NZIFF Tranche 1

Once more I’ve gotten a bit carried away with the scheduling, resulting in a lot of dashes across town. The loss of most of the central city cinemas (Paramount, Embassy) is, I imagine, as vexing for organisers as it is for patrons; my schedule is 30 minute windows to get from Petone to Miramar to Brooklyn. Still, the festival organisers are doing will with the limits of the ongoing breakdown of what used to be Wellington’s glory, a strong CBD, as spiraling rent drives and shoddy construction drives leaves more and more empty storefronts; cinemas are no exception.

Le Misérables

For me the opening film is this bleak tale from France; «Le Misérables» is set in modern day, but located in the same banleiu Hugo wrote his novel. Stéphane, a cop fresh from another location, joins his new partners in this less than desirable posting in order to have more time with his son, now sharing custody with his ex-wife.

It will turn out to be an error.

He meets Chris and Gwada. Gwada is a local who grew up in the neighbourhood. He is, for the most part, a reasonable character. He brings an understanding of the lives of the locals, mostly French of African origin, of language, of culture; but, at the end of the day, he is holding a “blue line”, which means going along with the utter depravity of Chris, his long-term partner. Chris has no redeeming features: worse than even the nastiest criminals that afflict the neighbourhood, he keeps some of them on-side by enforcing their shakedowns; he feels up a teenage girl under the guise of a drug search, then smashes the phone of another teen who films his apalling behaviour. And whereas the other characters we meet - Le Maire, who runs the protection rackets but loves his handicapped brother; Gwada, who lives with his mother and tries to mediate between Chris’ excesses and the locals; Gypsy thugs whose rage is stirred when a local boys steals a beloved pet - have some redeeming features, Chris has none. He treats his family as a nuisance, and everyone else much worse than that.

The film draws threads of conflict together, the flash point being a local kid’s drone filming the cops wrongdoing. From there, things spiral downwards predictably, with Chris, whose mantra is “never apologise”, Gwada, and Stéphane themselves in conflict over the right course of action, while the principals of the local community - Le Maire, Salah - a criminal reformed to a thoughtful Imam - struggle over what to do with the video. The conflict is, perhaps, predictable, but well-realised. And the final scene of the film is the bleakest I’ve seen in a while.

Where’s My Roy Cohn?

I first encountered Roy Cohn through Angels In America when it ran through Circa Theatre in the 90s; when I read a little more about him it seemed to confirm every bad thing the play said about him. Where’s My Roy Cohn takes a man who already seems bad, and elevates him to the kind of person who could win a competition for who one should kill in infancy if granted the ability to travel through time, and it does this with little more than the bare facts of his history, and interviews with those who should, if anything, paint him in a positive light: allies such as Roger Stone, members of his extended family, and lawyers who worked at his firm.

Instead, the picture that emerges of the man is so unspeakably vile it couldn’t be presented as fiction; this self-hating Jew who was instrumental in whipping up an anti-Communist, Christian fundumentalist ideal of America in the 50s, who persecuted homosexuals through that period while himself trying to keep his boyfriend in a privileged position in the army; an ally of Ronald Reagan who benefited from Ron and Nancy’s intervention to try to mitigate his AIDS while at the same time they denied to the public it even existed; a cancer on public society to trained Donald Trump as a protege; a man who positioned himself as anti-establishment when the only way the definition made sense was if one takes “establishment” to mean the rule of law and civil society. It is rolling around in filth, and the only bright note is his ultimate professional and personal destruction.

An excellent documentary.

Escher: Journey into Infinity

A largely self-narrated history of Escher, told through his letters, footage of the artist, and his works, accompanied by interviews with two of his three sons and one of his daughters in law. A fascinating film for its understanding of the man, it is more than a little poignant; ever beset by his own feelings of inadequacy and sense that he was neither talented nor doing his best work, the documentary presents a fairly unhappy interior life. I do rather question the skew it puts on its subject though; while Escher was treated largely with contempt by the art establishment during his life - his first significant show in his home country came only when he was 70 - he enjoyed tremendous popularity after World War II; his sons mention this as an uptick in their fortunes as a family, but other than that, it’s largely glossed over (except for Escher’s own baffled amusement at rock bands and young fans; more in a moment). Most of all, it glides very lightly over the tremendous enthusiasm and acceptance he enjoyed in the world of science, and his own publications in mathematics, which were well-received.

And that would be my biggest criticism of the film: it is culled to present a mostly very downbeat impression; it dabbles in the joy some places brought him, or the love he had for his wife, and mentions in passing his genuine success as an artist (popular acclaim, collections of his work, and art collectors enthusiasm were all real in his life time) and mathematician (he published two thesis that were well-accepted), in favour of his most negative interior voice. And perhaps that is true to how he felt! But I cannot help but wonder if it is accurate, or if it is an artefact of the selections made by the film maker.

I noted above that he was bemused by younger fans, or multi-coloured psychedelic (and unauthorised!) reprints of his work; his attitude seems to have been, not anger, but rather more good-natured. He could not reconcile rock and roll or prog rock culture with his own work; the affection confused him, since it came from a culture so alien to him. But he shrugged his shoulders and noted that if knock-off prints were horrible quality compared to his own work, the “children” buying them were unlikely to be able to afford originals anyway.

Finally, while I would definitely recommend the film, I do so with the caveat that Light House Petone absolutely ramped up the sound levels to the point it was actively painful for me during the film. Perhaps one to see at home, rather than during the festival.

Children of the Sea

Do you feel as though the main problem with films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 2001: A Space Odessey was that they spent too much time on plot and not enough time on the vague, unexplained and inexplicable hallucionagenic sequences? Have I got the anime for you!

OK, perhaps that makes it sound worse than it is. But while much of Children of the Sea is an enjoyable, vaguely eco-themed movie, the 20-odd minutes devoted to a sequence that could have paid off in terms of plot and emotion in 5 minutes was a low point of the film, which felt a little under-edited overall. Several plot points go nowhere (particularly around the degree to which certain characters may or may not be co-operating with the millitary) or are otherwise underbaked (the conflict between mother and father). It has the feel of a lot of ideas crammed into too little space, without anyone in the process of making it prepared to force the film to winnow itself down to what it’s really about.

That’s not to say it’s bad overall - the art is wonderful, and many of the plot elements themselves are fine - but it could have been better by trying to do a little less, and I did enjoy that one of the core threads is essentially a spin on The Little Mermaid, but with brothers raised by Dugongs rather than actual mermaids. It’s a nice bringing together of myth, reality (dugongs being believed to be an inspiration for mermaids), and inverting roles.

If you do see it, note that there is critical exposition after the credits, with no hint it’s coming. Quite a few people left our screening because there’s no reason to believe it’s coming.

Fly By Night

Set in Malaysia, a central conceit of this very good film is that petty criminals with access to the taxi system could turn good money blackmailing their customers; after all, if you know who’s being dropped off for affairs, whether they live in a nice neighbourhood, or how many kids they have, your ability to extract a decent amount of cash while flying under the radar is pretty solid. The crooks are family and friends, and the tensions of the film are driven by over-reaching ambitions of the younger members intersecting with an unusually clean cop getting the green light to investigate the trail left by the younger, dumber members of the claim (as well as their other unfortunate antics coming home to roost).

It’s an taut, perfectly produced piece of cinema with a shatteringly downbeat finale. I really recommend this one.

Modest Heroes Volume 1: Ponoc Short Films

Pooc are an increasingly internationally known Japanese studio, and this is a collection of three kid-oriented movies, each weighing in around 20 minuties each. THe first is a fable of a fairy family’s struggles; the second (and for me by far the best) is the story of a boy and his mother battling the fears and frustrations of his potentially fatal egg allergy; the third a man suffering from a curse of invisibility.

Each is beautifully animated and a perfect realisation of the story it’s telling; when I say the second is the best for me, it’s more that is resonates with me the most. Both girls enjoyed these, and I’d strongly recommend them as a great hour of family film.

Stuffed

Stuffed is about people who are seen as weirdos: taxidermists. Focusing primarily on younger taxidermists, as well as two stalwarts of academic taxidermy and a pair of older Dutch artists, it covers ground in fashion taxidermy, fantasy (creating hippograffs from ravens and cats), hyper-realism (taking casts of flayed corpses to create more realistic musculature and veins), capital-A art (recreating the style of Dutch Master still life paintings with taxidermy), and many others. It’s a lushly produced walk through every aspect it can fit in of modern taxidermy culture and represenetatives of each, but as individuals and when they come together for conferences and comeptitions, while also spending enough time in the workshop to let a lay viewer understand how modern taxidermy actually works.

There was, for me, one bum note: the fashion taxidermist noted that her work is always ethically source, as she is acutely aware of Victorian mania for the field resulting in the extinction of hunderds of species to feed the appetite for dead birds; she doesn’t seem to realise that popularising the idea will re-create the problem however ethical she personally is.

But overall this was a brilliant documentary. See it!

Dilili in Paris

I’ve got to give this one a bit of a “meh”, sadly. This is a great example where the storytelling doesn’t execute the idea well enough: a young Kanak girl tours turn of the centiry Paris on the tracks of a mysoginistic cult who are abducting girls to inveigh against the freedoms of modern women. On the way she encounters great artists and thinkers of the era, such as Cure, Bernhardt, Michel, and so on. Unfortunately it’s just too busy and overstuffed for me to really relax into it and enjoy it; the story is always in service of chucking another personality in, and it feels like an over-hurried tour guide rushing me from place to place.

Doubles Vies / Non-Fiction

I saw this for two reasons: Juliette Binoche and a link to the team who gave us the wonderful C’est la Vie, which was a fantastic comedy. This film, too, has moments of fine comedy as its bougie characters ruminate on the future of written fiction (all but two of them are writers or publishers in one way or another; Binoche’s character is an actor, while another is a political aide). There are plenty of moments of sharp observation and commentary: a group of well-off Parisians mocking Valérie when she returns from a town they’ve not heard of, then proceed to lecture her for not understanding the mind of the ordinary French person is a particularly sharp example; likewise the film takes stabs at the all-too-true stereotype of middle-aged men writing supposed literary works that are little more than rambling about their affairs and poor sexual behaviours. No doubt there’s many an in-joke that goes by me; it’s that kind of film.

Overall, though, while it’s genuinely interesting as characters argue over the written word or critique the vapidity of mediocre literary work, I found it rather… empty. Well-off people treating one another shabbily and complaining about problems which are, at the end of the day, rather more desperately ordinary than the tone of the movie would have you believe is not compelling, and Leonard is all-around repulsive. Valérie - the only really particularly sympathetic and genuine person in the cast - is ultimately left unsatisfying happy as a mug to her frankly worthless husband. I don’t regret seeing it, as such, but it’s very much every stereotype about a certain sort of French film.

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