NZIFF 2013 Diary: A BAND CALLED DEATH

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.

A-band-called-deathI have been listening to punk rock music for almost 20 years, and I thought had a decent grasp on the origins of the genre. Spurred on by apathy towards the self-indulgent rock scene of the 70s, bands like The Ramones, Television, and Blondie started a underground movement which the Sex Pistols would soon vomit into the headlines, and the rest was history.

A Band Called Death is here to call into question everything that I thought I knew about the origins of punk music. Long forgotten (although they were only ever known by a few), Death predate The Ramones by at least a couple of years, and at a time when Led Zeppelin and Roger Emerson were destroying rock music with nine minute long solos and songs about wizards and fairies and Christ knows what, in Detroit three young black brothers were creating some of the most innovative rock and roll in years.

I’m not going to hide that fact that for me, as a punk fan, A Band Called Death is a kind of Rosetta Stone. The film documents a missing, vital piece of punk rock history that was unearthed in an attic in 2008, some 33 years after being recorded, a piece that previously was little more than a whisper among hardcore collectors.

However, the story of the three brothers is so much more than a punk story, and really the music itself plays a only minor part. What A Band Called Death delivers is a tale of faith, family, and a tortured, uncompromising musical visionary who went to his grave unrecognised and unknown. The Hackney family are a joy to learn about, but there’s an element of great sadness as there always is when a powerful talent passes far too soon.

For punk rock fans, A Band Called Death is essential viewing, if only to introduce the phenomenal music these three brothers created, but even those who aren’t interested in the music of Death should seek this out. I’ve already heard it called this year’s Searching for Sugarman (which isn’t an entirely incorrect comparison), but if anything A Band Called Death has a stronger story without the schmaltzy tone, and the music is more important for its innovation.

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NZIFF 2013 Diary: TO THE WONDER

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.

To-The-Wonder-Trailer8Terence Malick’s To The Wonder was not only my most anticipated film of the NZIFF, but maybe my most anticipated of the whole year. I was already a massive fan of the reclusive director, and after 2011’s The Tree of Life, which would sit very high among my favourite films of all time, I was understandably eager to see what was next.

It’s not surprising that there are a lot of similarities between To The Wonder and The Tree of Life, given that they were released just two years apart, uncharacteristically fast for Malick. The two works feel like they are designed to go hand in hand, as the look is almost identical, and they cover overlapping ground, albeit set 50 years or so apart*.

Where the core story of the previous film was about family dynamics, To The Wonder is primarily about the turbulent relationship between Marina (Olga Kurylenko in the performance of the year) and Neil (Ben Affleck). As per usual Malick shows almost no interest in conventional exposition, telling his story with imagery and peppering it with his signature disjointed narration. There’s no mistaking a Malick film, and for the most part To The Wonder is textbook stuff.

No one else has ever moved the camera like this, and it all feels so impossibly spontaneous, as if he simply wanders around beautiful locations with his cast and shoots whatever captures his eye. As a result, there’s always going to be a disconnect for some people. Why would he stop shooting his characters to watch someone pushing leaves around with a leaf blower? Because that’s what makes him Malick.

While always staggeringly beautiful, To The Wonder isn’t quite as successful with its story telling, at least not on the first viewing. While the central thread concerning Kurylenko and Affleck is very strong, fraying into deeper thematic territory in just the right places, a couple of significant side plots involving a fling between Affleck and Rachel McAdams, and particularly Javier Bardem’s spiritually aimless priest, don’t quite land.

Malick is known for shooting vast volumes of footage to shape his films, and stories abound about entire characters and subplots being removed completely, and that’s what Bardem’s character’s story feels like to me, the remnant of a larger story. The ghost of what the links would be are there, as Kurylenko wrestles with her faith throughout the film, but in the end Bardem is little more than a face for her struggle, and his own story only lingers in vague traces.

To The Wonder is certainly going to be a film that, like all of Malick’s work, I will return to several times. My gut feeling right now is that it’s one of his lesser efforts, but there’s still more here to chew on than the vast majority of films being made right now.

(*side note: nothing would make me happier than to see Malick continue this trend and make a family/relationship drama set 50 years into the future.)

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NZIFF 2013 Diary: MUD

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.

mud

While it’s not without its problems, Jeff Nichols’ parable Mud hit a personal sweet spot for me. Long have I lamented the recent state of American films made with a younger audience in mind, and I have suffered through countless neutered, cut-and-paste family films that are terrified of taking any risks and leave zero moral grey area for kids to interpret themselves. Mud however is a throwback to many films from my 1980s youth, recalling the earlier work Dante, Zemeckis, Rob Reiner, and most obviously Spielberg.

I can’t remember the last time a movie nailed the universal nuances of boyhood quite as well as Mud. The Tree of Life springs to mind, but Mud doesn’t have the same cryptic ambition. Nichols just wants to spin an old-fashioned boy’s adventure yarn, and for the most part, especially when he sticks with the boys Ellis (Tye Sheridan, who coincidentally also had a part in The Tree of Life) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) in two remarkably assured performances from such young actors.

Nichols packs the supporting cast with bigger names including Matthew McConaughey (still in the thick of an amazing comeback streak), Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon, and Joe Don Baker, but they all, with the possible exception of McConaughey, play second fiddle to the boys. Unfortunately Nichols’ writing of the adult characters didn’t seem to be as important either, as Shannon, Witherspoon and Baker aren’t given much to do, and the always tremendous Shepard doesn’t really get as much screen time as I would have liked from his character.

Anyone with kids around the same age as the leads, particularly boys, should seek out Mud. It’s darker than most family fare these days, and prying deeper into the film might yield some questionable gender issues, but it captures the spirit of being a kid so well that real kids will be swept away with it.

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NZIFF 2013 Diary: STRANGER BY THE LAKE

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.

9ff85848ae64a88d36f2ba258e5a0727Any movie that has me hugging my knees to my chest as I peek out at the screen from behind my fingers is a success in my book, and that’s precisely what I got with Stranger by the Lake, the most chilling film I’ve seen not only in this year’s NZIFF, but maybe in the last couple of years.

We’re given almost no backstory for leading man Franck (Pierre Deladonshamps), a handsome, twenty-something man who frequents an isolated cruising spot on the shores of a lake, a haven for anonymous homosexual encounters. Franck’s eye is caught by Michel (Christophe Paou), an athletic but apparently attached fellow cruiser whose casual flirty chatter is halted by his his posessive lover. Also on the beach is Henri (Patrick d’Assumcao), and older, less physically attractive loner who seems a little out of place at the lakeside. After witnessing a shocking deed carried out by Michel, Franck entangles himself in a dangerous world of jealousy, passion and murder.

Stranger by the Lake is beautifully crafted by director Alain Guiraudie, who establishes the isolation of the setting and the routine of the lakeside activities through constant repetition of shots and angles. There is some discussion of the world outside the lake but it is never seen, and the supporting characters very rarely seem to change their wardrobe, making it hard to gauge the passage of time. What is happening, and more importantly when things are happening, becomes a little blurry. It’s carefully disorienting and works to the film’s advantage, as later the secluded nature of the lake takes on much more menacing connotations.

There is some very frank and explicit sexual content in Stranger by the Lake which is more confronting than some will be accustomed to, but it adds another layer of vulnerability to the characters, Franck in particular. The men who come to the lake do so to escape prying, judgemental eyes, yet it exposes them to danger from within their ranks. Guiraudie introduces stakes early but leaves them to simmer, only tightening the screws in the final act, and what a tense final act it is.

Stranger by the Lake coils up like a snake ready to strike, and just when you think release is coming it piles on a bit more. Its power comes from a gradual build to a peak that lingers after the credits have rolled, and I was left gasping from this deeply effective, frightening thriller.

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NZIFF 2013 Diary: PERSISTENCE OF VISION

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.

persistence-of-vision-movie-review-kevin-schreck-richard-williams-docnyc-2-620xWhat seems to me to be a pretty low profile entry to this year’s NZIFF, Persistence of Vision is an interesting if somewhat minor documentary about visionary animator Richard Williams, a cautionary tale about the folly of genius and a tantalising study of what could have been.

I had heard some of the mythic story concerning Williams’ intensely personal opus The Thief and the Cobbler before, but it was nice to see the whole story laid out here. The turbulent 25+ year production of what Williams and the dozens of people he worked with saw as a game-changing masterpiece is a sad story of perfectionism and obsession, and the glimpses of the film that were actually produced and survive are fascinating, idiosyncratic depictions of the work Williams carried in his head for three decades.

There’s nothing remarkable about the style of the documentary itself, as director Kevin Shreck wisely allows the real events to tell the story through interviews with several of the people who lived the experience, although sadly not Williams himself, who refuses to speak on the record about his film. There’s a rather tragic note to the inevitable conclusion, as the film that was ultimately released came and went with little more than a blip, with almost none of the care and artistry that Williams was striving for.

A film like Persistence of Vision makes one mourn for all the lost, abandoned and compromised works of art that have been denied us. It’s by no means an essential film, but animation lovers and those seeking an understanding of the process of genius should give it a chance.

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NZIFF 2013 Diary: A FIELD IN ENGLAND

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.

2Well, I made it to the halfway point of the NZIFF to get to a film which I can’t really say I liked. Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England is an historical, psychedelic trip on a micro-budget scale, but there just wasn’t enough meat on its bones to draw me in.

Wheatley should certainly be praised for making unique films, with his previous hitman-cum-horror flick Kill List and the road-trip serial killer romance Sightseers, both of which I enjoyed. With A Field in England however, Wheatley seems more interested in genre-bending surrealism, and less in having a strong story as a foundation on which to build his own particular style.

That said, the crisp black & white cinematography and speed-ramping do have quite a startling effect, particularly in the film’s later hallucinatory scenes. Wheatley isn’t afraid to spend time on well-crafted sequences that may not advance the plot but contribute a lot to the tone, but here it just feels like self-indulgent experimentation rather than a meaningful part of the film as a whole.

A Field in England will likely end up becoming a cult favourite, but that seems like the point. It’s hard to compare it to anything, but I don’t believe other cult films ever had that type of success as their goal. It’s something that happened after the fact, and I’m not sure Wheatley’s approach is a good one. It is worth a look, as some people are going to lock straight into its bizarre vibe, but personally I found A Field in England a rather hollow experience.

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NZIFF 2013 Diary: COMPUTER CHESS

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.

ComputerChess1It’s always good to take a punt on something unknown at NZIFF time, and this year no film better fits that bill than Computer Chess. It’s a film I choose to see purely on word of mouth, and initially thought I was seeing a documentary. What I got was something else entirely, a surreal little picture that will almost certainly be the strangest film I’ll see all year.

Falling somewhere between the absurdity of Christopher Guest and the abstract darkness of David Lynch, Computer Chess really defies categorisation. While it starts as an offbeat, intermittently funny mockumentary about a chess tournament between rival programmers in the early days of computer programming, before long the film begins to reveal some of its more unexpected aspects.

To go into any further detail would be to spoil much of the fun, and make no mistake, Computer Chess is a very fun film. If at times it becomes a little too slow and uneventful, that only makes the moments that come sailing out of left field more effective, and while it leans heavily into some unsettling territory towards the end it never sacrifices the absurdist tone.

This is one that will possibly disappear after the festival circuit runs its course, so if you have a chance to catch it be sure that you do. It’s the very definition of a unique film that makes the festival experience worthwhile, but only if you’re willing to take a chance.

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