The Listener at the NZ Film Festival: last gasps

by David Larsen / 03 August, 2013
Seven reviews from the closing days of the film festival's Auckland run.
DIARY NOTE (David Larsen)

Let it never be said that I am incapable of melodrama. Yesterday a friend asked me, “So how has your festival been going?” and I answered, “Very much in the style of a psychological break-down experiment”. Yesterday was the day I hit the wall. Films still good – I think this has been my best year for expectations exceeded and wild card risks rewarded – but Auckland's festival flu has finally begun to get its hooks into me, and the experience of stepping into a world, stepping out, stepping into another one, repeat, has started to outstrip my capacity to decompress. I am, in other words, exactly where I ought to be, as we head into the last weekend. If you're not feeling it, then you could have squeezed more films in. Always choose to say, “My head hurts” rather than “Damn, I wish I'd seen...”

But there are a lot of interesting films I meant to blog about and haven't. All three of us working on this blog are in about the same position: will to stare at screen and type seriously diminished. Consider the following our last-gasp attempts at saying something useful about as many films as possible before our brains shut down altogether. Though we will try for some kind of wrap-up post early next week.

MY SWEET PEPPERLAND (David Larsen)

Pulls something of a fast one on you, and some people have objected. I am not of their party. The opening is the best moment of tarpit-dark comedy I've seen at this festival. (Mind you, I avoided nearly all the Incredibly Strange films). (I am glad Ant Timpson exists. I am occasionally glad after I go to one of his selections). We open with a botched hanging in a new Kurd republic: freedom has been won, and the fruits of freedom include law and order, and that includes hangings. Except a few technical problems have yet to be ironed out. “Where's the rope?” someone asks. And does anyone know how to tie a knot?

My Sweet Pepperland


We're in the middle of a grimy urban area, and the hanging is the last straw for our hero: he has fought for freedom, freedom is here, it's time to get out of law enforcement and go home. This decision turns out to have unexpected consequences, and before long he's back in the saddle. Literally, having accepted a post as police commander on the Turkish border, where a man's only reliable means of transport is his horse.

With the first wide shot of two horsemen advancing towards us, mountainous couintryside sloping away to the far distance,mist hanging in the air, the film breaks joyously loose into classic Western territory. There's a new sheriff in town. The local big man is not pleased. There's also a new school teacher – single, gorgeous, and in need of an ally, because the villagers do not really see that an unmarried woman is the right person to be teaching their kids. There are outlaws in the hills. Our hero sleeps with a gun under his pillow...

It's all beautifully well shot, and writer/director Hiner Saleem has a ball invoking classic tropes and playing hob with them. Where the film lost a few of the people I spoke to afterwards is its relaxed pace, which they experienced as a betrayal of its tight, punchy opening: you expect dark humour and concise storytelling, and you get long, slow scenes, a gradual escalation of tension, and several key moments which seem about to swerve to the left and swerve right instead. The sexual politics are particularly astute, and play on Western forms to particularly good effect – but it's true that this is a film that jumps horses in mid-stream.

BLANCANIEVES (David Larsen)

Barely worth writing about, since all I have to say is that it's gorgeous, it's very simple, and you should just go watch it. I have not done any research and I don't know whether it was made in the wake of The Artist; if it was, that's a big feather in the latter's cap. Because, as fond as I am of The Artist, it's much the lesser of the two. When a nice little film re-opens an abandoned possibility-space in which something like Blancanieves can then be made, the world is working the way it ought to.

Blancanieves


Spain. 1920s. Snow White as the abandoned daughter of a famous bull fighter. All the twists and turns of the fairytale, none of them predictable. (The entry of the seven dwarves is a highlight). (There are only six of them, but never mind). Beautiful black and white cinematography, hilarious, startling and moving use of silent film conventions, a cast you could watch all day (especially Carmencita – Snow White herself – and her vile stepmother), and an inspired score.

POST TENEBRAS LUX (David Larsen)

This film offered me three pleasures, for all of which I was grateful. The opening sequence, with a small child standing lost in a field while animals circle around her and day turns to night, is one of the strangest and most involving things I've seen at this festival. The recurring scene in which a day-glo luminous devil figure moves silently through a darkened house and into a bedroom is entirely unexpected and arresting. And then of course there was the splendid time half a dozen of us had afterwards, as we stood around and laughed at our mutual ignorance as to what the hell had just happened.

My older son points out that I had to watch The Tree of Life twice to see much of what was going on in it. This is true, and I love that film so much now that I had largely forgotten how much I did not want to watch it that second time. There are definitely hints of a deep coherence underlying the surface chaos of this rolling mishmash of random scenes, and it may be that if I watch it again, I will have the same sudden crystalisation experience I had with Terrence Malick – everything leaping into a spacious patterned beauty, all the more powerful for the need to work at seeing it. I note this for the sake of intellectual honesty. Also worth noting: I did not have a bad time, especially, watching this film, and I'm pleased to be in a position to discuss it with people. But if you want a go/don't go recommendation – I have so far seen 30 films at this festival, and 28 of them were somewhere between “solid” and “pure genius”. This one ranked 29th.

THE SUMMIT and BLACKFISH (Helene Wong)

When Nature Bites Back. No, wait, come back, it’s not a new reality series. The Summit and Blackfish are proper grown-up documentaries. They do show things going wrong – tastefully – and then they analyse what and why. Their contexts are completely dissimilar, and the treatments differ, but both put the pieces together with admirable clarity and leave you pondering not so much on nature, as on human nature.

The Summit revisits the 2008 assault on K2 in which nearly half of the 24 international climbers died. Using interviews with survivors and family members, writer Mark Monroe has brought to life a gripping yet cool-headed retracing of the expedition. What the climbers’ own amateur footage didn’t capture, director Nick Ryan created with re-enactments – on other mountain locations! – which integrate so seamlessly that there were moments when I was fooled into thinking there must have been a camera person there at the time – well, one insane enough to be shooting while hanging vertically off a drop in the middle of the night in the howling wind.

The effect is to put us right in amongst it, and the ability to shoot from different points of view as they’re related by the interviewees lends a kind of Rashomon feel to the various versions. This was a loose grouping of climbers representing different countries (Ireland, Norway, Korea, Italy) who happened to coincide at the start; they worked out ways of climbing together; they had expert Sherpa companions. Yet when dilemmas arose, what’s fascinating to watch and listen to are how psychology and cultural differences come into play. Then factor in timing, luck and of course Nature’s own imperatives, and the only thing predictable about the outcome is that it would be unpredictable.

Blame is sometimes implied, and there’s likely some understandable bias involved in the film’s aim of setting the record straight, but in the end, as the filmmakers admit, probably no one will ever know exactly what happened. They ask the audience to ask of themselves what they would do in this situation, and it’s impossible to make hard and fast judgements after seeing this. What you do see is human courage and frailty, and what you learn is why K2 has earned its reputation and fascination. And with the tragic events on that same peak just this week, the film now has particular relevance and poignancy.

Blackfish doesn’t do re-enactments. It doesn’t have to. There’s plenty of am-cam and security cam footage of the events being analysed here: incidents of Sea World trainers being injured or killed by performing orcas, and one in particular – Tilikum – who resides at Orlando in Florida. Like The Summit, such images are also non-sensationally presented and edited; the aim is to calmly tell Tilikum’s story and build a picture of his life – and build a case for discontinuing this particular use of Nature for fun and profit.

Blackfish


Those who saw Rust and Bone will be familiar with this environment, and will recall imagery of the special relationship between trainer and orca. So along with Tilikum himself, it’s the former trainers who bring the emotional heart to Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s film. They talk of their love for the creatures, their youthful enthusiasm for the job, and their acceptance, then doubting, of Sea World’s PR pronouncements on how much better off the orcas are compared to being in the wild. They talk us through the incident footage, contradicting the official explanations. Supporting them are fishermen and scientific experts who give insight into orca behaviour and lead us to conclude that, just like humans, orcas have their reasons.

Sea World continues its operations. People continue to flock to see Tilikum do his perimeter wave. Cowperthwaite hasn’t set out to make a strident plea, but it’s the final glimpse of Tilikum in his ridiculously confined concrete tank that will break your heart, and make you very, very angry.

THE BLING RING (Hugh Lilly)

Based on (and loosely structured around the interviews for) The Suspects Wore Louboutins, a 2010 Vanity Fair article by Nancy Jo Sales about a cohort of teenagers who burglarised über-rich Hollywood superstars, Sofia Coppola’s new film was never going to be an insightful examination of contemporary youth culture, even as it touches on her pet subject: the “first-world” problems of young people trapped in seemingly inescapable situations. While a film like Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers arguably revels in the reversal and deconstruction of gender norms and (over-)sexualisation (plus, its major theme is race), The Bling Ring doesn’t even fake intelligence—it’s as purposefully empty and vapid a as the valley-girl characters (and one gay guy) it follows. “The new American dream is to have a really bitching personal brand,” writes Michelle Orange in her essay “Have a Beautiful Corpse.” These kids have certainly done that.

The film is a mad rush through the hyper-technologized lives of its characters, barely pausing to explain their motivations (chiefly fame, or infamy, and money) or give anything more than a superficial account of their actions. Aside from Israel Broussard’s spirited, amiable interpretation of Marc, the performances don’t hold up to scrutiny. Though it’s to great comic effect, Emma Watson overdoes her character’s ditziness (and her accent) so much that it almost becomes purposefully ridiculous. Even with all this, there are two elements that make the film a compelling, if not fulfilling, piece of entertainment: its score, and its cinematography.

The Bling Ring


The film had two directors of photography. The late Harris Savides worked regularly with Gus van Sant (Elephant and Gerry are two of their most distinguished collaborations), shot Jonathan Glazer’s Kubrickian ode Birth, David Fincher’s Zodiac, James Gray’s The Yards, Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding and Greenberg, and gave Coppola’s underrated previous film, 2010’s Somewhere, much of its intoxicating ennui. He died in October of last year at the age of 55; The Bling Ring is his final credit. There is one truly magical shot in the film. Filled with sumptuous grain, it’s reminiscent of the striking work of the architectural photographer Julius Schulman, except Savides works (wonders) with colour. As two of the more brazen members of ‘the bling ring’ break into the home of one of the ‘stars’ of The Hills, we watch from a higher vantage point, looking out to the glistening, electrified city at night. The camera is static, and the angle is perfect: we can see into every room in the house that we need to, lit up in sequence. We stay like this for at least a few minutes—no other shot in the film is this long. In its final seconds, we sense a slow push-in on the house, before being ripped back into the ad-hoc gang’s adrenaline-fuelled lifestyle. Only Savides could have crafted so neat and poetic a piece of visual storytelling as this. He will be missed.

The events depicted in The Bling Ring took place in 2008 and 2009; the diegetic music in the film is anachronistic, but forgivably so, given the film’s indifference to exhibiting realism. Club-bangers “212” and M.I.A.’s “Bad Girls,” plus a couple of older Kanye tracks—not to mention Sleigh Bells’ “Crown on the Ground” over the titles, and a lazy if comedic use of “Super Rich Kids” over the closing credits—make for some fun scenes. Seeing these kids rap along to 2Chainz while driving stolen sports cars is pretty funny, too—but the grand pleasure derived from the film, music-wise, is its score. Daniel Lopatin, a.k.a. Oneohtrix Point Never, has written a suite of atmospheric, synth-heavy incidental music with Coppola’s regular composer, Brian Reitzell. Echoes of Thomas Newman’s glassy, ethereal compositions for the disastrous 1987 adaptation of Less Than Zero are a reference point, though none of Newman’s percussive sharp edges (par for the course in the late ’80s) have influenced Lopatin’s work here. Everything is soft, luxuriously dark, and just this side of ambient.

Many were critical of Somewhere as a film in which “nothing happens.” The pacing and thematic concerns (slight as they are) of her new film might earn Coppola some new, younger fans, but anyone who saw ‘nothing’ in Somewhere isn’t likely to rave about The Bling Ring as being perceptive or deep. This is a minor diversion of a movie, but it’s a pretty good-looking, nice-sounding and roundly entertaining one.

THE ACT OF KILLING (Hugh Lilly)

Joshua Oppenheimer’s film, his cut of which runs for nearly two-and-three-quarter hours, is history written by—in fact, re-enacted by—the victors. In the mid-1960s, Indonesian death-squads executed more than half a million Communists and their sympathisers, including ethnic Chinese. Foregoing traditional historical context, Oppenheimer, a human-rights activist and academic whose previous works blur the lines between documentary and fiction, concentrates on two of the squads’ most notorious leaders, Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry, men who remain free to this day.

The Act of Killing


We observe these evil-doers boast about their deeds with nothing less than glee. They eagerly demonstrate, for Oppenheimer’s cameras, the beheading techniques they used, and explain the most effective—that is to say, the least bloody—way to end a human life. Their lavish lifestyles—the direct financial rewards of their war-crimes—and their repulsive attitudes are constantly on display. One of them even suggests that he would happily appear before the International Criminal Court simply to become world-famous. Throughout the film, Congo, Zulkadry and their co-conspirators remain complacent about their pasts, reflecting on history as a solidified, static series of events that cannot (or should not) be revisited.

The film’s attention-grabbing hook—its one solid idea—is following Congo and his fellow admitted murderers and rapists as they re-enact their crimes for a propaganda film. Putting the lie, perhaps, to the idea that a pop culture awash with violence does not influence real-world behaviour, the killers explain how they were inspired in their methods by films noir and Hollywood gangster movies. (Congo and Zulkadry in fact sold black-market movie tickets before they were picked to become executioners.) One making-of scene in Oppenheimer’s film, which depicts the destruction of a village, ends with women and children in various states of shock, wailing uncontrollably and genuinely scared for their lives. It looks like something out of Apocalypse Now.

The problem is that this film-within-a-film is, for the most part, as bad as The Room—only it’s not an unintentional comedy. It’s grisly and oftentimes unwatchable, but it’s still just a movie. We see a number of scenes from the film, some of them as many as three times: in a making-of context (through Oppenheimer’s cameras on-set); inserted wholesale into the documentary, a technique that’s nothing if not tedious; and played back to Congo and his co-conspirators to gauge their reactions. The point of the exercise, in which Congo occasionally plays a victim, is, of course, to make each of these men realise the full horror of his actions. When this does occur, it’s too little, too late: we’ve been so bored by the barrage of their seemingly unassailable confidence that any contrition feels not only forced, but possibly false. Oppenheimer interjects (that is, interviews his subjects) only a few times in the film’s 159 minutes, preferring instead to passively watch as this parade of murderers admits to the wanton slaughter and rape of thousands of people—all while making a bad, fake snuff-film. This goes on and on, and on; only at the end of The Act of Killing do we feel even the slightest sense of justice being served—and even this is problematic.

Perhaps the truly horrifying thing about Oppenheimer’s film is that he was only able to extract some contrition from his subjects in the film’s final minutes. Not only is the film a deeply unpleasant way to spend nearly three hours, but, worse, it’s totally unsatisfying. The film proudly denies us the simple, traditional courtesy of a conclusive text block before the credits—“Anwar Congo has yet to be tried for war crimes…” et cetera—which would at least give some sense that perhaps, one day, he could finally face justice.

Most call-to-arms or activist documentaries—ones people are wont to label “Important” with a capital I—are about angry people who want to enact change. This film, disturbing as it may be in parts, is ultimately as banal as the evil it observes: it is as if these men’s existence alone should be shocking—but Oppenheimer shows us so much of their boasting that his film’s impact is dulled. At film’s end, Congo briefly begins to see his essential inhumanity, but since Oppenheimer has spent the previous 150 minutes ‘directing’ him in a re-enactment, complete with cameras, lights, and a crew, the validity of his contrition in this ending is somewhat questionable. I hope this is the most cynical thing I ever write, but: was it faked?

Click here for more Listener coverage of the NZ International Film Festival.

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