, Stagecoaches & Carriages, Bourne End, Bucks., 1975, p.145-6.

05 July 2019

Iggy Pop's zombie grunge

The makeup is, they're hovering over you with these latex guns, shooting this weird latex all over your body. They would spray this cold spray to make it set and you'd shiver, and then you'd get hot because your skin can't breathe. They just cover the costume in grunge and filth, and there's filth in your hair, in your ears, giant contact lenses in your eyes. Because you're a flesh-eating zombie, there's guys constantly coming up between takes [to] squirt zombie grunge into your mouth and wipe it on your gums.

The first time that I had to get down on my knees and eat [another character's] guts [laughing], I did not want to do that. I wanted to do it intellectually, but I had a dry heave. After that, I got into it. 

And I did get a free William Murray golf shirt out of the experience. I don't play a lot of golf, but it's an amazing shirt, and I wear it around Miami here; I fit right in. It's polyester.

- Iggy Pop on Jim Jarmusch's The Dead Don't Die, in Melena Ryzik, 'An all-star zombie cast comes to life', New York Times, 12 June 2019