The Pantograph Picks: NZIFF 2014

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15.07.2014

The Pantograph Picks: NZIFF 2014

Unless you're someone who moves in the industry itself, the film festival in your city of residence tends to be the one you know and the one you cherish. Even if you start keeping score of the different states you happen to have passed through, chances are you didn't blow three weeks in a big dark room all day watching a Truffaut remaster, or a slowly-paced observation of life as Tilda Swinton. For this reason at least, the festival remains a slice of Auckland (and beyond's) cultural life that no one has to consider with constant, yawning deference to overseas experience (cf: eating, festivals, nightlife, public transport). So all I know is that the NZIFF is generous with its guest discussions but light on pomp and ceremony; that it screens the big, must-see crossovers of the year alongside a selection of worthy films we would never even stumble across otherwise; that it avoids the dyspeptic oneupmanship of festivalgoing by running a bunch of splatter B-movies alongside the worthy documentaries. We've very glad it's this time again. -JN



Art and Craft

He arrived in a big red Cadillac and introduced himself as Father Arthur Scott. Mark Tullos Jr., the museum’s director, remembers that he was dressed “in black slacks, a black jacket, a black shirt with the clerical collar and he was wearing a Jesuit pin on his lapel.” Partly because he was a man of the cloth and partly because he was bearing a generous gift — a small painting by the American Impressionist Charles Courtney Curran, which he said he wanted to donate in memory of his mother, a Lafayette native — it was difficult not to take him at his word

- NY Times

The idea for impersonating a priest came from watching “The Swan,” made in 1956, with Grace Kelly and Alec Guinness, in which a minor character is a priest. The movie suggested that wealthy families often had a priest in their line, and “it made sense that a Jesuit might be cultured and know about painting.” He bought a priest’s shirt and a celluloid collar from a site on the Internet, and a black suit in Mephis, at a store whose motto is “The House of $100 Suits.”

- The New Yorker


Look past its disappointingly dull name because Art and Craft promises a great story. Mark Landis was one of the most successful and prolific art forgers to have existed in American history, duping more than 60 galleries in 20 states. Over this time, he never once profited financially from his work. The only real reward he received was the honour endowed on his philanthropism, the reinvented history he was allowed to bestow upon himself, and the satisfaction of being a misguided art-world Jesus.

Without any of the typical motivations that characterise a serial forger, Art and Craft offers two unique narratives. One is of a man with exceptional talent, and the difficult events that led him to use it in such an unconventional way. The other is of the nature and value of art, the world that claims to know it, and what happens when it's all undermined.-RT



Big Men

I came back to New Zealand to graduate in 2009 and found there weren’t any jobs, particularly not for another ho-hum conjoint student. I knuckled down and started applying for jobs. The day of my procession, I received two calls letting me I’d be turned down at the second interview stage in both just before I had to get up and receive my degree. My parents had a fight, and we all sat in a stoic and parsimonious silence while a guy next table over celebrated the end of an Engineering/Law six-year conjoint with bottles of Veuve and his entire extended family.

I met this dude out on the town two years later. I didn’t know his name, but he bought me a nice beer anyway. “I’m back for the week! I work in Nigeria now doing oil industry contracts. It pays well. Fuccccccccccccccckin evil work bro, but it pays well.”

Rachel Boynton’s Big Men was meant to be a short job, a rare sliver of access into the intensely private world of oil negotiations (in this case, Texas firm Kosmos and the Ghana government) that turned into a seven-year campaign. With time, her access extended to the office of the country’s president John Kufuor, and to the enclaves of Nigerian militants  attacking the pipelines set down in their earlier boom. Boyton’s been acclaimed for being fair and balanced with Big Men – not in the sense that we see the lighter and more human side of Western capital investment in African mineral wealth, but in the sense that everyone’s toxic self-interest comes under the microscope – the Westerners, the Ghanians, everyone else who’s out to preserve or accumulate power in the region. The premise makes me think of that guy I met, but it sounds like a case study for its audience’s world view overall.

(Boynton’s previous documentary Our Brand Is Crisis is required watching too, a throat-clenching account of how American political marketing tactics and talent were parachuted in to buy the 2002 Bolivian elections). -JN



Boyhood

Sometimes it seems as if every second blockbuster gets called a “hotly anticipated” “cinematic event” — to the point where such overuse has robbed the phrases of meaning. Happily, Richard Linklater’s new picture, Boyhood, a visual buildungsroman, should stall that trend: not only is the film strongly deserving on paper alone of both appellations, but it could well come to define them for the next few decades. This is chiefly because filming began in 2002 and continued in annual sessions for the next twelve years —a feat unmatched in contemporary American cinema, and one that meant Linklater’s principal actor, Ellar Coltrane, literally grows up within the narrative: he was 18 years old by film’s end. Linklater has reportedly captured a magnificently natural central performance from his star, who appears alongside Patricia Arquette and Linklater’s regular collaborator Ethan Hawke. This deserves to be seen for the audacity of its production schedule alone. -HL



The Double

Just as there are two films about the socio-political climates of adjacent European countries, this year’s festival has two films about doppelgängers: Jesse Eisenberg stars in an adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Double by Richard Ayoade, whose whimsical début Submarine charmed my pants off in 2012. Jake Gyllenhaal is the other one unnerved by someone who looks and sounds just like him, in Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy. The Canadian director’s previous film, Prisoners, was repulsive and near-pointless on a variety of levels, but both Polytechnique (2009) and Incendies (2010) showcased Villeneuve’s ability to use the powerful physical and emotional capabilities of the medium to their full potential. His new effort, based loosely upon the José Saramago novel, may be smaller in size, but it should at least have a tantalising, unnervingly off-kilter atmosphere. -HL


Further confirming the theory that Jesse Eisenberg is leading a parallel life to his softer Canadian counterpart, he's now playing a geek and the geek’s more confident, sexier alter ego in Richard Ayoade's The Double. Eisenberg stars as Simon James, an office clerk who’s startled to discover that the new guy at work looks exactly like him and, disturbingly, that nobody else seems to realise. Though I found Submarine contrived and one-dimensional, The Double's unsettling absurdism (see: Terry Gilliam's Brazil) and charming, awkward humour (see: Ayoade and every Eisenberg movie) makes it one I'm especially looking forward to, despite this bewildering neg of an endorsement.  -RT



Force Majeure

Consider it an ultimate test of character, and of your relationships, too: you’re on holiday with the people you love most, enjoying a tuna sandwich, when you see a colossal mass of snow tunnelling violently in your direction. “It’s controlled,” you tell everyone, laughing self-assuredly. You know this because you read it in a pamphlet in your hotel toilet this morning. You know it won’t hit and yet there’s no sign of it slowing. It’s getting closer, and faster, and the only truth you know is that you don’t want to die.

Working from this moment, Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure looks to be a dark, biting portrayal of a family undone by a split-second impulse. Reminiscent of the familial disintegration of Herman Koch’s The Dinner, the movie will appeal to everyone who has an unhealthy fascination with seeing what happens when relationships are pushed to their extremes. It’s something I expect will work particularly well with the Scandinavian aesthetic: suspiciously clean minimalism and pleasing pastel palettes paired with all the jarring, ugly truths you know are simmering below the surface. -RT



Hot Air

My first adult memory of climate change as a subject for national consumption is of National Party MP Shane Ardern juddering his tractor up the steps of Parliament, handpainted sign in tow with classic Kiwi truisms like "THIEVING TAX HUNGRY SOCIALIST GOVERNMENT", with a whole bunch of fawning politicians and journalists gathering for the set piece. The reason for the "impromptu" protest was an agricultural emissions research levy. It was an early, cautious move towards identifying New Zealand's agricultural methane emissions as a sort of net negative that primary producers might somehow offset. In a genius act of branding, it got renamed the "fart tax", a tag that's stuck with every form of emissions trading scheme or carbon levy since.


A decade on, the big story about NZ's response to climate change has stopped being a feelgood motivational seminar about what we're doing and more of a sobering story about what we didn't do. Alister Barry, our best visual historian, is probably best placed to do so, with a piece of filmaking that methodically takes apart the way the issue has been continually, shamelessly talked past. The NZIFF blurb cites his 'judicious use of the TV archive', and that though that seems like a fancy way of saying 'buys stock footage', they're right: Barry does so much more to rescue individual, haunting moments from a glut of news, the turns of phrase that only become apparent years down the track. -JN



It Follows


it-follows-cannes-2014-4


As a teenager, I harboured a deep fascination for the scary and the supernatural, practiced secret spells in the kitchen at night and wrote a short screenplay about a succubus who commits suicide to save the man she loves (choreographed to the second to a song from Moby’s ‘Play’). In other words: I was always going to love this film.


As with Cabin in the Woods, It Follows feels like a fresh take on the horror genre, in this case by making the killer within us in the form of an inexplicable, chain-letter style STI. Death comes, unless you can pass it on by sleeping with somebody else. Then death goes for them. If it succeeds, it comes back like a regretful ex-lover, hungrier for you than it was before.

Though there’s no trailer, comparisons have been made to Gregory Crewdson’s surreal suburban scenes and the film feels like it’ll fall in the same family as Charles Burns’ devastating and dark graphic novel, Black Hole, making manifest the ugliness of sexual awakening in a world of teenage recklessness and cruelty. I can’t wait.-RT



Leviathan

Turn the page in the festival guide after reading about Ceylan’s film and you’ll see the entry for a picture in a remarkably similar vein: Leviathan, by the Russian master Andrey Zvyaginsev. (Do these guys synchronise watches?) Zvyaginsev’s robust first two films, The Return and The Banishment, established him as the rightful heir to the throne left vacant by Tarkovsky. While Elena, a more studied and accessible picture, was greeted in 2011 to more muted praise, his new film would appear to be a return to form — where “form” means an epic scope and a magisterial level of control. A contemporary reworking of the Book of Job that takes its title from a landmark work by the 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Левиафан) follows more than fifteen characters and “gradually unwinds to a mythological scale” to survey no less cerebral a subject than the human condition itself (in the confines, of course, of contemporary Russian society). -HL



Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets

Jarvis Cocker and Pulp already had a crowning moment in cinema: it’s in Live Forever, where somewhere between Damon Albarn’s reprehensibly dissolute ukulele noodling and the Gallaghers’ idiot-savant double act on the throne, the Sheffielder and his band emerge as the ones who got it right, perched on a bed in a council house. Pulp were eking a living making albums before Britpop, they eked out the most graceful living in its aftermath, and the bombast John Dower’s 2003 documentary recollects paints all their 90s output in sharp relief. They performed like they knew what was coming, and it’s meant that their context hasn’t dated them – even in their contemporary press photos, they look like a set of gloomy party seers.


Pulp stand the test of time for me, but never having been to Sheffield, I’ve wondered how they stand the test of space – whether they make more sense seen through where they grew up and sang about. No idea if Florian Habicht wondered the same, but his unshowy treatment of the band’s 2012 endgame (paired with portraits and conversations of locals, family members, members, and architecture) looks like a fitting capstone, the best audio-visual experience beyond their peerless late-90s stretch of videos to represent a group I’ll never see for real. - JN



Sacro GRA

This feels like a contentious pick. Sacro GRA recently won the Golden Lion for Best Film at the Venice Film Festival (the first documentary to ever do so), but it was a decision that was met with widespread surprise and outspoken dismay. Much of the criticism being levied at the film matches the precise reasons I want to see it, so at this point I can’t say if this is an endorsement or a well-researched warning (worst case scenario: I’m a brave nerd defending the kid who’s getting bullied in the C-block toilets, only to turn around and see the ungrateful shit doing the fingers as they run off with my backpack).

Best case scenario: Sacro GRA turns out to be a likeable domestic experimentation that questions the way we define the documentary, in the same way that The Act of Killing transformed the way we think about reporting on trauma and crime. Inspired by Calvino’s Invisible Cities, the film subverts traditional approaches to storytelling by using geography – rather than a central issue or narrative that requires solving or telling – as a central thread. Director Gianfranco Rosi spent two years travelling the Grande Raccordo Anulare, the long road that encircles Rome like a cell membrane, capturing a range of characters and families along the way. The project seems like an attempt at zooming out when documentaries are so often intent on zooming in, and strikes me as an admirable refusal to present a cohesive narrative in a city and population that denies it.

Whether it’ll do any of this with success (and whether it has - or needs - the cohesion of a traditional documentary) is a question you can ask me in a month, but either way it’ll be an experiment worth witnessing.-RT



Snowpiercer

The sound of a thousand tabs clicking shut in disgust: I’m a grown man who enjoys science fiction films and trains. The combination of the two, and a distinctly ‘high-brow’ (or, in blockbuster terms, ‘B-list’) sort of cast seems to have consigned Snowpiercer to the festival circuit. Over in the States, it sounds like it’s being caught between two stools. It’s too weird for the multiplexes, and too much a straight-ahead action piece for the indie screens. But it’s a high-concept dream either way – the whole thing is set on a huge, perpetual-motion powered train, endlessly circling the globe with the last remnants of humanity after some manmade cataclysm. Why a train? How a train? Explaining is losing, especially when it’s meant to have carriagetop and tunnel setpieces that have to be seen to be believed.


There’s every possibility that watching Snowpiercer is going to be a totally divisive experience akin to Southland Tales or Cloud Atlas – grotesquely overstuffed and overreaching, trying every trick in the book to be a novel and significant cinema experience (though unlike either, it clocks in at a scant two hours). Personally, I enjoyed both those very messy films (and Brazil, which much of the look and feel of Bong Joon-ho’s film appears to recall) and so I’m probably going to cravenly love this one as well. -JN



Still Life

Playing for much lower stakes, but still dealing in life and death, “Still Life” looks like one of the slow, measured, and very rewarding “small stories” that the Festival remembers to offer up each year. Eddie Marsan plays a middle-aged man whose entire career in local government has been to travel his London borough and find and notify the next of kin of those who die alone. He curates their funerals, their eulogies, and their diposal – and then he gets made redundant due to budget cuts, and ends up finding a romance of sorts when he becomes obsessed with doing a good job on his final case. The sparse cast and the social realism make it sound like a Mike Leigh joint, and it’s probably no coincidence that Marsan, a fantastic and underutilized actor, has done his best work in a couple of Leigh’s previous films (he strikes a jarring but absolutely vital note in the otherwise lightweight Happy-Go-Lucky). I’m looking forward to his performance, and the sort of grey, drab tone poem films like this can hit, the rare itch they scratch for me that richer-looking films can’t. -JN



Winter Sleep

The Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan is a master of the engrossing, literate slow-burner. His beguiling 2011 picture Once Upon a Time in Anatolia was at base a police procedural spread over more than two-and-a-half hours that explored its characters’ psyches through sprawling discussions about seemingly trivial matters. As with so many great works of art, pleasure was to be had in reading between the lines. Winter Sleep (Kiş uykusu), Ceylan’s new film, is, to the surprise of no one, a chamber piece that examines contemporary Turkish society through the experience of one man. It’s composed almost entirely of long, conversation-heavy scenes, runs for three hours and fifteen minutes, and sits high among the twenty selections in the nzff’s thrillingly large cache of Cannes titles. Jane Campion’s jury honoured it with the Palme d’Or; she called it “masterful” and praised its “beautiful rhythm.” -HL



Under The Skin

The really surprising thing about this year’s schedule is that Jonathan Glazer’s creepy-looking new movie wasn’t chosen to close the festival under the Civic’s beautifully fake ceiling-starfield on the final Saturday night, as Enter the Void and Melancholia so fittingly have in recent years. Under the Skin, which stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien who traverses nocturnal Edinburgh in a van picking up men, is based on a surrealist science-fiction novel written early last decade by the Dutch author Michel Faber. That description might sound plain enough, but then you realise that the men weren’t actors, and some of them apparently had no idea they were being filmed. Glazer’s dizzyingly Kubrickian 2004 film Birth marked him as an exceptional talent, and has had arthouse fans salivating for more ever since — and it’s finally arrived. -HL

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