NZIFF 2013 Diary: UPSTREAM COLOR

For the 2013 New Zealand International Film Festival I figured I’d try and keep some kind of a review diary covering each of the 20 or so films I’m planning to see. It’s going to be a busy couple of weeks.

Upstream-colorAfter taking a day off from NZIFF screenings, I was most excited about getting to Upstream Color, knowing very little about it other than vague chatter about how mind-bending it is. Nobody seems to be able to get a handle on it, but I thought maybe my perceptive mind would be capable of decoding Shane Carruth’s sophomore effort.

Unsurprisingly, I don’t have any answers. There’s something about water, paper, worms, pigs, a woman and a man, and some kind of hypnosis based scam. In the midst of Hollywood blockbuster season, Upstream Color is the most intellectually challenging piece of work to come along in quite some time. It’s a beautifully cinematic sensory experience; a sparsely plotted, fluid piece of haptic filmmaking that will confuse a lot but be cherished by a few.

The only certainty I came out of Upstream Color with was that it grabbed me more than perhaps anything else I’ve seen all year. Cinema as cryptic as this treads a very fine line, but never for a second was I frustrated by my lack of understanding. The audience is simply abandoned in Carruth’s singular, uncompromised vision, and there are few if any signposts or landmarks to guide us along the way.

I haven’t been this satisfyingly bemused since first seeing David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, a film which is so far removed from convention but offers up its mastery with successive viewing, and has become one of my absolute favourites. It’s too early to say whether Upstream Color will bloom to the same level of masterpiece, but I just can not wait to watch it again. And again.

And again.

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NZIFF 2013 Diary: STORIES WE TELL

For the 2013 New Zealand International Film Festival I figured I’d try and keep some kind of a review diary covering each of the 20 or so films I’m planning to see. It’s going to be a busy couple of weeks.

k-bigpicMy second documentary for day three of the NZIFF was Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, one of the few films I actually knew a reasonable amount about before going in.

Ostensibly a documentary about Polley’s own family, Stories We Tell is centred around her father and mother, and how a long-standing family rumour/in joke is retold and has affected (and been affected by) the wider family network. The somewhat delicate matter is handled with the maturity that Polley has displayed since the beginning of her directorial career, but the bravery to expose such a personal story is staggering. It takes great courage to explore family drama like this privately, let alone making a film for the whole world to see, and even if that were all the film had going for it, Polley would have to be commended.

The story itself is merely one facet of the film however, but what Polley is doing doesn’t become totally clear until very late in the piece. Stories We Tell is comprised of several of the key players telling their own version of events, offering a Rashomon-ish edge of similar tales that are never precisely the same. By weaving all of the threads together, Polley appears to be searching for the closest approximation of the truth she can reach.

Accompanying the interviews is a wealth of candid archival footage, mostly old Super 8 home movies that give a much greater understanding of the unfolding story. Crucially, the one person who could offer Polley the most conclusive answers is the one person who is absent, her late mother. It’s only at the end, when Polley has laid out all the cards, that this intimate family portrait becomes something else entirely.

Stories We Tell may well be the most clever film about storytelling I have seen. The challenge Polley set herself is amazing on its own, but the way she chose to approach the material is so wonderfully unexpected, and cements her position among the smartest young filmmakers working today.

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NZIFF 2013 Diary: ANTARCTICA: A YEAR ON ICE

For the 2013 New Zealand International Film Festival I figured I’d try and keep some kind of a review diary covering each of the 20 or so films I’m planning to see. It’s going to be a busy couple of weeks.

ice nacreous cloudsThe first (and maybe only?) NZ film in my schedule for NZIFF2013, Antarctica: A Year on Ice is without question going to be one of my personal highlights of the entire fortnight.

First of all, let me say I’m an absolute nature documentary fiend, and ever since I can remember I have gorged myself on BBC documentaries and the like about the natural world. Yet what I have seen in other documentaries about Antarctica has been almost entirely focused on the magical beauty and fury of nature on the continent.

What Antarctica: A Year on Ice offers is an intimate look at the people who choose to spend significant portions of their life there. Not so much the scientists whose work is probably the reason anyone is there at all, but the regular tradespeople and support staff who keep the operations going year round.

The film features a typically dry and unpretentious kiwi tone, with filmmaker Anthony Powell narrating in a natural, no-nonsense manner, and largely letting the handful of die hard citizens of the place speak about their unconventional lives. There is plenty of majestic footage of the landscape as well, with a wealth of time lapse photography that is always pretty stunning.

Antarctica: A Year on Ice is primarily about the people though, and a sense of community between nationalities that may exist nowhere else on the planet. There’s a sense of adventure in each of the locals, even as they go about their days in much the same way as people do anywhere else. Some will be intimidated by the awesome challenge the icy world offers, but I for one was ready to sign up for a winter at the bottom of the world as soon as I exited the theatre.

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NZIFF 2013 Diary: BEHIND THE CANDELABRA

For the 2013 New Zealand International Film Festival I figured I’d try and keep some kind of a review diary covering each of the 20 or so films I’m planning to see. It’s going to be a busy couple of weeks.

Behind-the-CandelabraThe sparkly icing on a long day at the NZIFF, Behind the Candelabra is a stylistically typical piece from Steven Soderbergh, but surprisingly has a huge heart that we don’t often get from the often clinical director. If it truly is his cinematic swansong, he has chosen to go out in fabulous style.

Before the film I only had a vague idea of who Liberace (Michael Douglas) was, mostly gleaned through parodical pop culture references, and he is such a product of his time that it’s not really surprising that he isn’t more commonly known today. Behind the Candelabra isn’t specifically about the piano virtuoso however, but about Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), Liberace’s aide, semi-adopted son, and live-in lover.

Soderbergh treats us to snippets from the final decade or so of Liberace’s life, from his initial meeting with Thorson, and through the rollercoaster ride of their relationship from it’s lusty, decadent highs to the jealous and drug-affected decline. Damon transforms throughout the course of the film from shy country kid to subservient houseboy and ultimately paranoid addict very convincingly, but Beyond the Candelabra really belongs to Douglas.

Much as the man himself must have, Douglas dominates the space with his portrayal of Liberace. He’s camp without being crass, and commits to the performance with every fibre,  pitching it perfectly in each moment. Having been largely absent from the screen or retreading bland familiar territory for so long, he reminds us why he’s one of the greats, and it’s wonderful to know he still has the capacity for this kind of performance. Were Behind the Candelabra a theatrical release and not made for HBO, there’s no question he would be in the hunt for his third Oscar come February.

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NZIFF 2013 Diary: LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE

For the 2013 New Zealand International Film Festival I figured I’d try and keep some kind of a review diary covering each of the 20 or so films I’m planning to see. It’s going to be a busy couple of weeks.

likesomeoneinlovesmallMy second of three films scheduled for day two of the NZIFF was Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love, the film that has given my first (of several hopefully) real head-scratching experience thus far.

Like Someone in Love is an elusive story told in just four or five major scenes, as a lonely elderly professor Watanabe (Tadashi Okuno) finds himself entwined in the troubling relationship of Akiko (Rin Takanashi), the call girl whose services he employed for unclear reasons, and Noriaki (Ryo Kase), her possessive, menacing fiancé.

Kiarostami’s direction is pretty minimalist, letting his camera linger in long takes to allow audiences to absorb the interactions from the cracking performances. There are moments of deep sadness early on as Akiko ignores phone messages from her grandmother, choosing not to stop as she passes her on the street. There’s a subtle melancholy to Watanabe as well, as it seems that he only desires companionship rather than sexual gratification from Akiko, despite her effortless shift into her flirty professional persona.

While the story meanders into some apparently mundane territory, there’s a very deliberate, simmering pace which is constantly riveting, and it always feels like Kiarostami is building to an ending that is probably going to be unpleasant, but enlightening in some way. Whether or not that’s the case will differ for everyone, but personally I didn’t really get the answers I was looking for. As I said, it’s all very well focused, but if the ambiguous ending was meant to offer something rewarding I missed it completely.

Like Someone in Love is filmmaking I admired, but ultimately left me feeling quite empty. I’m not as familiar with Kiarostami’s work as I would like so maybe I’m missing some familiar themes, but this is not an easy film to take in. There seems to be a lot going on under the surface, but it sure is a tough nut to crack. 

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NZIFF 2013 Diary: WADJDA

For the 2013 New Zealand International Film Festival I figured I’d try and keep some kind of a review diary covering each of the 20 or so films I’m planning to see. It’s going to be a busy couple of weeks.

wadjda640Second up for the 2013 NZIFF for me was Wadjda, and it sets a pretty high bar for everything else that will follow.

Unsurprisingly for the first Saudi Arabian film directed by a female director, Wadjda is amongst the best films about women that I can recall seeing. The film follows the titular character, a girl of around 12, and her experiences as a fiesty and independent girl on the verge of womanhood in a world where feminine expression and individualism are fiercely suppressed.

Wadjda stands out for her tomboyish, competitive nature, and while such a character is commonplace in films made in the west, the location of the story brings a great freshness to her. The simple premise of a kid wanting to save enough money to buy herself a bicycle gains a level of great significance because of the cultural backdrop, and Wadjda’s sassy spirit shines out like a beacon.

Director Haifaa al-Mansour refrains from explicitly condemning the patriarchal system in which Wadjda lives, offering a matter of fact tone that nonetheless exposes some of the hypocrisies of the Saudi way of life through her characters. Much of the film focuses on study of the Quran, and the challenges that women are born into because of the sacred text. The adult women that Wadjda engages with on a daily basis can be glamourous, yet are bound to strict roles and conservative measures, hiding themselves from men even in their own homes.

What makes Wadjda herself such a compelling character is her youth allows her a level of curious freedom which is gradually being stripped away from her. The bike comes to represent everything she will be denied as an adult, a threat to her purity, and a symbol of hope for a more progressive future. The film’s bittersweet ending cuts deep, but leaves a feeling that Wadjda has learned an important lesson, even if she doesn’t know it yet.

I accept that my thoughts on Wadjda are probably a little jumbled, but while it’s a fairly simple story, it offers more complex emotional subtext. It’s portrayal of gender in a difficult culture for women feels very real, and for that alone it’s importance cannot be overlooked.

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NZIFF 2013 Diary: BLANCANIEVES

For the 2013 New Zealand International Film Festival I figured I’d try and keep some kind of a review diary covering each of the 20 or so films I’m planning to see. It’s going to be a busy couple of weeks.

blancanieves_carmenFirst off the rank for me this year at the NZIFF was Blancanieves, a silent, Spanish, black & white re-imagining of Snow White projected in 4:3 ratio. I can’t imagine a more festival-y start to the festival.

The story needs little explanation as, other than being set in early twentieth century Spain, not much has changed from the various versions of the story over the years going right back to the original Grimm Fairy Tale. A lot of people are probably going to compare Blancanieves to The Artist, the other recent B&W silent film of note, but really the two films share little other than the obvious technical elements.

If anything, Blancanieves feels like a more authentic tribute to the pre-sound era. It doesn’t call attention to it’s lack of talking, and many of the camera movements and stylistic flourishes feel appropriately vintage.

Choosing to tell such a familiar story without words is a smart move too, and Blancanieves never feels like anything is missing. The excellent variation in the evocative score more than adequately delivers enough emotion in place of dialogue, and to me it seemed that every couple of minutes there was a brilliantly composed, expressionist shot that made me catch my breath.

So I’m off to a great start. Blancanieves is one of those movies that you don’t often see outside of the festival setting, but has a thousand times more worth than either of the other two recent Snow White retellings. 

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