August 19, 2013

Vampire diaries (film festival, 2013)

Notes from the 2013 New Zealand International Film Festival, Christchurch division. It ran from August 1 to 18. There isn’t a dud on this list, but two came close. This is everything I saw. It was a good couple of weeks — thanks Film Festival and thanks Hoyts (Northlands over Riccarton every time, despite the bigger screen at the latter being ideal for the Hitchcocks). Isaac Theatre Royal next year?

The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012). Offering the surreal queasiness of an atrocity documentary in which no one has been formally judged or punished, this runs like a version of Shoah set in a moral void. The 159-minute director’s cut might be too much but also, as Oppenheimer has said of Shoah, just the tip of the iceberg.

Behind the Candelabra (Steven Soderbergh, 2013). Michael Douglas and Matt Damon bring great dignity and affectionate humour to an unreliable (but does it matter?) account of gothic showbiz at its most secretive and sordid.

The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola, 2013). Such careless people. Run this smart, pleasurable LA film in a double bill with Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby: “We had so many beautiful, gorgeous things …”

Camille Claudel 1915 (Bruno Dumont, 2013). Human pain and religious doubt are registered with a greater calm than we expect from Bruno Dumont. Meaning that this is the closest he has come to the spirit or tradition of Bresson. Of course it helps that the film contains exquisite acting from Juliette Binoche (pain, doubt, calm).

Dial M for Murder (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954). Whose key is it, anyway? Hitchcock’s only 3D film is less about shock effects than putting you in the front row of a stage play, or sometimes right in the middle. Despite the dense murder plot, the dominant emotion is the anguish of Grace Kelly’s adulteress, lit up by lurid red lights in the courtroom scene and saturating everything else. Hiding in plain sight in a framed group photo, the director sees all.

Dirty Wars (Richard Rowley, 2013). A highly personalised documentary in which Nation reporter Jeremy Scahill’s quest for information about US secret wars becomes a type of lament, mournfully scored by the Kronos Quartet and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. War without end.

The Human Scale (Andreas Dalsgaard, 2013). The modern city as a dire warning and, just occasionally, a utopian opportunity. Co-starring Christchurch, which is not quite either of these things.

North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959). A comic nightmare of mistaken identity and a chase through a succession of stylish 1950s interiors – offices, hotels, homes, trains and taxis, train stations – interrupted by perhaps the greatest exterior suspense sequence ever filmed.

Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2013). Sometimes it seems like the closing night film is intended to match or rhyme with the opening night film. So it was this year: could Jarmusch’s sweet-natured vampire muso romance with dashes of deadpan comedy be a hipster version of Behind the Candelabra? After a series of films with lonesome protagonists, this is also a reminder that the best Jarmusch films are buddy movies (Dead Man, Stranger Than Paradise, Coffee and Cigarettes). Weirdly poetic too: among other things, Jarmusch gives us beautiful tours of empty Detroit by night.

The Past (Asghar Farhadi, 2013). The new Ashgar Farhadi (A Separation) film is a relationship drama with a mystery at its core and so perfectly acted that despite the shape of the story, there was only one line I questioned.

The Pervert's Guide to Ideology (Sophie Fiennes, 2013). A crash course in Slavoj Zizek’s thought at its most provocative, paradoxical and entertaining, or a curated guide to dreams and ideology in cinema, from Triumph of the Will to Titanic. Also includes the funniest post-credits moment in the festival.

Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas, 2012). Personal and experimental, sure, but also generous and open – people say Tarkovsky was an influence (Mirror, anyway) but I was thinking Weerasethakul. I could have watched it for hours.

Sheen of Gold (Simon Ogston, 2013). It’s not until late in the piece that Flying Nun Records founder Roger Shepherd uses the word “outsiders” to describe Skeptics. Outsiders and also boffins. While a little too much is made of the unlikelihood of this truly great and still-remembered band coming from Palmerston North, there is a way in which it was important that they incubated away from the main currents of New Zealand music, running their own venue (a detail not covered in this film), building their own studio and painstakingly creating their own sound. That brand of fearless individualism and originality is the positive side of the Skeptics story, forever overshadowed by the sad side: the death from leukaemia, at just 26, of singer David D’ath and the immediate end of the band. Maybe every former fan will find his or her own themes in Ogston’s film. For me: youth viewed from middle age, the unexpected emotional content of music and how it plays in your memory, wordlessness and words as just sound, and whether the past should stay in the past. D’ath remains a mystery. Maybe that’s how it should be.

Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie, 2013). A gay sex beach in France is the entire world in Alain Guiraudie’s minimalist and surprising thriller.

To the Wonder (Terrence Malick, 2012). Still experimenting with cinema’s conventions so that they can express individual perspective and spiritual yearning, which is more typically the work of novels. But let down a little this time by the actors. The central two, anyway. More bison, less Ben.

Utu Redux (Geoff Murphy, 1983/2013). No one ever accused Geoff Murphy of being highbrow. Macho, energetic, unsubtle and mostly entertaining, Utu remade early New Zealand history in the rambunctious style of a 70s western. Everyone looked like they were having fun. Where did that go?

Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, 2013). Primer defeated me but the second film by the over-talented Shane Carruth (he acts, directs, writes, scores, shoots and even distributes) is admirably poetic and occasionally beautiful science fiction that won’t leave you entirely frustrated.