Monday, August 22, 2011


Incendies was one of the two films I was disappointed to miss during the Film Festival. Luckily I got to see it at the Brooklyn Penthouse four days later. In summary, if I had seen it during the festival I would have classed it as the best film of the festival.

Incendies is an adaptation of Wajdi Mouawad's play about twins (brother and sister) who have to unravel the mysteries of their dead mother's life. Often plays adapted into movies give away their origins by having a small cast, a limit number of locations, very little action and depend on dialogue to move the plot forward. But unlike many adaptations of plays this one hides its roots very well.

Twins Jeanne and Simon Marwan have opposing ideas on whether their mother was crazy. At the reading of her will Simon begins to think that his mother's Notary and long time employer, Jean Lebel, is equally crazy. Simon wants to embrace his North American upbringing and forget his Lebanese heritage (and associated baggage that created the crazy mother who brought him up). The will includes 3 odd requests from his mother. While Simon washes his hands of his mother, Jeanne takes on the mission set by their mother and flies to Lebanon.

Phrase book in hand Jeanne tries to track down mum's family. The film flashes back from time to time into their mother's recent and distant past. So we find out the back story slightly ahead of Jeanne. Jeanne and her mother, Nawal, look similar and so it pays to concentrate to verify whether the young woman is Jeanne or Nawal in flashback. That the young Nawal was involved in a war generally gives it away. Eventually Jean Lebel brings the reluctant Simon to join Jeanne in Lebanon to wrap up the mission and make sure they are both on hand when the final secret is revealed.

This is a mystery story that starts very slowly, but gradually the pace picks up as you (and the twins) get to know more of the back story and find out that they didn't know their mum at all. Eventually the mystery unfolds to a suitably dramatic climax. At the end you realise that the Quebecois Notary knew a lot more than he originally let on.

While Canada is mentioned a lot in the film, Lebanon is not mentioned once, but what other Arab country has a power struggle and civil war between Muslims and Christians? Where French is commonly spoken, there a powerful enemy to the south and Palestinian refugees? What is the taboo about mentioning Lebanon (or Israel for that matter)? Is the idea to make the war, the politics and the atrocities more abstract by not mentioning their location? But given that the Muslim versus Christian conflict is openly discussed, this is not an abstract civil war but clearly one where religion is used to identify factions. My guess is that they were trying to avoid upsetting some people, by in effect saying "you may think this is Lebanon and those planes are from Israel but we refuse to confirm or deny that". That said they don't flinch from the horrors of war and what passes for 'peace' in Lebanon.

Incendies is sometimes translated as Scorched.

Ian's rating 5/5

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Award Ceremony NZ International Film Festival 2011

This year we saw about 40 feature films and 8 shorts between us. I was disappointed at missing out on seeing Incendies and Sleeping Beauty, but Bill Gosden et al jam far too many films into 16 days. The Festival really needs to be stretched over four weeks. For me this year's Film Festival was the year of slacker movies, French films and thrillers.

I shall put my ten-cents worth in italics - Anne

Best Film
I can't decide on a best film and rank three films (all thrillers) as equally good:
  • The Man from Nowhere - Tarantino's flair for stylish violence meets Spielberg flair for pathos and humour.
  • Point Blank - Underground, overground, on the run in Paris.
  • Viva Riva! - Où est Riva? Everyone wants a piece of this man.

    I didn't see many thrillers (which was probably unfortunate, given Ian's ratings) but I think The Trip deserves best film with The First Grader as runner up.
Best Documentary
My pick is Tabloid, a mind-boggling documentary about an obsessive woman who goes the extra 5000 miles to get what she wants.

My award would go to Hot Coffee

Best Drama
My pick is Meek's Cutoff, a study of the dynamics in small group leadership and decision making.

For me The First Grader was way out in front.

Best Comedy
My pick is Let the Bullets Fly but if that is too violent for you, my next pick is Romantics Anonymous.
I loved Romantics Anonymous but The Trip has to be best comedy as well as best film.

Best Thriller
See the Best Film above.

French Film
In order from best to worst:
  1. Point Blank - Underground, overground, on the run in Paris.
  2. Romantics Anonymous - The emotionally challenged find ... each other.
  3. Nothing to Declare - Franco-Belgian customs.
  4. The Women on the 6th Floor - Finding out how the other half live.
  5. A Cat in Paris - Is Dino Zoé's cat or Nico's cat?
  6. Tomboy - Laure is Mikael today.
  7. Love Like Poison - Girl comes of age.
  8. Le Havre - An unrealistic film.

    I thought Romantics Anonymous and Nothing to Declare were equally good.

Slacker Movies
A slacker is someone who tries their best not to work. In slacker movies not much happens. The film that gave its name to the genre was Richard Linklater's 1991 film Slacker. But filmakers were making slacker movies before the term was coined. This year we saw an extra-ordinary number of these films (and I am too slack to pick the best, or worst):

Odds and ends


Best Actors
In order:
  1. Brendan Gleeson (Sgt Gerry Boyle) in The Guard
  2. Robert DeNiro (Travis Bickle) in Taxi Driver
  3. Agnes Kittelsen (Kaja) in Happy, Happy
  4. Hoji Fortuna (César) in Viva Riva!
  5. Manie Malone (Nora) in Viva Riva!
Benoit Poelvoorde deserves a special mention - he starred in both Nothing to Declare and Romantics Anonymous.

Best Child Actors
In order:
  1. Zoé Héran (Laure/Michaël) in Tomboy
  2. Kim Sae-ron (So-mi) in The Man from Nowhere
  3. Camille Gigot and Jean-Charles Deval (Bertrand and Olivier Joubert) in The Women on the 6th Floor

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Troll Hunter

One of the offerings in the incredibly strange section of the film festival programme, Troll Hunter is a Norwegian mockumentary. It claims to be footage shot by 3 now missing college students who stumble upon a real-life troll hunter, who is a government employee whose raison d'etre is to keep the Norwegian populace from finding out trolls really exist. At first the Troll Hunter is very hostile and tries to shake the plucky students off his trail but he warms to them and they end up accompanying him all over Norway and encountering many different types of Troll.

It should be no surprise that Troll Hunter is very silly but it was a bit disappointing that it wasn't in the least frightening. I enjoyed the trolls themselves which were impressively large and very noisy and I enjoyed the liberal use of troll "facts" all delivered absolutely straight - that they turn to stone in bright light, that they can smell the blood of Christians, that gestation takes years, and that a string of power pylons is in fact an electric fence to keep the trolls out. I especially liked the government official creating large artificial bear paw-prints in the forest to cover up troll activity. However, it did drag a bit at times, and didn't even come vaguely close to being believable.

Anne's rating 2.5/5 Ian's rating 3/5

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Viva Riva!

If you don't know any French then well before the end of Congolese thriller Viva Riva!, you'll figure out that "Où est Riva?" means "Where is Riva?"

Recently returned to petrol starved Kinshasa from Angola with a fist-full of US dollars and a truck load of petrol, Riva is a popular guy. He wants to go out and party while waiting for the petrol price to peak, so he can make a killing. But his big spending, womanising behaviour is attracting attention. Soon his dapper ex-boss, César, arrives from Angola asking "Où est Riva?" and local crime boss Azor is asking the same question. César is cool, calm and ruthless in his mission to recover his truck load of petrol whereas Azor is a more standard issue African "big man", who is angry and jealous that his seductive girlfriend Nora has been flirting with Riva.

The film divides its time almost equally between Riva, Nora and "The Commandant" a female army officer blackmailed by César to hunt down Riva. The two women are the most interesting characters. The sultry Nora is the shiniest thing in Kinshasa, but is little more than Azor's play thing, but that doesn't stop her going after what she wants with little more than her beauty. The Commandant is a more tricky character, it seems that her main weapons are not her military position or gun but her contacts around the city. She helps under the duress of blackmail which means no-one trusts her.

The finale is suitably climatic and more pessimistic than Hollywood would make it. The message delivered by Viva Riva! is a bleak one, that money is poison, and it contaminates everyone it touches.

Sub-Saharan African cities usually turn up in films as colourful backdrops for short sequences, so it is refreshing to see Kinshasa and its population being the centre of the action rather than the backdrop. Even the outsiders (César and his two henchmen) are only slightly foreign. Kinshasa is portrayed as a chaotic, dirty city, corrupted at all levels where the electricity is intermittent (but the cell phone system works OK). While the actors and the problem of petrol shortage are African, the style of film making is European.

As you might expect some American critics are concerned about the nudity and sex. More seriously some critics consider Viva Riva! to be an exploitation film, but I wonder if they comment equally on the exploitation that is common place in Hollywood films and TV.

Ian's rating 5/5

A Cat in Paris

I can't let a Film Festival go by without at least one animated movie. This year it is A Cat in Paris. There weren't many kids in the Saturday morning session, which is a pity as this film is very much at a kids level (though like all the best kids books there is also stuff at an adult level). The style of drawing is a cross between childish and Picasso, which could have been annoying but grew on me, especially the care taken over animating Dino the cat.

The story is simple; Dino has two homes. During the day he is Zoé's cat and at night he is Nico's cat. Zoé is the young daughter of Jeanne, the Paris Police Commissioner, whereas Nico is a successful cat burglar. Zoé hasn't talked since her dad was killed by crime boss Victor Costa. Nico and Dino clash with Costa and his gang drawing Zoé and her mother into a chase across the roofs of Paris. It all ends happily of course though some pesky kids might ask awkward questions about why Jeanne didn't arrest Nico.

Perhaps the kids went to the dubbed version so they wouldn't have to read the sub-titles - I guess younger kids could have trouble reading sub-titles fast enough.

Ian's rating 3/5 Anne's rating 3.5/5

The Guard

The 2011 International Film Festival seems to be the year of thrillers. The Guard is the Irish contribution to the genre this year. The twist is that it is also a comedy. Don Cheadle plays straight man and by-the-book FBI agent to Brendan Gleeson's irreverent, unorthodox Irish village cop. They end up working on the same international drug smuggling case after a dead gangster shows up in Irish Garda's village.

Brendan Gleeson delivers his lines so perfectly that, like the hapless FBI agent, the audience is left in doubt whether to take some of Sergeant Boyle's statements as his sincere opinion or not. Don Cheadle is very much second fiddle as this is Gleeson's film.

Nothing is taken seriously in this film (except by Don Cheadle's character). Not only easy targets like the Americans and British, but also the Irish themselves, the IRA and the Police are fair game. It comes with gangster philosophy that takes over where In Bruges left off. If you liked that film then you'll like this one too.

Ian's rating 4/5 Anne's rating 3.5/5


There are lots of topics worthy of a movie - father/son relationships, moral dilemmas, academic rivalry and Asperger's syndrome but few movies deal with all of these at once. Footnote does. It's hard to try and describe the plot succinctly, but I shall try.

Footnote centres around the two Professors Schkolnik - the Father (Eliezer) and Son (Uriel) who both work in the Talmudic Studies Department at the Hebrew University. Eliezer is a philologist whose life's work on translations of the Talmud was gazumped by just before publication by a Professor Grossman's rival publication. Eliezer exhibits signs of Asperger's syndrome - he has walked the same route to work every day for the last forty years, always works with industrial ear protection and has an impressive scrapbook collection and a permanent frown. Uriel is much more involved in teaching and networking and is a more sociable and communicative guy.

One day, Eliezer gets a phone call to say that he has been awarded the Israel Prize - remarkable not just because it's Israel's highest honour but because he has been nominated every year for the last twenty years and never won, and because Professor Grossman is the chairman of the judging committee.

Next, Uriel gets a phone call from Professor Grossman summonsing him to a secret meeting at the University. The meeting is the Israel Prize judging committee and they tell him he's there because he has been nominated for the Israel Prize and that the phone call to his father was a mistake. They want Uriel to be the one to break the news to his father, which is, of course, an appalling prospect This meeting is the comic centrepiece of the film - about 8 mostly elderly academics packed into a tiny office (the door can't be opened without someone getting up) discussing a highly emotive topic. Initially Uriel agrees to tell his Father but later persuades the committee to award this prize to his father anyway. Grossman agrees but only if Uriel writes the judges citation.

And therein lies the problem. Eliezer is a wordsmith, and he recognizes his son's style. He's already had his suspicions raised by the very long time the letter confirming his prize took to arrive. The great lengths that his son has gone to to preserve his dignity and his feelings are to no avail. And of course being inhibited in the communication department, they're never going to discuss it.

Footnote is, at times, almost excruciating to watch. It has elements of a detective story, like Name of the Rose, so you get quite involved. At times, its very funny. Given how much the people next to me were laughing, it's probably funnier if you are more familiar with Israel that I am. It certainly makes you reflect on the merits of trying to spare someone's feelings, whether they'd be grateful if they knew and whether they'd reciprocate if they were in the same position. And you can reflect on how relatives aren't always easy to love.

Anne's rating 3/5

Saturday, August 13, 2011


Going to Moving on Wednesday afternoon was an impulse move to help use up Ian's second 10 trip ticket. It featured a Korean Immigrant couple, Jung and Lee whose two Korean restaurants are in what's now the red zone in Central Christchurch. Unlike most of the television you've seen about victims of the Christchurch earthquake, the focus wasn't really on the impact that the earthquake had had, because the back story was so much more incredible.

Moving alternates between filming Jung and Lee talking and footage of the red zone post earthquake. The earthquake footage is sombre with falling leaves and bulldozers methodically demolishing buildings.

Jung and Lee had lived and worked in New Zealand prior to immigrating. A failed business venture in Korea meant that when they finally immigrated they had almost no money. And so they recount how by a colossal amount of hard work and determination and a timely loan from a fellow Korean immigrant they haul themselves away from the poverty line and into relative prosperity. And then the February earthquake struck, but they are not too downcast by this particular adversity because it doesn't seem all that dreadful compared to what they've been through.

You couldn't help but like Jung and Lee because they were so hard-working and had a complete lack of self pity. They admitted to being depressed by their circumstances early on. And there was the insight that it wasn't all bad working so had because there's not that much to do in New Zealand "Of course you can play golf, but not every day"

Moving wasn't really like watching a film, it was more like actually meeting some pretty interesting and likeable people, who told you an incredible amount about themselves in a short space of time. The only downside was that to listen to the same people talk for 90 minutes with only short interruptions for earthquake footage required rather more concentration than I'm used to.

Anne's rating 2.5/5

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within is the most successful film in Brazilian history (beating Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands made in 1976). It is a sequel to Elite Squad. Both the Elite Squad films are semi-fictional accounts of the Special Police Operations Battalion (BOPE) of the Military Police of Rio de Janeiro State. (Unlike NZ, Brazil has parallel Military and Civil Police forces both report to State Governors). The BOPE has a controversial reputation for shoot first policies and targeting of slum dwellers in Rio de Janeiro, and one has to wonder about a police unit with a skull on its badge.

While Elite Squad: The Enemy Within is a sequel, it is also self contained and I didn't feel I was missing anything, given that I hadn't seen the earlier film.

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within focuses on Lt. Colonel Roberto Nascimento the BOPE commander whose wife has left him and is now married to his arch enemy, left wing academic Diogo Fraga who heads a Human Rights organisation. These two men have opposite views on solving Rio's crime problems. Nascimmento's views are challenged as he gradually realises that the BOPE is being used by corrupt police and state politicians to replace the drug gangs in the slums with their own henchmen.

The action scenes are exciting and well handled and while there are a number of interesting characters (a great shock-jock TV presenter, various police inside and outside the BOPE, Nascimento's ex-wife, son and son's girlfriend) they don't get enough screen time, as the camera stays on Nascimento. In fact the major fault with the film in my mind is the excessive use of voice over narration to explain things and tell the story. I think the director could have let the action and dialogue tell the story, rather than rely on narration.

What may appeal to Brazilians is that the film clearly lays out the Catch-22 situation that authorities in Rio face as they try to police the city. There is no simple answer that works.

Ian's rating 3/5

Homegrown: Drama

Homegrown: Drama is a group of New Zealand short films (though 2 were made overseas).

I've ordered these from best to worst in my opinion.

3 Hours
Set in Baghdad, but filmed in Jordan (everyone's favourite stand-in for Iraq), using Iraqi refugees as actors, this was the best of the short films. It is based on real events when unidentified militants killed some children in a mixed Shia-Sunni neighbourhood sparking off a 3 hour gun battle between neighbours who blamed each other for the killings. The heat of the moment reactions and miss-identifications are realistically portrayed in a 14 minute film.

Darryn Exists
Unpublished novelists are subjects of fun. As are romance novelists. Penelope is both. Will she find love? Surreal in places, but no more than it should be.

In a drive across the Hauraki plains a carsick girl provokes a very Kiwi argument between her mother and a farmer's wife. There is a happy ending.

With My Little Eye
Mother, daughter and a man that might be her father go away for a weekend somewhere in Australia. Daughter averts a rape.

Elaine Rides Again
An odd little film about an anxious, religious mother who is concerned about her daughter and boyfriend. Cakes are used a punctuation.

A simple film about a young African refugee girl in suburban New Zealand trying to cope with memories and a loud boy.

No bicycle helmets were worn in the making of these films.


Terri the movie is named after its hero - Terri the teenage oddball, who is overweight and often wears pajamas to school. He's the object of low-level ridicule. He lives with his Uncle, who is an only marginally functional care-giver, who appears to be addicted to prescription drugs. Often its Terri who is doing the caregiving which means he's often late to school.

The other major character in the movie is the Assistant Principal at Terri's school. He's called Mr Fitzgerald and he keeps a kindly eye on the oddball and behaviourally-challenged pupils, partly because its his job, but partly because he was (is?) an oddball himself. These pupils get a weekly interview with Mr F, and so we get to know them and him quite well. Mr F is played by John C Reilly, who also starred in Cyrus

Terri befriends two other "problem" students - Chad, who pulls his own hair out and Heather, who almost got suspended for (arguably unwilling) participation in sexual activity in Home Economics class. Their interaction with each other and Mr F is funny and heartwarming but ultimately not that much happens.

Terri felt like the opening episode of a TV series - it did some exposition and we got to know and like everyone and now we're looking forward to the next episode and finding out what happens. Sadly, there is no more - its a film and not a TV series - and so despite great acting and great characters it was somewhat unsatisfying.

Anne's rating 2.5/5

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Love Like Poison

The Film Festival has a music section which could have included Love Like Poison. For much of the film it is not clear what Love Like Poison is about, but there is beautiful singing to enjoy while you are trying to figure it out. The church figures big in Anna's life so we get the congregation singing like a professional choir with and without the organ. We also get an altar boy wooing Anna with a love song.

First-time director Katell Quillévéré likes to make her audience work by constructing a film of short disconnected sequences, that we have to make sense of. Anna is home from boarding school and preparing for confirmation. Her father has left home for another woman, leaving her mother distraught. Her local friend is leaving the village, so she finds herself spending time with three very different people: an earnest young priest, her jazz record playing bedridden grandfather and the infatuated altar boy.

Once you get used to the disconnected sequences and the aimless lack of story telling you can relax and enjoy this coming-of-age film which doesn't shrink from an octogenarian sex drive and a mother's jealousy of her teenage daughter's body. There is also the bonus of nice music and rural France.

Ian's rating 3/5


At first glance Windfall is about the evils of wind farms. While all sorts of evils are pointed out (the noise, the flicker of shadows through house and car windows, ice being flung from the blades in winter, the killing of bats, the interference with TV transmission and the need to back them up with another generating source) the main problems dealt with in Windfall are man made.

There are no regulations on wind energy at either the federal level or the state level in New York state and it is left to each town to come up with their own regulations or not. On top of that most of the funding to build windfarms come from the subsidies and tax breaks from the state and federal governments. There is also a wierd accelerated depreciation system that allows a new owner to start depreciating the wind farm all over again. This encourages wind farms to be bought and sold at short intervals.

Windfall focuses on the small dairy farming town of Meredith in New York state (pop. 1500), as an example of how the process works in that part of America. The windfarm companies don't make public anouncements or talk to the town council, they approach individuals and get them to sign non-disclosure agreements before any deal is discussed. The individuals chosen are those with significan land holdings and either an important position in town or possible financial issues. So the town supervisor (equivalent of our mayor) and other on the town council and its planning board are among those approached. This approach stymies, or taints the creation of town regulations. The documentary also notes how the more affluent nearby towns aren't approached.

Given that many of those who oppose the windfarm are self confessed green retirees from New York city I began to wonder if this was a case of NIMBYism. But it seems like these were the ones that were suspicious enough to ask questions, and with the time to research wind turbines. Everyone in the town, regardless of side of the debate they were on, agreed that the wind farm debate was the most divisive thing to hit Meredith. The film climaxed with the election for town council.

Windfall is an object lesson in how corporations behave when governments give them handouts and tax breaks and how they behave in a regulation free environment. It is a strong argument why the Resource Management Act should not be weakened and illustrates how government handouts and tax breaks distort business decision making. Ultimately it is an argument against lopsided negotiations between individuals and corporations especially when those decisions affect neighbours.

Ian's rating 3/5

On 16 August 2011 Kathryn Ryan's Nine to Noon radio program (podcast available) covered a documentary called Gasland about the lack of regulation of the American natural gas industry and the process of fracking (hydraulic fracturing). In NZ there is fracking going on in Taranaki and Canterbury.

Point Blank

Be warned, Hollywood will remake Point Blank and people will tell you that you should have seen the original French version. The premise is simple enough: a wanted man is in hospital, people want him out before he can talk to the cops so they kidnap a trainee nurse's wife and blackmail him into smuggling the man out of hospital.

The presentation of the story is signalled by the opening scene of a wounded man running. Pain and speed are two of the main themes in this thriller. The gangsters, the police and our hero, Samuel, race through Paris day and night, above and below ground, mostly on foot. Almost all the surviving players are wounded by the end of the film. Point Blank is also characterised by sudden plot twists that come at you out of nowhere and throw your conceptions of what is happening out the window. It is an edge of your seat thriller that doesn't let up until the final scene.

Like most thrillers there are a couple of spots where implausible things happen but the pace of the film is so fast that you'll forget instantly what they were. It is nice to see the cops using nothing more sophisticated than cellphones and close-circuit TV. One thing Hollywood won't be able to reproduce is the gritty, unattractive looking French cops. As Hugo points out when Samuel asks:
Why can't I be the cop?

You're too good looking.
Samuel is the centre of this film. He is no superhero, though he can run and usually pick correctly who to trust. No mean feat given all those stairs and the double crossing going on.

Ian's rating 5/5

She Monkeys

Incisive direction and unwavering performances by a non-professional cast lend startling force and psychological exactness to this raw, sexually charged drama of adolescent power play and small-town emotional austerity.
In otherwords She Monkeys is one of those Swedish movies that give Scandinavian movies a bad name. Not in the way they did in the 1970s, but in the way that appeals more to professional film critics rather than audiences.

A more accurate description is:
Immersed in the world of competitive equestrian vaulting, introverted striver Emma and cool, self-assured Cassandra find themselves drawn to each other, first as friends, then as rivals. Meanwhile, Emma’s eight-year-old sister tests out her own understanding of attraction and power as she attempts to seduce her alarmed teenage babysitter.
Because Emma is a silent, brooding, expressionless teenager she becomes boring to watch after a while. Luckily for us, she attracts the attention of both the more photogenic and marginally more outgoing Cassandra and a good looking young policeman. While Emma's silent mind games are interesting they are not riveting. For me the film was saved by Emma's sulky little sister and her attempts to seduce her teenage cousin/babysitter.

To summarise, some parts of the film were interesting, though overall presentation was dull.

Ian's rating 2/5 Anne's rating 2/5

The Women on the 6th Floor

Set in a prosperous pre-TV and post-WW II Paris, where domestic servants are still the norm The Women on the 6th Floor is a gentle comedy. Jean-Luis loves the simple life. Running the investment business inherited from his father (long term investments only, no short term speculation), a hands-off appreciation of the female body, married to an ex-country girl, sons at boarding school and most importantly an egg boiled for exactly 3½ minutes for breakfast every day.

An argument with the maid over his breakfast egg causes her to resign and be replaced by Maria (Natalia Verbeke), a pretty Spanish maid. Through her he is gradually drawn into the lives of the maids living on the 6th floor of his apartment block. Lives he finds much more interesting than those of his wife, friends and work collegues. His ability to solve their issues due to his position in society plus the fact that he takes them seriously and treats them as equals endears them to him.

Neither Maria nor the quiet Jean-Luis hog the limelight, leaving plenty of space for the supporting cast to sparkle. In particular the obnoxious and stuck-up sons who have to make sense of the changing domestic situation when they return home each holidays.

Unltimately this is fairy tale comedy set in a Paris that probably never was and where the bad things come with generous silver linings.

Also known as Service Entrance.

Ian's rating 4/5

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


When you move to somewhere new there is an opportunity to remake your image, but it pays to be a prepubescent if you want to change your gender. When 10 year old tomboy Laure goes out to meet the neighbours she introduces herself as Mikael and the local kids all treat her as a boy.

Tomboy is a gentle middle class suburban drama about gender identity among kids. By keeping her hair short, wearing t-shirt, shorts and sneakers and by joining in with the other boys it is easy for androgynous Laure/Mikael to enjoy being a boy. Though there are a few tricky moments such as going swimming, and kissing a girl but Laure/Mikael is resourceful. But of course she realises that at the end of summer, school is a looming unsolved problem.

Not only is Laure's gender ambiguous but some aspects of the film are too. Was this the first time that Laure had pretended to be a boy? Was this the decision to call herself Mikael a spur of the moment one? Was she relieved to be found out so that she could get out of the tricky issue of school? Why did she want to be a boy in the first place (her little sister is very girly)? Is she jealous of her baby brother?

The opening scene and later comments by Laure's little sister and mother suggest to me that Laure has pretended to be a boy before, though other people see it differently. This is one of many things to think and argue about afterwards.

Of course this wouldn't be much of film unless it dealt with the secret coming out. This is where I think the film falls down. In my opinion I think Laure is too passive and accepting of being outed by her mother to the neighbourhood. I would have expected a determined and resourceful kid like Laure would have tried much harder to resist the outing. I know I would have tried a lot harder if it were me.

Apart from that one issue this is very well acted and well crafted enjoyable film. The film makers have kept the action simple to allow the kids to tell the story, and to avoid making judgements and preaching to us.

Ian's ratings 3.5/5

Nothing to Declare

Dany Boon follows Welcome to the Sticks with another comedy about prejudices arising from the minor difference between two communities. It is Christmas 1992 in a small border village on the eve of the end of border controls between France and Belgium. Customs officer Ruben Vandevoorde is horrified at the impending end of his raison d'être (to protect his beloved Kingdom of Belgium from the cheese munchers from the south).

Ruben (Benoît Poelvoorde - who was the inhibited chocolate factory owner in Romantics Anonymous) alternates between barely contained rage and apoplexy. The only calming influences are threats of hell by the parish priest and something more immediate by his boss. Meanwhile timid French customs officer Mathias Ducatel (Dany Boon) has been secretly dating Ruben's little sister for a year, but finds his proposal rebuffed unless he overcomes his fear of her volcanic brother and acknowledge their relationship publicly.

To combat drug trafficking the authorities on either side of the border have decreed that at a joint mobile customs unit be set up. Unexpectedly Ruben volunteers, as does Mathias. The main act of the film becomes a buddy movie, as this mis-matched pair chase smugglers around the countryside in a Renault 4.

Many of the jokes are based on the differing accents on either side of the border, which unfortunately get lost in the sub-titles. But the more cultural jokes and set piece humour translate much better. I personally rank Welcome to the Sticks as the better comedy than Nothing to Declare, though Anne ranks them equally good.

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

Monday, August 08, 2011

Love Story

Love Story is a movie about making a movie. New Zealand film maker Florian Habicht won an Arts Foundation Residency to New York in 2009/10 and while he was there he decided to make a movie. He organised a couple of friends to help shoot and edit it before he had decided what it was to be and ended up making it up as he went along. When he was short of ideas he asked random New Yorkers for advice and he also consulted routinely with his Father on Skype - filming all these encounters and making them part of the movie. These encounters add charm and novelty.

The central story stars Florian himself and he's a pretty amazing character. He bears more than a passing resemblance to a flamingo, being tall and thin with a penchant for wearing pink jeans. He has a kind of sheepish openness which is moderately endearing and certainly gets impressive results in terms of contributions from the people he meets. The encounter with the woman in the cab is one of the most incredible in terms of talking round an initially hostile participant.

Florian spots a striking woman (Masha) on the subway who is carrying a piece of cake and he decides she should star in his movie which will be a love story. So he tracks her down and persuades her to participate. She's as tall and thin as he is, and has a beautiful face. The way they look together is one of the many ways this film appeals visually.

Their love story takes place on the streets of New York and in Florian's tiny apartment. At different times both Florian and Masha appear in his gray and black stripy long johns which is pretty unforgettable, but not as unforgettable as Masha eating breakfast cereal out of the dent in Florian's sternum.

Love story is quirky, original and entertaining. The key to absolutely loving it would be to be completely entranced with Florian and to be convinced that Masha was completely entranced. At the other end of the scale, there's a distinct possibility you could find Florian and his happy-go-lucky approach totally irritating and so as a result you'd probably hate the movie.

I'm between the the two extremes. I can't help but admire someone who has the guts to put their personality, their physique and their film project out on such public display. It helps that he's not hopelessly arrogant. A minor gripe is that the love story itself seems a little contrived. But there's a big bouquet for it looking like it was a lot of fun.

Anne's rating 3.5/5

The Last Circus

Like hand puppets, clowns get a bad rep in films (e.g. Pennywise in It, the clown doll in Poltergeist, Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight) and The Last Circus is no exception.

The Last Circus starts during the Spanish Civil War with the Republicans/Loyalists bursting into a theatre during a performance for children to recruit men to defend Madrid from the Nationalists/Facists. Javier's father, a clown, joins the fight armed with a machete and is taken prisoner. After the war he and other PoWs are forced to work on the Valle de los Caídos (a memorial to the Civil War).

The story jumps forward to 1973 Javier is now a clown and joins a small circus. Naturally he falls for the beautiful Natalia, the acrobat and girlfriend of Sergio the head clown, a vicious tyrant, that everyone including the circus owner, is scared of. Natalia unexpectedly returns the affections of chubby, wimpy Javier, enjoying the risks of two-timing Sergio. This precipitates the wroth of Sergio on both of them. Finally the worm turns precipitating open warfare between the two clowns in which Franco himself becomes colateral damage. The final denouement takes place 150 metres up on the cross above the basilica in Valle de los Caídos.

If we were Spanish we might understand that Sergio and Javier represent Facist authoritarianism and democracy/humanitarianism respectively and Natalia is symbolic for Spain itself (the prize to be fought over and attracted to both).

Overall I'd class The Last Circus as somewhat surreal, very violent and overly dramatic rather than funny or horrific or a thriller.

Ian's rating 1.5/5

Sunday, August 07, 2011


Tabloid is an Errol Morris documentary about Joyce McKinney, who I'd never heard of.

Joyce grew up doing beauty pageants, culminating in winning Miss Wyoming. In 1977 she fell in love with Kirk Anderson, a Mormon, whose mother (and church) didn't approve of their relationship and shipped him off to the UK as a missionary. Joyce financed and masterminded an elaborate intervention which unravelled somewhat, but she and a friend Keith May managed to take Kirk from London to Devon where they had rented a cottage. Tying him to a bed she seduced/raped him. Returning to London with Kirk, she claimed they were going to get married. He reported to police that he had been abducted by Joyce and Keith and held against his will.

Joyce and Keith were arrested and charged. Joyce protested the charges telling the magistrate that Kirk had gone to Devon willingly and that the idea of a woman raping a man was "like trying to put a marshmallow in a parking meter". Joyce and Keith jumped bail and fled disguised as deaf people to the US via Canada. The British police didn't try to extradite them.

A story like this is ideal fodder for tabloid newspapers like the Express, Mirror, Sun and Daily Mail. The Express sent Peter Tory to the US to continue interviewing Joyce while the Mirror sent Kent Gavin to Los Angeles to check out her past. The Mirror discovered that Joyce had worked as a nude and fetish model and as a call girl specialising in fantasy dressing up.

Joyce comes across in interview as mostly eloquent and funny. Whereas the British tabloid journalists Peter Tory from the Express and Kent Gavin from the Mirror come across as pompous and up themselves. The most balanced view point comes from ex-Mormon missionary Troy Williams, who gives us an insiders view of it is like being a 19 year old Mormon boy. Unfortunately Keith May is dead and Kirk Anderson won't talk.

If the story stopped there it would seem pretty amazing but Errol Morris and Joyce McKinney haven't finished with us. Joyce is not a person to lead a boring life. After years of further harassment from journalists she got a large guard dog, which mauled her badly. Her life was saved by another pet dog, Booger.

Finally she attracts the tabloid media attention again by arranging to get a clone made of her beloved Booger in South Korea. Initially she used her second name and claimed she wasn't Joyce McKinney to vainly try to avoid the limelight.

Tabloid is amazing story, that is told with a style that emphasises that the British tabloid newspapers were an active part of the story. Errol Morris times all the twists and revelations in the story to keep you engaged through out. Joyce is obviously a very determined woman who gets obsessed by things. She has the gift of the gab, unafraid to use her beauty and equally unafraid to live larger than life. How many young women do you know who would hire 3 men, fly them half way around the world and kidnap their boyfriend?

I see that the Kirk Anderson fan club has been out in force on Flicks.

Ian's rating 4/5

Le Havre

Described by its Finnish director, Aki Kaurismäki, as an “unrealistic film”. Described by the the Film Festival programme as a comedy. Described elsewhere as a political movie. While there is lightest sprinkling of funny moments in Le Havre and illegal immigration is a political issue, I agree with the director.

Le Havre is a simple story of an old shoe-shine man who tries to save a refugee. It is told in an unrealistic style that is reminiscent of 1950s films in a way that is hard to put your finger on. For me the stand-out character is Inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin - the gardener in Conversations with my gardener) who drives a Renault 16 and channels Casablanca's Captain Renault (Claude Rains) - I doubt this is a coincidence. Unfortunately this one performance, the few odd-ball moments and Elina Salo's smile don't add up to the ticket price.

View trailer

Critics at Cannes liked this film, but in my opinion Romantics Anonymous is a far better French comedy.

Ian's rating 1/5 Anne's rating 2/5

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Sons of Perdition

If you're in need of a movie to make you grateful for your upbringing, Sons of Perdition is a good one. It features three teenage boys who are escapees from the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS) community in Colorado City. The FLDS are a sect that still practice polygamy so there's not really room for too many adult males. It treats women as chattels, undisciplined men as expendable and children as a free source of labour. Growing up in Colorado City means no TV, no pop music, no toys, not much education, an ingrained belief that you'll be going to hell if you leave the community but also lots and lots of brothers and sisters and a deep sense of family. And a much closer relationship with your mother than your father, because you don't have to share her with quite so many others.

Escapees tend to move to St George, a nearby city, where there is a remarkable degree of support from other past escapees. It seems if you've grown up with 13 siblings, you don't find putting three teenage boys in your spare bedroom too perturbing. Life doesn't run especially smoothly for our three featured boys - Sam, Bruce and Joe. They move house often, struggle with trying to enrol in high school without birth certificates, dabble in drink and drugs and succeed in liberating some of their siblings only to have them returned to Colorado City.

It's a really interesting story. Lack of education is a downside for the boys, but on the upside they have amazing practical skills and work ethic and they're really unattached to things. For people who have been told what to do all their lives, they're amazingly unresentful.I'm hopeful they'll go far. I am a bit disappointed in retrospect that the fact that expulsion is really common for boys didn't feature more and very little time was spent on why these particular boys left, whether there was any compulsion and whether they grew up expecting to leave. It was obvious that the families made much more effort to try and retrieve escaped daughters than they did sons.

Sons of Perdition wasn't quite as gripping as Hot Coffee but does expose you to an area of the US you may not have seen before and slice of society you're unlikely to have had anything to do with. It's worth a look.

Anne's rating 3/5

Project Nim

In 1973 Herbert Terrace of Columbia University started a scientific experiment to determine if a chimpanzee could be taught American Sign Language and hence disprove Noam Chomsky's hypothesis that only humans have the ability to communicate using language. He put a 2 week old chimpanzee with a human family and later with some student researchers to see if it could be taught American Sign Language. The chimp was named Nim Chimpsky.

The documentary Project Nim is not about whether the use of hand signs and groups of signs by chimpanzees constitutes a use of language or not. You'll have to read about that elsewhere. The focus is on how the baby chimp is brought up, and what effects he has on the people around him. Contemporary video footage and interviews with the family he was with in New York and the researchers leave no doubt that the experiment wasn't rigorous enough to produce much useful data and that Herbert Terrace took a very casual and ad hoc approach. What is more interesting about this phase is not his use of sign language but how a chimp uses its social skills in an alien human environment. Even as baby he began asserting his dominance over certain people. Later one research student demonstrated her understanding of this by responding to a bite from Nim by biting him back (on the ear). He never bit her again. He did bite other researchers often drawing blood and sometimes requiring stitches (chimpanzees have strong jaws and large canine teeth and humans have lots of body fat, looser skin and no protective fur).

Eventually the language experiment was abruptly terminated and he was returned to the Oklahoma primate research facility he was born in. This cage environment was a huge change from the up state New York mansion and 38 acre grounds where he lived during the sign language experiment. The bigger change was meeting other chimpanzees for the first time. Unfortunately the Oklahoma facility was running out of funding and the chimps were sold to a New York University pharmaceutical testing laboratory (in late 1970s to early 1980s many chimps were bred and used for AIDs and hepatitis research in America).

The second half of the film races though the next 20 odd years of Nim's life in large leaps. Nim's adult life was depressing and boring, including 8-10 years in solitary confinement in an equine animal sanctuary. Meanwhile the owner issued legal threats against one of Nim's keepers from Oklahoma who wanted to maintain contact and improve his social conditions. Eventually 2 other ex-medical testing chimps join Nim.

The animal cruelty message of the film is never in doubt, even though you could argue that focusing on an intelligent and social animal like a chimp, and specifically focusing on a named chimp that was initially treated well and then going from bad to worse plays strongly on the emotional side of the argument. Especially with half the film showing Nim when he is young and cute. But cinema is largely an emotional media. If you want reasoned argument about animal cruelty there is plenty of philosophy to read.

Herbert Terrace eventually decided that Nim wasn't using the hand signs in language like sequences and that his main motivation for signing was only a means of obtaining an outcome (mostly food and hugs) and not to express meanings, thoughts, or ideas. Though in my mind these two things are not as far apart as he is suggesting. For instance my writing of this blog is a means of obtaining an outcome. It is more a case that I am interested in a wider range of outcomes than Nim.

There are interesting insights into the more casual 1970s attitudes to the ethics around both research and student-teacher sex and the differences in the money that different universities have (or had) in America. The interviews in the film are remarkably candid.

Ian's rating 4/5 Anne's rating 2.5/5

The Trip

As its name implies, The Trip is a road trip movie, and it's done really, really well. I discovered after I started writing this blog that it's actually a condensed version of a 6 part BBC TV series of the same name - so I'm not sure if we or the TV audience got the best of the deal. British Comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon go on a gastronomic trip around Lancashire, Cumbria and Yorkshire, purportedly because Steve Coogan's girlfriend dropped out at short notice.

This premise provides layers and layers of entertainment potential. Firstly, the scenery is great, and since we went to most their destinations 20 years ago it had the pleasure of the revisiting old haunts. In particular, Malham Cove in Yorkshire is just as spectacular as I remember.

Secondly, it puts two very funny people together to amuse us. Lots of time is spent in idle banter, competitive impersonation of other actors, making puns and singing. It's just fun to be tagging along.

Thirdly, there's an interesting investigation of Rob and Steve's friendship, with a clever contrasting of their personal lives and personalities. Steve is portrayed as sexier but more troubled - the bigger woman magnet and the one with the broken marriage. Rob is portrayed as the devoted new dad with a loving wife waiting at home. Their relationship is portrayed as superficial and competitive, but as the film unfolds it seems that genuine affection and enjoyment of each other's company emerges. An insight into how much this is fact or fiction appears in a Guardian Article if you want to know more.

Fourthly, there's a background of gourmet food - I thought this was going to part of the comedy, a sort of piss-take on pretentiousness but this wasn't the case. Maybe the food was a bigger part of the TV series.

And fifthly, there's a kind of celebration of Englishness - epitomised, I thought, by Steve Coogan's parents - cups of tea, an enthusiastic dissertation on the best route from A to B and a dismissal of Steve as being not as funny as his siblings.

The Trip is laugh-out-loud funny and I think you should go.

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


Oliver, the subject of Submarine, is the only son of a depression-prone marine biologist and an office worker . He worries a lot about his parents relationship (particularly since one his mother's old flames has moved in to the house next door) and about the fact that he's still a virgin. When he's not mooching about in his bedroom he's walking on the beach or on industrial wasteland near home.

One of his school mates, Jordana, who is equally odd but more outgoing, initiates a relationship and then they mooch together. She burns the hair on his legs because it amuses her, and they sit in an old bath in the aforementioned industrial wasteland. They have sex. Eventually Oliver is brave enough to tell her about his fears for his parents relationship, and she confides that her mother has a brain tumour. They teeter towards a meaningful and supportive relationship but Oliver misses his chance to really secure Jordana's affections. She asked him to come with her to the hospital the day her mother has an operation and he doesn't, so she dumps him. Meanwhile, his parents sort their differences.

Submarine takes place in the winter in Wales and so the landscape is gloomy as well as the plot. Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor (Oliver's parents) are completely unbelievable caricatures - think George and Mildred with slightly higher IQ's. Oliver and Jordana are more believable but not very likeable. You could call Submarine a teenage love story or you could call it an oddball coming of age movie. For either of those genres to be successful its necessary to like or at least sympathise with the protagonists - and I didn't.

Anne's rating 1.5/5

Romantics Anonymous

At last! The planets align (or at least our film schedules do) and Ian and I manage to go to the same movie at the same time. Romantics Anonymous (think alcoholics anonymous for people with emotional and/or romantic issues which hinder them functioning well in society) is a love story between two such individuals, Angelique and Jean-Rene.

Angelique is generally nervous and has a tendency to faint when under scrutiny, particularly when she's praised. Jean-Rene is pathologically terrified of women and attempts to cover this up by being brusque. Angelique applies for a job at Jean-Rene's hand-made chocolate factory - she thinks its a chocolate-maker's job (since that's what she does) but in fact the job is for a sales rep. When you see how short the interview is, you can grasp how this misunderstanding gets perpetuated.

Anyhow, spurred on by his shrink, Jean-Rene asks Angelique out for dinner. Their date borders on the excruciating to watch, but is very funny. Undeterred by the disaster, Angelique continues to turn up to work trying to sell not-very-good chocolate to local businesses.

She brings the company back from the brink of financial ruin by suggesting and helping create a new line of chocolates and of course she and Jean-Rene manage to get it together eventually, united by a love of good chocolate and recognising in the other a soul as peculiar as their own. The fact that you're pretty sure there will be a happy ending doesn't detract at all from this film.

If you're looking for a charming, short (80 minutes), escapist and funny film to brighten your day, then Romantics anonymous is a good choice.

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

Space Battleship Yamato

Space Battleship Yamato is classic space opera with the usual disregard for physics and common sense. It is a live action / CGI remake of a 1970s Japanese anime series. Despite an unmilitary overdose of emotion in every scene (enough to make a samurai cringe) I found it completely uninvolving. If you channel your inner 9 or 10 year old you'll better suited to enjoying this space adventure story which follows Susumu Kodai as he re-enlists and learns the hard lessons of military command (learn why mummy and daddy do mean things sometimes).

If you are not going to engage with the story on that level intended you can still get your money's worth looking for the space battles and camaraderie of Star Wars, the bridge scenes from Star Trek and many other homages to sci-fi films and TV series. Contrast that with the grey, cramped interiors and craziness of making a spaceship that looks like a WW II battleship. Judging from audience reaction at the Paramount Bergman, most of the audience were engaging with the film on this level. Don't see this at home, it is best enjoyed on a big screen where you can fully appreciate this nostalgic spectacle.

The spaceship of the title bares more than a passing resemblance to the Japanese WWII battleship Yamato the largest battleship ever built and a legend in Japan for its final one way mission to try and protect Okinawa from the Americans.

Ian's rating 2.5/5

Friday, August 05, 2011

The Salt of Life

In Mid-August Lunch Gianni Di Gregorio looked at old women and their demands on the younger generation, as represented by eager-to-please middle aged Gianni (this writer-director doesn't have a lot of imagination with naming his characters).

This time he starts with a similar character (also played by himself and also called Gianni) and takes on the more challenging assignment of exploring a middle-aged man's relationship with women of all ages. Gianni complains to his friend that his is invisible to women. This is not strictly true. He has been forced into early retirement. His wife goes to work leaving him a to-do list. His daughter goes to university leaving him to feed her boyfriend. His cute neighbour is happy to have him walk her dog and do her shopping. While his mother rings him incessantly for various trivial "emergencies". He longs to be taken seriously as a male, rather than taken advantage of as an eager-to-please person. His attempts to make even slightly romantic contact with either younger women or those his own age fail ignominiously. It is not that the women swat him down, they just don't seem to notice that he is trying.

In British or American hands such a comic premise is likely to end up taking a crueller view of either men or women. But this Italian comedy is much gentler on both women and middle age male fantasies.

Ian's rating 4/5

The Innkeepers

The Innkeepers is almost worth watching for the super cute elfin Claire (Sara Paxton) who spends most of the movie creeping and running around an old hotel scaring herself to near hysteria by doing all the things that have the audience whispering "don't do that".

Claire and the cooler, geekier Luke are the sole staff on duty on the last weekend the hotel is open. They are so obsessed with ghost hunting that between them they manage to get off side with all the guests. Which also has the audience thinking: "don't do that".

This is an exceedingly slow burning slacker horror movie that waits until its final minutes to deliver its punch.

Ian's rating 2/5

Thursday, August 04, 2011

The Forgiveness of Blood

Glibly speaking, The Forgiveness of Blood is about home detention Albanian style. Nik's dad and uncle are in a long running feud with Sokol over a road that runs across land that was once in the family but since the end of communism is now owned by Sokol. In a society of gun and knife wielding, honour obsessed, hot heads such disputes can go from jokes and jibes at the pubs to dead bodies before you can say "Enver Halil Hoxha".

Once Sokol is dead, uncle Zif arrested by the police and dad has vanished, the real blood feud starts. The Sokol's extended family insist that teenage Nik and little brother Dren are valid targets and will be shot on sight if they leave the house. This means no more school for Nik and his brother and sisters. Older sister Rudina has to take over the family horse and cart bread delivery business, and a teacher comes back to give home tuition to the two primary school age kids. Nik's best friend from school visits and reminds him of a kid they used to know who had to stay inside for over 5 years until the feud his family was involved in was solved through mediation.

This concept of blood feud that everyone in the community including the school teachers take seriously is based on Albania's traditional law code called the Kanun (an oral tradition that was first written down in the 20th century). It is not part of Albanian law and was suppressed under communism but is being revived again in the north of the country. The Kanun is based around honour, respect, revenge and the family as a unit. As there is no central enforcement authority it can also be misused by large and powerful families to persecute smaller weaker ones. Luckily in the Kanun the family home is more or less sacrosanct (though theoretically so are women and children).

In a tradition where women and teenagers have no say in what happens and with their father gone, the decisions are in the hands of uncles and more distant male relatives who not living under the same curfew are happy to wait the feud out. By focusing on Nik and Rudina, otherwise normal cellphone wielding teenagers, the film shows how badly this tradition works in the 21st century and how both teenagers try to make the best of the situation. This film is a must see for those people in NZ who clamour for a system of justice that puts the victim's desire for revenge in the driving seat (and is an interesting look at life in a part of Europe few of us will ever go to).

Ian's rating 4/5

Wednesday, August 03, 2011


Weekend is a gay romance which takes place over the course of three days. Russell, a quiet and tidy swimming pool life guard meets Glen, who is off to the USA to study, in a gay bar. Despite Russell thinking Glen is out of his league, they end up having sex at Russell's flat.

In the morning, over cups of coffee in bed, Glen indulges his habit of interviewing the person he's just had sex with about how it went and what they were thinking, recording the conversation on a small dictaphone. He confesses to sharing the recordings with his female flatmate. And so Russell and Glen get to know each other better.

Watching this process is really the guts of the movie, and it's done with some charm. It turns out Russell likes to keep a record of sexual encounters too - he has a diary on his computer, and he reads it to Glen. They talk about coming out, about Russell being a foster child, about public displays of affection and their attitudes to goodbyes. There's drinking, drug taking and more sex, but, crucially, more talking. So, when 4 o'clock on Sunday afternoon arrives and Glen has to catch a train as the first stage of traveling to the USA, Russell achieves a personal breakthrough by publicly kissing him goodbye at the station and we feel a potentially great relationship has been formed.

Visually, I found the grainy appearance of this film quite annoying. Perhaps it was supposed to underline the slightly gritty nature of the environment - Russell's flat is in an ugly high rise block in Nottingham. Whatever its purpose, eventually I forgot about it. In contrast, the two leads were visually appealing and the dialogue was great. I don't think this is a film to set the world alight, but it was absorbing and well-acted. I liked how what started as a one-night stand blossomed into something more meaningful and fulfilling, even it was doomed by circumstance not to last.

Anne's rating 3/5.

Meek's Cutoff

Three families with their covered wagons follow their guide Stephen Meek on a route through Oregon that he told them would take two weeks. Five weeks later they are running short of food and even shorter of water and are having doubts about Mr Meek. Is he lost, did he never know the way, is he mad or is he out to kill settlers? More importantly do they continue to follow him south west or strike north to try and find the main trail (who knows how far north)?

Their dilemma is further complicated when a third option arises bringing with it some hope but even more unknowns. Meek's Cutoff is a very slow paced film and it is a long time before the dialogue starts. But that pacing bring with it the rising tension of the life or death situation the three families are in, once past the point of no return. The camera generally stays with the three wives as they become aware of the problem the men have tried to keep to themselves. Eventually a power struggle emerges and Meek himself finally admits that power has already transferred to the new leader of the expedition.

The film is a study of the dynamics in small group leadership and decision making. How many of the apparent choices really exist when faced with a decision? How and why does power transfer itself from one person to another?

The camera work is very nice as is the attention to detail of trail life so you won't be impatient with the slow pace of the film. This is one of those films that will have you thinking and talking after you leave the cinema and might end up on some feminist top 10 list.

The real Stephen Meek led 200 wagons and 1000 people into the Oregon Desert in 1845.

Ian's rating 4/5

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

The Man from Nowhere

I've generally had a good experiences with South Korean films, and The Man from Nowhere is no exception. While there is a tendency towards the violent end of the spectrum in South Korean cinema, there is also focus on the human element of story telling.

In The Man from Nowhere the core of the story is the relationship between a lonely little girl and a reclusive young pawnbroker living next door. So-mi is bullied at school and ignored by her stripper, drug addict solo mother. She is much cuter than but just as stubborn as Marcus in About a Boy. As in that film the relationship between the lonely child and the reluctant man ends up involving him in the complications of the mother's life. And those complications involve a drug deal gone wrong and two warring gangs, with the police closing in.

In many violent thrillers the baddies mostly exist to charge towards the protagonist and die in a flailing of arms and legs and fountains of blood. Lee Jeong-beom (who wrote and directed The Man from Nowhere) has made the effort to give his baddies personalities, albeit relatively thin ones; with varying attitudes to our hero ranging from fear to contempt to admiration. But of course it is the audience attitude to the hero that matters. It is difficult to get the audience on side when the hero is a silent loner, hence the crucial importance of So-mi.

Overall this is a film with Quentin Tarantino's flair for violence and Steven Spielberg flair for pathos, with a sprinkling of humour. If you want to see a crime thriller done well and packing an emotional punch this should be on your must-see list. That said there is a lot of violence and the crimes go beyond drug dealing and kidnapping.

Ian's rating 5/5

Happy Happy

Happy Happy is billed as a comdey in the Film Festival program, but this is stretching the definition of comedy even by Scandinavian standards. There are some blackly comic scenes to smile over as you recover from cringing at other scenes. Elisabeth, Sigve and their adopted son Noa arrive from urban Denmark to rent the house next door to Kaja, Eirik and son Theodor out in the middle of snowy rural Norway. Chirpy, annoyingly talkative, overly outgoing Kaja has an inferiority complex to end all inferiority complexes, and is obviously mismatched to her silent, gruff, hunting fishing husband. The new couple seem urban sophisticated and perfect in her eyes.

But nothing is right in either relationship and Kaja's need to reach out to people cause skeletons to come out of closets in both households. In the background the boys are also forcing by circumstances into an unhealthy unequal relationship. All six characters misbehave, to remind you that no-one is perfect, regardless of how it looks on the surface. It is also arguable that through hurting each other they facilitated resolving issues as far as such issues can be resolved.

This film reminded me of last years Cyrus, both films dealing with serious relationship issues in a darkly funny way.

Ian's rating 3/5

Let the Bullets Fly

You know you are not in Kansas now when someone on horseback stops a train by throwing a couple of axes which embed thmeselves into the rails. From the outrageous opening scene Let the Bullets Fly attempts to out do itself in an orgy of stunts and plot twists. Set in anarchic 1920's China when a lack of strong central government left opportunities for local governers to enrich themselves, and when such governerships could be bought and sold. The story follows 3 protagonists on the wrong side of the almost non-existant law as they strive to be top dog of a small town.

Unlike many Chinese and Hong Kong movies I've seen the plot is completely coherent and no expense has been spared on the special effects, sets and the expected over the top fight scenes. You might go to this film for the fight scenes but it is the plot which twists and turns for 132 minutes which will keep you entertained.

One or two of the more sadisticly violent scenes seemed unnecessary to me. But overall Let the Bullets Fly is an amazing entertaining Chinese shaggy dog story.

Ian's rating 4/5

13 Assassins

Are 13 Assassins, six assassins too many?

The more characters one has in a film the greater the difficulty in giving enough screen time to each character to make them memorable, especially when they are part of a gang and hence not differentiated by role. One way to deal with this problem is to make the various characters look different (a tall one, a short one, a fat one etc). This is one area where 13 Assassins falls down, despite the long build-up the most memorable characters are the 13th assassin and Naritsugu (the bad guy).

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The plot of this Japanese samurai movie is simply summed up as "Naritsugu must die". From the start we are left in no doubt that Matsudaira Naritsugu is a blood thirsty sadistic bastard with no redeeming qualities. The wrinkle is that not only is he the half brother of the Shogun, and hence above the law, but he is about to be appointed senior advisor to his brother. A secret assassination attempt is arranged to give the government plausible deniability of the murder. Twelve samurai, unemployed or bored with peace, set out from Edo (Tokyo) to ambush Naritsugu. An ad hoc bunch of samurai choosing to fight against the odds for little or no reward, does this sound like another more famous Japanese film?

The attention to detail, the classy camera work, the slow build up, the tension, the flashes of humour and finally the climactic battle. The 13 Assassins matches the Seven Samurai and in terms of colour photography betters it. There is also social commentary (the lead assassin shocks his old classmate by claiming to be fighting for the the people rather than his lord) and a really bad baddie. But it lacks novelty and in the end it is just a very well made samurai movie. If you haven't seen the Seven Samurai then see this film but only fanatics need to see both.

Ian's rating 3/5

Monday, August 01, 2011

Page One: Inside the New York Times

Page One: Inside the New York Times initially bills itself as the 'daily fight to get on A1' (the front page). But if you were expecting a no holds barred dirty office fight between journalists and editors you'd be disappointed.

The New York Times likes to think of itself as America's premier newspaper. For years it has been aided and abetted by other American newspapers and TV networks taking their daily cue for what is news by what is printed in the New York Times. In the internet age this continues with online news publishers and aggregators (such as Huffington Post, Druge Report and Google News), bloggers and tweeters taking their cues, republishing and feeding off, commenting on and linking to NYT content. But there are two big trends that are killing newspapers around the world. Fewer and fewer advertisers interested in running adverts in newspapers. While simultaneously readers are moving to the internet where they expect to read stuff for free.

Websites like craigslist and Ebay have killed the classified adverts section. Companies large and small now have their own websites and feel less need to put adverts into newspapers. The concept that everything on the internet is free and the difficult in setting up internet pay-per-view websites has reinforced this idea.

Page One: Inside the New York Times is a documentary that gets inside the NYT and sees how it is trying to cope with this new reality. It concentrates on the Media Desk, the department where journalists report on the media itself, and in particular on David Carr, a most unlikely senior reporter.

Some of the older journalists at the Times think that the NYT is different and what has happened to other papers couldn't happen here. But ultimately there are two main views of the future. The optomistic view is that there is a technology driven change here and that traditional paper newspapers are on the way out, and that new internet media will take over the written media space. Then there is the pessimistic view that most (or all) the internet news media is parasitic. It can only exist because it feeds off traditional media. During a TV debate one NYT journalist illustrates this with two pictures of the front page of the news aggregator news site. One unaltered and the other with all the connect that came from traditional media removed. The fear is that if the internet kills the newspaper industry (and the TV news networks too) then they will have killed the golden goose that they depend on.

Ultimately the questions are:
  • Is journalism independent of the technology and hence can it survive in the internet age, if so how will it be funded?
  • Is journalism necessary to modern democracy and if so does it need protection of some sort to survive in a post-newspaper world? Will the death of journalism mean the death of democracy? (No one asked the next question: with the death of journalism will anyone notice the death of democracy?)

There was a diversion into a red herring argument that what is hurting the NYT is a couple of scandals. First the Jayson Blair plagiarism and fabrication scandal, and secondly Judith Miller's articles that lead to the US invasion of Iraq through a feedback circle. She quoted the US government as saying that Iraq was making or attempting to make WMDs and was in turn quoted by Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld using the NYT as authority. She later wrote that WMDs had been found in Iraq. As damaging as these scandals are they are not the real reason why newspapers are on the way out.

Technically this is a well crafted documentary with articulate talking heads that covers the subject well, leaving the audience in no doubt of the trends for newspapers while resisting the temptation to predict the future.

It is difficult to beat The Onion's headline on the subject.

Ian's rating 3/5