Thursday, November 5, 2015

Guy Fawkes Day

Today is Guy Fawkes Day in New Zealand, a holiday unrecognised in America, where I'm from. (But many of my countrymen saw V FOR VENDETTA, and "Remember, remember, the Fifth of November" may well ring a bell.) There, fireworks are generally reserved for the Fourth of July, with local state laws determining whether you were likely to celebrate by viewing a celebration in a central location, legally acquiring fireworks and detonating them at home, illegally obtaining fireworks in a different state and detonating them at home and hoping you didn't get a ticket, or some combination of the three.

(Different fireworks were legal in different states, so it is actually possible to do all three. In Michigan, we could buy sparklers, but aerial works had to be imported - from Indiana, IIRC. I think we only got ticketed once. Surprising, really, given that a fire station was less than a half-mile away.)

America's Fourth of July - a day of white men signing a document declaring revolution, or so we were taught, though this appears to be a total lie - led to a successful revolution, whereas Guy Fawkes represents a complete failure when it comes to implementing social change. (Short version: he was caught guarding a stockpile of gunpowder in Westminster Palace, intended to blow up the House of Lords.) But Guy Fawkes also represents anarchism - even though his aim was not to eliminate the system of monarchy but to install a Catholic queen instead of a Protestant king - and so maybe that's why there's no centralised fireworks display that I know of tonight. Guy Fawkes Day, as it is called, is exclusively celebrated in the evening, on an ad hoc basis, by anyone who feels like detonating some fireworks. I'm on my couch as I write this, it's 11:15 pm, and affordably small detonations are occuring every few seconds. I can't see most of them, even when I bother to sit up.

On my drive home, an hour ago, a teenager stood at the end of his driveway, alone, hovering near a fountain firework. It maybe came up to his knee. It was bright but everything about it exuded disappointment. (Well, and smoke.) I want to say that there's nothing like fireworks to capture the transience of pleasure and the permanence of disappointment when it comes to converting capital into goods. (Even with food, you can have leftovers.)

But that's not really true. Fireworks are on sale for four days a year in New Zealand - 2 to 5 November. I thought that meant they could only be detonated legally by private citizens during that time, but in fact that's entirely wrong. You can light them off anytime you want. While most rebuff the anti-dogmatic principles of anarchism by hewing to the days around 5 November, some save their fireworks, hiding them away, biding their time. Maybe a birthday, or another holiday. This Sunday - 1 November - the All Blacks won the Rugby World Cup at 6-something in the morning. Fireworks ensued, waking me up. Did their owners buy them 364 days ago, on the off chance of this eventuality? Does a certain strain of Kiwi keep a reserve of fireworks, just in case? And what discipline caused them to wait? (Or do some vendors sell their goods off-season? Or jump the gun and open early to sneak in some weekend sales?)

It's anticipation that you're buying when you pay for fireworks, from the necessary distance between purchase and detonation to the length of the fuse once you light it. You're also buying surprise for everyone else, most notably pets who are wildly unequipped to deal with a sudden barrage of explosions once a year. A friend is apparently appeasing his dog at the moment by closing the windows and blasting a White Zombie DVD. (I double-checked; it's a cat, and now he's playing Metallica.) Most nights, I would be asleep by now. I don't know when I'll sleep. I'm not good with surprises. Someone in the neighborhood is detonating fireworks that whistle, screech.

Today I discovered the Maori party would like to convert the celebration of Guy Fawkes Day into a holiday commemorating Parihaka, an event that also took place on the 5th of November and of much more significance locally. It sounds like a wonderfully noble idea that will never happen. But perhaps that's cynical, and one night in twenty years, I'll look out at an exploding Auckland skyline, and instead of seeing and hearing a dim echo of a confused recollection of history, or the manifestation of the universal desire to blow things up, I'll see the spirits of Tohu Kakahi and Te Whiti o Rongomai, names I barely know today, but pioneers of passive resistance.

But I suspect that, no matter how laudable of a subject is signified on any given 5 November by incessant fireworks, they will still piss me off when I'm trying to sleep.

Friday, May 29, 2015

My predictions for the plot summaries of the next six Cameron Crowe movies

1. A topiary gardener who has fallen from grace after a deal to make a giant topiary in Dubai shaped like the Eiffel Tower goes awry finds redemption in Adelaide, Australia, via the love of a quirky, passionate, feisty young woman whose interests include a passion for aboriginal culture and saving broken men. Also, he is a helicopter pilot and he saves Adelaide from a flood by lifting the entire town via a netting device we later discover he'd been making the entire film.

2. A coffee barista who has fallen from grace after he accidentally scalded a judge in the world championships returns home to Portland, Oregon, where he finds redemption via the love of a quirky, passionate, feisty young woman whose interests include indie music and saving broken men. Together, they knit a flower bridge that runs between the Burnside Bridge and the Fremont Bridge. Also, he solves global warming.

3. A zamboni driver who has fallen from grace after he accidentally ran over the mascot (also his [now ex] brother-in-law) returns home to Winnipeg, Canada to face his demons and open a tapas restaurant. At first it is a failure, but with the help of a quirky, passionate, feisty young woman, whose interests include being 1/4 Inuit and saving broken men, it becomes a success. Also, he becomes mayor. And his ex-wife forgives him for running over her brother. And then he starts driving a zamboni again.

4. A pet psychologist who has fallen from grace after one of his patients pecked its owner to death travels to Invercargill, New Zealand, where he performs an elaborate ritual at the world's southernmost pyramid, then decides to open the world's southernmost Arby's. He finds redemption through a quirky, passionate, feisty young woman, whose interests include knowing southern hemisphere constellations and saving broken men. Also, he prevents a mass suicide of terriers by using his pet psychologist skills, and his ex-wife forgives him and comes to work with him at Arby's. 

5. A theremin player who has fallen from grace after getting kicked out of his band due to ritalin abuse travels to space, where he provides the soundtrack for the opening of a portal to another dimension. He finds redemption through a quirky, passionate, feisty young astronaut (who happens to be a woman), whose interests include being an astronaut and saving broken men. Also, he beams the sound of the theremin over the planet earth, and it cures all cancers forever.

6. A bereavement coordinator who has fallen from grace after telling an 87-year old widower "you're better off without that skanky ho" travels to his hometown of Vidor, Texas. He finds redemption through a quirky, passionate, feisty young mortician, whose interests include being 1/4 black and saving broken men. Together, they bring racial harmony to the town, which it turns out was long known for being a white-only town. Also, he discovers he has the power to bring the dead back to life.

Monday, September 8, 2014

NZ Voters: A Fresh Argument For Your Consideration

This is my argument of last resort.

I would have thought the actions of the National-led coalition with ACT and United Future over the last several years would have sufficiently angered the people of New Zealand to finally vote them out.

Fiscal mismanagement, in the form of a five-fold increase in our country's debt. Raising GST after promising not to raise taxes. A series of ruinous asset sales.

Disaster after disaster in education, from the Novopay debacle to plummeting OECD ratings and all points in between.

The Christchurch rebuild nightmare. The TPPA. Outlawing public input on deep-sea oil drilling. And on, and on. You many not care about all of these policies, but surely at least one gets a moderate voter's hackles up?

But: no.

I would have thought the very real threat of a third-term National government entering into coalition with the Conservative Party would have been enough. If their anti-gay, pro-child smacking policies don't bother you, and Colin Craig's fake moon-landing theories don't give you pause, the fact that even their right-wing buddies in ACT are pointing out just how ruinous their binding referenda policy might be should give cause for concern (and also give lie to the notion that a right-wing coalition would work in unison).

But: no.

I would have thought that the revelations of corruption in Dirty Politics, and the subsequent revelations by hacker RawShark, would have meant the dismissal of National from Parliament in this election was a fait accompli. Regardless of your stance on the ethics of hacking, the allegations have been serious enough for Judith Collins to step down as Minister of Justice and for multiple high-level governmental investigations to take place. This, after previous resignations by Maurice Williamson and John Banks, should send the message that, regardless of your policy stance, the current government needs a reset button to flush out corruption.

But after a small bump downward, National's polling has stabilized.

Kim Dotcom promises a September 15th "surprise" - but let's be honest. The fact is that he could reveal pictures of John Key crushing an infant's skull with his shoe and most voters would still be all like:

b) "Labour probably does it, too, so whateves"
c) "he still seems like such a nice guy!"

So, I only have one trick left up my sleeve. As an immigrant from America, I've noticed something about you as a people over the last ten years, a core Kiwi value, deeper than "giving people a fair go" or "number 8 wire mentality" or "going mad over Boxing Day sales". And that's making fun of Americans.

Look, I'm not offended. I know, deep down, y'all basically like Americans, otherwise you wouldn't spend so much time supporting them. Whether you're part of the mainstream who eats at KFC and makes TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION the #1 movie of 2014 in this country, or part of a counter-culture who mocks those things while quaffing Portland-brewed beers and watching Jim Jarmusch movies, New Zealand collectively votes Team America every day with its dollar. But every night over the past few years, I've watched as you get on Facebook and find fresh idiocies with which to bash American culture, even as the local government humiliates itself daily during Question Time without comment. (Well, except the time Shearer showed up with those fish.)

Just to be clear: I'm not defending America's rampant cultural imperialism, or unfortunate tendency to invade random countries at the drop of a hat, or simmering institutionalized racial injustice. I'm defending my adopted home country's right to bash America!

And the linchpin argument for the last ten years has been, as I'm so oft-reminded: America elected George W. Bush! Twice! To which, historically speaking, any American's only reasonable response can be a feeble shrug.

In 2011, you - my fellow New Zealanders (I'm a permanent resident, and I vote here) - stretched this to near breaking point by re-electing John Key and the National Party. But you skated by on a technicality - America has four-year terms for President, you have three year terms (roughly) for Parliament. So technically, you can still say that you've done better than America.

In 2014, if you make the wrong decision, you have lost that technicality. Eight years of Bush? Nine years of National. Enough said. You'll have to bow your head, look inwards, and say: where, as a country, did we go wrong? How did we betray our core value and lose our moral superiority over America? Where has our laughter gone?

I know, more than most, what it would mean to this country to lose these bragging rights. A national identity crisis is the only logical outcome, a malaise like none this country has seen.

It's not too late to make a difference. Vote strategically to ensure a Labour-led coalition, and this dire fate can be averted.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Mic Check.

Long time no see. I doubt anybody has this as their only engagement with me, but in case they do: the film I wrote and directed, JAKE, is coming soon. Like, very soon. It premieres in Auckland on the 27th of June, with additional screenings in Auckland and Wellington in July prior to worldwide VOD release.

JAKE trailer from Alastair Tye Samson on Vimeo.

A couple people have already written about it:
Review by Lina Lamont (Sarah Watt)
Darren Bevan's interview with myself and Anoushka Klaus (co-producer, lead actress, casting director)
Jacob Powell's review for FilmGuide

There's a lot more to come. I'm really looking forward to sharing this with the world.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

2013 Film Wrap-Up

Usually when I've done these best of the year write-ups, I just make it simple: the ten best new-release films I've seen, regardless of what territory I've seen them in or what their "official" release is. This is historically easy to do, on account of nobody really cared about such details. With my unexpected (but very welcome) inclusion in the Skandies last year, however, this has all changed, and my attempts to make a top-ten are stymied by all sorts of exigencies with conflicting international release dates.

To wit: my favorite new release of 2013 is NORTE, THE END OF HISTORY, the jewel of the New Zealand International Film Festival's program this year (and the best film I've seen since CERTIFIED COPY). For most filmmakers, a 4+ hour novelistic study of amorality and contemporary Filipino culture inspired by Dostoyevsky would seem like their magnum opus. (And for most viewers, it probably sounds like a first-class ticket to a 3 1/2 hour nap.) For Lav Diaz, who typically works at running lengths exceeding 7 hours, it appears to have been an effort to focus and condense, and its running length flies like a shot. Whilst many scenes rely on long takes (often with near-imperceptible camera motion), Diaz is canny enough to mix things up now and again, never letting formal rigor ossify the film, but nonetheless maintaining an effortlessly patient pace that allows its myriad narrative explosions to emerge at unexpected points and intervals. While it's the first Diaz I've experienced, I'll never skip another one. But it's not "poll-eligible" for 2013, although the reliably adventurous US distributor Cinema Guild appears to have picked it up for 2014 distribution there. I don't expect it ever to return to screens here or get a Blu-Ray release; due to a number of extremely wide shots, I can't imagine it functioning usefully on DVD in home viewing, but it's worth a shot if it's your only option.

Three other highlights of NZIFF have also yet to be released in the US in 2013. STRANGER BY THE LAKE poses challenges of a different sort to a distributor in the form of copious male nudity and unsimulated gay sex. By extension, it also poses challenges to anyone who wishes to recommend it to the anonymous reading public, but regardless on your personal sexual proclivities, this formally clever, darkly absurd, and deeply sad thriller exploring a murder at a gay cruising spot is essential viewing for adventurous filmgoers. Shots of a parking lot have never been more ominous. BLUE RUIN is a thriller of a more traditionally crowdpleasing sort, and was the highlight of my Incredibly Strange slate this year, with expert photography, strong performances, brilliant tonal shifts, and some hysterical dialogue moments. And festival closer THE DANCE OF REALITY saw the return 84-year old Alejandro Jodorowsky to the screen after a 23-year absence. An unruly magic trick of semiautobiography merged with quintessential Jodorowskian excess, REALITY isn't just a surprisingly credible film from an aged filmmaker, but a vital piece of cinema that deserves to stand aside his greatest work.

Other NZIFF titles won't be returning to the big screen but uphold the festival's reputation as the single greatest force for bringing quality cinema to our screens. I could easily fill out a top ten for 2013 with UPSTREAM COLOR, THE ACT OF KILLING, A BAND CALLED DEATH, COMPUTER CHESS, THE GREAT BEAUTY, and STORIES WE TELL and be quite proud of it, but few if any of these will return to cinemas in New Zealand; a pity. The relentlessly pleasurable ERNEST AND CELESTINE, an animated Belgian film featuring the antics of a mouse studying the dental arts and a reclusive saxophone playing bear, was equal to any of these; it's slated for US release in 2014. The NZIFF's off-season festival, Autumn Colours, brought Olivier Assayas's terrific AFTER MAY (aka SOMETHING IN THE AIR), as well as the best short film I saw this year, "O Is For Orgasm" (from the directors of AMER, and nestled within the very mixed bag of THE ABC'S OF DEATH). Meanwhile, the DocEdge fest continues to improve its fare, most notably with ONLY THE YOUNG, a quiet gorgeous coming of age documentary with young skaters set in suburban California.

But festivals can't save everything, and three of the best movies to release in New Zealand in 2013, all essential viewing for genre fans with a bent for the arty, went more or less directly to video. I use hedge language on account of the one-off screening of Peter Strickland's BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO, a nervy and nerve-wracking masterpiece of style that follows a mild-mannered foley artist (Toby Jones, in an all-too-rare leading role) as he descends into insanity whilst working on an Italian horror film. It's a divisive film that takes the form of a nightmare, and thus similar to BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW, Panos Cosmatos' vision of an undiscovered science fiction film from his imaginings of lurid VHS covers in the early 80s. The result has echoes of the icy precision of Cronenberg and the conspiracy theories of LOST, but is a hallucinogenic journey all of its own, one of my most-evangelized films of the decade and unjustly deprived of its chance to transport Kiwi viewers in a late-night big screen session. It's less surprising that nobody took a chance on UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING, and whilst I feel cheated of the chance to experience it in 3-D, even in 2-D this is a testament to the potential of termite cinema, what can happen when you give a director (John Hyams) a built-in franchise and his response is to mix together equal parts of David Lynch, Gaspar Noe, and MMA ass-kickery.

Three of my favorite mainstream releases in New Zealand can't be counted in polls on account of them being 2012 releases in the States. I got to give DJANGO UNCHAINED its due in last year's Skandies, as I caught it in the States in 2012, but couldn't see RUST AND BONE or ANNA KARENINA in time for the poll. The former has been much praised, and I'll gladly cosign all its deserved hosannahs, but the latter didn't really receive its due, perhaps because of bias against Kiera Knightley. Perhaps she's callow, but so too is her character here; what interested me more was the astonishing precision of choreography that director Joe Wright performs here. For anyone even remotely interested in watching the movies because of the language of cinema (vs as a narrative delivery device), it's a must-see. Meanwhile, Alyx Duncan's debut film THE RED HOUSE hit cinemas in New Zealand this year (after a successful appearance in NZIFF 2012); it's a stately, gorgeous exploration of numerous themes of identity, progress, and belonging, all whilst quietly exploring a liminal space between drama and documentary. While I've become friends with the filmmaker over the year, I feel no need to recuse myself from its praise, which has been shared by virtually every reviewer and cinephile in this country. That it's yet to break out to a wider cinephile audience is unfortunate, as it's one of New Zealand's great films; hopefully, 2014 will change that.

Some films managed to break on both shores simultaneously. Of the mainstream releases, there weren't any I could praise unconditionally; the closest that I can come is to bow to Alfonso Cuaron's GRAVITY, a relentlessly compelling thrill ride which (even as I found the backstory to be overegging the pudding) delivered the most visceral experience of the year, just pipping THE CONJURING at the post, a thoroughly effective horror movie which goes off the rails as it heads over the top in its last twenty minutes. The last twenty minutes are (at least on a first viewing) also the Achilles' heel of THE WORLD'S END; until then, it's one of the smartest films of the year, simultaneously contemplating the nature of friendship, nostalgia, and the corporate colonization of society, all whilst delivering laughs and satisfying ass-kickery. (There's potentially no greater re-invention of an actor this year than Nick Frost here; in a just world, he'd be top-lining an action film a year.) And I've changed my viewpoint twice already on THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, in which Scorsese lets you spend three hours in the mind of a sociopath with no concern for redemption, justice, or anything other than a relentless commitment to depicting his appetites in wildly comic style and shunting away moral qualms with breathtaking speed. It's got six of the best scenes of the year, a bevy of great performances, and left virtually everyone I talked to at my screening calling it misogynist, while I pondered the wisdom of valorizing the excess of a man who makes money on the back of his crimes today. I'm still wondering, but I have no doubt that, morals aside, it's great and vital cinema.

New Zealand often beats the US to its release of Asian films, many of which release day and date here. This can be good or bad, in that it's hard to decide which films are worth one's limited cinema time when there's no overseas reviews to consult. It doesn't help that they're often barely advertised; MAN OF TAI CHI stumbled into theatres without so much as a lobby poster to herald its arrival, and left battered with negligible box office two weeks later. While it's no top ten film of the year, it's an absolute must-see for martial arts fans and far better than one might expect from Keanu Reeves' directorial debut - it might be better described as Keanu Reeves getting out of the way and showcasing legendary Hong Kong fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping's mastery for a good 50% of the run time, which is pure catnip for anyone who's seen his work on THE MATRIX, KILL BILL, IRON MONEY, CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON, and countless other films. Even better is Johnnie To's DRUG WAR, which opened with little fanfare and an unpromising title early in the year. Despite catching a late screening in which I struggled to stay awake after a long work day, I found it to be remarkably compelling (especially a scene in a hotel room where a policeman must in turn impersonate opposing figures in a drug deal, to say nothing of the relentlessly nihilstic shootout finale), but reserved my praise, thinking I might be overrating it, particularly as it lacked the stylization of some of my other To favorites (cf EXILED and THROW DOWN). Turns out I underrated it: it was one of the best reviewed films of the year when it finally opened in the States, and lingers impressively in my mind.

Two of my favorite poll-eligible films didn't see screens here in 2013 at all, because they'd previously screened. DIE WAND, aka THE WALL, stunned me at NZIFF 2012 with its crisp photography and stark portrait of one woman's survival after an invisible wall leaves her trapped from the rest of society. Meanwhile, the best film of any year, or most years, is Paolo Sorrentino's CONSEQUENCES OF LOVE; despite releasing in 2004, it finally received its first poll-eligible release in New York in 2013. Most of the attention Sorrentino received this year went to his Fellini-esque celebration of Rome, THE GREAT BEAUTY, and while I find much to like in that film, CONSEQUENCES OF LOVE remains his masterpiece, even if its belated arrival on American shores was met with negligible fanfare. In tandem, the two films serve as a testament to Sorrentino's prowess, to the range of his beloved lead actor Toni Servillo, and ultimately to the grand hope that any deserving film will finally receive its time in the sun.

My top ten for US-eligible films will be published with the Skandies (and after I see more films that I've not caught up with yet, such as HER, NEBRASKA, and BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR). In the meantime, for the impatient among you, my "traditional top ten list" of new release films first seen in 2013:

4. THE ACT OF KILLING (160 minute version)

… with COMPUTER CHESS, THE GREAT BEAUTY, A BAND CALLED DEATH, BLUE RUIN, DRUG WAR and SOMETHING IN THE AIR all potentially able to have made this list on a different day, and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET clambering all over the place, snorting a line of cocaine off the top of the other films, refusing to settle in or play by the rules, and demanding your attention.

If you're wondering "what about XXX", check out my Letterboxd page, which lists just about everything I've seen this year (been lazy the last couple weeks). Also you may notice my star ratings don't line up perfectly with my top ten. Life.

And in a final film-related note, 2013 saw the completion of Hybrid Motion Pictures' first feature film, JAKE, which I wrote, directed, and co-produced; the cast and crew screening was, for obvious reasons, my greatest theatrical experience of 2013. It's a huge relief to have this milestone complete, and I look forward to making it publicly available in 2014. More on that soon.

Best 2013 book I read: George Saunders, TENTH OF DECEMBER
Best 2013 NZ book I read: Pip Adam, I'M WORKING ON A BUILDING (haven't finished THE LUMINARIES yet, otherwise it would most likely be here)
Best 2013 album: Superchunk, I HATE MUSIC
Best 2013 TV experience: finishing BREAKING BAD

Saturday, July 20, 2013

some thoughts on NORTE, THE END OF HISTORY

The boundaries of what is acceptable in cinema today are nowhere more circumscribed than what is an acceptable duration, and so when I say that NORTE, THE END OF HISTORY is a four hour film, those who would think nothing of watching, say, four episodes of MAD MEN in a row nonetheless immediately dismiss NORTE as not being of any possible interest. A four hour film carries certain connotations, few of which are, apparently, positive.

NORTE, THE END OF HISTORY is the best film I've seen at the New Zealand International Film Festival since 2010's CERTIFIED COPY, and possibly even better, so I'm pretty passionate about trying to convince people why they should see it. But maybe first it's easier to talk about what it's not.

It's not "slow cinema".

It's not austere.

It's not humorless (although it is serious, in the best sense).

It's not pretentious.

It's not forbidding, or difficult to follow.

NORTE, THE END OF HISTORY, directed by Lav Diaz, is a film that's four hours because that's the right length for this film. It's not about "changing your perception of time and slowing down" or any of that carryon. (I like some of those films - AITA, SWEETGRASS, LE QUATTRO VOLTE come to mind - but this isn't one of them.) I've been in 80 minute movies that tested my patience to much, much greater levels. If I could cut a minute out of this film, I wouldn't.

The other day, I imagined a book festival that was like a film festival: not a "writer's festival" where you hear writers talk, but a festival where you curl up and read books. Today, I saw a film that was novelistic in its feel; detail accruing gradually, characters that lived and breathed and surprised, plot a background function that unfolded organically. I can't think of a film that felt this way since Edward Yang's YI YI in 2000 (although that film is much more "cuter" and likable). Even the structure of NORTE is novelistic: rather than cross-cutting between characters, NORTE will spend quite a chunk of time (a "chapter", if you will, though they're not broken down like this on screen) with a character, then double back to another character.

I often have a bias against films that are socially conscious in some way because they use their dramaturgy to evoke a political point in a way that feels cooked. I generally feel this way when I watch a Dardennes film, I feel it when I watch Farhadi films, I feel it acutely when I watch a fucking Ken Loach film. And an 80 minute version of this film (which you could make, if you believe that cinema only exists to offload narrative in the most efficient manner possible, in which case, you should just skip the cinema and read the plot summary on Wikipedia, shouldn't you?) would have the same problems, which is to say, these films rely on synecdoche to make their political points, e.g. you meet a cop, he's evil, it shows all cops are crooked.

Diaz doesn't believe in synecdoche; instead of having a part stand for the whole, he shows the whole. You see the characters at length, and observe them, and whilst you can place them in a greater sociopolitical context, they don't function solely as signifiers of a critique of a system; rather, they function as humans, with all their messy complications. They are often unpredictable, sometimes in gentle and beautiful ways, sometimes in tragic and horrifying ways, and yet these surprises seem almost inevitable in retrospect. The length of the film shortcircuits your traditional biorhythms of expectation: there's no point where you're like "oh, we're here, so this is what needs to happen now". (Not wearing a watch helped, probably, but still.) His naturalistic observation brought to mind 2010's ALAMAR, only that film was merely about naturalistic observation, where every scene here advances the story and our character understanding.

Directorially, Diaz, like many others who work at duration, is a believer in the long take. He's also a believer in the slow deliberate camera move: some of his push-ins are so slow, you have to watch the edge of the frame to work out that the camera's actually moving. I am also a believer in the slow push-in, so I approve. But he's not overly locked into a single manner: there's quite wide shots, there's closer shots (although no real close-ups, per se), there's shots that have complicated camera movements and blocking, there's POV shots that are handheld. It's always well-considered and well-framed, tasteful without being dull, and intriguing without being unnecessarily showy. Diaz isn't a believer in cinematic manipulation - there's no score to the film - he just uses cinema to accrue detail and character understanding, and that takes time when you're not using cheating shortcuts. But that investment bears a fantastic return.

NORTE does contain a few dark scenes, and that's my only hesitation in recommending it too widely, although the most explicit bits are generally handled off-camera. It's nothing compared to, say, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, but maybe it hurts more here because you care.

NORTE, THE END OF HISTORY is a film that will never come back. There were, maybe, 25 of us in the theater today. It plays twice more in Auckland: once on Wednesday night, and once on Monday afternoon. Maybe eventually you'll find a sneaky way to download it or import a DVD or something, but it won't be the same: it's a film whose sprawling wide shots are made for the big screen. If anything I've said here makes it sound like something you might enjoy, then please: don't miss it.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Ten Hidden NZIFF Gems (I hope)

Whilst focusing attention on Best Worst Podcast, I've neglected the written word a bit when it comes to the New Zealand International Film Festival. But I imagine somewhere out there, there's someone who hasn't got past page 7 of the brochure, is realizing NZIFF starts TOMORROW, and is making last minute decisions. The temptation in such a case is of course to go for the names you know: Jarmusch, Soderbergh, that film your friend was a wardrobe assist or a background extra on, that's enough, right?

I am here to tell you: resist temptation. Seek the hidden gems. The Soderbergh will come back. The Jarmusch will come back. (I can't speak to your friend's film.) These almost definitely won't. And while I haven't seen any of them, I've got a pretty good feeling, which means I can guarantee at least seven of them will be great. (Sorry, can't guarantee which seven. Just playing the odds.)

A BAND CALLED DEATH: remember that SEARCHING FOR SUGARMAN film that everybody loved? Now imagine if a. Sugarman was a 4-piece black band from the 70s in Detroit that were playing punk rock before punk rock was even a term that existed and b. it was based around a family story. Okay, that's a terrible analogy. What I'm trying to say is that this music doco might be overlooked by those that would most love it, hidden away in the Incredibly Strange section (along with another music doco, the very different-looking but highly intriguing THE SOURCE FAMILY), but it's winning the hearts of everyone who takes a chance on it, regardless of their music taste. That it fucking rocks is only a bonus.

ERNEST AND CELESTINE: I would have thought with only one animated tale this year, this watercolor-styled story of the friendship between a bear and a mouse would be a massive hit, but it seems to be one of the few Bridgeway sessions that hasn't sold out, which makes me think it's been ignored somehow. To be fair, it is playing against both NORTH BY NORTHWEST and CHARLUATA in said session, which gave me pause when making the tough decisions, and forced me to break my "no trailer" rule to confirm that I wanted to see it. 20 seconds later, my smile was already in danger of being permanently affixed to my face. And did I mention that the directors of previous NZIFF hit A TOWN CALLED PANIC are involved? Because they are.

LEVIATHAN: I thought everybody knew this was essential viewing, but word of mouth makes me fear that the guide is scaring people off with its allusions to potential nausea. So maybe sit in the back, but do show up to see this. It will be unlike anything you've ever seen on the screen: the use of small GoPro cameras around a trawler captures the sea and the act of commercial fishing in intensely visceral, abstract, horrific and beautiful ways. I've watched the same clip online, like, twenty times, and it never loses its magic. I can't wait to see it at scale on a cinema screen, and if I could only see one film this year, there's a damn good chance it would be this one.

STRANGER BY THE LAKE: let me get the disclaimer out of the way first: apparently it has reasonably explicit gay sex, so if that bothers or offends you, you know what not to do. That notwithstanding, this was one of the sleeper hits of Cannes: virtually everybody who saw this unconventional suspense thriller raved about it, and while director Alain Giuraudie is an NZIFF newcomer, the one film I've seen of his before (NO REST FOR THE BRAVE) is a fascinatingly unconventional piece of filmmaking. Guessing this is going to end up high on my list of fest favorites.

BLUE RUIN: another word-of-mouth Cannes hit, also tucked away in the Incredibly Strange section. Whilst there's no shortage of bloody crowd-pleasers in this section this year (including the incredibly enjoyable YOU'RE NEXT, which I've seen, as well as V/H/S 2, LESSON OF THE EVIL, CHEAP THRILLS, and MANIAC), this one seems perched much closer to the arthouse; the clips I watched brought to mind the Dardennes brothers slightly in their observational quality. It's just a feeling, but I'm pegging this as the sleeper hit of the Incredibly Strange section this year.

THE STRANGE LITTLE CAT: okay, this one is probably only for the more arthouse-tolerant, but at least two trusted Twitter arthouse fans are calling this the film of the year, full stop. I did watch the trailer because of a painful conflict, which gives away nothing as near as I can tell; it's confounding and captivating all at once, and I think I'm going to have to beg to leave work early to check this one out. (My Hong Sang-Soo completism being what it is has caused some scheduling problems, as usual.)

THE MISSING PICTURE: So there's two documentaries this year about mass killings in Southeast Asia. Most of the press has been around Joshua Oppenheimer's THE ACT OF KILLING, which to be sure sounds absolutely deserving (it comes with stamps of approval from Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, for starters) and this tale of Indonesian death-squad members re-enacting their crimes should be a must-see for you. But less heralded, perhaps because it just debuted at Cannes (where it won an award), is this documentary about the Cambodian genocide, which tells its tale in part using wood-carved figurines. The curious blend of form and content has me just as intrigued to see this as THE ACT OF KILLING.

ORACLE DRIVE: FANTAIL, GISELLE, THE WEIGHT OF ELEPHANTS, and THE DEADLY PONIES CLUB seem to have the local heat this year, but I'm entranced by this unheralded North Shore absurdist essay film. At least, I think that's what it is. I watched a little bit from their PledgeMe page and it looks completely unconventional. In a country known for its rolling hills and lush coastlines, to see a filmmaker making a place-based film about the back of billboards amuses me to no end.

NORTE, THE END OF HISTORY: How do I convince you that a four-hour film is worth taking a chance on? It's great value for money? It will undoubtedly never come back? It's a rather short piece by the filmmaker's standards (he often works with seven to nine hour runtimes)? I'm reasonably sure none of this will work, and I can't quantify quite why I'm excited about it (I've never seen another Lav Diaz film). But his use of long takes appeals to me, especially after just having survived a blockbuster that shall will remain nameless that never saw a shot it was willing to sustain for more than 3 seconds.

EVERYDAY OBJECTS: This German film is the only international film that I'm seeing that I've heard literally nothing about. Over the years, some of my favorite NZIFF films (LONGING and 12:08 EAST OF BUCHAREST leap immediately to mind) have been completely unheralded, selected solely to fill a slot, and so I try to see one or two a year that fit that bill for that very reason; in a fest where there are many films that I have already been anticipating and therefore know a bit about, it's great to see something that's undigested, a complete surprise (and hopefully a pleasant one). Key words that struck me from the description and got me excited: "Concise", "coolly formal", "intelligent and seductive".

Plus, also, too, maybe you might, if you can: MUSEUM HOURS (by Jem Cohen, and sponsored by the discerning souls at The Lumiere Reader), LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE (new Kiarostami; his last film CERTIFIED COPY is still my favorite film of the decade), COMPUTER CHESS (this thing looks INSANE, which I mean as a compliment; read Jacob Powell's interview with Andrew Bujalski to get excited), A FIELD IN ENGLAND (Ben Wheatley of KILL LIST and SIGHTSEERS creates a black and white drug trip), NOBODYS DAUGHTER HAEWON (I am endlessly fond of Hong Sang-Soo films), and CHARLES BRADLEY: SOUL OF AMERICA (which, I mean: just watch this and tell me you don't want to know that guy's story; need I mention that he put out his debut album at 62?).

And, oh hey, while I'm here: five films you can't miss on the Civic screen: UPSTREAM COLOR (! = the followup to PRIMER, you guys, this will look amazing), THE GREAT BEAUTY (!! = the new film by Paolo "Only The Best Director of Cinematic Motion Alive" Sorrentino), THE HUMAN SCALE (which: read Alexander Bisley's excellent interview and you'll probably get excited as I did), THE DANCE OF REALITY (new Jodorowsky, this will be amazing to argue about after it's done, come hang out with me in front of the Civic and we'll shoot the shit until the wee hours), and of course GOBLIN PLAYS SUSPIRIA, the single most exciting festival announcement of the 10 years I've lived in New Zealand.