Monday, 28 July 2014

NZIFF Review - Boyhood

NZIFF Review - Boyhood

Time is an illusion in Richard Linklater's masterpiece coming of age film.

Set over 12 years of the life of Mason Jr (Ellar Coltrane in a stellar turn - how did Linklater know he would turn out exactly as needed?), Boyhood charts the boy's growth and ends with graduation from high school.

But the passing of time is not signposted, nor remarked on as lives change, circumstances become more and less complicated and life, basically, happens.

Eschewing conventional narrative tropes that usually blight these kinds of movies (parents separate, parents reconnect, everyone lives happily ever after), Linklater remains true to the often messy and unpredictable ways of life. Mason's parents, Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and Mason Sr (Ethan Hawke) start the movie separated, with his dad zooming into town here and there and parenting where and when he's allowed; meanwhile his mother goes through a series of relationships that splinter under time (and dissolve off-screen) having had the seeds of discomfort sown early on.

With life evolving and dissolving, Linklater never loses his focus and eye for detail and moments as seamless time shifts take place throughout; be it the Harry Potter mania that grips both Mason and his sister Sam or discussion of the Twilight novels, the zeitgeist is certainly present throughout the 165 minutes run time, making this piece feel both timeless and yet also of the era as well. Problems are universal - girls, school choices, alcoholism - they're all there for the rich dramatic pickings

But in among the humour, there's poignancy as well; a final speech from Olivia as Mason Jr prepares to move out works on two levels; there are laughs within it but at the same time a bittersweet recognition that in amongst the various haircut changes and fashion sensibilities, life has marched on and the inevitable lies ahead; a sad admission that life, in all its forms, is to be treasured and embraced. (Even if most of the audience laughed at this, it's an indication of how wide ranging the film is and how differently it can be interpreted)

And its main protagonists fare exceptionally well too; Coltrane inhabits the role with ease from the naivete of youth to the highs and lows of life's disappointments and makes an eminently watchable lead no matter the age; Hawke is an affable easy presence and (along with Arquette) is spared the indignity of watching the relationship fall apart - and Arquette, the mother is an achingly real centre of Mason's world, as she tries to find her own identity and negotiate life.

The main thing about Boyhood though is how incredibly easy Linklater's made this all look - committing to a film for 12 years certainly is one hell of a decision (and reeks of the 7 Up series of docos) but proves to be a masterstroke in the coming of age genre.

Quite simply, thanks to Boyhood, that genre has been forever changed and its limitations blown out of the water.

Do what you can to see Boyhood, it's one of the most rewarding films of the festival and is as life-affirming as it is life-changing.

NZIFF Review - Jimi: All is by my Side

NZIFF Review - Jimi: All is by my Side

With a pedigree that includes being written and directed by 12 Years A Slave's John Ridley and Andre Benjamin of Outkast playing Jimi Hendrix, you'd expect the promise of Jimi: All is By My Side to deliver.

And it certainly does that - to a large extent.

Taking in Hendrix's early life and times as a R'n'B backing guitarist where he was spotted by Keith Richards' girlfriend Linda Keith (Imogen Poots), Andre Benjamin inhabits the role completely. With Keith acting as a kind of puppetmaster, Hendrix starts his rise to fame and fortune. However, along the way, he meets Kathy (an impressive Hayley Atwell, who turns in a nuanced performance) causing friction between the three of them.

"Identity is a wonderful thing - I encourage you to have one" is uttered very early on in this piece, which doesn't shy away from showing Hendrix as more of a lover than a fighter, thanks to his relaxed hippyesque vibe proffered by Benjamin. Ridley mixes music with snapshots of 60s swinging London to impressive directorial effect and delivers one shocking moment that exposes Hendrix's true nature and his attitude to Kathy.

It's this touch that really shakes Jimi: All Is By My Side and it's a calculated move by Ridley to ensure it has maximum effect as Hendrix's lack of self-belief and potentially drug infused paranoia boils over. Ridley chooses to use the women to help place focus on Hendrix, while Benjamin's musical prowess ensures that the talent isn't wasted on the screen.

However, his relationship with Keith simply dramatically fizzles out in a purple haze of jealousy and fades off the screen. It's a touch which proves divisive in the narrative as it feels unfinished and unformed. Unlike Hayley Atwell's Kathy, whose arc is horrifically complete and thematically satisfying in the worst possible way.

Really though, these two are the only two relationships which are fully explored; with band matters and management sidelined in favour of the talent shining through. Perhaps the closest Ridley gets to shining some kind of light on Hendrix is in a phone conversation with his father that's split with shots and photographs of their lives and gives a bit more insight into their fractured relationship.

Ridley's done the best he can with a film that was blocked by the Hendrix estate, but thanks to the performance of Benjamin this one year biopic snapshot just borders on successful; the music is electrifying, even if some of the human element is a little more downbeat in terms of tempo.

NZIFF Review - God Help the Girl

NZIFF Review - God Help the Girl

A crowd-funded musical about a depressed girl struggling to get her life back on track sounds on paper like a good idea.

In practice, the movie God Help the Girl comes across as a bubblegum mix of whimsical fey. Every scene is like a perfectly choreographed music video, with characters being somewhat secondary to the story.

Emily Browning is the strongest link in this cinematic chain as Eve, who's undergoing treatment in Glasgow, but who escapes to gigs through a window at her hospital. One day she meets James (a weedy Olly Alexander) a guitar player who's without a band and real inspiration. They decide to start playing and writing together, co-opting a third member, Cassie (Hannah Murray) a student of James' who's bored, rich and able to do whatever she wants.

Together, the trio make music and try to negotiate one summer of burgeoning romance, music and life.

God Help The Girl is a hard film to love if you're pre-disposed to be a cynic or not perhaps a hipster.

While Emily Browning is radiant as the lead sad sallow faced Eve, the consciously quirky and infectious music proves somewhat of an irritant and too much of a light hearted distraction throughout.

Directed by Stuart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian, with songs he wrote for the film, is partially the problem; way too close to the material and with an eye for a perfect pop blast and musical interlude, his narrative stumbles as Eve sings and dances her way through life's major issues from beginning to end. An entirely predictable sub-plot sees James fall for Eve and then watch her croon her love for others and end up with them. Therapy happens by way of musical interlude time and time again - and unfortunately, the cumulative effect proves to be more asphyxiating than intoxicating.

The whole effect is like a musical Michel Gondry, with Murdoch infusing so much of everything on the screen with music that despite the colourful interludes, it just feels all a little too much unless you're that way inclined.

It's perfectly pleasant blast of musical escapism and a mix of happy / sad that's a perfect accoutrement to Belle and Sebastian's musical folksy-ness - but it just wasn't for me, thanks to weak characters and a conceit that was too in your face rather than a little bit more subtle.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

NZIFF Review - Housebound

NZIFF Review - Housebound

Writer / director Gerard Johnstone's inventively witty Housebound is already picking up accolades - both here and abroad.

With SXSW success and NZIFF Festival director Bill Gosden's praise ringing in its ears, the mash up of horror and comedy stars Morgana O'Reilly as Kylie, a sullen woman placed on home detention after a particularly Kiwi robbery goes somewhat awry.

Confined to the house with her mother Miriam (a sensational Rima Te Wiata), rebel without a cause Kylie discovers there are more horrors than just dial up broadband and regular dollops of Coro to contend with after she hears her mum talking about how she believes the house is haunted.

With a security guard Amos in tow, Kylie begins to investigate the spooky goings on...

Housebound serves up a riotous mix of shock moments, suspenseful scenes and bang on gags.

With a delicious premise and an awe-inspiring treatment of the genres, director Johnstone's infused his script by way of The Innkeepers, The Frighteners, a hint of Beetlejuice and a gory dollop of Kiwi blood and guts' homage to Sir Peter Jackson's earlier works.

But as well as infusing these all together, he's done something uniquely kiwi as well as making a film which universally accessible, thanks to O'Reilly's sullen Kylie, Glen Paul-Waru's brilliant Amos and Te Wiata's perfectly shrill and cuckolding mother.

With an eye for great one-liners ("You can't punch ectoplasm" to name but one) and a burgeoning trademark in suspenseful set ups and masterfully subtle execution, Housebound is an absolute riot, an unashamed blockbuster treat and a triumph of film-making (let's leave the New Zealand out of this one, eh?)

The pay-off is cleverly constructed and the final sequences deliver and wrap up everything that was promised so deliciously throughout the comic beats.

As infectious as Ghostbusters was all those years ago, Johnstone's flair for the comic paranormal and grip on the various genres he's paying homage to treads the right balance between out and out scares and good time humour - Housebound's spookily and truly unmissable.

NZIFF Review - Kung Fu Elliot and Night Moves

NZIFF Review - Kung Fu Elliot and Night Moves

When it comes to Ant Timpson's Incredibly Strange section, you shouldn't really ever be surprised by what he manages to programme.

And yet, Kung Fu Elliot is one of those films that catches you out in ways you can't ever imagine it would. On the surface, it's a doco about Elliot Smith, a Nova Scotia resident who wants to be the next big martial arts movie king. Decorated in a Chuck Norris T shirt and resplendent in a delusional attitude, Smith (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Ted from How I Met Your Mother) is determined to achieve his goal - even with the help of his girlfriend, Linda (the very definition of the phrase long suffering).

Matthew Bauckman and Jaret Belliveau follow Smith as he tries to pursue his somewhat futile dream as he displays no acting prowess, limited kung fu awareness and a penchant for low level effects (using fireworks to simulate explosions) as he tries to please the myriad of fans he believes he has. Giving Smith enough rope to hang himself works wonders but there's also an disarming charm to his MO and beliefs, even if his relationship brims with passive / aggressive vigour. With the production of Blood Fight in tow, it looks like nothing can stop Smith's ego but the filmmakers throw in a third act that turns everything on its head and makes you wonder how much they knew going into this - even if the onscreen reaction appears to be a genuine one from those behind the cameras.

Kung Fu Elliot is the very definition of a whiplash turn and while the chaotically chronic early parts threaten to showcase an implosion, the emotional consequences of the reveal are quietly gripping. It's a shame there's no follow up to those complicit to Smith's ways other than onscreen titles, because an epilogue on this lo fi high laughs film, while stopping a lot of the discussions once the lights go up, would go a long way to answering some big meaty questions from the cinematic curveball.

Night Moves, from the director of Meek's Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt, takes on the world of environmental activism through the eyes of three characters. The Social Network's Jesse Eisenberg is a serious faced Josh, Dakota Fanning is Deena and the ever charismatic Peter Sarsgaard is recluse Harmon, whose paths cross when they decide to take out a hydroelectric dam.

Deena is the newcomer to the active part of the ethos and her naivete signs through thanks to a performance of vim and vigour in this slow languid piece, that relies on slow measured pans and close ups. It's a stark contrast to Eisenberg's studied and almost sullen approach, which makes it hard for us to care for this protagonist.

As liberal guilt starts to permeate their lives after the dam explosion (the build up to which is considered and measured, with tension coming at the obligatory juncture on the water with the clock ticking), it's Deena who begins to fall apart and Josh who tries to hold it together before succumbing himself.

Reichardt's wanted to put together an examination of guilt, of after effects and of consequences, but it takes an extraordinarily long time to get there and Eisenberg's turn at the end isn't quite as convincing as perhaps it could be. By honing on more on the two and the build up, Reichardt builds a degree of tense interaction even if the unfolding story is as cliched as you'd expect. The strengths lie in the build up, the creeping tension and the shocking aftermath rather than anything else, but Night Moves aims for a character study and ends up more as a shadowy film that will reward only if you invest into it, rather than expecting continual bangs and whistles.

NZIFF Review - Winter Sleep, Kumiko The Treasure Hunter

NZIFF Review - Winter Sleep, Kumiko The Treasure Hunter

The Palme D'Or winner Winter Sleep weighs in at a massive 196 minutes, meaning the first real true test of the festival.

But to be frank, this epic doesn't feel like a challenge to your backside at all. From the director of Once Upon A Time in Anatolia, it's set in the mountain regions of Cappadocia and is the tale of an ageing actor, Aydin, rich in money, rich in time and poor in relationships, thanks to his disconnectedness. When a boy hurls a stone at his window as he's out driving one day, it appears the act is a random one initially. But the boy is related to one of his tenants, whom he's never met, but whose family is unable to pay the rent.

As the ripples of this small action spread like a stone skimming the surface of the water, Aydin comes to re-examine his life, the implications of his actions and the possibilities ahead.

Winter Sleep is a languid treat to wallow in. From the simmering tension and resentment between Aydin, his wife, the tenants and those around him, director Nuri Bilge Ceylan constructs a piece that is centered all around language, long conversations and small interactions. Everything has a perfectly timed structure and ultimately, you feel overwhelmed by the minutiae of day to day life as this opus unspools. It's a reminder that human life needs connections and that without these, locked away as Aydin is, perspective is lost only until it's far too late to try and regain it.

Kumiko The Treasure Hunter finds itself obsessed with Fargo and never lets up.

It's the apparently urban legend of Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi), a young Japanese girl who works soullessly for a company that sees her daily strength and will to live being sapped. But keeping her alive is a daily viewing of a video tape of Fargo, the Coen Brothers classic which she pores over and tries to ascertain where the buried treasure may be kept.

Finally reaching snapping point within her work life and the over-bearing phonecalls from her mother enquiring about promotions or personal life, Kumiko makes off with the company credit card and heads to America to find the treasure buried by Steve Buscemi's character in the snow of Dakota.

Once the put upon Kumiko is free to roam, she finds that the Americans of Dakota are as oddball as the inhabitants of the film; from the people who meet her at the airport and try to get her into religion, to the bus driver with carpal tunnel syndrome who's unable to change a tyre, they're all here on display.

But in among the oddness and goofy moments, there's a small vein of sadness running through this piece, which has pathos and hints of tragedy. Kumiko is a sad figure, and while there's no attempts at using this for comic effect, the overall feeling is one of sympathetic frustration as the story plays out. There's a humour here, but it's a bittersweet one and it's one that makes you question whether Kumiko's on the verge of a breakdown rather than a genuine acceptance of her limitations.

Kikuchi plays Kumiko with an earnestness and a bowed head that sees you on her side from the moment the journey begins. As eccentric and as bedraggled as she becomes, you never lose faith in the quest in among the beautifully cinematography which makes the most of the conditions around Kumiko - from vast shots of ice to blasts of cold ice wind blowing across the roads, it's almost like the chill jumps off the screen.

Quiet and quirky, Kumiko The Treasure Hunter is a hidden treasure within the programme worth seeking out.

NZIFF Review: New Zealand's Best 2014

NZIFF Review: New Zealand's Best 2014

115 entrants, 6 finalists, one big prize.

That's the push for the New Zealand's Best 2014 collection, whittled down to its final numbers by a judging panel including Andrew Adamson and Eleanor Catton.

And simply put, if this is the future of short film making, it's in incredibly rude health, judging by the six on show tonight.

First up, Eleven, a tale of peer pressure at school that really does demonstrate the cruelty of packs of girls, confirming the Mean Girl clique is still one of the most dangerous of all. Rooted in two achingly realistic performances by two young girls, its universal story of choices and the wrong ones we make at an early age is nicely put together and its final shot is as conflicting a moment of triumph which many of us will remember.

Next, UFO offers an alternative way out to a kid suffering with a life unwanted. The visual eye effects in this story at the outset are utterly incredible and would make James Cameron blush. But once the story gets its human feet, it takes a different path as tragedy hits. Its final shot is an awfully tragic reminder of the situations some of us find ourselves in.

School Night is an accomplished story in a short narrative. It casts Hayley Sproull as a young teacher caught on the cusp of condemning her own life to an early grave or reliving the heady days of her youth on the other side of the teaching world. Humour, regret and ginger crunch play a big part in this complete story which runs an impressive gamut over its run time - a rare feat and certainly one of the stand-outs of the night, given the full nature of the story it told.

Over the Moon is playing at Comic-Con and represents the work done by Auckland Media Design school. It's the story of a female astronaut who got to the moon 12 years before Neil and Buzz. However, when they show up in 69 (as a mix of jocks, hillbillies and US gun toting patriots) it becomes a classic battle of the sexes. The computer / live-action animation is slick and fun and certainly the slides at the end demonstrate how much work went into this. An impressive outing showing our technical forays continue to impress in this light and frothy fun bursts.

Cold Snap is a dark wee piece that hits strangely off kilter emotional moments which land uncomfortably but are hard to shake. A young possum trapping kid watches over his pregnant neighbour, only to find life doesn't go the way they'd expect. A beautifully shot piece aching with subtext and providing a shocking ending, this piece is still haunting me hours after I've seen it thanks to some strong imagery, disturbing ideas and a sense of foreboding.

And finally, Ross and Beth - a short about ageing in the rural sector. Interminably and inevitably sad, this underplayed piece knows how to strike each emotional moment for maximum effect. Cleverly timed moments towards the end reveal the true tenderness of life's bonds and with a strong eye for what matters, it certainly has the power to hit the heartstrings squarely where it counts.

The winner of the New Zealand's Best 2014 will be revealed on Auckland's closing night.