The 2014 NZ International Film Festival is in full swing in Auckland right now, with film lovers braving the cold for some big weekend and weeknight turnouts. I have been having an exhaustingly good time with this year’s selection, and you can find some of my reviews from the first week below — with more to come soon.
THE DARK HORSE (Dir. James Napier Robertson)
The festival opened this year with James Napier Robertson’s popular drama The Dark Horse, starring New Zealand acting great (and ethnic chameleon) Cliff Curtis as the late Genesis Potini, a bipolar speed chess champion who promoted the educational benefits of chess in Gisborne’s poor communities. The film follows Gen as he attempts to transition from an unstable existence between the streets and mental institutions to a more positive life, which he finds as an inspirational figure to displaced youths at the local chess club. There is also a fictional subplot involving his intimidating gang-affiliated brother, Ariki (Wayne Hapi), and soon-to-be-patched teenage nephew, Mana (Boy‘s James Rolleston), which creates a crisis of conscience for Gen. Significantly bulked up to the point of being nearly unrecognisable, Curtis delivers a transformative and incredibly intense performance as the unlikely hero, elevating what threatens to be a pedestrian based-on-a-true-story drama into something much more worthwhile. As the torn-between-two-paths adolescent, Mana’s storyline is too clichéd and Rolleston’s performance is underwhelming, however Hapi’s compelling turn as a conflicted father trying to make the best of his bad options is an impressive screen debut. While Robertson’s film is a little too uneven and formulaic for my liking, Curtis’ supremely dedicated performance is quite phenomenal and deserves to be seen by a wide audience.
20,000 DAYS ON EARTH (Dir. Iain Forsyth, Jane Pollard)
Nick Cave has spent his entire career myth-making, so it’s only appropriate that a documentary about his life and work would be just as mythologised and seductive as the Australian singer-songwriter’s persona. Directed by visual artists Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard — who previously collaborated on Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ video for ‘Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!‘ and the Do you love me like I love you series — 20,000 Days on Earth is an innovative docudrama that follows a fictitious 24-hours in Cave’s life: Day 20,000. Noirishly shot by cinematographer Erik Wilson (The Imposter, The Double), the film takes on a dream-like and very cinematic quality as we follow Cave’s black Jaguar through the streets of his adopted home of Brighton. Figures from Cave’s past appear for candid, unscripted conversations and then disappear just as mysteriously — former Bad Seed and Einstürzende Neubauten founder Blixa Bargeld and pop star Kylie Minogue (who sang on Cave’s biggest hit, ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’) have insightful and humourous exchanges, while Ray Winstone’s scene on the other hand is pointless. The film also offers up some more traditional biopic fare, detailing the writing and recording of 2013’s Push the Sky Away, a nostalgic conversation with close collaborator Warren Ellis, and some electric performance footage (particularly ‘Higgs Boson Blues’). We are given revealing access to Cave’s past courtesy of his immense archives — each photo has its own entertaining anecdote — as well as a staged therapy session in which he discusses his childhood in Warracknabeal and the premature death of his father. 20,000 Days may not be accessible or extraordinary enough to appeal to the unconverted, but for Cave fans this elegant and stylish portrait is essential viewing.
UNDER THE SKIN (Dir. Jonathan Glazer)
The long-awaited return of innovative commercial, music video and film (Sexy Beast, Birth) director Jonathan Glazer was exciting enough to top my list of most anticipated NZIFF picks, and I’m relieved to report that his years-in-the-making Under the Skin does not disappoint. Not only does it not disappoint, but this is one of the most ambitious and original films of the year. Loosely adapted from Michel Faber’s celebrated psychosexual novel, the story follows an inhuman young woman through the streets of Glasgow as she lures young single men for mysterious reasons. Scarlett Johansson gives an utterly transfixing and unnerving performance unlike anything we’ve seen from her — suffice it to say that this unnamed femme fatale is much more of a Black Widow than her Marvel namesake. To capture a true sense of alienation, the majority of the men she encounters in her van are local unknowns with impenetrable Scottish accents whose initial interactions were recorded by hidden cameras. One has a serious facial disfigurement that slowly seems to stir something human in her. In several thrilling sequences, she is aided/followed by an equally mysterious motorcycle rider (real-life championship motorcyclist Jeremy McWilliams) whose intentions are left unexplained. As you may have begun to surmise, this is not a film interested in traditional, accessible storytelling — there are no real characters, and dialogue is sparse throughout — but, refreshingly, one told almost entirely visually. And what striking, unsettling visuals Glazer and cinematographer Daniel Landin have conjured: an opening sequence alluding to our character’s origin is just as impressive as anything in 2001: A Space Odyssey; another where two of her victim’s meet in darkness is positively nightmarish; and the eerie climactic images are unforgettable. Equally impressive is the ominous, drone-like electronic score by Mica Levi (of Micachu & the Shapes), perfectly complementing the otherworldly feel to provide a hypnotic sensory experience. While many critics have been quick to cite Nicolas Roeg’s iconic The Man Who Fell to Earth as a touchstone (perhaps for the easy headline “The Girl Who Fell to Earth”), or the work of Kubrick, Under the Skin has a bold style all of its own — liberally picking elements of experimental science fiction, film noir, psychological horror and Scottish social realism — and if anything it feels more akin to Shane Carruth’s equally dazzling and puzzling Upstream Color (which provided similarly grand sensory immersion at the Civic Theatre last year). This is Glazer’s most remarkable and audacious achievement to date; a visually virtuoso and incomparable experience whose imagery continues to haunt me.
WINTER SLEEP (Dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan was awarded the Cannes Film Festival’s coveted Palme d’Or for his seventh and most epic feature to date, Winter Sleep, which runs for a daunting 196 minutes. It’s not difficult to understand why, as Ceylan has long been a festival favourite for the likes of Uzak, Üç Maymun (Three Monkeys) and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, and there seemed to be a critical consensus that his time had come this year. All of which is to say that the film arrived at the NZIFF burdened by grand expectations — no less than a masterpiece would do. Channeling the lofty likes of Ingmar Bergman and Anton Chekhov, Ceylan’s chamber piece certainly fits the mold of a magnum opus, and for the most part unspools expertly as it progresses from one engrossing conversation to another on such topics as civic responsibility, morality and evil. The almost plot-less story follows Mr. Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), a retired actor and wealthy landowner who views himself as the benevolent ruler of his rural Cappadocian community, but is in fact alienated by his privilege and resented by his tenants, intellectual sister (Demet Akbağ) and philanthropic young wife (Melisa Sözen) for his selfish, dismissive and Scrooge-like attitudes. As his character is increasingly called into question over the course of several lacerating arguments, Aydin is reluctantly faced with something of an existential crisis. At its worst Winter Sleep finds Ceylan indulging his most novelistic and didactic tendencies, overwriting some lengthy monologues and repeating himself throughout the overlong runtime; at its best, however, the film is a frequently stunning psychological character study, complete with wonderfully nuanced performances, beautifully composed shots and intelligent insights. The challenging central character and runtime will not earn Ceylan any new fans — it’s not even my favourite film of his — but followers of his previous work will ultimately find the film a rewarding experience.
MAPS TO THE STARS (Dir. David Cronenberg)
2012’s Cosmopolis marked a dramatic turning point for Canadian body-horror legend David Cronenberg, following a string of mainstream-courting dramas (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, A Dangerous Method) with something markedly more abstract and maddening. That film’s detached tone, un-cinematic dialogue and against-type casting of Robert Pattinson provoked divisive reactions — I found it to be fascinating and underrated — so when the underwhelming trailers and early reviews surfaced for Cronenberg’s latest effort, Maps to the Stars, I was holding out hope that it might be another under-appreciated provocation. Unfortunately, the film is bizarre mess; an awkward mash-up of jaded Hollywood satire, absurd family melodrama and creepy ghost story, the Bruce Wagner-scripted film has no idea what it wants to be. It might also be the ugliest-looking film Cronenberg has ever attached his name to, resembling something closer to a soap opera than the usually classy visual style of regular cinematographer Peter Sushitzky. Despite this overwhelming weirdness — or perhaps because of it? — Maps is pretty entertaining throughout, especially when the focus is on another terrific and fearless Julianne Moore performance as an ageing and insecure actress with disturbing Mummy issues. Those hoping for a scathing, coherent Hollywood critique from Cronenberg will certainly leave disappointed, however, anyone looking for some outlandish and diverting entertainment should enjoy the madness.
Sidenote: My biggest disappointment and sole walk-out of the festival so far is Albert Serra’s Story of My Death — the only 35mm film screening this year — which sounded good on paper but proved insufferable in reality. A tediously paced Catalan depiction of an ageing Casanova and his various indulgences, the first act contains no narrative of any consequence, but rather numerous scenes of its lead character repulsively chewing food for what feels like an age — not to mention straining over a chamber pot to defecate — and talking about his book. I wasn’t remotely interested in sticking out the two-and-a-half-hour runtime to find out what happens, but Neil Young’s The Hollywood Reporter review sums up the experience in my place: “many will have long since tired of a picture whose tone wanders between arid academic exercise and something close to parody of the more pretentious trends in current auteur cinema.”