O le tulafale (The Orator, 2011)

I was given a DVD of this years ago, but I haven’t watched it until now for whatever stupid reason. Anyway, I guess there aren’t really that many stories out there, because there are familiar contours to this one (a family split apart, further feuding after a death, a person who feels set apart from the others), but by grounding it in a culture that, I imagine, most of us are unfamiliar with, this film makes it all seem new and fresh. Set in Samoa, Saili (Fa’afiaula Sagote) is a man short in stature and husband to a woman who has been rejected by her tribe and family. He’s the son of a deceased chief, but, perhaps due to feeling shunned for his height, has never claimed the right to be chief — and therefore orator of the film’s title, because public speaking is one of the community’s chief virtues in this film (though arguments that aren’t solved this way involve rock-throwing instead). Nevertheless, the film builds a quiet power, with beautiful cinematography and just the right pitch to acting. It could easily tip over into the unbelievable or melodramatic, but by virtue of its very quiet focus, it never does.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Tusi Tamasese | Cinematographer Leon Narbey | Starring Fa’afiaula Sagote | Length 110 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 7 January 2017

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LFF: “Joanna Margaret Paul: I Am an Open Window” (2015)

BFI London Film Festival This compilation of short films was presented at the London Film Festival. It was given an introduction by Mark Williams, director of Circuit Artist Film and Video Aotearoa New Zealand, who helped curate the programme and who stayed for a Q&A afterwards that I sadly had to miss, again due to running off to another screening.


The last film I need to write about for my 2015 LFF is the one I’m probably least able to write about, as the world of artists’ film works is still largely obscure to me, experimental pieces more likely to be seen in a gallery installation than an actual cinema. Nevertheless, having grown up in Wellington NZ, I thought it only right to turn my attention towards the filmmaking of artist and poet Joanna Margaret Paul (1945-2003). Five of her short films from the late-1970s are presented here, and they are largely little snatched fragments of domestic life, further distanced by the silent black-and-white photography, grainy and indistinct, like messages from another world, which in a sense they are. Interspersed between these are recent works by New Zealand artists made in response to her films, emphasising both the mundane (“Third Revision” has a sort of provisional structure, as if hastily extemporised, though I don’t doubt there is plenty of work in putting across that impression) and the picturesque (“By Sea” is a particularly beautiful and strange film of oddly domestic seascapes). Whereas most of Paul’s original films are entirely without sound, rachel shearer — whose work has been as much with sound as image — finds poetry in the combination of these, and the other films also tend to use both aspects of their medium. It’s difficult to really write about, given the almost intangible evanescent presence of these works, but they are fascinating and even enjoyable if you’re willing to be open to this form of expression.


FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival
Contents: “Aberharts House” (1976); “Napkins” (1975); “Bosshard Family” (1976); “Jillian Dressing” (1976); “Thorndon” (1975, all by Joanna Margaret Paul); “I Am an Open Window (2015, Rachel Shearer); “By Sea” (2015, Sonya Lacey); “Still Light” (2015, Nova Paul); “Third Revision” (2015, Popular Productions); “Sky” (2015, Miranda Parkes); “Untitled (Epilogue)” (2015, Shannon Te Ao) || Length 68 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Sunday 18 October 2015

Slow West (2015)

It’s always nice to see a movie western, even if it’s not shot in the United States, though I am partial to the New Zealand landscape as someone who grew up there. I would say it seems to me to be pretty distinctive as far as landscapes go, but then this is a film shot through with plenty of style (and stylisation). If some of the still-life framings are reminiscent of Jarmusch’s Dead Man (albeit in colour), a lot of the film’s tone comes closer to the deadpan of the Coen brothers, and is freighted with some of their archness as well. The narrative is based around a one-sided romance of one young Scottish lad, Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee), for Rose (Caren Pistorius). Rose has left Scotland to go on the run from the law with her father, while Jay pursues her out of love. He is taken in by Silas (Michael Fassbender), who turns out to be a bounty hunter on Rose and her father’s trail. As a film shot in NZ starring Irish, Scottish and Antipodean actors, it’s really strong on that sense of the modern US as a nation of immigrants, though the Native Americans get fairly short shrift (and one overtly comedy sequence of horse rustling gone awry). So even if I don’t wholeheartedly embrace it, there’s enough in the film to suggest interesting work in director John Maclean’s future.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer John Maclean | Cinematographer Robbie Ryan | Starring Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Caren Pistorius, Ben Mendelsohn | Length 84 minutes || Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 7 July 2015

January 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

I don’t write full reviews of every film I see, because I’d spend more time writing than watching, probably, and I’ve been seeing quite a few things at home. However, I thought I should offer some brief thoughts about my other January viewing, as I’m adding ratings for these films to my full A-Z list.


© The Weinstein Company

Big Eyes (2014, USA, dir. Tim Burton) [Tue 13 Jan at Cineworld West India Quay]. This is perhaps a slight film from Burton, but it marks a more grounded move in his storytelling of recent years, dealing with the real-life events surrounding artist Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), whose husband (Christoph Waltz) passes off her somewhat kitschy paintings of doe-eyed children as his own in order to enjoy success. Whatever truth there may be in his arguments — the film emphasises what a difficult time the 1950s was for a woman to be an artist — he’s a domineering husband, and Adams finds herself amongst all the shallow trappings of success.

The Craft (1996, USA, dir. Andrew Fleming) [Tue 13 Jan at home]. A trio of high-school witches led by suitably gothy Fairuza Balk welcomes a new member in the form of Robin Tunney, who’s transferred to their school. Things take a turn as their power increases and Tunney rebels against their increasingly violent actions, but the film remains a sort of campy pleasure, which gives plenty of agency to these four women.

D’est (From the East) (1993, Belgium/France/Portugal, dir. Chantal Akerman) [Thu 22 Jan at ICA]. You couldn’t get more different with Akerman’s East European travelogue, as she moves from Germany to Russia with her watchful camera. There’s an eeriness that’s evoked by its frequent extended tracking shots, whether across industrially-blighted scenery or along long ranks of people standing in the cold by roads, presumably waiting for a bus. There’s no dialogue as such, though a fair bit of unsubtitled talking emphasises that this is an outsider’s view of an only newly capitalist society, and the faces directed towards the camera speak volumes about their lives.

Get Over It (2001, USA, dir. Tommy O’Haver) [Sat 10 Jan at home]. It may hardly be inspired but it’s fun to watch this teen film, which fits into the contemporary trend for sort-of-adaptations of classic literature (in this case, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a modern production of which features in the film). A young Ben Foster plays the rather bland leading man, and Kirsten Dunst pops up as a love interest, but the performances from a bunch of actors at the start of their careers are all enjoyable and the film moves along briskly.

Holes (2003, USA, dir. Andrew Davis) [Mon 5 Jan at home]. A very silly film with a good sense of its dusty desert location where the youthful protagonist (Shia LaBeouf) digs holes as part of some kind of Disneyfied child chain gang. As family entertainment goes, it’s fine, but the emotional epiphanies are all fairly cliched.

I Could Never Be Your Woman (2007, USA, dir. Amy Heckerling) [Mon 26 Jan at home]. Even lower in esteem amongst Heckerling’s recent work than Loser (see below), but this romcom featuring an older woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her younger lover (Paul Rudd) is still fitfully pleasing, despite the shmaltz of its premise. There’s an early role for the adaptable and talented Saoirse Ronan, and many odd and surprising cameos from various UK television celebrities, betraying that it was partly shot near London.

© Walt Disney Motion Picture Studios

Into the Woods (2014, USA, dir. Rob Marshall) [Sun 11 Jan at Peckhamplex]. I confess I watched this while somewhat drunk, so a lot of the details escape me. I’m not a huge Sondheim fan, but this is all mounted very handsomely, with particularly good performances from a delightful Emily Blunt as more-or-less the lead role, as a woman who must gather up a bunch of magical items from various fairytales in order to be able to conceive a baby, and Chris Pine as a deeply narcissistic prince with a great dance-off scene. Meryl Streep shows up too and steals scenes in ways that Johnny Depp can only dream about nowadays.

Loser (2000, USA, dir. Amy Heckerling) [Sat 10 Jan at home]. After the comedic high point of Heckerling’s Clueless five years before, this film came in for a bit of a kicking, and to a certain extent you can see why. Its story of gawky provincial kid Jason Biggs going to college in the Big Apple hits a lot of familiar notes, and bless her Mena Suvari is not convincing, but there’s still plenty to enjoy all the same.

Sheen of Gold (2013, New Zealand, dir. Simon Ogston) [Fri 2 Jan at home]. A documentary about New Zealand 80s garage punk band the Skeptics, one of the bands on legendary indie label Flying Nun and one I’ve loved since growing up in New Zealand. Like a lot of NZ music of the era, their angular sound borrows a lot from UK post-punk bands like the Fall while adding a certain Antipodean slant. The documentary itself is primarily talking heads, with archival material spliced in where available, including footage from the last gig by the band prior to the untimely death of their lead singer in 1990.

© Winchester Films

Slap Her, She’s French! (aka She Gets What She Wants) (2002, USA, dir. Melanie Mayron) [Tue 13 Jan at home]. The title sounds dire, the setup is familiar (French exchange student Piper Perabo comes to Texas and throws everything into disarray for the local teen queen Jane McGregor) and indeed some of the filmmaking is squarely in the clunky made-for-TV exposition mode, but there’s plenty to enjoy here. The performances are broad in a comically enjoyable way, and what seems initially like a bit of easy European xenophobia turns out to be a misdirect (though in any case, the film makes far more fun of Texans than French people).

Tabu (1931, USA, dir. F.W. Murnau) [Sat 10 Jan at home]. Often subtitled “A Story of the South Seas”, this sees expressionist German director Murnau filming on the island of Bora Bora in the Pacific, imparting a sense of untouched paradise fraught by forbidden love between a commoner and a princess. There’s hints of ethnographic condescension, but for the most part this is touching, and undeniably beautiful.


I also saw some early Eric Rohmer films (The Baker of Monceau and Suzanne’s Career), but you’ll have to wait until they crop up in the Criterion Collection for my review.

Erebus: Operation Overdue (aka Erebus: Into the Unknown, 2014)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Seen at Genesis, London, Tuesday 13 January 2015


© Java Films

This is a curious little film to get distribution over in the UK, half a world away from where it was made, as a New Zealand television documentary about an air crash that took place in Antarctica in 1979. Still, true-life stories of people operating in extremis are always fascinating, and this particular take is a well-mounted blend of talking head documentary testimony along with dramatic re-enactments which move the story along at a fair clip (the two directors attached to the film being responsible for the two different strands). The film’s chief setting is on the icy lower slopes of Mount Erebus in Antarctica, the site of what is still the deadliest disaster in the country’s aviation history, where a team of police detectives were dispatched to coordinate the body retrieval as “Operation Overdue”. This is the story the documentary is most interested in, this small group of guys, almost to a man entirely unfamiliar with mountaineering or icy conditions, required to do the grisly task of clean-up, and the dramatic recreations are keen to try and convey a sense of what this would have been like. The other story taking place in the background (one largely set in a series of glumly-decorated 1970s offices), is the inquiry into the reasons for the crash, which heavily implicated poor management within Air New Zealand, and led not just to management changes but also the colourful phrase “an orchestrated litany of lies” (which gained much traction in NZ popular culture thereafter). Still, whatever conspiratorial boardroom politics the film occasionally suggests, the focus remains squarely on the police officers and their own story. It’s a documentary that will interest those intrigued by stories of real-life tragedy, but it remains one probably best suited to the small screen.


CREDITS || Directors Charlotte Purdy and Peter Burger | Cinematographer DJ Stipsen | Length 68 minutes

What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 26 November 2014 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Madman Entertainment

The ‘mockumentary’ is a canny choice of genre for a New Zealand film, as its documentary form hides some of the shortcomings that come from low-budget production. We’re relying on the charisma of the performers and their comic writing (already tested in such ensembles as actor/writer/director Jemaine Clement’s Flight of the Conchords, who had their own US TV series for a couple of seasons), rather than the quality of the sets and camerawork. And as a comedy take on the popular vampire legend — appropriating all the iconography and transposing it to a quotidian situation of three mates in New Zealand sharing a flat together — it certainly has its pleasing moments, with strong turns from its three leads, particularly Taika Waititi as the upbeat central vampire, Viago. It was also nice for me to see my adopted home city of Wellington on screen for a while, as a lot of it is shot on location in the streets. Yet despite there being some good laughs, it still feels like a bit of a throwback to the 80s and 90s when this kind of film was at the height of its popularity, and stylistically it’s particularly reminiscent of the Belgian film C’est arrivé près de chez vous (Man Bites Dog, 1992), with its similarly deadpan mockumentary take on a serial killer — functionally, not a million miles removed from a vampire. As ever, a lot of the good gags are in the trailer, and the feature length doesn’t always make them more resonant (I gather that the film originated in an earlier short film by the same team). Still, I did laugh (quite a bit at times), so for those looking for some light relief and a bit of meta-humour at cinema’s expense, it’s a fine choice.


CREDITS || Directors/Writers Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement | Cinematographers Richard Bluck and D. J. Stipsen | Starring Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement, Jonathan Brugh | Length 85 minutes