Sunday, August 19, 2012

5 Broken Cameras

5 Broken Cameras is Emad Burnat's personal account of how his village tries to defend its land between 2005 and 2010. There are two attacks on the land owned by the people of Bil’in. The Israeli army takes a strip of land to build the West Bank barrier (and its associated road) that cuts off villagers off from most of their land. The Jewish settlers from the adjacent settlement of Modi'in Illit, burn and bulldoze olive trees and build more houses and apartments on some of the cut off land.

In 2005 Bil’in petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court (via an Israeli human rights lawyer). On September 4, 2007, the Court ordered the government to change the route of the wall near Bil'in. The next day the same court legalized the parts of Modi'in Illit being built on Bil'in land (more background here).

5 Broken Cameras is not about the court cases taking place across the border but with the situation on the ground. It is about Emad Burnat filming his family trying to farm on the other side of the barrier. It is about the villagers led by two of his friends demonstrating against the barrier in a well known weekly protest. Protesting against settlers putting portable buildings to claim the land and the villagers putting up building of their own in a counter point. Emad also films the soldiers as they come to the village both day and night to arrest men and boys.

The Israeli soldiers don't like being filmed and constantly tell Emad to stop, even when he is in his own house. The settlers are even more outraged at being filmed and far less restrained in their reactions. During the 5 years that Emad films what is going on in and around Bil'in 5 of his cameras are smashed or shot, this coupled with time in jail and time in hospital means that there are gaps in the narrative but that doesn't detract from the impact of the film. The broken cameras punctuate the film and divide it into chapters.

4 years after Bil'in won in the court, the Israeli army started to dismantle the barrier and built a new wall closer to Modi'in Illit and further from Bil'in but still on their land.

5 Broken Cameras is filmed and narrated by Emad Burnat with editing and further direction by Guy Davidi and funding and post production from various other countries.

If you think that the Jewish-Palestinian conflict is too complicated to understand or that the conflict is all about Jews defending themselves from Palestinian aggression then this is a must see film. If you are already aware of the theft of Palestinian land by Israel, then this more personal view of the situation, filmed and narrated by a local villager (rather than an outsider) may appeal to you.

Ian's rating 3.5/5

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Ambassador

If there is a fine line between serious documentary and comedy then Mads Brügger hasn't found it. Rather he weaves back and forth from wry observation and buffoonary to jaw dropping serious documentary revelations. The Ambassador takes investigative journalism to new territory in film making as Mads takes up the post of Liberia's diplomatic representative in the Central African Republic.

The fact that a Dane is representing one African country in an other, fails to raise an eyebrow in Bengui, is not due to extreme politeness in African culture. Rather it is due to the quaint custom of selling diplomatic posts. The access to government officials coupled with the diplomatic protection that an ambassador or consul has, makes a diplomatic post and passport a valuable commodity to an truly entrepreneurial businessman (or woman). This is especially true in countries where government ministers and officials control the access to valuable commodities such as diamonds, or where you might want to carry small items or large amounts of cash through customs without being searched. Small or poor countries can't afford to send diplomats every other country in the world and in some countries government salaries don't completely meet the lifestyle requirements of government officials. In these cases someone turning up at the right place with the correct amount of cash can purchase a diplomatic passport and accreditation from that country to some other country. Assuming these unpaid diplomats can turn this capital outlay and the access opportunities into a successful business deal or two, it is a win-win situation.

So many of these diplomatic posts and passports are available and so many people want them that there are agencies who act as middlemen and deal with the messy details - for a fee. The Ambassador starts with Mads Brügger approaching two such agencies in search of a suitable passport and credentials. The head of the first of these agencies (a paranoid Brit) bans cellphones and cameras from his meeting with Mads, introducing us to the secret camera work and recording that makes up much of this film. Luckily much of this secret footage is remarkably good and adds to the verisimilitude of the film.

Once armed with a diplomatic passport a slightly foppish "Mr Cortzen" turns up in Bengui as the Honorary Consul for Liberia. Where this "Cinderella of diplomacy" makes contacts with the government, fellow diplomats and other local characters. Some of these are happy to advise or assist the new diplomat in the "do"s and "don't"s of operating in the Central African Republic. This brings up the secondary theme of this film. The interference that foreign governments and foreign companies have over third world countries. The Central African Republic imports a lot of low tech goods that could be manufactured locally, people who have tried to set up factories to manufacture such goods for the local market hit a series of obstacles that eventually bankrupt them. The people that Mads talks to claim these problems are due to outside interference by companies who currently make money out of the status quo. On a larger scale France is accused of interfering at a level varying from not passing on information that might protect the country from military invasion to fomenting coups and murdering people who cross them. This is a subject that is big enough to justify its own separate documentary.

Mads attempts at getting involved in the diamond trade cost him a lot of money in "envelopes of happiness" and illustrate the layers upon layers of people involved in this murky industry. He uses performative journalism, in his own words "instead of disguising as a fly on the wall observing neutrally, I dress for my part and interact as an agent provocateur". This technique gets him a lot closer to his subjects and captures them in their natural environment, in way that traditional journalism almost certainly couldn't.

Ian's rating 5/5

An interview with Mads Brügger.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Law in These Parts

The most boring documentary format is the studio interview. To keep audience attention the subject being discussed or the people being interviewed must be extraordinarily interesting.

The Law in These Parts opens with a old man unfolding and holding up a poster declaring martial law in Hebrew and Arabic. He tells us this is one of hundreds printed for the IDF years before the Six Day War, in preparation for the possibility that Israel would occupy all or part of an Arab country.

The men interviewed in The Law in These Parts are retired military judges. Some are candid, others are evasive1, some flip-flop. Mostly their answers, while partisan, are refreshingly free of the trite and unconvincing statements that all too often used to justify Israeli actions. The interviews are interleaved to cover the development of Israeli military jurisdiction over Palestinians chronologically from 1967 to 20112.

The film starts with an explanation of what Law means in a military context, its purpose, how it differs from other law, how Israeli military courts function, how military laws are made and changed (at the whim of the Regional Commander, though there are hints that higher command and politicians also get involved) and how the civilian population finds out what the laws are (sometimes by notices and loudspeaker but more often by being arrested by soldiers). The judges pointed out that military law must match International Law, in particular the Geneva Convention. Though they had trouble with justifying blowing up houses and other actions they said were designed dissuading resistance to with the ban on collective punishment and reprisals in the 4th Geneva Convention. The contradiction between the Jewish settlements and Article 49 was also touched on. The film skims over the expansion of the Law to cover everything from putting up posers and throwing stones to cosmetics and accountants, and moves onto some of the landmark cases and their consequences.

One aspect of military occupation that Israelis are quite proud of (and the judges being interviewed were no exception) is that the Israeli Supreme Court functions as the court of appeal for populations under Israeli military rule. It is not clearly explained how and why this came about, but consequences of this form one of the main threads of the documentary. One of the cases appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court in 1979 was of some land confiscated by the IDF for military purposes and handed over to settlers the same day. When the Supreme Court later said that the confiscation was illegal the Minister of Agriculture held a meeting to decide how to get around the ruling. One of the interviewees proudly described how he told the Minister of an Ottoman Law that allowed the Ottoman government to confiscate land more than a cock's crow from a village and that hadn't been farmed for at least 3 years3. The Minister, Ariel Sharon, arranged for a helicopter survey of the West Bank looking for such land.

In cases where the Supreme Court overrules the IDF, unlike its normal swift and decisive manner, can take years to begin to rectify the situation. The film also pointed out that overruling of military decisions by the Supreme Court is rare, normally the Supreme Court finds in favour of the military providing a judicial seal of approval for the IDF's actions.

The aspect of the documentary troubled the interviewees the most and one that they were pressed hardest on was their knowledge of and how they dealt with the torture victims and information gained via torture. Most (but not all) of the judges initially claimed they had no knowledge that torture was taking place. When asked how they dealt with Palestinians detainees who said they had been tortured or looked beaten up, the general response was that if there was a conflict between something a Palestinian said and what the GSS (aka Shin Bet or Shabak) said; they always believed the GSS because Palestinians have a reason to lie!

The judges were also asked how the military law applied to Israeli civilians when they are in the Occupied Territories. The answer is that military law somehow does not apply to Israeli civilians nor to the land they are on when they are in the Occupied Territories. On the other hand (and this was something that troubled some of the judges) it seems that Israeli police and civilian law also does not apply to the activities of Israeli civilians acting against Palestinians - a useful legal black hole for "enterprising" Jewish settlers to exploit4.

The final thing that some of the interviewees mentioned was that they thought that military law is really only a temporary solution. On the other hand they did not offer an alternative - certainly not withdrawing back to Israel.

Despite its unpromising format and unspecific title, The Law in These Parts is a gripping and informative documentary. A must see for anyone interested in law in the wild west.

Ian's rating 5/5

1. The oldest and most evasive of the interviewees was 86 year old Justice Meir Shamgar Brig.-Gen. (ret) President of the Israel Supreme Court 1983-95 (first appointed to the court in 1975), served in the IDF from 1948 and was previously a member of the Zionist terror organisation Irgun. In 1944 the British send him to a detention camp in Eritrea, where he studied law by a correspondence course with the University of London.

2. It does not cover military rule in the Golan Heights and Sinai after 1967 or in parts of Israel from 1948-1960s.

3. This sounds similar to an Ottoman law used inside Israel to confiscate land from Israeli Arabs.

4. Actually if Israeli civilians cooperate with or defend Palestinians they are liable to be manhandled, shot or arrested (briefly) by the IDF, whereas Israeli civilians acting against Palestinians will be protected by and assisted by the IDF.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

What's in a Name

It's a sad state of affairs when the film festival programme contains only one French comedy - maybe films about policemen are more hip. Maybe nothing else was as funny. Whatever the reason, What's in a Name ticks all the boxes for a great french farce and is definitely one to watch, particularly if you need to have your mind removed from something more tedious.

Claude, Vincent and Pierre

Forty-somethings Elisabeth and Pierre are having a dinner party at their apartment. The guests are Elisabeth's brother Vincent, his pregnant girlfriend Anna, and Claude, a childhood friend of Elisabeth and Vincent. Someone asks what Vincent and Anna are planning to name their baby, and Vincent says the baby will be called Adolphe. This provokes outbursts from everyone present and soon people are saying things they may regret and revealing secrets.Everyone knows everyone very well, and after the dinner party they will know each other slightly better.

The script is witty and fast-paced. There's lots of gesturing and pulling faces. Everyone gets a hard time and no-one's idiosyncrasies are left unexposed . There's not as much physical comedy as some french films but the coffee table does collapse. Your mind is not left to wander and you will laugh. Often. And then you'll pause to ponder the frailty of human relationships.

Anne's rating: 4.5/5 Ian's rating: 5/5 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Sapphires

Ah ha! The Australians CAN make a cheerful movie involving aboriginal people. Unlike Samson and Delilah and Rabbit Proof Fence and The Tracker, The Sapphires oozes positivity and charm. Sadly, unlike the three films just mentioned, it's really not very good.

The story is fine - back in 1969, three aboriginal sisters and their cousin who all have amazing voices, go off to Vietnam to sing for the entertainment of the American troops. One of them falls in love with their Irish manager and they come home and live happily ever after. As you might expect, the music in this film is great and it's great to look at.

The problem is that the acting is a bit wooden and the script isn't great. There was no point where I forgot I was watching a film. The family home outside Cummeragunga looked like someone had parked a very small wooden house next to some gum trees and dressed up some actors and arranged them on the verandah and in the yard - there was no sense of them actually living there. The romance between Dave and Gail seems contrived and without spark. And any sense of the sisters overcoming prejudice or breaking new ground for the aboriginal people is almost entirely missing. It was quite fun to watch, but  I feel this movie didn't fulfill its potential

Anne's rating 2/5

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Sleepless Night

As I have pointed out before, policemen in French films are often not good looking, and viewers can't use clothing and looks to distinguish between plain clothes cops and criminals. Sleepless Nights exploits this ambiguity in an early plot twist. Though given the cops are bent then the ambiguity may be warranted!

It is not a good morning for Vincent, starting with a wound, a lippy son and a less than sympathetic ex-wife, things have only begun to go bad. At work a couple of investigators from internal affairs are sniffing around when he gets a phone call from a Corsican drug dealer, to blackmail him.

Sleepless Nights (or Nuit Blanche) crams a lot of action into a 24 hour period and its long frenetic chase scene in a massive and busy night club to redeem a hostage, reminds me of last year's French thriller Point Blank. Writer / director Frédéric Jardin manages to steer our sympathies away from law and order and get us backing Vincent. He even manages to give Vincent his own Bond girl style moment of relief in the middle of the chase.

It is the third in this year's trilogy of bad cop movies (along side Rampart and Killer Joe). It is the winner in terms of high adrenaline action / chase scenes and the one where the audience can identify most closely with the cop. It is also the most orthodox / traditional in its structure. So I'm not surprised that Warner Bros has acquired the rights to remake it. I doubt if they can do better than the original.

Sleepless Night is also a film that can double as an advert for how much punishment iPhones can take!

Ian's rating 4/5


World War Two and its aftermath feature in a lot of films, and just when you think that this is a subject you've watched thoroughly enough already, a film with a new slant comes along.

Lore is such a film. It's set in 1945 in Germany and its main character is Lore (short for Hannelore) who is a girl of fourteen or so. Her father is in the SS and from the contents of his bookshelves it would seem that he was deeply involved in the Third Reich's regime of oppression on racial and genetic grounds. We meet our characters in the family home in Berlin where her Father is burning the contents of the bookshelves and plotting to escape and her Mother is packing and organising the children (5 in all) to leave town.

Mother and the children evacuate to an isolated farmhouse in the forest and then  Mother sets off for civilisation to give herself up (we don't know what crimes she is guilty of - perhaps being complicit in those committed by her husband in the course of his job), leaving Lore in charge of her four siblings, the youngest of whom is only a baby and suggesting they make their way to Hamburg to be with their Grandmother, telling the younger children she will meet them there.

The film is the story of the journey. Most adults in 2012 would struggle  taking three children and a baby across Germany  mostly on foot, let alone in a newly occupied country with food shortages and a population on the move. That a teenager achieved it is nothing short of a miracle. She did have some help in the form of a guy a little older than herself, who is masquerading as a Jewish camp survivor. There's the beginnings of a romance there, but their circumstances and her prejudice prevent it flowering.

It's a bleak story and not one to see if you need cheering up. Watching it did mean I contemplated the suffering the war caused to Aryan Germans, particularly their children,  in a way I haven't done previously. Very well acted, it definitely tugs at the heartstrings.

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

Monday, August 13, 2012

Shadow Dancer

In 1993 Collette is on a mission to plant a bomb for the IRA on the London Underground, meanwhile negotiations that will lead to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 are underway. Collette is snatched by MI5 and offered the choice between returning home to her young son (and her IRA pals) as an informer, or a trial and long prison sentence in England and away from her son. Her new handler, Mac, reassures her that MI5 has never lost an informer in Northern Ireland.

Returning home she discovers that she is expected to come up with useful information every week. Meanwhile Mac's boss insists on using the first useful tip immediately and consequently the IRA suspects that someone in her family is an informant for the British. Mac also smells a rat and to protect his new informant has to use his spy skills against his employer to figure out what's going on behind his back.

The film exposes the dark underbelly of spy work; the testy and interdependent relationship between an informer (who is betraying family and friends and runs the risk of death if discovered) and the handler who's job it is to reassure, gain the confidence of and persuade the informer to keep on betraying. Its a relationship that must surely be soul destroying for both parties involved.

This is not a James Bond style spy thriller, while there are action scenes, the centre of the film is the relationships between Collette and her family and IRA associates, between Collette and Mac and between Mac and others in MI5. The is no glamour in Shadow Dancer (apart from Collette's red coat), just the general grimness of life in Belfast, and the potential for things to go fatally wrong.

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


The Incredibly Strange section of the Film Festival programme is usually a bit hit and miss, and this year it seems to be more miss than hit - the other things we've seen being The Cabin in the Woods and Sightseers. I bravely went to Klown by myself, inspired the "blisteringly funny" description. My hopes were further raised immediately beforehand by the review on the TV 3 website, which said "I have not laughed so hard while watching a movie in a very long time. In fact, a friend and I managed to sustain the giggles right through the closing credits and were still guffawing out onto the street afterwards, sides aching, tears rolling down our cheeks".

Klown has a reasonably amusing premise. Two men (Casper and Frank), who appear to be in committed relationships with very nice women, go on a "boys own" canoe and camping trip without their girlfriends. At the last minute, Frank decides he will take his girlfriend's 11 year old nephew Bo along because he wants to demonstrate his potential as a good father. Since the purpose of the trip is debauchery, you can see this isn't going to turn out well, and Casper is justifiably upset.

Anyhow, off they go and Casper tries hard to have sex as often as possible. The trio gets thrown out of a camping ground, capsize their canoe, eat a lot of pancakes, visit a music festival and a brothel and smoke pot. Casper and Frank give Bo a hard time because he has a small penis. And....that's about it. Some of Klown is funny, and some (like Mr Bean), is painful and some is in poor taste. One of the things that annoyed me is that, like lots of American comedy, one of the basic premises of the movie is that men are more stupid than women and I think that this is lazy, and inaccurate. Klown seemed like "Tool Time" or "Malcolm in the Middle" with rude bits. It's always hard to say why something does or doesn't seem funny, but I'll go on record saying I don't find men doing stupid things while women pick up the pieces intrinsically funny. Perhaps I like my comedy to be equal opportunity. I laughed a bit, but not hard and not often. Disappointing.

Anne's rating 1/5


Shira practices her speech
Policeman is a film that is clearly divided into 3 acts. Act I focuses on an Israeli police anti-terrorism squad. A group of fit young macho men who like being out in the sun, socialise together and have an eye for beautiful girls. It focuses particularly on Yaron who loves his mother, is devoted to his pregnant wife and has a soft spot for babies. Yaron gets the job of convincing Ariel (who is on sick leave with a brain tumour) that he should take the rap for an incident some time ago when the squad killed some Palestinian civilians. Not that the squad really believes the case will actually come to court.

Act II switches the focus to 4 idealistic left wing activists: Shira (a pretty rich girl) and 3 middle class guys. This group seem held together by undeclared sexual attractions to each other. They are planning a kidnapping in order to read their political grievances on TV. This is a short flowery speech complaining about state asset sales and the widening income gap between rich and poor.

Act III is a billionaire's wedding reception where the activists take 3 billionaires hostage and it become immediately obvious they haven't thought through how the next step is going to play out. During the tense wait Shira berates the bride: "You are not a woman, but a bride. You have no face - you've got make up. You have no breasts, but perfectly fitted bra. You have no body - you have this dress. And this dress is exactly in the size of your personality". In the end it is all over in 2 seconds. As the rest of the police squad leave, Yaron watches Shira die and the credits roll.

Judging from the whispers around me at the end, I was not the only person who was wondering if I had missed something. Thinking about it afterwards I wondered if the film was really about small group dynamics rather than the events, the characters or the politics.

Reviews I have read fall into two camps: those who are confused by the film and those who hail it as a great Israeli political film (e.g. "one of the most provocative films to come out of Israel in recent years; Waltz with Bashir and Lebanon are, by comparison, tame and equivocating" Richard Porton, Cinéaste). If group dynamics is subject of the film then surely it is sociological rather than political, but perhaps I am splitting hairs.

Ian's rating 1/5

Sunday, August 12, 2012

In 1988, under international pressure to legitimize his rule over Chile, Augusto Pinochet held a referendum. Vote "Si" for 8 more years of Pinochet or vote "No" to have a presidential election. Each side would get 15 minutes air time on TV late each night for 27 nights (though all the media was under government control anyway, so the No campaign see it as 15 minutes for them and 23 hours and 45 minutes for the government).

The Chilean film No starts with someone from the No campaign trying to recruit advertising 'creative' René to work on the campaign. But René isn't interested, but reluctantly agrees to give his opinion on the material they have so far. After 15 years of dictatorship, Pinochet built up a lot of resentment in those opposed to him (those who were not among the thousands who were killed). This shows in the TV campaign the anti-Pinochet coalition have prepared. In René's opinion with such boring, factual, backward looking and depressing material the No campaign is guaranteed to loose. Challenged to do better he recycles ideas from a recent soft drink advertising campaign and a logo with a rainbow in it. As René is drawn into the No campaign, his boss is recruited by the other side. As the effectiveness of René's approach becomes apparent to the government, the campaign turns nasty both on screen and off screen.

No is an effective vehicle for portraying both the nastiness of the Pinochet's government and the month leading up to the referendum. It is a referendum which many anti-Pinochet people expect the government to rig and so the ending takes people by surprise.

No was filmed using rebuilt Sony U-matic video cameras to give it an authentic early 1980s feel, this means it doesn't look good on a big cinema screen (and for some reason the Embassy had the curtains adjusted wrong, cutting off the first and last letters of some of the sub-titles). There is almost no time given over to character development so even by the end we hardly know René better than the minor characters.

In the final scene René and his boss are working on another advertising campaign using familiar ideas and I wondered if the message was "political campaigning is just advertising".

Ian's rating 2.5/5, Anne's rating 2/5

Song of the Kauri

 The title of this movie references the musical instruments (guitars, ukeleles and violins) that Laurie Williams makes from kauri and other native timbers at his workshop in Northland. Laurie is only one of many interesting characters you meet in the film which discusses many things to do with kauri - the history, the uses, the politics, the stewardship and the economics. We meet enthusiasts, forestry experts, musicians, authors, millers and farmers. We witness a kauri tree being felled and we see historical footage of kauri felling and milling.

Laurie Williams and Kauri

I really loved Song of the Kauri but then I really love kauri trees. (Any kind of big tree, in fact. Part of me mourns for the great forests of New Zealand that were felled long before I was born. I know it would be less convenient getting to Johnsonville if there was still a rimu forest in the Ngauranga Gorge but it would be a whole lot more scenic). I can accept that big trees may not be your cup of tea, and making musical instruments is certainly a niche interest but the economics and practicalities of growing kauri rather than pine trees might be of more general interest to the average New Zealander. I found the discussion about looking after native forest ( particularly the large trees) really interesting, as was the discussion about growing oak trees in England and France. It seems the English chopped all their oak trees down with abandon whereas the French started rationing the felling of their trees six hundred years ago which means they still have oak forests and the supply of material for wine barrels is ensured. One of the people in the film suggested that the New Zealand Wine industry could try using kauri for wine barrels if we had a ready supply, and another suggested that marginal land on New Zealand dairy farms could be used to plant native trees for commercial purposes.

Song of the Kauri held my attention for its entirety which is always a good thing, and it provided plenty of interesting stuff to think about afterwards.

I shall leave you with some quotes relevant to the topic, some of which featured in the film

"The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now"  Chinese Proverb

"Someone's sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago" Warren Buffett

(which would seem to be a variant on a Greek Proverb - " A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in" ).

"The destruction of the Kauri Forest will go down as one of the great crimes of the Anglo Saxon peoples" Sir David Hutchins.

"In the matter of forests, the Anglo Saxon  is the last man in the world that ought to be let alone" Sir John Cracroft Wilson

My rating 4/5,

How Far is Heaven?

How Far is Heaven is a slice-of-life documentary set in the tiny settlement of Jerusalem on the Whanganui river. Jerusalem is rather more well-known than you'd expect for an isolated town of its size, partly because James K Baxter (one of New Zealand's more famous poets) lived on a commune there and partly because it has a very beautiful catholic church which is cared for by the Sisters of Compassion who have been running a mission there since 1892.

The life that the film follows is that of Sister Margaret Mary who is the newest arrival and the youngest of the three sisters that live at Jerusalem. Following in the educational footsteps of Mission founder Suzanne Aubert, Margaret Mary has a close association with the local primary school and teaches religious education and music as a volunteer. The sisters seem a trusted and well-liked part of the community. We get to know some of children quite well,  too - they seem remarkably happy to talk on camera, and seem frank and natural. The contrast between ordered existence of the articulate Sister Margaret Mary and the somewhat unregulated lives of her charges is well-drawn.

I was left slightly dissatisfied with How Far is Heaven. Once you've watched the Last Dogs of Winter you could send some money to help the dogs' upkeep, or you could resolve to go to Churchill if you got the opportunity. If you were inspired by Song of the Kauri you could go and buy a musical instrument made from native timber, or look into planting some trees, but How Far is Heaven doesn't seem aimed to inspire you to do much - it just causes the viewer to admire the landscape of the Whanganui River and  to wonder whether elderly pakeha nuns are achieving anything useful in an isolated maori community. It's not that there's anything wrong with either of those things but it just seems wishy-washy. The other two films were self-funded whereas How Far is Heaven was made with Film Commission funding and this allowed the makers to potter about in Jerusalem for a whole year, and I'm not sure the subject matter justified the time spent.

My rating 2.5/5

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Monsieur Lazhar

A primary school teacher hangs herself in despair. An unemployed man turns up uninvited as a replacement teacher. A principal under pressure turns a blind eye to the lack of paperwork. An asylum seeker tries to convince skeptical Canadian authorities of his fear of persecution. A kid acts out as a form of absolution. Desperate Remedies would work as a title for this film (except that someone else got there first).

Monsieur Lazhar opens with a primary school trying to cope with the sudden death of a teacher and Bachir Lazhar's appearance at the Principal's door with an offer she can't refuse. Where else could she get a relieving / replacement teacher at such short notice? From then on the film slowly peels back the layers of mystery that make up Bachir Lazhar. In parallel Monsieur Lazhar gently pokes fun at current trends in parenting and teaching, and also at some of the conclusions about children that adults jump to.

Overall Monsieur Lazhar is a feel good movie about an uptight middle age Algerian with his heart in the right place and starring the cutest kids in Quebec, who educate their unusual teacher as much as he educates them.
Simon and Alice
Ian's rating 4/5

This film was preceded by a much darker and harder to watch short film called Lambs; about Kiwi kids in a Once were Warriors situation. It is set in Cannons Creek, was awarded the $5000 Madman entertainment jury prize.

The Angel's Share

One of The Angel's Share's claims to fame is that it's directed by Ken Loach, who is famous for gritty films with kitchen sink realism. There's a chance that grit and realism might not be what you're looking for in your evening's entertainment and so this might put you off and I do hope this isn't the case. Like Looking for Eric, (a film we both loved, also directed by Ken Loach),  The Angel's Share mixes grit with humour and charm and a slightly fanciful feel-good story.

Our story is set in Glasgow and features Robbie, a slight but good-looking troubled youth with a pregnant girlfriend who narrowly avoids going to jail at the opening of the film.He leads a somewhat desperate existence, plagued by beatings from some life-long rivals and his girlfriend's relatives who are less than keen on  the relationship. He's sentenced to community service and so makes the acquaintance of Harry the supervisor and Rhino, Albert and Mo, who are similarly troubled youths.

Harry gives Robbie a ride to the hospital when his son is born and then takes him home for a celebratory whisky afterwards. Robbie's appreciation of the subtleties of whisky inspire Harry to take him (and in fact the rest of the community service crew) to a  distillery and later to a formal whisky tasting. Robbie comes up with a cunning plan to steal some of a very rare single malt from an isolated distillery and  sell it to solve his financial woes. He conscripts Rhino, Albert and Mo to help him and the next part of the film is reminiscent of a Famous Five adventure with Scottish accents - it only lacks Timmy the dog. This is not a criticism - this is all rollicking good fun although the jolly life-affirming stuff is tempered with doses of violence.

You'll have to concentrate to make sure you catch all the dialogue which is delivered with broad Scottish accents and you'll have to be comfortable with plenty of four letter words but it's all worthwhile and the happy ending is most satisfactory

Anne's rating 4.5/5 Ian's rating 4/5

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Killer Joe

Film noir is a cinematic term used primarily to describe stylish Hollywood crime dramas, particularly those that emphasize cynical attitudes and sexual motivations. Killer Joe might not quite merit stylish (unless you find Texas trailer trash stylish), but it certainly qualifies on both cynical attitude and sexual motivations. Killer Joe also qualifies in terms of its plot about people forced into desperate situations, making decisions that put them onto the wrong side of the law and trying to find their own way out of the predicament.

Chis Smith is the sort of guy who is in debt to a drug dealer, has had his stash stolen and wakes everyone in the middle of the night to tell them about his plan to hire a hit man to kill his mother for the insurance money. Things go down hill from there as Chris enlists Ansel, his reluctant but equally dim witted father to help him. You would think a cop that is smart enough to moonlight as a hit man would run a mile once he caught a sniff of this penniless, incompetent duo; but Joe Cooper catches sight of Chris's apparently naive sister Dotty and his lust for the cute teenager sucks him into the Smith family intrigues. In complete contrast to Dotty's sexual innocence is Sharla, Chris and Dotty's stepmother, who is the voice of reason in this dysfunctional family but has her own secrets and schemes.

Juno Temple as Dotty
I seem to be watching a lot of films featuring bad cops lately, last week's Rampart, last year's Coup de torchon, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, Point Blank and 2010's The Killer Inside Me. Joe Cooper tops the list as the most blatantly and melodramatically evil cop. His immaculate clothes and patronising smarter-than-thou attitude belies the fact that he is as venal and feral as the trailer trash he is caught up with. Any misplaced admiration you may have had for him is undercut by the climatic fried chicken dinner scene, which includes violence and humiliation that polarised the critics. It is not the most violent scene in the film but it has a visceral shock value that is enhanced because it doesn't particularly seem necessary to the plot.

Despite its low rent locations Killer Joe is stylishly filmed, especially the night scenes. Matthew McConaughey (who also played the district attorney in last week's Bernie) plays Joe Cooper with oily charm and Juno Temple is disturbing as the enigmatic woman-child Dotty.

Ian's rating 4/5

Killer Joe was preceded by New Zealand short film Hitch Hike, about a young man hitch hiking the roads around Huntly looking for his birth mother - where there only seems to be one car.

Monday, August 06, 2012


Bernie is an incredible tale, which actually took place in small-town Texas in the 1990's, Bernie Tiede was the assistant funeral director in Carthage, Texas and, by all accounts was a particularly nice guy- considerate, generous and friendly. He was good at his job and good with people, especially with older women. He was a good singer and very involved with the commuunity.  In his thirties he became the live-in companion of a rich widow in her late seventies named, Marjorie Nugent,  who was almost universally described by Carthage residents as "mean".

Marjorie and Bernie travelled the world in considerable style and Majorie gave Bernie power ofattorney over her affairs. Power of attorney was the upside, the downside was that Majorie was difficult, demanding and kept Bernie on a very short leash. One day in 1996 Bernie shot Majorie, presumably out of frustration, and put her body in the deep freeze, and he wasn't found out for nine whole months. Once he was found out, very few of the residents of Carthage thought he'd actually done it, and if they did think he'd done it they didn't think he should go to jail.

Bernie the movie is cleverly structured.The re-enactment of the story is interspersed with talking heads interviews with real-life Carthage residents and with Matthew McConaughey playing the District Attorney Danny Buck. These interviews give a kind of gossipy flavour to an already incredible and gossip-worthy story which helps build the atmosphere of the film. Jack Black's great acting as Bernie helps build it further.

On one level, this is an amazing story which was well worth telling in its own right. On another level there is a whole raft of philosophical and moral questions to occupy your mind further. Is murder ok if you're provoked? Should really nice guys go to jail? If God can forgive murderers, should we do that too? Was Bernie a scheming gold-digger or did he just have a really bad day?

Once you've watched Bernie you'll feel like you need to pick your jaw up off the floor but you'll also feel like you got to know a bunch of Texans and that you've thought about some things you don't usually think about. Well worth the effort.

Anne's rating:: 4/5. Ian's Rating: 5/5

Winter Nomads

Quick now, what does transhumance mean? If you don't know you almost certainly didn't watch Winter Nomads. This documentary follows two shepherds, three donkeys, four or five dogs and 800 sheep across Switzerland one winter. The older shepherd, Pascal, is passing on his knowledge to newbie, Carole. Both are strong willed; he is a verbally abusive teacher (perhaps more used to training dogs than people) and she is a recalcitrant pupil. The animals too are interesting characters. From the puppy who is as cute as advertised in the Film Festival program. A sheep, later named Marilyn, who decided she wanted to become a bellwether, so Carol bought it a bell and collar and taught it to lead. The donkeys who hate mud and become concerned when one of their number falls down.

Transhumance is a tradition that seems very out of place in a modern industrial country. They herd the sheep with one person feeding treats (bread) to the bellwethers at the front and the other near the back of the flock to watch for stragglers. Their tent and other gear are carried on the donkeys. Despite this being an old tradition it seems to have only recently passed into Swiss hands. When Pascal learnt the trade 32 years ago all the shepherds were Italian and the shepherd who taught him spoke no French. Now Pascal fears with increasing urbanisation moving sheep on foot across country will become too difficult and the tradition will die with his generation.

This gentle documentary doesn't try to preach. While Carol is in a supermarket buying food for xmas dinner we hear an advert for NZ lamb, but no comment is made. On another night some friends arrive out of the dark and the four of them eat fondue cooked over a camp fire by moonlight and discuss why Carol decided to try this way of life so different from her previous office job.

Ian's rating 3.5/5

Anne thinks I should have given a definition of transhumance, but I'll let Wikipedia do it for me.

Sunday, August 05, 2012


Anyone who has watched an episode of Top Gear will know about the evils of caravans, and of course Mr Bean is an object lesson in the dangers of the socially awkward. Dial down the social awkwardness to slightly lower than Ricky Gervais in The Office and you have Tina and Chris. Chris owns the caravan and is keen to get some alone time with his new girlfriend and see the sights of Yorkshire. Tina is excited to have a boyfriend and grasp at the chance to escape from her suffocating mother. Chris is not only interested in trams and innovative caravans, he has a low tolerance for loutish behaviour and snobbery. Tina becomes suspicious of the coincidental deaths that follow them and keen to impress her boyfriend joins in the killing spree. Such one-upmanship is not healthy for the bystanders and eventually takes its toll on the happy couple to a sound track dominated by Tainted Love.

Sightseers follows a simple recipe of humour and shock. Unfortunately there is only enough good material for a 50-60 minutes film (or TV drama). So by the end of 95 minutes the shocks were wearing a bit thin and the gaps between jokes were getting tedious. That said Chris voiced everyone's darkest desire when he whined "I just want to be feared and respected. Is that too much to ask?".

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

Sightseers was preceded by a short film called Bear about a woman who wakes up on her birthday and thinks her boyfriend has forgotten it and she heads out on her mountain bike. Meanwhile her boyfriend has planned a surprise picnic, which doesn't go as planned. The ending would seem more realistic if the film was set in a country with bears rather than Australia!

Saturday, August 04, 2012

I Wish

I've heard, anecdotally,  that children with separated parents long for Mum and Dad to get back together. Certainly that's what Koichi, the star of I wish, wants. He and his Mum have moved in with his grandparents in Kagoshima while his little brother Ryu lives with Dad in Hakata. Conversely, the last thing Ryu wants is for his parents to reunite - he really hated them fighting. Ryu and Koichi maintain their relationship by cellphone, umprompted by adults,  which seems remarkably successful.

The big news of the moment in Kagoshima is that the bullet train is about to run from there. Koichi hears that when two bullet trains pass for the first time, the energy generated will cause wishes to come true. So he hatches a plan to be in place for the vital moment.

In good school project style the plan is worked out in detail - where the passing will happen, how to get there, how much the train fare will be. Koichi and a couple of friends work it all out and go all out to find the money at their end, and Ryu does the same at the other end.

I wish is a pretty refreshing watch. It's seen from the kids' viewpoint and their scheming goes ahead with very little adult interference, though adults are conscripted as needed and  prove remarkably helpful. Each of the eight children involved has a unique wish and you get a definite sense of the things that each child struggles with in day-to-day life. It's a little slow moving but is a generally good-humoured and entertaining watch.

My rating 3.5/5


Dave Brown (played by Woody Harrelson) smokes so many cigarettes in this film it is a wonder he does not die of lung cancer half way through. Officer Dave Brown is a dirty cop from a police station with a bad reputation at a time (1999) when the LAPD itself had a rep. The film centres around Dave, in fact the camera is rarely off him. The plot is simple Dave is caught on video beating a guy mercilessly and the authorities want to be seen to be cleaning up the LAPD by getting rid of Dave quickly and publicly. Dave, who sees police work as doing societies dirty work, decides not to go quietly and to tough it out. As pressure mounts from the authorities and his family he descends into drugs and other bad behaviour. It feels like only his two daughters and his ability to effortlessly get women to sleep with him that prevents him going postal.

May be I'm jealous, but Dave's sex life seems the least believable part of this character.  He lives with both his ex-wives who are sisters (and still has sex with both of them) and his daughters (half sisters and cousins). He also has no trouble picking up women in bars for casual sex.  This sounds more like the 1970s than 1999.

The lurid colours, non-standard camera angles, choppy editing and the remorseless self justification of unusual moral ideas reminded me of both Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now. But I am unconvinced that Rampart adds anything more than another dirty cop and some quotes to Hollywood culture.

Ian's rating 2/5

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Writing a review of a famous 1950s  movie with an even more famous star makes me a bit nervous - what is there to say that hasn't been said before? And is watching such a movie the cinematic equivalent of eating lamingtons - not something I should be promoting because it's brightly coloured,  not intellectually nourishing and it perpetuates stereotypes?

In case you haven't seen this movie (and I hadn't) or read any reviews,  I shall feel the fear and review it anyway.

Marilyn Monroe ( Lorelei) and Jane Russell ( Dorothy) play show girls who go on a boat trip to Paris to go shopping. Marilyn is engaged to a rich heir whose father is suspicious that she is only in the relationship it for the money. He sends a private detective on the voyage to look for evidence of impropriety.The US Olympic team is also on board, as is an elderly diamond mine owner. The girls make the most of the social opportunities, the detective gets some incriminating material and there are assorted mix-ups and high jinks but eventually Lorelei gets her rich man and Dorothy gets the detective.

Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe
 This is a film based on a musical so the music and dance numbers are a big feature The dancing is not as good as a Fred Astaire and Ginger Roger's move but there's plenty of shoulder wiggling good fun..It's not all Jane and Marilyn in sexy frocks -  the (male) US Olympic team doing acrobatics in flesh-coloured shorts is just as memorable. The costumes are fantastic and the stars are beautiful. The film is visually stunning - technicolor in every sense and enough bright pink and bright red to dazzle you completely. The dialogue is funny and it's clear from the outset that this is not a film to be taken seriously. I'm taking a stand and saying that watching "Gentlemen prefer Blondes" could actually be good for you - genuinely escapist entertainment with non-anorexic women looking completely fabulous  and stupidity evenly distributed between the sexes.

My rating: 4/5


These days it seems that every year there is a new German film about life in East Germany. This year it is Barbara. Barbara is a doctor under surveillance after being released from jail and being sent to work in a small town hospital in the middle of nowhere on the Baltic coast. She has no intention of staying put in her new environment and tries to avoid entanglement with her neighbours and co-workers (who might be working for the Stasi anyway). We all know how badly that is going to work out in a small town; and her boss tells her that straight away. Not only does her standoffish behaviour, her urban chic and taste for West German cigarettes attract attention from her co-workers, her skills and compassion as a doctor do too.

Gradually her burning desire to escape the night visits and body searches by the Stasi and flee to West Germany is undermined by her dedication to two of her young patients and the attentions of her ever-so-nice boss. Unlike The Lives of Others where I was convinced all the way through that things were going to turn out all right in end, Barbara kept an element of doubt right to the end. I think this is because the characters aren't black and white. Barbara, her nice boss, the sadistic Stasi officer, the West German visitors and their local "girlfriends" are all humans that have been corrupted by "the system" in one way or another, and leaving East Germany means leaving other people behind.

I'm sure someone can read something into German film makers current obsession with East Germany just as someone can read something into Hollywood's current obsession with comic book superheroes. But if the product of this German obsession is more films as good as this one then let's have more obsession.

Ian's rating 4/5

A few other recent films about East Germany

The Minister

Note to self - I must read the Film Festival program more carefully. Phrases like "existential fever of random self-perpetuation" and "transcends the satire or critique of any similar UK or US political thriller" in the description should warn me that the film is likely to go over my head. As I watched The Minister I found myself mentally groping around for a plot or some humour or a message from the film maker. There is a story in the sense that it shows the day-to-day life of a French cabinet minister and his underlings, but I could not say that there was a plot in the sense that the story took the characters from point A to point B for reason C. Perhaps that is the point. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Or in this case just having the power to change things does not mean you can change what you want.

That said The Minister (or L’Exercice de l’État) is dramatic, mostly frenetic and very well acted, but it is not a thriller. Things that seem trivial in one scene become a crisis in the next. The relationships between people can't be taken for granted. There are memorable set piece scenes such as the minister dancing around the office holding his much shorter (bald and not so pleased) right hand man off the ground. The opening dream scene is almost worth the price of admission by itself, in fact the rest of the film is almost an anti-climax by comparison.

It is also an object lesson on why I don't own a cell phone.

Ian's rating 2/5

Thursday, August 02, 2012

How to Meet Girls from a Distance

 Meet Toby. He's our lead character and he hasn't had much luck with girls. Indeed, trying to date a girl who turned out to be a lesbian and  already in a relationship actually resulted in physical injury. As a result he tries to do a bit of research before asking a girl out, and this is one of the themes of the film - how much research is prudent and how much is just plain creepy?

As our film commences, Toby's Mum has paid for him to have some sessions with a dating coach, Carl Stewart. Carl is what you'd get if you crossed Rhys Darby with Tim Balme and has to be seen to be believed and is probably a reason in his own right to see this movie. Carl puts Toby under some pressure to go on dates, starting with Carl's own receptionist and that date goes particularly badly. Fortunately Toby  has comes across a girl he actually  wants to date, so puts in some research and discovers she already has a boyfriend. Undeterred, he sets to work to undermine her existing relationship so he can ask her out. You'll need to go and watch to find out what happens, but the path to true love doesn't run smoothly.

As you may have gathered by now, this film is a comedy and it has elements of farce. It's quite sweet but also slightly uncomfortable - and part of this is how close you feel to the characters and the setting. Toby is a bit of wierdo but only a little bit. In many ways, he's just a perfectly nice chap. And since this film is shot in Wellington he seems like someone you might meet out and about.

We were at the world premiere of How to Meet Girls from a Distance on Sunday afternoon, which was sold out. Since large numbers of the cast and their friends and families were in attendance and the Paramount  doesn't seat that many (especially since they've just got new seats which take up more room than the old ones) this doesn't really say all that much about how popular this movie will be ultimately. 

I'd say that if you like your romantic comedies formulaic then you won't like this one. But if you like them a bit quirky and you have some fondness for the underdog and the faintly ludicrous then you should enjoy it thoroughly.

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