New Zealand doesn’t always get first run films. We’ll get the big ones like Avengers or the new Pixar, but anything expected to make less than a million dollars in its first weekend we get months late or not at all. Auckland makes up for this by having film festivals. Lots of them. Then New Zealand International Film Festival runs for nearly a month, takes over five theaters in the city, shows over a hundred films, and eats a certain amount of my life ever year. On top of this are small festivals, often sponsored by local embassies or activist groups. Plus there’s the Auckland Film Society. The result is over the year I see a lot of random films. Some good, some okay, some really awful. These are some short reviews from this last year’s festivals plus some random ones I happened to catch.
It’s always nice to see Jack Black playing something other than Jack Black. In this he plays the title character of Bernie, the most beloved man in a little East Texas town. An assistant funeral director he makes every funeral a time of joy and remembrance. He supports the arts, sings in the church choir, raises money for charities, and is kind to all the sweet little old widowed ladies of the town. Everyone knows Bernie and everyone loves him. So when he murders the most loathed woman in town, played by Shirley MacLaine, and confesses to it, the local DA, played by Matthew McConaughey, realizes he’ll have a hard time getting a conviction, despite the confession, because Bernie is so loved and his victim was so hated, even by her own family.
Done is a sudo documentary style, and based on a true story, the film is intercut with interviews of the actual towns people. This is done so seamlessly that the only way of telling the difference between the actors and the real folk is that you recognize the actors.
Jack Black does a wonderful job of playing this loved, if slightly strange little man, but the funniest bits come from the town people just being themselves reminiscing on Bernie.
I believe this got a release in some cities and if it wasn’t in a theater near you go look for it on DVD. It is worth a watch.
The Angel’s Share
The duo of Paul Laverty and Ken Loach are not known for making the most upbeat films which makes The Angel’s Share a nice surprise. There is a reasonable amount of gritty realism and some violence but in the end it’s a rather upbeat and quirky heist movie.
When nineteen year old Robbie hears about the birth of his first child while on court ordered community service his supervisor lets him celebrate with a shot of whisky. Really good whisky. Like someone with a nose for fine wine Robbie discovers he has a real talent for recognizing and judging fine whisky. When he hears about the upcoming sale of the world’s rarest cask of whisky he sees an opportunity to get enough money to get his new son and girlfriend out of the cycle of poverty and violence. And possibly land a real job in the process.
Like any good heist movie the ‘victims’ are such twats and the ‘criminals’ so sympathetic that you are really hoping they get away with it. A very fun film. Certainly worth seeing.
Neil Young Journeys
It’s a lovely Neil Young concert film shot at Toronto’s Massey Hall. It covers some of his best music and is intercut with him touring through the empty fields and redeveloped streets that had once made up his childhood.
This has a 5.4 on IMDb and a 90% from critics on Rotten Tomatoes. If you like Neil Young go see it. If you don’t like Neil Young don’t go see it. And keep in mind he’s not getting any younger so there’s not likely to be much more from him.*
Matthew McConaughey is going through a phase where he does not want to play Matthew McConaughey. This movie exemplifies this. It’s a story about pure Texan trailer trash who, in order to get out of debt, take out a hit on their own mother for the insurance money. They hire a hit man/police detective called Killer Joe played by Matthew McConaughey.
When the family can’t afford the down payment Joe agrees to take the pretty, teenaged, virginal, and probably a little mentally disabled, daughter as collateral.
This movie earns its NC-17 rating for being violent, sexual, and having the most disturbing use for a piece of Kentucky Fried Chicken ever. I personally had a great time in it but it won’t be to everyone’s taste. And you may never order a KFC drumstick again.
Cesare deve morire (Ceasar Must Die)
This is an interesting one. It’s about a group of inmates in a maximum security Italian prison getting ready to do a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
It is actually filmed in the prison with in inmates cast in the show. The camera follows their rehearsal and preparation though it flows between real rehearsals and staged moments. Scenes from the play are acted out in the exercise yard or between the cells. The casting is interesting (and we witness the casting process) with a member of the mob and an obvious heavy hitter cast as Ceasar.
Perhaps a docudrama or a meta film it follows prisoners stretching their minds and personalities outside of themselves and their walls, and yet we and they know that once the curtain goes down their world will shrink back down to their cells.
I found it interesting, engaging, and worth seeing.
The Cabin in the Woods
In my mind someone wrote a pretentious film school thesis about archetypes and rituals in modern American horror films.** Then Joss Whedon, and Drew Goddard found the thesis and realized they could make a funny as shit movie out of it.
I won’t give out spoilers, and even talking about the basic plot is a kind of spoiler, but let’s just say there is a scene with Bradley Whitford with a machine gun. Thinking back on West Wing I never realized how much I wanted to see Josh with a machine gun.
Go see this movie, in a theater if at all possible.
This is a Wes Anderson film. If you don’t like Wes Anderson films don’t go see it. If you do like Wes Anderson, or you’re at least willing to give him a try, go see it. It takes place in the 1960’s on a tiny island off the cost of New England, where a young boy and girl, hardly in their teens, decide they’re in love and run away into the forests.
Since large quantities of it are set outside there’s less of the cutaway dollhouse look from previous Wes Anderson films. There is also slightly less in the way of daddy issues. The child actors, which include the young lovers and a small army of scouts, all give solid performances. And the leads are kids to keep an eye on.
Another thing I liked about the film is the fact that I did not recognize many of the big name actors right away. It took at least two scenes before I realized the pathetically in love police captain was Bruce Willis, and I didn’t catch Tilda Swinton as the social worker until the credits.
Under Wes Anderson films I would rank this better than Darjeeling Limited (which I liked) and not quite as good as The Life Aquatic.
I need to start this by confessing that I fell asleep about 45 minutes in, but don’t let that keep you away from this film. I’d had two hours of sleep, it was in the middle of the day, I was in one of those nice velvet seats in the middle of the Civic***, and it is subtitled, which when you’re dyslexic takes that little bit of extra brain power I just didn’t have that day. I woke up sporadically throughout and pulled myself awake for the last half hour.
Made by Aleksandr Sokurov who did Russian Ark (which I review down the page), the detail in the visuals is stunning if not always pretty. The first image is that of a dead body sliced open and being studied by Foust in his attempt to understand science in a time when medicine looks more like torture.
If you know the story of Foust you know the plot but this is worth a watch (if you’ve got a spare two and a half hours) for Johannes Zeiler’s portrait of a man with a lust first for knowledge and frustrated at a world which does not value such things. Even at the end where he is wandering a wilderness, populated by dead soldiers, he is looking for the science behind bubbling mud pools and insists on pushing on to explore.
The New Zealand International Film Festival got a clean print of The Shining and showed it on the big Civic screen. There are a million and one reviews of The Shining and you’ve probably already seen it but if you ever get a chance to see it on a big screen go for it. It was awesome.
On The Road (2012)
This is a film that dances the line between realism and nostalgia. In a way the novel On The Road is a nostalgia piece glorifying a set of memories and read at a certain age you want to believe that you could go out and wander the wild roads of America. The film invokes the same wanderlust desire but also has enough freezing nights, blistering hot days, and screwed up broken hearts to keep you at home.
With free love, drugs, and jazz these kids were doing the 60’s before it all went mainstream. The original hipsters. Sam Riley’s portrait of Sal Paradise, the young struggling writer, is reasonably layered as he trails along behind the louder, flasher, more insane Dean Moriarty, while at the same time trying to keep just enough reality in his life that he can write it all down. Garrett Hedlund’s Dean Moriarty is flashing madness. Half the time you want to be him, the other half of the time you want to absolutely throttle him for being a selfish, self-obsessed, bastard. And Kristen Stewart is quite good as Marylou. You are able to forget she’s in those movies which I bet is half the reason she took the part.
The film runs a little long and it weaves about, but so does the book. It’s a halfway decent adaptation but like all books into movies it’s best just to consider it on its own merits.
This is an interesting one.
Set against Chile’s 1988 referendum, when after intense international pressure the people are allowed to vote; Yes, keep Augusto Pinochet in power. No, give real democracy a try. Both sides are granted 15 minutes of TV a night to state their cases in the run up to the vote.
Enter advertising executive René Saavedra, played by Gael García Bernal. Not particularly political but not Mad Men wild, he has a young son, a nice suburban house, and rides a skateboard to work, where he works out how to sell soda pop and microwave ovens. An old friend of the family asks him to help out on the No campaign. The activists, who have fought, been tortured, and imprisoned want to spend the 15 minutes reminding people of disappearances and secret police. René believes the campaign needs a bright logo that will look good on t-shirts and a catchy song to go with it****.
It would be easy to take this film to an intensely emotional, very dark place, but instead it was done with subtlety and even a bit of humor.
At a time when most of us would rather stick a fork in our eye than watch another political ad this is a movie about people who fought and died for the right to have a political ad and then need to figure out what to do with it.
Blackmail (1929) – Hitchcock
One of Hitchcock’s earlier films it is silent but visually already a very Hitchcock film. It’s a story about cheating wives, attempted rape, murder, and of course, blackmail. If you’re into Hitchcock but haven’t seen his silent work try to find this. It’s a great example of where his style started.
I had the luck of seeing this with The Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra providing a live score. It’s something they do every year for a silent film as part of the festival. If you happen to be in Auckland at that time of year try to get tickets. It’s a very cool experience.
The Color Wheel
Never say I’m not willing to take one for the team. The Color Wheel is a truly awful movie. Let’s start with the simple fact that the title has nothing to do with the movie, which was shot in black and white for an unknown and almost certainly completely pointless reason. A ‘slacker road trip’ film, I can buy the idea that the filmmakers were trying to capture some Clerks like magic and failed miserably. It’s the story of a brother and sister on a road trip, played by the couple who made the thing, which gives it a very weird vibe off the bat. The dialog is all improvised, which can be a good thing if the people doing the improvising have talent. This couple does not. If you’ve ever been stuck on a long car ride with people who think they’re witty and won’t stop bickering until you have the urge to put an icepick into someone’s head (possibly your own) then you have experienced this film. The big Shock! Twist! ending is so unmotivated, and the characters are so unlikeable, that it feels painfully forced and falls flat. And if you haven’t walked out of the theater by that point in a vain hope that it might get better you will be thoroughly disappointed. Stay home and watch reruns of the Simpsons instead of subjecting yourself to this mess.
The is a gorgeous and interesting take on the classic story. It starts with the idea that Hamlet was born a girl but in order to keep the family on the throne upon her birth the people are told she is a boy and she is forced to live her life that way. She goes off to school and falls in love with Horatio, who in turn falls in love with Ophelia, and she still has to deal with her father’s murder and all of that.
With some very subtle shifts Asta Nielsen is able to shift between a plain, young man, and a softly feminine young woman. I’m sure this is a very important film as far as gender studies go and all of that but it’s also just a good movie with some pretty good acting and far more subtlety than one expects from silent films of the day.
Bir zamanlar Anadolu’da (Once Upon A Time in Anatolia)
There are certain universals in cop movies. This one starts out with a couple of cops, late at night, driving out to a crime scene and they are talking about yogurt. Where to get the best, how their mothers used to make it, why low fat yogurt is just wrong. Replace yogurt with donuts/pizza/kebabs, and you can have a hundred other cop movies.
This one is about a group of police, a local prosecutor, and a doctor driving out onto the Anatolian steppes, late at night to find a body. They have the problem that the man who confessed to the crime was a little out of it at the time and can’t fully remember where he dumped it.
As the night stretches on the story becomes more about the personal lives and relationships of the officers on this strange quest.
Made it Turkey in 2011 it shows the clash between the modern and the old way. When one of the cops has enough and tries to rough up the suspect he is told to stop because they won’t get into the EU if they keep doing things like that. When they find the body they have new digital cameras and laptops to document the scene but they forget the body bag, the van doesn’t show up, and they have to put the body in the trunk of a car that looks like it’s on its last legs.
It’s an interesting movie. A bit slow paced at times and really that last half hour wasn’t exactly needed but if it shows up in a local festival, and you have the time, and you have a thing for cop movies, it’s worth a shot.
Directed by Aleksandr Sokurov this is a 99 minute film done in one moving shot (they got it on the fourth take). Through the eyes of an amnesiac strange and a 19th century French aristocrat this film flows through the Russian State Hermitage Museum and 200 years of Russian history. In one room Catherine the Great is throwing a ball and in the next room a winter in WWII blows through broken windows. Each room and each time is different and perfect down to the tiniest detail. This film is amazing on a technical level, historical level, and a ‘shit that’s really cool’ level.
I know this had a reasonably wide release but still a movie worth reviewing. It centers around a young Woody Allan type writer, played by Paul Dano, who produced one great novel at 19 then hit a decade worth of writers block. When his therapist challenges him to write just one page it takes off and he beings writing about an amazing girl, Ruby Sparks played by Zoe Kazan. And he believes he has his next novel until Ruby Sparks appears, flesh, blood, and real in his home. What’s a guy with a string of failed relationships to do but leap at the most wonderful woman he created. But when she starts becoming a bit too human, and perhaps doesn’t love him as much as he would want, the temptation to pull out his typewriter and start changing her becomes strong.
This is a romance of sorts that is both sweet, and creepy, and towards the end Paul Dano really gets his creep on. It’s not a chick flick, not a first date movie (maybe a five year date movie), in some moments the characters are sympathetic and at other times they’re really not. It’s a hard film to pin down but I enjoyed it both for Paul Dano’s and Zoe Kazan’s performances.
*Though I have to say one of the most memorable parts of the screening was at the beginning when the sound was a little off. Half the audience yelled ‘turn it up’ the other half yelled ‘turn it down’. They turned it up.
**I went to film school, I have a masters degree, I feel no shame in ragging on film school people.
***If you’ve seen Peter Jackson’s King Kong you’ve seen the inside of the Civic theater. There was no CGI prior to Kong tearing it up. That’s what it looks like. Most of the year it’s used for the ballet and musicals but during the film festival they drop the (very) big screen and use it as it was intended. This year they installed good digital projectors and a new sound system. If you’re ever in Auckland try to get inside even just for a tour.
**** And you will walk out of the theater with that song stuck in your head even if you don’t know a word of Spanish.