Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Night Moves

Night Moves is an atmospheric, psychological thriller about eco-activism. As the three activists execute their well planned illegal act one weekend the tension is high, and kept high for us by the lack of dialogue. The protagonist have planned it all before and there is no need for talking among three people who don't want get to know each other any more than they have to. The intention afterwards is to "Go to work on Monday morning as if nothing has happened". There would be no film if that is what happened.

This thriller makes a welcome change from the standard modern thriller that pits the good guys against the bad guys. It harks back to an earlier era when consequences don't always arrive from outside agents. Jesse Eisenberg stars and his wary and hunted look makes him the ideal actor to play a worried person who has to keep a secret and doesn't entirely trust other people. It is almost as if the film was written with him in mind.

The autumn colours, long empty country roads and slow pacing of the film set the tone nicely and contribute to both the tension of the first half and the consequences in the second half.

There is one miss-step in the plot which might make you question the realism but otherwise this film is a far more believable eco-thriller than The East from last year.

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

Big Men

Nigeria is one of the world's major oil producing countries. There is no doubt in the minds of Nigerian politicians, journalists, militants and ordinary people that oil has been bad for Nigeria. This opinion on the impact of oil on Nigeria is mirrored in Ghana and America. The average Nigerian is worse off today than before oil was found. America is also one of the world's major oil producing countries. The impact of the oil industry in America is quite different. Why?

That question is not directly dealt with in this documentary. Rachel Boynton set out to make a documentary about West African oil and starting Nigeria, the largest producer in the region. But in trying to get inside an oil company she came across Kosmos Energy a small Texan oil company hunting for oil off the Ghanaian coast. Jim Musselman and his management team were happy to be filmed. This led to a film telling two stories. Firstly a cautionary tale of the problems that oil has caused in Nigeria. Secondly a story of Ghana's first oil field.

Kosmos Energy was brought to Ghana by George Yaw Owusu (of E.O. Group), who became their man in Ghana. Oil exploration and setting up the infrastructure for oil production is a long and expensive process during this time the government changed in Ghana and the financial crisis caused the price of oil (and prospective returns to investors) to drop. Rumours of a sweet deal between the Ghanaian Government of President Kuffour and Kosmos Energy (via E.O. Group) cause both the political opposition and American oil company Anadarko to complain of corruption. Which led to investigations by both the US Department of Justice and the Ghanaian Department of Justice. Details of this are not followed up by the film maker and eventually the US Department of Justice found no wrong doing. The fallout from these investigations were that George Yaw Owusu and Jim Musselman were sacked. Owusu was later reinstated and Musselman went on to form another oil company.

The issue for countries like Ghana who have valuable natural resources to export is how to structure the industry so that the country gains a benefit and they don't suffer from Resource Curse. As every Ghanaian Boynton interviews from shoppers to presidential candidates states Ghana gained very little from its gold industry and from its cocoa industry and they don't want that cycle to be repeated with oil. They are also acutely of the situation in near by Nigeria. What should be the government's cut in terms of tax and royalties and how should it be spent?

Despite having great access to the Kosmos Energy management and to one of their investors from the Blackstone Group you still have to read between the lines of the bland innocuous and passive phrases they use when talking about things. The ordinary Nigerians and Ghanaians are much more blunt and straight forward.

Unashamedly everyone from the money men in New York to the militants in the Nigia delta admits that oil (or any valuable thing) will bring out the worst consequences of greed in everybody concerned. Though they all think that only they are the only ones that are justified in what they want out of oil.

The quote from Milton Friedman that opens the film also sums it up:
Is there some society you know that doesn’t run on greed? You think Russia doesn’t run on greed? You think China doesn’t run on greed? What is greed? Of course, none of us are greedy, it’s only the other fellow who’s greedy. The world runs on individuals pursuing their separate interests.

Rachel Boynton talks about her film to Kim Hill and Bloomberg and WNYC. Other reviews of the film. The Washington Post's version of events.

The answer to why oil has impacted differently in America and Nigeria is indirectly answered in this film. In America the oil was found by Americans, exploited by American companies employing American workers, funded by American capital and the oil is mostly used by American industry and American consumers. In Nigeria the oil was found and exploited by American (or European) companies employing non-Nigerians, funded by American (or European) capital and the oil is mostly exported to be used in other countries. The small percentage of oil money that comes to Nigeria is jealously fought over and stay in few hands. The same goes for Saudi Arabia and other 3rd world countries. The joys of free trade and foreign investment.

As a side issue I was intrigued to see the number of different newspapers for sale in a newspaper kiosk in Accra, Ghana. There were at least 20 different titles for sale in a city of 2 million people (and capital of a country of 25 million) and as far as I could see they were local papers. It is interesting to see that the doom and gloom about the death of newspapers isn't global yet.

Ian's rating 2.5/5

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Everything We Loved

I don't want to harp on about New Zealand film makers and their propensity for making gloomy films, but I can't help it.  Everything We Loved just adds another gloomy film to an already cluttered landscape. After Rain and After the Waterfall I no longer want to see films that involve children dying and  had I known that this film's plot hinged on the death of a child I wouldn't have gone. Perhaps I didn't read the programme carefully enough and I definitely should have watched the trailer.

I thought I was going to watch a kind of family mystery with a cleverly unfolding plot. Sadly, it wasn't very far into the movie that I realised that Charlie has abducted a child  to "replace" his own child who died recently. And once I knew that, I knew things could only turn out badly, and they did. The journey wasn't much fun, either.

It's well acted and stylishly shot, and Tommy is a particularly cute child but unless you really like this kind of thing don't put yourself through it

Anne's rating 3/5.

The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden

Are odd people attracted to small islands? Or does being on a small island mean that odd people can get away with more extreme behaviour? Can you ever find paradise? And would it really be on a small island? Those are the philosophical questions posed by this documentary.

Of course there is a more direct question about a disappearance that occurred on Floreana in the 1930s. This story was apparently a world wide sensation at the time. The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden tells that story.

Dore and Dr Ritter
Disenchanted by modern civilisation and bourgeoisie, German doctor Friedrich Ritter and his patient, Dore Strauch, go to live on the then deserted Floreana island in the Galapagos in 1929. News of their life on the island ends up in German newspapers and attracts another German family, followed by a self style Baroness and her two lovers. Each group of people on the island resents the arrival of the next group. One weekend there is a disappearance. Everyone has a theory.

Wittmer family
Despite one of the original inhabitants surviving until 2000, there is no information presented newer than the 1930s. Interviews with current inhabitants of the Galapagos are mostly for background colour. Unfortunately while the Baroness is clearly the most flamboyant character in the film, no-one has traced her family and unlike the others she left effectively no written record.

Philippson Lorenz and the Baroness
George Allan Hancock an American millionaire visits the island several times, filming the Baroness and the other inhabitants. That silent film, with voice over by actors reading from writings of the time, form the basis of this Galapagos mystery story. Mostly it is quite slickly put together, except perhaps some of the interviews with current inhabitants of the Galapagos, which deviate a long way from the core story and belong in a different documentary.

This isn't the only story of odd things happening on isolated islands. For instance the Cocos (Keeling) Islands in the Indian Ocean have a story of two rival private kingdoms one of which survived until 1978.

Ian's rating 3.5/5

Black Coal, Thin Ice

Black Coal, Thin Ice is a detective story about a recurring crime in the industrial north of China and Zhang, the unorthodox detective, investigating it. In 1999 body parts turn up in coal at a number of factories in different towns. The police track the coal to a mine and decide that the body parts were most likely put on trucks at the weigh station. This is backed up by the disappearance of one of the weigh station staff. The arrest is bungled and an attractive young widow buries her husband's ashes. The film jumps to 2004 and we catch up with Zhang now working as a heavy drinking security guard at risk of losing this job. One day he bumps into his old boss on a stake out of same widow and Zhang decides to start investigating (stalking?) her in his free time. More body parts start turn up.

Zhang belongs to the serendipity school of detective work. One where you work on hunches, go to places previously associated with the suspect on the off chance and follow tangential leads etc. He also works alone which makes this a difficult story to follow. The standard approach to detective stories (used most notably by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) is to have either an offsider or have a pair of detectives. This device allows the main detective to explain his train of thought to the other character (and to us). Even though the pace of this movie is not fast, there are a lot of clues and I feel I need to re-see it to try and get facts straight in my head.

Neither Zhang nor Wu Zhizhen (the widow) are sympathetic characters, and the grimy, winter industrial setting and the dominance of night scenes gives this a film noir feel. In fact the director seems more interested in noir style than plain story telling, and viewers are likely to come to different conclusions about the events. This is not a picture post card China, nor a slick wire fu China. This is a China of factories, mum-and-pop dry cleaners, over crowded buses and tired dance halls. A China of robberies, murder and infidelity. A China of snow and coal.

Black Coal, Thin Ice is a surprise from China. A noir film populated by ordinary people.

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

In Order of Disappearance

Nils Dickman (and yes, you are supposed to find his name amusing) is a dour fifty-ish snow plough driver whose only son is murdered by a local drug syndicate at the beginning of the movie. His marriage is unable to withstand the loss and Nils' wife moves out, leaving a particularly expressive note. Nils applies himself to avenging his son's death and works his way systematically up the syndicate, starting with killing the heavy who committed the murder and moving all the way to the top.

You may think this doesn't sound wholesome or amusing and you'd be both right and wrong. This is certainly not a wholesome film but it is funny. There's the dedication with which Nils applies himself to the task at hand. Other comedic aspects the disposal of the corpses (wrapping them in chicken wire and chucking them over a spectacular waterfall) and Nils getting tired during the third killing and having to take a breather before finishing the job.The head of the drug syndicate is called the Count, and he is pretty funny - a long haired immaculately dressed vegan who fights with his wife over child custody arrangements.
The Count, bringing coffee for the team.
The Norwegian winter landscape is spectacular and the snow plough adds a certain je ne sais quoi to car chase scenes. The contrast between The Count and the head of the opposing drug syndicate (an avuncular older Serbian who wears a fur hat) is enjoyable. The plot has certain similarities to the French film The Ax but the execution (pun intended) is different. Watch the Trailer - this is an action flick with droll Nordic flavour, and it's fun.

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

The Dark Horse

New Zealand movies have a deserved reputation for being dark but I think they're mellowing a little. Or if not mellowing, at least not wallowing in the dark as much.  The Dark Horse shows New Zealand's poorer and rougher side but its raison d'etre is to celebrate someone who cast some light in the gloom. Sharon, who came with us to The Dark Horse, described  it as Once were Warriors meets Little Miss Sunshine.

The Dark Horse is a fictionalised account of part of the life of Genesis Potini, a speed chess champion from Gisborne who had bipolar disorder. It seems chess was instrumental in helping manage his disease and he taught many young people to play. At the opening of the Dark Horse, Gen is released from hospital and moves in with his brother Ariki  (a gang member) and fourteen-year-old nephew Mana. This arrangement is short-lived, since Ariki senses Gen's influence may have a bad effect on the likelihood of Mana joining the gang  Ariki gives Gen some money to find somewhere else to live. Meanwhile Gen  has tracked down a chess club for disadvantaged kids, held in the garage of an old friend. He leaps in with both feet, and undertakes to take the children to the junior chess championship in Auckland. He spends some of the money he's been given on multiple chess sets  (since the club only appeared to have one or two) and gets stuck in to teaching them properly.

This is all sounds rather tidier than the actuality. Gen sleeps rough because he has nowhere to go. One of the kid's mother's objects to her son being taught chess by a vagrant just released from a mental hospital, Mana wants to play chess but his father won't let him. His fifteenth birthday and being patched as a gang member is looming. Ariki is dying and wants his son to be taken care of.

This is a movie, so it all comes together. The chess championship is one of the highlights of the film - a van load of Maori kids (Mana included)  from the East Coast descend on a room full of mostly white kids in suburban Auckland and play chess with verve and enthusiasm. Gen is a vocal spectator and has to leave the hall to contain his outbursts. Once it's all over, it's back to Gisborne to cope with the fallout.

This is a very emotionally affecting film. The contrast between a kindly mentor who teaches a young person to think and plan by playing a game  (even if he does liken it to war) and one who is hardening them up to join a gang by taking them out burgling houses armed with a hammer couldn't be more stark. It seems particularly tragic that the subject of the film is no longer with us and that we're reflecting on his legacy rather than his ongoing work.

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

Monday, July 28, 2014

Under the Skin

Inexplicably Under the Skin escaped from the Incredibly Strange section of the Film Festival programme to the Thriller section.

The opening scene is a drawn out arrival scene, which is more than reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Then suddenly we are in Scotland, following a motorcycle. That dramatic contrast between the alien images, and the mundane and familiar is a shock. But just because we are in a recognisable place doesn't make the film any more understandable.

The bulk of the film is of a nameless beautiful woman (Scarlett Johansson) cruising the shopping malls and streets of Glasgow eyeing up men, occasionally striking up conversations. While the concept of the camera lingering and following women is common place in cinema, the opposite is striking and sinister. She is inquisitive about where the men are going and who they are meeting, and she freely offers lifts to those who aren't intending to meet anyone. This is a quiet and gentle film. There is no screaming (except of the motorbike sort). These men are seduced freely and happily to their doom.

If this isn't enough, their reactions to a tragic accident underline the fact that she and her motorcycle riding compatriot are not empathetic in the way we expect humans to be. Eventually she goes off book and abandons her successful modus operandi, indulges in a little experimentation (with cake and public transport) which is the only time the mood is lightened. This finds the tables turned on her.

Very little is explained or even hinted at. For instance the relationship between the male motorcyclist and Scarlett Johansson is unclear, as is how they communicate. Is she his boss or vice-versa or is one of them a robot?

While parts of it are mesmerizing: the busy urban scenes in Glasgow, the beautiful, bleak winter countryside, the seduction scenes. But mostly this film feels painfully slow. There is barely 15 minutes worth of ideas, which has been stretched to a mind numbing 108 minutes of film. I wanted either more ideas to think about (and/or more plot) or a much shorter film.

You will like this film if you like your sci-fi films strange, beautiful, unexplained and glacially slow.

Other reviewers raved about Under the Skin.

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

Saturday, July 26, 2014

We Are the Best!

At first Bobo and Klara stand out from among their peers as androgynous. While other girls in their class conform to our stereotype of 1980s Swedish girls, Bobo has close cropped curly hair and Klara has a mohawk. These outsiders listen to punk music to shut out things that annoy them (which seems to be just about everything). Down at the local youth centre some older boys annoy them and bent on revenge the girls realise that if they book the music room they can stop the boys practising for their rock band, 'Iron Fist'. So they immediately form a punk band despite having no musical talent or instruments. While punk is a thread that runs through this film, this is no more a film about punk than Star Wars is a film about astronomy.

On closer inspection Bobo is a loner who is envious of Klara's (apparent) popularity and her 'cool' family. Klara is equally a loner but one with a well developed eye-rolling sneer and no fear of trying to get her own way regardless of practicality or morality of her aims and methods. They add a third member to their band, the older, timid, devout Christian, guitar playing Hedwig.

Films about growing up are a popular genre, and We Are the Best! can be enjoyed as a relatively guilt free romp by some 'outsider' school girls in a world where adults are relatively hands off and benign. This is a time of life where make believe blurs into reality (lets be a punk band, that boy I've only met once is my boyfriend and of course "we are the best") and where freedom from constant adult control allows kids to try things out.

But on reflection I see it as a film that uses a simple story line to illustrate how much of what the protagonists like, believe, hate and do is to please, infuriate or manipulate other people. In case we indulge in any smugness that as mature adults our likes and beliefs have a more rational and objective basis, Bobo's mum's love life seems no more reality based than her daughter's!

You don't have to like punk to enjoy this film, in fact considering how Klara and Bobo 'murder' punk, it might be a disadvantage to be a punk aficionado! These girls just wana have fun (and friends) and ring leader Klara (Mira Grosin) is especially watchable.


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

The Lunchbox

Do you know what a Dabbawala is? The Hindi word for lunchbox and the original title of this movie is Dabba, and a Dabbawala is the lunch delivery guy. Mumbai's amazing system of door-to-door personalised delivery of home-cooked lunches is the backdrop for this movie.

Ila is a beautiful housewife who senses that her husband has lost interest in her. She attempts to regain his affection (or at least his attention) by making his delivered lunch particularly delicious. Unfortunately, the Dabbawala has made a rare delivery mix-up, and the delicious lunch is delivered to the wrong person. That evening when she's quizzing her husband about whether he enjoyed it or not , Ila realises her husband didn't get the lunch she made. The next day she puts a note with lunch in case it goes astray again, which it does. She gets a note in return, and so a relationship begins.

The lunch recipient is Saajan, a good-looking but curmudgeonly widower who works in an insurance office. He's about to retire and is supposed to be training the irrepressibly cheerful Shaikh to be his replacement. Lunch and a message from Ila become the highlight of his working day. Making lunch for a grateful but anonymous recipient becomes the highlight of hers.

The Lunchbox is a romance, and reminds us that romance and relationships come in many forms. It celebrates the particular pleasures brought by anticipation and surprise. It knows we all want to be noticed and appreciated and cared for, and that this can be done in a variety of ways. I think it also says a romance doesn't have to have the expected outcome to enrich the lives of the participants. If you find Hollywood or Bollywood rom-coms overly formulaic and want something a little different while still having your heart suitably warmed, The Lunchbox will deliver for you. And you'll get to experience something of Mumbai while it's doing it.

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