Sunday, August 10, 2008

Award Ceremony 37th Wellington Film Festival

I did a summary last year and as people keep asking which was the best film I'm doing it again. While Anne and I have only seen one film each that we classified as "must see" there are many films we would recommend.

Last year I noticed a theme of family problems. This year the theme was rain. I have never been so cold and wet, I almost wore my raincoat out and probably ended up smelling of oilskins. It wasn't until half way through the second week that I started to notice a theme of bullying, particularly in: Ben X, CJ7 and Let the Right One In. Since the festival finished I have noticed another theme of illegal immigration with: Lorna's Silence, It's a Free World and The Visitor.

Best Documentary
My pick is Taxi to the Dark Side and Anne's pick is Trouble Is My Business. While Waltz with Bashir was the most innovative with its use of animation.

Best Comedy
We enjoy comedies, the best of this year's bunch are:
My pick is In Bruges, but if you prefer a non-violent comedy then Welcome to the Sticks is a nose ahead of Empties.

Best Drama
The best dramas this festival include:
Ben X was the most original film, mixing PC gaming CGI with live action and tackling a tough issue in a fresh way.

Political Dramas
The best to worst of this sub-category:

  1. I Just Didn't Do It
  2. It's a Free World
  3. The Wave
Strangest Film
Well not really, rather the best of the Incredibly Strange section:
  • Cargo 200 - The Good, the Bad and Ugly back in the USSR
  • King of the Hill - Last one standing in the Spanish countryside
  • Teeth - Sex with a bite
  • Frontier(s) - French splatter, keep away from those creepy motels
No contest here. Teeth is destined to be come cult movie.

Best Short
Nominations (all NZ films):
  • Take 3 - "Can you be a bit more Asian?"
  • Noise Control - Rooster shooting at Raumati
  • Cargo - People trafficking in Eastern Europe
Winner: Noise Control

Most Disappointing
Loser: The Duchess of Langeais

Best Actor / Actress
Winner: Greg Timmermans
Runners Up: Scott Wills and Kierston Wareing

Best Eye Candy
Unrealistic or unjustified use of a sexy actress (think of typical US sitcom slobby husband with impossibly pretty wife).

  • Like the Americans, the French like to partner up average guys with gorgeous chicks - twice in Welcome to the Sticks
  • Boys would never leave primary school if their primary school teachers looked liked the three in CJ7
  • Even Harry's best friend can't believe the perfect Kay belongs with boring Harry in Married Life
  • Beautiful women visit beauty parlours but I'm still going to classify the repeat customer in Caramel as eye candy
(Other possibilities: Vexille, Lorna's Silence, King of the Hill, It's a Free World)

Winner: Rachel McAdams as Kay in Married Life

Best Energizer Bunny
Where a woman spends the whole film running around trying to achieve something (think Run Lola Run).

Winner: Kierston Wareing playing Angie in It's a Free World

Grossest Moment
  • Eye ball eating in Jar City.
  • There are times when you don't want to let the dog into your bedroom in Teeth.
  • Meat hooks, circular saws and steam rooms and other messy ways to die in Frontier(s).
  • Sharing a bed with too many dead bodies in Cargo 200.
Winner: final bedroom scene in Teeth

Special Mentions
  • Impeccable cross gender acting - Xu Jiao playing Dicky in CJ7
  • Best Bang for Buck - the remarkably restrained and lo-tech Teeth
  • Only arty film I saw - Ashes of Time Redux
  • The R16 kids film - Let the Right One In
  • Worst seats - Paramount H22 & H23
Coming Back
Each year I try to predict which films will come back on general release. Here are my guesses for this year.

No Brainers
In Bruges, Apron Strings, The Counterfeiters

Art House
Empties, Married Life, Welcome to the Sticks, Ben X, Lorna's Silence, The Visitor, The Wave

Might come back
Teeth, Be Kind Rewind, The Band's Visit

Would come back if I had my way
Let the Right One In, Noise Control, Waltz with Bashir, Terror's Advocate, Taxi to the Dark Side

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Waltz with Bashir

10-20 years ago documentaries were programs we watched on TV, but things changed and documentaries became gradually rarer on TV and people wrung their hands. But unpredicted documentaries reappeared, this time at the cinema, even occasionally at cinemas run by Hoyts and Reading. Not only have they reappeared but they have become more innovative and even been imitated as mockumentaries (Forgotten Silver, Dark Side of the Moon, Strictly Ballroom and Razzle Dazzle). Using reconstruction is relatively common in documentaries but Waltz with Bashir takes this further by using animation for its reconstructed scenes (including people's dreams and memories) and also for its interviews (Noise Control turns this approach into a mockumentary).

Director Ali Folman (who co-directed the X-files like comedy Saint Clara) served in the Israel Army during the Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon (at age 19) and had trouble remembering some parts of what happened. After being rung by a friend who was troubled by nightmares of being chased by 26 dogs, he hunts down former army colleagues in an effort to fill in the gaps. This film documents that process.

Some of the men have more accurate memories and some have less . More interesting than the filling in the gaps is the general impression one is left with of how the Israel Army conducted its operations and apparently how little the average Israeli soldier understood of where they were and what they were doing there. Also some of the surreal experiences, such as walking through the terminal at Beirut airport.

The film climaxes with the infamous massacre at the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camp. The film steers clear of the controversy over how many Palestinians were killed (700-3500) but comes down with a clear statement of who was responsible. Namely Israel's allies, the Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia, who, angry after the assassination of their leader Bashir Gemayel, were sent into the camps with the cooperation of the Israelis and did the killing, until stopped by an Israeli general (the film suggests that the order to stop came the next day, Wikipedia states that the massacre and body disposal took 2½ days). It exonerates the Israeli soldiers but implicates their commanders all the way up to Minister of Defence Arial Sharon, in knowing that the massacre was under way and doing nothing to stop it, while continuing to provide military support to the Phalangist militia during the massacre.

The angular style of animation, with bold, red/orange, colours and black shadows are very effective for a war movie. The moment at which the film breaks out of animation into "live action" footage was very well chosen.

Ian's rating 4/5
Anne's rating 4/5

Standard Operating Procedure

The infamous photos of prisoner abuse from Abu Ghraib is focus of this second documentary on America's "War on Terror" (the first was "Taxi to the Dark Side" and unfortunately I failed to see the third one "No End in Sight"). It is a mixture of reconstruction, the original photos (and videos) and "talking heads". The pictures are so well known they have lost their shock value, its interviewees that are the star attraction of this documentary. The interviewees include Lynndie England and others prosecuted for the things depicted in the photos, Janis Karpinski the general in charge of running Abu Ghraib and many other prisons in Iraq, a civilian contract interrogator who worked at Abu Ghraib and an investigator who used the photos to build the cases against those prosecuted. For some reason no Iraqis are interviewed.

This is not a hysterical Mike Moore style documentary but a smooth measured one which doesn't tell you what or how to think, but gives you various peoples views on a very limited series of events. The interviewees talk about serving at Abu Ghraib (those prosecuted repeatedly mention the frustration they felt at being shelled by insurgents). They talk about where the prisoners came from (often army patrols would detain all men they came across) and policy of not releasing them even if there was no reason to hold them and the prisons were becoming overcrowded. They talk about:
  • the interrogation techniques by various agencies,
  • the different classes of prisoner (including those who were being hidden from the Red Cross),
  • how they worked out how to treat the prisoners and apparent lack of supervision by officers
The general excuses by the military police (MPs) are not surprising:
  • we did what the interrogators wanted us to do,
  • we felt frustrated by the shelling,
  • the interrogators did far worse
The reason why the MPs weren't prosecuted for some activities, such as handcuffing in tortuously uncomfortable positions, is that those things were "Standard Operating Procedure".

While it was very interesting to hear directly from the people involved rather than from: politicians, top brass, PR / spin doctors and journalists; but ultimately there was nothing surprising here.

Ian's rating 3/5

Terror's Advocate

Before seeing this film I was vaguely aware of a French lawyer who defended people that no-one else would. So I was interested in seeing this film about Jacques Vergès. I was interested in why someone would do this and how would you mount a defence when the evidence is so damning and often the justice system trying the person is not seen as impartial.

The film starts in Algeria (well I think it does as I missed the first couple of minutes because I was caught up in a bus load of grey haired folk queuing to buy coffees, ice creams and tickets to go and see 'Sex in the City') with scenes from The Battle of Algiers. Jacques Vergès was one many French lawyers who arrived in Algiers for the terrorism trials as the French troops caught suspects. The right-wing lawyers came to work for the prosecution and the left-wing ones to work for the defence (Algerian lawyers were jailed by the French). Jacques Vergès defended Djamila Bouhired and his strategy differed from many of his fellow defence lawyers by challenging the court and its assumptions at every opportunity and accusing the court, prosecution or state of equivalent or worse evil than the accused are being prosecuted for. A strategy he calls the 'rupture defence'. Djamila was sentenced to be guillotined, but an international campaign for her release, inspired by Jacques Vergès's defence, got her (and others) reprieved.

Jacques Vergès was born in Thailand and brought up on the island of Réunion, son of a French diplomat and a Vietnamese mother. His background explains his strong anti-colonialist stance. He became enamoured of Djamila Bouhired, converted to Islam and eventually settled in Algeria, married her and they had 2 children. But in 1970 he abandoned them and disappeared, reappearing without explanation in Paris in 1978. Even now he refuses to say what he was doing during those years (I suspect he likes the sense of mystery).

He then moved on to the Palestinian cause, in particular defending associates of "Carlos the Jackel" including Magdalena Kopp, with whom he became infatuated. But most famously he defended Klaus Barbie; arguing in 'rupture defence' fashion that the French State was being inconsistent with who they were trying for crimes against humanity.

Jacques Vergès has had a busy life and I've only described a fraction of the film and judging from what I've read elsewhere since, the film only covers a fraction of his life. This anti-establishment figure who is also very at home in the luxuries of Paris life serves a useful purpose of shining a light on some of the hypocrisies of "The West" in general and France in particular as well as the more practical purpose of defending those who might not get an effective defence elsewhere.

Ian's rating 4/5

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The Savages

The Savages was billed as a black comedy, but I'd describe it more as a low-key drama with humour. The Savages of the title are a brother and sister (Wendy and Jon, played by Laura Linney and Philip Seymour-Hoffman) and their elderly father (Lenny) - a small but not close-knit family who are forced into reunion by the death of their Father's companion. As Lenny is suffering from dementia, he needs full-time care and its up to Wendy and Jon to organise it and the film tells the story of this process.

This may not sound that scintillating but its well done and not at all sentimental. The focus is probably more on the relationship between the siblings than on their relationship with their father - probably because the latter was neither warm nor close. And neither was the former, at least until their father needed help. Wendy and Jon are dysfunctional enough to make them easy to watch and not too hard to identify or sympathise with. What will become of our parents is a pretty universal potential problem and The Savages lets us think about that while suggesting that it could be a positive experience. The actors do a great job - I thought Laura Linney did neurotic rather too well for comfortable viewing in Jindabyne and Love Actually but she struck the right note of understandable human frailty here.

Anne's rating 3.5/5, Ian's rating 2.5/5

Monday, August 04, 2008

The Visitor

Walter, a lonely, stick-in-the-mud, college professor at a Connecticut university returns to his New York apartment after a long absence to find a couple of illegal immigrants in residence: Tarek, an outgoing Syrian drummer and his prickly Senegalese girl friend, Zainab. The easy way out would be to kick out the squatters and get on with his life, but Walter, who up to now has been taking the easy way out, allows compassion to override the sensible/easy decision.

The two parties share the apartment and maintain a polite distance until Walter takes an interest in Tarek's drumming. This precipitates a chain of events leading to Tarek's arrest and film moves into a different gear as everyone is now caught up in the meat grinder of American immigration detention centres. Tarek's mum is now pulled into the picture and relationships change again, with Walter now the middle between girlfriend, mother and detained son.

Tom McCarthy (the writer/director) uses the same technique as in the earlier Station Agent -- characters (including a loner) who wouldn't normally meet are thrown together by circumstances and find themselves out of their comfort zone. The Visitor has the same message as About a Boy, and I think does it more convincingly, namely life is more interesting (if less comfortable) if you get involved in other people's problems.

Ian's rating 3.5/5


Had your legs carameled lately?

This movie is set around a beauty parlour - in a very different Beirut to any ever shown in the news or typical documentary programs - at least any that I have seen, where normal people are pursuing their normal fleshy desires in apparently normal lives. And in this beauty parlour, fresh chewy caramel is wax!

Caramel is a warm depiction of the manageress of this parlour, her two assistants, the seamstress across the way, her dotty sister or aunt or mum or similar, a local traffic cop and a customer or two as they pursue and interact in their diverse and troubled love lives.

I don't seem to have a lot more to add about this, although I did enjoy it and would recommend it to mature people especially any who like arty movies. 3.5/5

Anne's rating 3/5
Ian's rating 3/5


Hai Ya! Only that doesnt sound right as the fighter this movie concerns is a woman - Aicha - a turkish teenager whose family lives in denmark - and the screams were different.

Fighter is a chapter in the life of Aicha during her senior year at high school, during which time she leaves the self-defence training she's done for a couple of years, and in defiance of her parents joins a competitive full-contact mixed (ie both genders) fighting team. A black eye makes her the object of suspicion in her family, and worse, her elder brother's fiance's family. Due to the inhuman strictures of islam, when the source of her injury becomes known, her brother's fiance's family breaks off the engagement, and the fallout begins.

The film successfully portrays the various members of these two turkish families, their emotions and their interractions all seemingly appropriate to the casts' various roles, their ages and genders.

While the film starts cleanly, it does however end with several loose ends, and it contains a number of episodes of semi-dreamscape (or nightmare) which is never given any basis, and doesnt mesh with the film as a whole.

Nonetheless I did quite enjoy it. Recommend it? It's Ok, - although thats a positive ok, rather than a negative one. 3/5

Ian's rating 3/5

Saturday, August 02, 2008


OK, you'd think even the French would know to run away from a remote motel run by crazy people. But perhaps if you have a suitcase full of someone else's money and you've been smoking pot, you are not so picky. This is opposite view of the north of France to Welcome to the Sticks. Here it is a scary place with abandoned cars, mines and a preoccupation with guns and butchery equipment.

Three men and a woman on the run from a Paris riot show up at a motel and once the creepy credentials of the management are established it becomes a case of working out who is going to survive (not really any surprise there), in what gruesome ways are the others going to die and what the total body count will be. There are two reasons for a policy of killing motel guests: firstly to rob them and the second one I've already hinted at. We have Texas Chainsaw Massacre situation with some silly left over Nazi in hiding trappings. There are plenty of messy deaths, in fact the rule seems to be never kill two people in the same way. There are also a number of stupid decisions leading to fatal results (horror film makers love their Darwin and it wouldn't do if the protagonists escaped 30 minutes into the film!).

There is also some good bits of dialogue before the killing starts. But the makers of Frontier(s) seem to have left behind any semblance of a sensible plot when the protagonists left Paris. But sensible plots are rarely important for makers and watchers of splatter movies.

Ian's rating 3/5

Friday, August 01, 2008

It's a Free World

To set the scene for It's a Free World we had an almost wordless NZ short (Cargo) shot in Eastern Europe about people trafficking.

The two things that stick in my mind from It's a Free World are the mesmerizing performance by Kierston Wareing as Angie, the sexy blonde energizer bunny (OK, a male point of view) who always has a come-back ("You know wot I mean?") and the layers of exploitation at the bottom end of the labour market.

We meet Angie on a trip to Poland working for a company recruiting Poles to come and work in the UK. Back in London she is laid off, and tired of being messed with she decides to start her own recruitment company with her more reluctant flatmate, Rose. Fitted out with a leather jacket and a big motorbike she specialises in casual (day labour) jobs for foreign workers. This allows the ultimate employer to get rid of workers on whim. The temptations of the dodgier end of the market beckon both from compassion for a sad case and the money to be made from people who dare not fight back because they don't have a work permit or worse shouldn't be in the country at all.

Ken Loach has painted a picture of a system where top level companies exploit sub-contractors who exploit recruitment companies who in turn exploit those who are desperate enough to work for them (especially those who are in a country without the right to work there). Anyone who is ethical at any level have to compete with those who are prepared to be unethical. It is a depressing picture of system which no one person is capable of fighting back against. On the "positive" side is Angie who lets nothing get her down.

Ian's rating 3.5/5