14 August 2017

Film festival roundup 2017

Here's my top five films from the 2017 NZ International Film Festival here in Wellington, where I saw 20 films in 17 days. An excellent year for the festival!

Patti Cake$ (dir. Geremy Jasper, USA, 2017) :: Embassy 108 mins

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I knew I had to see Patti Cake$ the moment I read the festival blurb recording the moment the Cannes crowd heard the film's lead actor Danielle Macdonald speak at a Q&A they 'gave an audible gasp when she answered her first question because no one had a clue she was Australian let alone not American'.

There's no question that this quest-for-stardom music flick traverses the most hackneyed of cinematic cliches - the embattled outsider with a heart of gold striving to overcome adversity with the help of their plucky, wacky friends and a huge helping of sheer talent. In lesser hands this would be trivial, forgettable material. But with Macdonald director and writer Geremy Jasper has a legitimate, stone-cold star. There's never a moment in Patti Cake$ that leads the viewer to disbelieve her tremendous ability with a mic and a rhyme. Her rapping performances are quite authentically superb, and that's from someone who has little time for the musical genre. And whereas a film like Steven Soderbergh's Haywire can coast on a serviceable lead performance by Gina Carano thanks to her eye-watering martial arts talents, Macdonald is the complete package here because in addition to rapping like a boss she also acts with commendable talent.

I won't spoil the audacious climax of the film, but this is that most treasurable of offerings, a true crowd-pleaser in every respect. Don't be surprised if you see Macdonald at the Oscars, or at the very least performing at the Grammys - assuming they can devise something PG-13 for her to rap, that is.

Kim Dotcom: Caught in the Web (dir. Annie Goldson, NZ, 2017) :: Paramount 112 mins

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You don't have to like Kim Dotcom in the slightest to be impressed by the scope of Annie Goldson's stellar documentary. While the biographical aspects of the sorry Dotcom tale are strong, the broader implications for the entire way society consumes intellectual property are particularly intriguing. Particularly telling is the example given of the early rise of Dotcom's Megaupload, when a recent University of Kansas graduate tells a reporter friend that her campus was abuzz with sharing free movies on the site, and that it was her lecturer who first turned her onto it - a clear sign that the social impact of this type of sharing was mammoth and permeating every corner of the world.

Goldson has assembled a formidable collection of international interviewees to augment the expert insights of the Herald's David Fisher, including Jimmy Wales, Moby and Glenn Greenwald. And whether or not you think Dotcom is guilty of the crimes he's been charged with, his case has been handled diabolically by the New Zealand authorities at seemingly every stage. The questionable granting of New Zealand residency (potentially with the ultimate intention of handing him over to the Americans), the ludicrous overkill of the January 2012 raid on the Dotcom mansion (which was conducted using faulty warrants), the police's illegal cloning and sharing of his entire evidence file with the FBI, the illegal surveillance by the New Zealand security services (which was later patched up by highly contentious legislation) and the eventual court ruling that he was eligible for extradition to the US but not for the charges originally laid against him, the five years it's taken to even get this far ('justice delayed is justice denied', after all): these all add up to a picture of a New Zealand justice system seemingly taking its orders from overseas and bending its rules to suit.

Throughout, Dotcom appears as a charismatic chancer punching way above his paygrade - a low-level crook who made millions while Hollywood refused to adapt its business model to reflect changing technology.

Ethel & Ernest (dir. Roger Mainwood, UK, 2016) :: Paramount 94 mins

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The highlight of the last day of the film festival was Brenda Blethyn & Jim Broadbent voicing the animation Ethel & Ernest - the story of artist Raymond Briggs' parents and their 40 happy years of marriage. If the idea of following the mundane, everyday goings-on of ordinary South Londoners strikes you as boring or dull, then you'll be missing out on a precious social document replete with wry humour, affecting pathos and small tragedies bravely borne. Personally, I loved every minute of this loving tribute to the heroism of ordinary working-class people making their way through life. Even if it did feature plenty of exposition in the form of Ernest listening to the wireless and exclaiming, 'Blimey, that Mr Hitler's only gorn an' invaded Poland' - because that's just what Ernest would have said. If only we had something like this lovely little film for New Zealanders' lives of the same generation, for a way of life now lost and almost forgotten.

Summer 1993 (Estiu 1993, dir. Carla Simon, Spain, 2017) :: Embassy 97 mins

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An expertly realised evocation of a momentous summer from the director's own past, as orphaned six-year-old Frida (Laia Artigas) is taken to the Catalan countryside for a new life with her aunt and uncle and her tiny cousin Anna. Wiry, inquisitive and puzzled, Frida struggles to adjust to her new environs and the family struggles to adapt to this newcomer, half insider, half outsider. As a simple depiction of childhood, familial kindness and learning to get along, this is hugely effective, finding particular joy in the small and utterly genuine interactions between Frida and the cherubic, playful little Anna that pepper the film. So many of the episodes depicted have the ring of true memories to them, and as Frida's story and that of her family emerges one can't help but be impressed with the performances of all concerned.

A Date for Mad Mary (dir. Darren Thornton, Ireland, 2016) :: Paramount 82 mins

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An object lesson in how to make a small film with a big heart, A Date For Mad Mary works in every respect - dramatically, comedically, narratively and visually. The tremendous cast led by Seana Kerslake as loose cannon Mary offer believable and memorable performances and the film provides a glimpse into the motivations and challenges of a determined young woman seeking a 'plus one' for her best friend's wedding, with the slight impediment that she's got anger management issues and has only just emerged from a six-month jail term. The blind date scenes are particularly rich with humour, particularly given Mary's first stab in the dark is to ask out her middle-aged former drug dealer.

Other films seen and enjoyed at this year's festival:

The Party (dir. Sally Potter, UK, 2017)
The Square (dir. Ruben Östlund, Sweden, 2017)
Citizen Jane: Battle for the City (dir. Matt Tyrnauer, USA, 2016)
Blade of the Immortal (Mugen no junin, dir. Miike Takashi, Japan, 2017)
The Farthest (dir. Emer Reynolds, Ireland, 2017)
My Year with Helen (dir. Gaylene Preston, New Zealand, 2017)
I Am Not Your Negro (dir. Raoul Peck, USA, 2016)
The Lost City of Z (dir. James Gray, USA, 2016)
Manifesto (dir. Julian Rosenfeldt, Germany, 2017)
Stalker (dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, USSR, 1979)
Kedi (dir. Ceyda Torun, Turkey, 2016)
6 Days (dir. Toa Fraser, New Zealand/UK, 2017)
Human Traces (dir. Nic Gorman, New Zealand, 2017)
The Beguiled (dir. Sofia Coppola, USA, 2017)
The Other Side of Hope (Toivon tuolla puolen, dir. Aki Kaurismäki, Finland, 2017)

See also:
Movies: Film festival roundup 2016 part 1, part 2
Movies: Film festival roundup 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2009

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