The Auckland leg of the 2012 New Zealand International Film Festival is currently in full swing, and Dunedin and Wellington also launched their respective festivals late last week. I have already posted full reviews of early festival highlights Beasts of the Southern Wild, Room 237, Moonrise Kingdom and The Cabin in the Woods, and below you can find a round-up of brief reviews of other first-week films, including Bernie, The Imposter, Monsieur Lazhar, Searching For Sugar Man and Sleepless Night.
Bernie reunites Austin auteur Richard Linklater with his School of Rock star Jack Black in a quirky black comedy set in the small town of Carthage, Texas. Based on true events and inspired by co-writer Skip Hollandsworth’s 1998 Texas Monthly article (“Midnight in the Garden of East Texas”), the film centres on Bernie Tiede (Black), an effeminate but charismatic and immensely popular assistant funeral director with peerless people skills, especially when it comes to consoling the town’s grieving elderly widows. The pleasant and generous Tiede goes out of his way to check in on these widows, including Majorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), an affluent and widely despised curmudgeon who doesn’t even speak to her own children. She initially begrudges the kindness Bernie extends, but eventually the unlikely pair become inseparable, with Majorie taking Bernie on as her part-time help and only friend, entrusting him with her finances and taking lavish holidays together. The seemingly harmless relationship takes a dark turn when the lonely and possessive Majorie starts to demand more and more of Bernie, and – if you’ve seen the trailers or read anything about Bernie you know where this is heading – the increasingly depressed mortician finally snaps and shoots her dead, covering up the murder for many months by telling the townsfolk she had a minor stroke. Enter blustery District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey), who, along with Majorie’s suspicious accountant Lloyd (RIchard Robichaux), is determined to get to the bottom of the crime. Black has been gifted a role unlike anything he’s done before in Bernie Tiede, and his restrained performance is the best of his career and worthy of the admission price alone. McConaughey again impresses as the showboating D.A., although MacLaine’s unlikable character is given a rather one-note performance. The docu-drama style of the film is engaging and fun, with local actors filling in for the gossipy townsfolk, although this eventually becomes somewhat of a crutch and limits the film’s ability to deliver any real depth. Bernie is a fascinating, laid-back and humourous true crime tale, and while it ends up a little too slight, Jack Black’s marvelous performance ensures the film is a must-see.
With a story so mind-boggling it could only be true, British filmmaker Bart Layton delivers the most thrilling documentary of the year in The Imposter, mixing interviews with dramatic reenactments to tell how a legendary con artist, Frédéric Bourdin, improbably impersonated a missing Texan boy with ominous results. In October 1997, the Barclay family of San Antonio received a call informing them that their son Nicholas -– who disappeared in June, 1994 at age 13 -– had been located in a village in southern Spain with a story of kidnap and torture. How could a 23-year-old French-Algerian with dark hair and eyes pass himself off as a 16-year-old, blond and blue-eyed American? This question is at the heart of Layton’s slippery narrative, which is perhaps the most manipulative and entertaining documentary since Banky’s Exit Through the Gift Shop, and this addictive film provides us with one of the most riveting and least reliable narrator’s in memory with Bourdin. While the details surrounding the case are well-known (as detailed in an extensive 2008 New Yorker piece), it’s best seeing The Imposter with as little prior knowledge as possible, as Layton has constructed the endlessly fascinating film as a gripping true-crime thriller –- with a folksy Private Detective named Charlie Parker to boot! –- which will confound you at each twist. The noirish, atmospheric reenactments (with Adam O’Brian as Bourdin) recall Errol Morris’ classic true-crime doco The Thin Blue Line, and while The Imposter does not have the same grasp on a definitive truth, it is similarly interested in pursuing a philosophical inquiry into the untrustworthy recollections of those involved in an incredible story. You may think this is an open-and-shut case of victimisation going in, but The Imposter proves just how slippery perception and the truth can be, leaving you spinning the story over and over in your head afterwards and wondering if you too have been scammed…
Philippe Falardeau’s crowd-pleasing French-Canadian drama Monsieur Lazhar is a tender and compelling examination of grief and the complicated teacher-student dynamic. Not surprisingly, it was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar earlier this year (losing to A Separation), and swept the Genies (Canadian Academy Awards) with wins in six key categories. Set in Montreal, the film opens with a quietly shocking scene in which a young boy, Simon (Émilien Néron), discovers his beloved teacher Martine has hung herself in their classroom. As the faculty frantically herd the children out of the building, his curious classmate Alice (Sophie Nélisse) sneaks a peek before being shooed away. The scene is handled with remarkable subtlety and restraint, which sets the tone for the rest of the film, and the repercussions of this act are felt throughout. A replacement teacher is soon found in Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag), a soft-spoken Algerian immigrant who is secretly dealing with a trauma of his own. While his methods of teaching are old-school and foreign, his willingness to address the tragedy proves decidedly more beneficiary to the children than the faculty’s overly cautious methods. This type of material — based on a play by Évelyne de la Chenelière — always runs the risk of becoming a Dead Poets Society-esque inspirational contrivance, but Monsieur Lazhar manages to remain emotionally honest and affecting throughout. The film also benefits from some superb performances from the child actors (particularly Nélisse), as well as a strong turn by the charming Fellag, and while it could justifiably be criticised for being overly meek, Monsieur Lazhar impresses with the range of issues it intelligently covers over its exquisite 94 minutes.
French filmmaker/actor Mathieu Kassovitz (La Haine) returns from back to back Hollywood failures (Gothika and Babylon A.D.) with Rebellion (L’Ordre et la Morale), a based-on-true-events drama which is his first French-language film since 2000’s The Crimson Rivers. Kassovitz stars here as Philippe Legorjus — upon whose memoir the film is based — a captain in an elite counterterrorist division hastily dispatched to the South Pacific French territory New Caledonia following the Ouvéa cave hostage taking in 1988. The Kanak separatists feel that their culture is threatened, and under the leadership of Alphonse Dianou (Iabe Lapacas) they take 26 gendarmes (French police officers) hostage and demand their independence. But the situation is complicated by the extreme political division back home while Francois Mitterand and Jacques Chirac are campaigning for the presidency of France. Legorjus must not only negotiate with the fiery and amateur separatists, but also deal with an unwanted and aggressive military presence as well as the interests and whims of the politicians. Kassovitz’s heavily researched, realistic and nicely shot retelling has more respect for dialogue and subtlety than most war films, but its action scenes underwhelm, the performances are merely adequate, the characterisation is not strong, and the drama relies too much on exposition. As a document of a little-known (internationally, at least) tragedy, Rebellion can be powerful and is made especially relevant by the fact that New Caledonians are to vote on their independence in 2014. Kassovitz’s earnest indictment of the French politicians and army responsible for mishandling the situation is commendable, but the overlong and leaden film never quite reaches its potential.
SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN
Perhaps the most unexpected documentary success of 2012, Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching For Sugar Man is a sensational musical detective story which is sure to satisfy audiences worldwide as it introduces them to the forgotten ’70s singer-songwriter Rodriguez. Following his discovery by esteemed Detroit producers Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore, the mysterious Mexican-American recorded two LP’s — Cold Fact (1970) and Coming From Reality (1971) — in the folk-pop tradition of Bob Dylan, James Taylor and Nick Drake. Despite displaying remarkable talent, both albums inexplicably flopped and Rodriguez disappeared. On the other side of the world, however, Rodriguez’s music proved improbably successful in South Africa — where he was “bigger than Elvis” — and his working-class lyrics became an inspiration for the youth to protest against Apartheid. Swedish filmmaker Bendjelloul begins the film’s journey there, with enthusiastic fans Stephen “Sugar” Segerman and Craig Bartholemew discussing the mystery surrounding their hero — who was rumoured to have tragically committed suicide on stage — and retracing their investigation from South Africa to the US and beyond, which led to a discovery more extraordinary than any of the existing myths. I won’t go any further into Searching For Sugar Man‘s story here, as the less you know about the film and its reveal going into it the better, but suffice it to say that this is a fascinating and moving tale with a great soundtrack to boot. Although Bendjelloul stumbles along the way — a little too much time is spent showcasing pretty South African landscapes and gritty Detroit streets, and Rodriguez remains somewhat of an enigma — the riveting story is more than compelling enough to make up for these flaws, and Searching For Sugar Man is one of the most revelatory and refreshing music documentaries to come along in years.
Frédéric Jardin’s frenetic and vibrant Sleepless Night is the latest French thriller to be handed the dubious complement of an impending Hollywood remake, following in the footsteps of Tell No One (being developed by Ben Affleck), Anything For Her (remade unsuccessfully as The Next Three Days), and last year’s Point Blank (in development). This film follows a seemingly dirty cop, Vincent (Tomer Sisley), whose life suddenly tailspins one night following a drug heist gone wrong, landing him and his partner (Laurent Stocker) in deep trouble with some dangerous gangsters, who kidnap his son (Samy Seghir) in retaliation. Vincent has to dodge both drug dealers and cops (good and bad) in an expansive, crowded nightclub in order to save his son and survive the night. The deceptively simple plot may feel a little familiar at times, but Jardin’s lean and adrenaline-packed film hits the ground running and its relentless momentum barely lets up over a tense 98 minutes, which includes a few interesting reveals along the way. Jardin and his talented cinematographer Tom Stern — whose camerawork is limber and stylish throughout — use the claustrophobic geography of the nightclub to maximum effect. One impressive sequence follows an injured Vincent as he struggles to evade multiple assailants through the crowded dance floor, as oblivious revelers dance to Queen’s ‘Another One Bites the Dust’. Another features a brutal and exhausting battle between Vincent and a crooked Internal Affairs officer (Julien Boisselier) in the bar’s kitchen, during which the two utilise everything from colanders and trays to the drawers and cupboards. Sleepless Night does not necessarily add anything new to the genre in terms of plot or character, but as an exercise in non-stop forward motion the film is expertly crafted, and it’s highly physical and realistic action sequences are inventive and gripping. Be sure to catch this film before the inevitably inferior remake.
THIS MUST BE THE PLACE
Paolo Sorrentino’s bizarre This Must Be the Place stars Sean Penn as Cheyenne, a wealthy, 50-year-old former rock star who is bored with retirement and still dresses like Robert Smith. For the film’s dull first half hour, Cheyenne potters around his country estate in Ireland with his patient wife, Jane (Francis McDormand), and hangs out with his younger goth friend, Mary (Eve Hewson). Following the death of his estranged father, Cheyenne travels home to New York City, and, upon meeting his father’s Nazi hunter friend Mordecai (Judd Hirsch), he decides to track down the Nazi officer who tortured him at Auschwitz (incredulously still alive). Along the way he has some odd, sometimes fascinating encounters with the likes of a scene-stealing Shea Whigham (Boardwalk Empire), the appealing Kerry Condon (Luck), an obligatory Harry Dean Stanton cameo, and former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, who plays himself and provides the film’s soundtrack (with Will Oldham). Penn throws himself into the character as always, delivering an odd man-child with a nervy high voice who, despite being a unique character, proves trying company over the course of the film. Sorrentino and co-writer Umberto Contrarello’s absurd script is wildly uneven, as is the film’s tone, as it attempts to cram three dramas into one: an aging, immature rocker dealing with his regrets and bizarre circumstances; a grieving son embarking on a Wim Wenders-influenced, beautifully shot road trip across America; and the long-term effects of the Holocaust. This adds up to an utterly confounding and frustratingly disjointed experience that threatens to trivialise the Holocaust at its worst. This Must Be the Place is made all the more baffling when you consider that it is the follow-up to Sorrentino’s acclaimed, Cannes Jury Prize-winning political epic Il Divo; whatever his motivations were, his first English-language film is a confounding — if not entirely disastrous — affair which will struggle to find an audience.
For ticketing details and further information on these films, head to the NZ International Film Festival’s website.