12 August 2013

Film Festival 2013 roundup

This year's Film Festival has been an enjoyable few weeks spent delving into family secrets, life in polar climates, the nature of parenthood, indie comedies and quality documentaries. As usual I've relished the opportunity to investigate the 14 films I chose when I emerged on a dismal winter's day a month or so ago and trudged to the railway station to make my purchases. For me the Film Festival is always the highlight of the New Zealand winter, something to plan a long way in advance, and naturally it's crucial to get the festival guide on the day it's released to make one's selections in plenty of time to plan a ruthlessly effective campaign of ticket purchases on the first day of release, to ensure decent seats.

Here's a quick run-through of the films I've seen, in chronological order.

Village at the End of the World (UK/Denmark, 2012, dir. Sarah Gavron, trailer)

A year in the life of a minuscule Arctic settlement of Niaqornat in northern Greenland, offering an engaging glimpse into the lives of the locals and their hopes for the waning community in an era that appears to be passing them by. By focusing on some key characters the various strands of village life are explored. (But there's only around 57 of them, so you probably end up seeing most of them during the film). Taciturn Karl, the head hunter, is always seeking the next big kill - be it whale or bear - to sustain the village. Affable Ilanngauq moved in from southern Greenland to be with his internet-met wife - he now acts as the town's odd-job and sewage collector man, but it doesn't seem to get him down at all - rather, he thrives. Well, apart from an occasional grumble about his fellow villagers' defecatory capacity. Annie, one of the oldest villagers, remembers all too well the days before electricity came to Niaqornat, but after all that was only in 1988. And, most endearingly, teenager Lars seeks action and excitement in a settlement without the delights of city living and without any eligible teenage girls to chase. Staying with the villagers for a year shows just how hard their lives are, despite some modern conveniences. Even if their attempts to reopen the town's tiny fish factory succeed, you can't help but wonder how much of a future this wild, isolated place has. Perhaps tourism will assist. The cinematography is, of course, spectacular, with umpteen dogs howling in unison to greet the spring dawn, summer icebergs tumbling in the harbour, pristine expanses of autumn pack ice, and the endless, reclusive gloom of the long, sunless winter with no light, no visitors, and precious little cheer.

Antarctica: A Year on Ice (NZ, 2013, dir. Anthony Powell, trailer 1 below, trailer 2)

Another day, another snowy year in the life tale. But what a location! New Zealander Anthony Powell has been tending radio gear in Antarctica for over 10 years, working in some of the most isolated places on Earth, and in his spare time he shoots stunning time-lapse photography. This film stitches together the astonishing imagery into a world-class nature documentary, with the welcome addition of a dry New Zealand sense of humour (Powell: ‘When you’re out on the ice it pays to remember which bottle is for your water and which one is for your pee’) and a strong focus on the psychology of that rare breed who winters on the ice. The sun is absent for four long months and for six months no ships or planes visit – this is what it must be like to live in a moon base. The inhabitants of the neighbouring McMurdo and Scott Bases tell their stories of both the gripping, unforgettable beauty of the Antarctic and the many challenges it poses: enduring solitude, brutal hurricane-strength storms, missing key family events such as the death of a parent, and ceaseless fantasising about feeling rain on your face, clenching grass beneath your toes, and gorging on ripe, fresh vegetables. In the darkest weeks, everyone goes slightly mad, and many seem afflicted with curious memory lapses brought on by the isolation. All through the documentary, Powell’s labour of love is his epic photography, captured on conventional D-SLRs with home-made dolly mechanisms, which evokes the grandeur and ferocity of the empty continent. Most stunning are the night-time sequences of auroras flickering as the constellations wheel overhead, and a single 9-second shot of an ice field surging into the air, which took a full five months to shoot. One can only hope that as many people as possible around the world get to enjoy Powell’s remarkable endeavour, because he has created a classic nature documentary with universal appeal. (See also: Kim Hill interviews Lou Sanson, head of Antarctica NZ 2002-13, 10 August 2013).

Stories We Tell (Canada, 2012, dir. Sarah Polley, trailer)

Sarah Polley: "Can you describe the whole story in your own words?"

This family history of Canadian actress Sarah Polley digging into the secrets and lies of her larger-than-life mother Diane, who died of cancer when Sarah was 11, has its own share of surprises but is no bitter tale of recrimination. It is both a personal journey of discovery, seeking to fill in the gaps in her knowledge, but also an experiment in zeroing in on what might be closest to the truth without her mother being able to offer her side of the tale. Diane Polley’s story is expertly told through the recollections of her family and friends, but the film also wrestles with the notion: who really owns this story? Who owns the truth in the complicated, messy world of families, and how can you piece things together when your entire perspective is challenged? Throughout, Polley displays a deft but firm hand, allowing her siblings, father and associates to give their side of things but also pressing harder when tough questions need to be asked. This is no sob-story or hatchet job – the mystery of Diane Polley is celebrated and no-one seems to begrudge her failings at all. Rather, everyone still feels her loss keenly. Perhaps in some small way this frank film will bring them closer together, and give viewers a refreshingly honest appraisal of what it is to grow up in that strange and chaotic thing, a modern family.

Oh Boy (Germany, 2012, dir. Jan Ole Gerster, trailer)

Niko is a feckless wastrel, messing around in Berlin in his 20s while his rich dad pays the bills, thinking he’s persisting with his studies when actually he quit two years ago. That is, until dad bumps into Niko’s long-unseen professor and cuts his son adrift. Following a day in the Niko’s life, Oh Boy offers a solid and likeable lead performance from Tom Schilling, whose Niko is no tortured soul – all he wants is a plain, ordinary cup of coffee to get his life back on track. In this quest seemingly insurmountable obstacles thwart him at every turn, lending this dry German comedy a silent-film era knowingness with Schilling as a put-upon modern Harold Lloyd. A series of encounters with friends, oddballs and intellectuals buffet our hero about the city, which is lovingly filmed in black and white and etched with a jazz soundtrack – Woody Allen is another definite reference point. There is no great quest for meaning here, just an engaging set of performances in a sprightly, well-crafted film.

Frances Ha (US, 2012, dir. Noah Baumbach, trailer)

Greta Gerwig & Mickey Sumner
Indie goddess Greta Gerwig may have the sort of poise and bearing that leads otherwise sensible men to long to brush a stray lock of hair away from her perfect, perfect eyebrows, but aside from that she also boasts a usually impeccable taste in scripts. This one she co-wrote with director and boyfriend Noah Baumbach (who wrote the Fantastic Mr Fox screenplay, and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou).  Frances Ha manages to portray a convincing slice of Brooklyn twenty-something apartment-hopping life without peppering in a slew of irritating hipsterisms. These slightly callow but oh-so-worldly city folk move through the itinerant life of would-be dancer Frances (Gerwig), particularly her wry best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner, Sting's daughter - and who also plays Patti Smith in the newly completed CBGB). Frances Ha is loosely about the enduring nature of female friendship, the quest for meaning when you haven’t found your calling in life, and the transience of youthful relationships. (It’s no coincidence that one of the two well-known songs licensed for the film is Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’). Perhaps this sounds dire, but in these capable hands Frances Ha is a charming and surprisingly engrossing comic character study with unexpected emotional heft. Stumbling from career setbacks to middle-class poverty to embarrassing ‘grown-up’ dinner party rambling, any-port-in-a-storm dead-end jobs, catastrophically ill-advised credit card splurges, and finally telling your friend’s boyfriend what you REALLY think about him, Frances Ha packs a lot in. Perhaps my favourite line is when a self-possessed young fellow texts a newly-single Frances with ‘Ahoy, sexy!’ and Frances enquires of her girlfriend: ‘What, now I’m nautically sensual?’ Throughout, Baumbach’s glowing black and white cinematography shines.

The Bling Ring (US, 2013, dir. Sofia Coppola, trailer)

This frothy commercial for ultra-consumerism and celebrity worship is an enjoyable confection, which fortunately lacks some of the flab that should have been excised from Sofia Coppola’s last work, Somewhere. The gang of five vapid, rather privileged LA teens discover that A-list celebs are notoriously lax in their home security regimes, and decide to burgle their lush abodes for the trappings of stardom – shoes, accessories, jewellery and sunglasses. The main purpose of these escapades seems to be to provide the perfect set-dressing to their endless duck-faced selfies on Facebook, rather than for personal financial gain. As with 2006’s Marie Antoinette, Coppola is most fascinated by depictions of hedonistic revels, so there are plenty of pumping club scenes and the script is dominated by exclamations of ‘Oh wow,’ and ‘That’s so ill,’ when the kids raid the celeb treasure troves. The Bling Ring is no deep examination of the human soul, nor a masterclass in character development or plotting. You can’t help but wish that the film had focused more on the aftermath of their inevitable downfall and the ensuing court case rather than the comically straightforward crimes themselves – Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan seldom locked their doors and have so much stuff that it took quite a few burglaries to notice anything was missing. Though not the ringleader, Emma Watson excels as the empowerment-spouting, mendacious Nicki, and her scenes with on-screen mother Leslie Mann are ripe with satire of the moneyed New Age Californian set. There’s also a stand-out scene when one of the girls discovers a chic little handgun and delightedly pretends to menace her partners in crime like a white-bread gangsta; it’s utterly tense and all-too-short. Throughout, Coppola displays her traditional deft touch when selecting the soundtrack, which only goes to confirm that there’s few things funnier than rich white kids pretending to be ghetto rappers while driving around in their Lexus. (See also: Sleigh Bells - Crown On The Ground, from The Bling Ring OST)

Linhas de Wellington / Lines of Wellington (Portugal/France, 2012, dir. Valeria Sarmiento, trailer)

When the elderly Portuguese director Raul Ruiz died in 2011 he left behind plans for the follow-up to his successful historical epic, Mysteries of Lisbon. His widow Valeria Sarmiento has brought Ruiz’s plans to the screen in this hugely ambitious Napoleonic war tale. Like Mysteries, it weaves together numerous strands and characters to recount the long retreat of the Anglo-Portuguese forces in the face of a massive French invasion in 1810-11 – a retreat to the titular Lines of Wellington, the (hopefully) impregnable English defences around Lisbon. Sarmiento has produced an adept war story, that does not shy away from the gruesome aspects of bitter conflict, particularly for the ordinary folk caught up in the devastation. Some of the characterisation is perhaps a little too melodramatic, and perhaps some of the acting is a little stilted due to the multi-lingual cast, but the film cannot be faulted for the scale of its ambition, and the attention to detail in its production values.

The Human Scale (Denmark, 2012, dir. Andreas Mol Dalsgaard, trailer)

Like 2011 doco Urbanised, The Human Scale deals with the shaping of modern cities to avoid the mistakes of the past and to make urban dwelling more enjoyable and efficient as humanity shifts towards a highly urbanised future. In a swift global survey the film charts the sometimes painful process of challenging car-centric sprawl in the face of vested interests and outdated worldviews. From an Antipodean perspective, the chapters on smarter growth in Melbourne and the gruelling reconstruction in Christchurch (with doomy music for Gerry Brownlee’s attempted usurpation of the public-led city plan) hit close to home. But it’s the eye-opening dilemmas faced by the tumultuous ‘giga-cities’ of India, Bangladesh and China that are where the fate of 21st century humanity is being decided. The chapter on Dhaka was most worrying – gaining half a million population every year, the city is increasingly prone to devastation and huge loss of life from even relatively mild earthquakes as building standards are shirked and ground-water is squandered.

2 Automnes 3 Hivers / 2 Autumns 3 Winters (France, 2013, dir. Sebastien Betbeder, French clip 1, clip 2)

For a film that’s not really about very much, 2 Autumns 3 Winters is surprisingly entertaining. That said, you will not learn much about the human condition from this 90 minutes of 20- and 30-something Parisians accidentally falling in love, having relationship problems, experiencing random bouts of hospitalisation, and discussing the merits of the latest Judd Apatow comedy. In a way it’s immaterial: the actors are adept enough, the monologues delivered direct to camera are self-conscious like a reality TV confession but naturally far more lyrical because these are arts graduates after all, and French ones to boot. The film flirts with pretentiousness but fortunately reins back – this is no pseud’s thinkpiece. Nor is it a cloying slice of whimsy like Amelie. Perhaps the chief characteristic of 2 Autumns 3 Winters is that it’s hard to pigeonhole.

Fallout (Australia, 2013, dir. Lawrence Johnston)

It makes perfect sense to make a documentary about the world-changing Nevil Shute book On The Beach and the ensuing Hollywood film that ensured its notoriety in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The tale was in many ways deeply shocking, both then and now – depicting the effects on Australian society of a creeping plague of radiation sickness sweeping southwards from a nuclear-war ravaged northern hemisphere. In an age where nuclear weapons were little understood, the accomplished engineer author (who had established his own aircraft company and worked on the dam-busting bouncing bomb during the war) saw huge dangers in nuclear weaponry and deployed his populist writing panache to bring the message to a much wider audience. Shute’s book and the film were most baby boomers’ first exposure to the concept that would become known as Mutually Assured Destruction, and the potential for all human life to be extinguished in a single conflict. The story's focus on regular lives and the harrowing decisions that would be required in the event of imminent destruction successfully brought the message home to a wide cross-section of society. Casting Hollywood A-listers helped immeasurably too: Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire and Anthony Perkins all graced the film version. It even shaped policy-makers’ views – Churchill for one read the book and was powerfully affected by it. This studious recap, almost academic in nature but no less effective for it, revisits Shute’s greatest achievement and reminds us that we have become all too complacent about the nuclear threat.

Twenty Feet From Stardom (USA, 2013, dir. Morgan Neville, trailer)

This year’s compelling music doco, Twenty Feet From Stardom offers a glimpse into the world of the overlooked but vital heartbeats of the rock world, the backing vocalists. These unheralded performers – many of whom you will never have heard of – have graced the greatest records of the past 50 years and made them what they are. As Stevie Wonder points out in the film, try listening to Ray Charles’ What’d I Say without the backing vocals and it’d sound ludicrous. As with the best documentaries, Twenty Feet covers its ground adroitly but also casts a spotlight on a few memorable personalities, including pop pioneer Darlene Love, killer glam queen Claudia Lennear, the supernaturally talented Lisa Fischer and the young striver Judith Hill, whose career was derailed by the death of mentor Michael Jackson in 2009. It’s sad and a little worrying that the art of backing singing is endangered by the headlong rush to autotuned anodyne anonymity where the ability to sing is relegated far down the list of priorities for pop stardom. If only half the people who bought the overcooked Rodriguez soundtrack bought the Twenty Feet From Stardom soundtrack too, then the balance would be tipped slightly back in favour of the artists who never stopped singing their hearts out. (See also: Merry Clayton - Southern Man).

Much Ado About Nothing (USA, 2013, dir, Joss Whedon, trailer)

There's much to like in this knockabout, slapped-together Much Ado, filmed at Whedon's own house during a break in The Avengers. Amy Acker is versatile and lovely (perhaps too lovely?) in the role of Beatrice, but Alexis Denisof is not quite as nimble as the crucial Benedick, occasionally delivering his lines in the wooden fashion of his lookalike, Will Ferrell. The crucial wooing scene in which Benedick performs a volte-face and tries to charm the waspish Beatrice is played over-heavy with slapstick - but it did get a laugh. A highlight is the ever-reliable Nathan Fillion (Firefly, Castle) in the comic role of police chief Dogberry.

Soshite chichi ni naru / Like Father, Like Son (Japan, 2013, dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda)

Like his triumphant and exuberant 2011 tale I Wish, this Hirokazu Kore-eda film is another foray into family life in Japan, and again it is a perfectly cast, winning formula. The director is particularly adept at selecting child actors, and in Like Father, Like Son the stand-out is the precious little six-year-old imp Keita, who tips the scales of cuteness in a wholly natural and winning performance. The film’s adults and other children are expertly portrayed too, as the story of a wealthy urban family and a down-at-heel working class family from the suburbs whose baby sons were switched at birth unfolds. Careerist Ryota dismays his wife Midori when he opts to swap the boys to ensure they grow up with their own blood kin, but welcoming a boy raised by strangers into their chic apartment is not as straightforward as Ryota had hoped; and despite Ryota’s snobbish disdain, the shambolic shopkeepers are actually brilliant parents who provide Keita with a loving, carefree home. Only when Ryota begins to question his own understanding of father-son relations does he begin to reconsider what family and fatherhood really mean. Like Father, Like Son is one of those rare and beautiful family dramas that engrosses viewers throughout. I'm put in mind of the equally riveting A Separation, and as with that film, I really didn’t want Like Father, Like Son to end.

Museum Hours (Austria/USA, 2012, dir. Jem Cohen, trailer)

It’s an interesting premise – a visiting Montreal lady strikes up a friendship with an erudite, insightful museum guard who works in the famed Kunsthistoriches Museum (Art History Museum) in Vienna, and through their platonic friendship the viewer explores the multitude of treasures in the galleries. There’s certainly a wealth of Breughels, Rembrandts and many other artworks on display in Museum Hours, and it is a treat to see the galleries and Vienna itself on the big screen. But unfortunately the ad-libbed scenes between Anne and Johann are unengaging and the film drags whenever it strays for too long from the KHM. Perhaps a straight art documentary would have been a better prospect, or even a tour narrated by the admittedly personable fictional museum guard.

See also:
Blog: Film Festival 2012 roundup, 14 August 2012
Blog: Film Festival 2011 roundup, 31 July 2011 
Blog: Film Festival 2009 roundup, 4 August 2009

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