A few favourite 2014 cinema experiences

There has been a lot of great films this year, but I’ve forgotten most of them or missed them for various reasons, never-the-less here’s a few of my favourites. (oh, and – Merry Christmas Eve!)

Concerning Violence / We Come As Friends

concerning violence

One of the best documentaries at the NZIFF Concerning Violence (Göran Olsson), also one of the most intense. A sad and violent reflection of the affect of colonial rule on African people. Adapted from an academic study on the subject, but put together with news images from a Swedish news archive. Doesn’t sound like the most entertaining prospect on paper, and it’s probably not, but it is intense, important and thought provoking. Also worth a watch was a documentary on South Sudan, We Come As Friends (Hubert Sauper). Friends is the more contemporary, following Sauper as he flies around South Sudan, interviewing the rich and poor, wealthy investors and impoverished locals. Also good example of how modern digital filmmaking techniques can be employed (such as using smart phone cameras to conduct covert interviews.

Whiplash

whiplash

Nail biting, gut wrenching drama about something close to my heart – drumming. Through the story of the super-ambitious and talented Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) we are introduced to the world of academic music performance, and the sink or swim environment of the big leagues of Jazz. Neiman is enrolled in Shaffer Conservatory, the best music school in the states, and promptly becomes the pupil of it’s most famous conductor/teacher, Terence Fletcher. Neiman wants to be the best, like Buddy Rich, and Fletcher will help him get there, but the manipulative and abusive journey Fletcher forces him to take makes you wonder what’s the worth. Never the less, the film got me practicing drums for hours after viewing, and even those uninterested in jazz and music will find something to enjoy in this superbly scripted and shot narrative by second time director Damien Chazelle.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson’s latest was funny, beautifully shot with a great cast and littered with references to classic literature and cinema. Mostly just one of the most fun films of the year, with a touching script and lots of great Anderson visual ideas, such as the mixing of animation styles with live action.

Nightcrawler

nightcrawler

This years Drive, Taxi Driver, American Psycho, Network – though closer to Drive than the others. An unpredictable thriller about a slightly unhinged man, his personality quirks never fully explained, who when unemployed and searching for work stumbles across his passion – freelance news footage capturing, or Nightcrawling. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the nightcrawler, Lou Bloom, who’s determination to get ahead in the modern capitalist world sees him sacrificing all those around him –  and getting away with it. Bloom’s encouraged by the producer of a local late night television station, Ninia (Rene Russo), who relishes his voyeuristic footage and airs it to huge ratings – making obvious parallels with the state of news broadcasting in 2014, where we find for example the death of Eric Garner aired on a screens frequently. Darkly funny, morbidly brutal, the film features a stunning performance from Gyllenhaal, that is both creepy, scary and sympathetic in equal turns. The feature debut from Dan Gilroy, visually polished and thematically relevant, surely one of the darkest films to have been a success this year.

Boyhood

Boyhood

Shot over eleven years with the same cast, has any other mainstream director other than Richard Linklater attempted this? I doubt it, and the wikipedia page confirms my suspicions. I like this film so much, I’m not even sure how to praise it, other than that Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette and the two lead kids Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater put in great performance, with the script adapter and tailored to suit the real life changes in the kids personalities, as well as the parents characters adapted from the real life families of Arquette and Hawke. The film is relatable, insightful and as Hawke put it in one interview – “it’s a little bit like timelapse photography of a human being”. Although the title and film do focus on the boy’s growth throughout 12 years, many more family situations are observed, marriages, divorces, graduations, first relationships. Worth a watch for any human being – probably my favourite film of the year if I had to chose one.

Advertisements

Review: I Survived A Zombie Holocaust (Guy Pigden, 2014)

*Some spoilers – I tried to keep them to a minimum but proceed with slight caution

I-survived-a-zombie-holocaust-poster

Ever since Peter Jackson arrived on the scene with the uber-low budget splatter sci-fi Bad Taste and put NZ on the horror film map with the zombie gore-fest Braindead, any New Zealand filming maker attempting a film in a horror genre has faced inevitable comparisons with Jackson and his horror classics. Some have added extra NZ themed gimmicks into the mix the differentiate themselves, i.e. the sheep of Black Sheep and Maori cannibals of Fresh Meat – both of which stuck to a comedy/horror template comparable to that of Jackson’s – others have played it straight such as The Ferryman.

Perhaps New Zealanders are more naturally gifted or comfortable with satire – Guy Pidgen’s debut film I Survived A Zombie Holocaust is another successful combination of both comedy and horror – differentiating itself from those that came before with a self-aware narrative that winks at the audience as it deconstructs horror film cliches. It also cleverly manages to comment on the nature of film-making in NZ, with a frustrated director brought to the brink due to the stress in part of being turned down for funding time and time again – as well as by the real life living dead that have invaded his film set. The film also nods to cult classics of yore – with references to Sam Raimi and Romero films – and is sure to appeal to jaded international horror fans with its mix of horror homage and fresh ideas – thus breaking away from the long shadow of Jackson. This is also the first major horror film to have been majority shot in Dunedin (by Dunedin-ite filmmakers), the city where I’m from – so I’m quite proud to have the city not immortalized in cult-horror history.

hero_isurvivedazombie1

We open with a succession of stumbling zombies and a bulked up hero brandishing science fiction weaponry – this turns out to be a film-within-a-film as we’re introduced to the film set of maniacal auteur director SMP, played brilliantly by New Zealand screen veteran Andrew Laing. The bulked up hero is vain celebrity Adam Harrison (Mike Johnson), whose co-star of this film-within-a-film is diva Jessica Valentine (Reanin Johannink). SMP’s crew includes location manager Tane Henare (Ben Baker) whose rugby past is explored through-out the film, the loyal Assistant Director Richard Driver, whose loyalty might prove to be fatal, and a gun friendly American props-master, Randy Bateman (Mark Neilson). Into this wanders aspiring writer and first time runner Wesley Pennington (Harley Neville), who fumbles his way through a first day, attempting to get his script read, only to have it used as toilet paper by the director – and who falls for the kindly caterer Susan Ford (Jocelyn Christian).

The variety of stories and strength of acting is impressive – it is unusual for a low-budget film to have a scope such as this and not trip over its own ambitions. As the real life zombies appear and the massacre begins the gore and action set pieces don’t let down for a good 50 minutes. Egg beaters are taken to faces, dismemberment abounds and there’s even some good head explosions. There is an eyeball gag to rival Fulci’s slow ocular impaling from Zombie. Towards the end, there is something particularly unexpected involving a characters hand, but I won’t mention any more as this also forms a crucial plot point. Although violent the gore never takes it self too seriously, and there are some hilarious set-pieces – such as a misguided rampage on civilians mistaken to be the living dead – a handheld horror segment in which SMP takes one last shot at finishing his film and one involving a phallus that won’t soon be forgotten.

The performances and script are strong across the board – Ben Baker as the broken ex-rugby playing location manager delivers some great moments in his subplot, as does Mark Neilson, whose one-liners and misguided rampage provides some of the most memorable comic moments. I felt truly sympathetic to the plight of the DA brought to life by Simon Ward, who sacrifices himself more than his job would usually entail. Mike Johnson is given some of the best catch phrases of the film and proves he has a knack for comedy. We are also sympathetic to Harley Neville’s Wesley Pennington, whose writing ambitions take a backseat as he must help his fellow crew members survive the real life zombie violence. Neville gets some great comic moments as well – such as early on when he is forced to be a nude stand-in – the results are one of the comedy highlights of the film. His romance with Jocelyn Christian’s Susan Ford is also a nice touch – and the duo have a fair amount of onscreen chemistry.

The film stays self-aware through-out, with our writer/runner protagonist attempting to get his own zom-com-rom script acknowledged by the film’s crew. This leads to some great reflexive moments – Wesley is given advice early on from the film’s writer Harold Beasley, who points out the archetypes that the various characters around the filmset would fall into in a theoretical way – ending with the moral that for Wesley to be a good writer he must write from what knows. This scene in turn works as an acknowledgement by the film’s writer/director Guy Pidgen of the archetypes that he himself is utilizing and commenting upon. It’s this sort of reflexivity that gives the film an intelligent edge over horror films that play it straight – and perhaps one that is necessary in the jaded film viewing world of 2014. Later, director SMP in a moment of anger teetering on madness, details the difficulties he has gone to get his films funded – facing constant rejection. Given that this is a New Zealand Film Commission funded film, one can only assume that this is direct commentary on the nature of struggling for funding in a small film industry such as New Zealand’s.

It is not often that a lower-budget New Zealand film makes as much of its funding as this –  pulling off multiple sub-plots, a self-aware plot that doesn’t manage to trip over its own cleverness and large horror action set-pieces ambitious enough to be in a $5 million dollar film, let alone a $250,000. There is horror, comedy, romance, meta-commentary and a good ending – ingredients that add up to one of the strongest New Zealand debut’s probably ever. The gore hounds will be satisfied but so will those that require an intelligent script. I used to be quite passionate about horror films when I was younger, obsessively hunting out cult classics such as Lucio Fulci’s Zombie and devoting many afternoons to re-watching Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead. My love for the genre has since faded, and I find myself rarely willing to praise a modern horror film. But I Survived A Zombie Holocaust is worthy of the praise – not least because it rivals Jackson’s Bad Taste (hate to mention it but the mans shadow is inescapable in NZ film history), which I remain quite fond of.

I have a slight bias of course. The film is shot in Dunedin and I’m friends with the filmmakers and a large amount of the cast. But objectively, the film is really impressive. Go and track it down when you can – the hard-work that’s gone into the film is clear.

 

Good ‘end-of-the-world’ documentaries

manufacturing consent

I say end-of-the-world facetiously, but if anyone’s in the mood for some heady criticism of our society, culture, commerce and politics, here are some suggestions;

The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom (Adam Curtis, 2007)

Adam Curtis is an English filmmaker predominantly known for his documentaries which combine archival footage with interviews and narration by Curtis himself. The arguments Curtis constructs are pretty airtight and quite original statements against our society, and his thinking has been quite influential. Century Of The Self from 2002 which explores the Freudian influence on modern advertising and politics is one of his most notable and well worth checking out, as is The Trap from 2007. The Trap explores our ideas of freedom – moving from the influence of John Nash’s Game Theory on cold war politics and how that filtered into economic thought, to discussing psychology treating Humans like machines and later showing the corruption of freedom in politics. Curtis’ arguments are typically broad and require some concentration, but he also spins an entertaining yarn and his use of music and archival footage can get pretty addictive. I watched three of his documentaries in a row and then attempted to start a fourth, it may have been overkill, but that’s testament to the addictive nature of his non-fiction story telling. It’s all extensively researched and far from the zone of conspiracies.

 

Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (Mark Achbar, Peter Wintonick, 1992)

A little old school but by no means any less relevant Manufacturing Consent based on the Noam Chomsky book of the same name is pretty famous, but if you haven’t seen it it’s well worth the watch. Serving as both a history of Chomsky’s life and of criticisms of media found within the original book, film largely seeks to illustrate Chomsky’s ideas on how the media (news, advertising) work to uphold the ideals of the status quo (particularly right-wing ideals) of government and commerce. The central case study in the film is that contrasting the media’s coverage of the genocide in Cambodia under Pol Pot and an equivalent genocide in East Timor supported by the US government, which is quite an eye opener and comparable to the current media coverage of what is happening in Gaza or the Ukraine. A great introduction to Chomsky and if you want more, Achbar and Wintonick’s documentary The Corporation (2003), also highly influential, is a great watch.

 

 

The Four Horsemen (Ross Ashcroft, 2012)

There’s been a few good documentaries on the financial collapse of 2008, and although that seems a few years ago now it’s good to remind ourselves of what happened, and to open our eyes to the economic and political system which is arguably holding humanity hostage. This documentary focuses on the neo-classical school of economic thought and the affect this has had on our society. There’s a whole lot of good interviews and once again Chomsky turns up, which lends an element of reputability. It leaves with some suggestions of how we can affect change in the world which rises the documentary above complete doom and gloom rhetoric. A little dry at times, but if you’re in the mood to get some facts in you it’s a good watch.

 

This is the stuff that has been tickling my fancy lately anyhow. Please feel free to comment below with any discussion or suggestions of other documentaries to watch.

NZIFF 2014 Rockumentaries part 1; Nick Cave’s 20,000 Days On Earth

Nick-Cave film poster

I saw three varied rock documentaries at the NZ International Film Festival in Auckland, the first of which, Nick Cave’s 20,000 Days On Earth (directed by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard), the most cinematic and staged of all three. There was a bit of hype surrounding this one, to which I was largely ignorant of considering I’m not the biggest Nick Cave fan. I like his music, but have never really delved further than his most popular albums (Murder Ballads, last year’s Push The Sky Away). I’ve gained more of an appreciation for him recently due to his live shows, having seen a few streamed from festivals the last couple of years. His most recent Glastonbury performance was brilliant and enough to convert a non-fan, check it out.

20,000 Days On Earth looks at a fictional 24 hours in the life of Nick Cave, on his twenty thousandth day on earth. An extremely well filmed day and productive day, we see him rehearse and song write with his band and have some hilarious nostalgic conversations with Bad Seeds member Warren Ellis. The band scenes eventually culminate in a riveting performance at the Sydney Opera house, the cinematography focusing just as much on the reaction of the audience members as the charisma of Cave on stage.

20000daysonearth-2

This being his film, Cave dominates every scene and lets us into his life in a very deliberate kind of way. He takes us on a trip to his therapist, and with a lot of mood lighting as the camera shifts about (possibly on a dolly), Cave gives insight into his childhood, what he remembers of his father and his stints with religion and addiction (addiction jokingly said to be preferable to religion). Cave also takes meandering drives around Brighton which he now calls home, and is joined by people from his past who float in and out, bringing up key moments from Cave’s life and asking questions. Kylie Minogue’s cameo is a particularly notable one as is one of his ex-Bad Seeds members Blixa Bargeld, who discusses his reason for leaving the band.

The overall mood of the film is of inspiration, spending much time looking at the creative process behind Cave writing his songs and the influence of the past on his work. I left feeling quite inspired. Although it’s all about Cave, through several monologues he connects to larger themes of the benefits of living a life for art. Cave seems to want to inspire us to be productive, to be more adventurous with our ideas. I feel any creative type will benefit from a trip into an artist’s world such as this.

Watch the trailer:

NZIFF: Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, 2014)

1400158765043_0570x0365_1400158803080

The Cannes 2014 favourite gets it’s first (and only?) cinematic run in New Zealand as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival. Sissako is only of the few African born directors making narrative cinema that is gaining such an interest at an international level, so I was curious to see what his cinematic voice is like, having not seen his previous films. Sissako, although born in Mauritania, spent much of his childhood in Mali, his fathers country. In this film he focuses his lens on Malian people, specifically in North Mali and Timbuktu, the historically significant city (with a long history of being notoriously difficult to get to, many colonial explorers dying attempting to cross the Saharan desert) which is often confused in western minds with a metaphor for a distant place. But Timbuktu is filled with real people and real struggles, and Sissako successfully translates these to a fictional narrative (based partially on real events) showing the human side behind the Tamasheq-speaking locals and the Arabic-speaking Islamic extremists who’ve invaded their community.

Timbuktu-863863449-large

The core of the story is a drama about a couple, Kidane and Satima who live peacefully on the outskirts of the city, tending to their cattle and raising their daughter. But an argument over the murder of a favourite cow, called ‘GPS’ leads to the father Kidane accidentally murdering a fellow farmer. Separately to this is the story of the civilians living inside Timbuktu, being kept under the strict rule of gun toting Islamic extremists, who’ve banned everything from music to playing soccer and enforced the wearing of the hijab (traditional muslim headscarf) on Timbuktu woman. These new laws are met with defiance from many of the locals, one woman refusing to wear gloves to do the work she has been previously doing with bare hands her whole life, or a group of kids playing an game of soccer with an invisible ball just to get around the regulations. These scenes are staged dramatically and make life in Mali seem very relatable. We are shown the extremists as they try to convert many around the city but struggle to find a level of Islamic conviction they seek. The hypocrisies of the extremists are also made evident; the gun toting militants ban simple pleasures and yet communicate with each other via smartphones and frequently bend their Islamic religious teachings to fit any agenda.

Ibrahim+Ahmed+Timbuktu+Premieres+Cannes+qbeKwMvo9cpl

The cast at Cannes

Although the story is a tragedy we are equally shown the light and relatable aspects of life in Northern Mali, and humor is found even in the darkest aspects of life amongst this type of extremism. What is apparent are the human stories that we are never given when watching news reports on Islamic communities in Africa or the Middle East. We are most usually told only about the murders and bombings, or the various invasions, but not taken inside the lives of those affected by these political groups. We see Malian people singing, socializing and trying to keep their lives going in spite of the changes forced upon them by the ideals of a few. We get to know the people, such as the farmers Kidane and Satima or the unique personalities inhabiting the city. We also get to know the militants, and are given opportunity to equally pity their situation.

timbuktu-cannes-2014-6
Timbukto
is also photographed beautifully; there is striking imagery, for example one key scene is is played out in a long take from a extremely wide angle, highlighting how the events of these peoples lives take place against the harsh conditions of the desert. The invisible soccar game is also particularly memorable, and plays out with only music and no sound effects; a montage of what having fun is life within the constrictions of inflicted extremest rule in africa. Any brutality in the film is dealt with sensitively and without exploitation. This is delicate, considered filmmaking, on a culture that rarely, if ever, gets an opportunity to tell it’s stories on a world scale.

Watch a excert:

 

NZIFF Auckland 2014 – Kung Fu Elliot (Matthew Bauckman, Jaret Belliveau, 2014)

MV5BODgxMDk3ODI3MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDUwNzU2MTE@._V1_SX214_AL_Kung Fu Elliot (Matthew Bauckman, Jaret Belliveau), compared to Big Men that I discuss in the post below, provided an interesting opposite example of how to make a documentary. Either the filmmakers got perhaps a little too involved in their subject or the authenticity of the film itself is up for doubt. Elliot ‘White Lightening’ Scott plans to become the first Canadian Kung Fu film star, shooting no-budget short films on a consumer point-and-shoot camera, doing all his own stunts with the help of his supportive partner Linda. The filmmakers follow him around over two years as he attempts to finish his 2nd film, Blood Fight. His Kung Fu is dubious at best, as is the acting and stunts which he attempts, and yet he has an enduring belief in his talent.

During the course of the film, the stories Elliot tells about his life and achievements begin to unravel. Linda waits patiently for a ring to make their engagement legitimate. Elliot continues to delay. The production of his third film, Blood Fight, continues to be delayed as well. During all this, Elliot’s commitment to his partner becomes doubtful, as the filmmakers document his increasingly suspicious behaviour.

photo-mainIt’s an at times hilarious film and at times painfully awkward. The third act gets particularly strange and stories we are told about Elliot break down in front of us. If it is a real documentary, the filmmakers become aware of facts about Elliot that they withhold from his partner Linda (infidelity etc), and they become fully involved in Elliot’s illusion, breaking down the usual subject/filmmaker barrier ( it could be seen as a personal version of Harlem County, U.S.A.)

That is if we are to believe the film is a real documentary. Elliot could very well be a mockumentary that hasn’t been outed as one yet — I’m doing a little bit of social networking research  on this topic and the real Elliot does indeed have a facebook fan page, but nothing has been posted on it since 2013. I contacted the filmmakers, asking if Elliot had seen the film, to which they replied stating that neither Elliot nor Linda have seen the film, yet a few of the cast members had.

So perhaps this debunks my theory, and the filmmakers practices getting that close to the subject are in my eyes questionable, or maybe they’re pulling a Cannibal Holocaust on us to get press for their partially kickstarter funded project.

Not to put anyone off seeing the film. It is hilarious and a well made debut, so see it and form your own opinion, add to the discussion. It’s sure to become a cult favourite. A particular memorable scene was one in which Elliot visits an actual Shaolin monk in China, and attempts to fight a real trained Kung Fu monk. The results must be witnessed.

To the filmmakers credit, they raise some interesting questions about the fantasies we build around ourselves. That is, unless the trick is on the audience, but that remains to be seen.

EDIT: The filmmakers have responded further on Facebook to my questions, stating that Elliot is most definitely a real person. There’s a good vice article on the making of the film, which gives insight to show that the filmmakers were led on by Elliot’s lies and fantasies, just as much as his friends and associates were.

POSTSCRIPT (23rd July): Based on this new information that Elliot and his friends are completely real people, and the insights that the filmmakers give in the above vice article, I have to say that the film has become an even more intriguing thing. It was not just Elliot’s girlfriend Linda and his friends that were lied to, but the filmmakers as well. The documentary team started this project following Elliot expecting completely innocent things; that they were following a delusional but well natured man, who desires fame as much as any of us do, but whom is prepared to build fantasies around himself to give himself a sense of achievement beyond what most people have the capability. The darker side of Elliot that slowly emerges throughout the course of the film, was something the filmmakers themselves were also unaware of and the way they have structured the documentary, we the audience become aware of this as they do. Therefore the filmmakers were not withholding as much information from their subjects as what I assumed they were, and the dramatic revealing of information that occurs throughout the last section of the film is made all the more potent by the fact it is completely real.

Elliot wanted the fame, he let the documentary crew in and the exposed his life in a way that he perhaps felt the illusions he had built had made him immune to. In that way the film perhaps shows the limitations of desiring fame from many perspectives; the example here is that if you’re prepared to build very large illusions around your life, than you to should be prepared to have those illusions shattered, and to lose those people in your life that you have gained through maintaining those illusions.

Watch the Trailer:

NZIFF Auckland 2014 – Big Men (Rachel Boynton, 2013)

I’ve been checking out a bunch of films at the NZIFF Auckland leg, and it feels right to write up some thoughts on them.

My selection so far has been dominated by documentaries; the Nick Cave day-in-the-life musical drama 20,000 Days On Earth opening the fest for me, followed by the questionable Kung Fu Elliot on the Sunday and a revealing look into oil mining in Africa, Big Men today. Amongst that I found the time to see The Young And Prodigious T.S. Spivet, a charming novel adaptation by the director of Amelie and Alien Resurrection, Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

Big-Men-promo-poster

Of the films Big Men has so far hit the hardest. An incredibly thorough documentary from Rachel Boynton, who’d previously exposed the corruption of South American politics in Our Brand is Crisis (2005), now tackles the secret world of African oil deals. Boynton takes us deep inside the big players on all sides of the African oil war, the CEO’s of the American oil company Kosmos, the governments of Nigeria and Ghana as they do deals with the companies and the armed militants, unafraid to sabotage the oil extraction efforts to get a cut of the profit for their own people. Theres corruption on all sides and huge billion dollar deals but the bigger questions are asked; who is entitled to the money made from these oil deals? Will the impoverished people of Nigeria and Ghana see any benefits from the extraction of their countries own minerals, or will the money go straight into the pockets of the investors and the government officials?

Boynton objectively documents the events and probes into players motivations, never directly passing judgement, letting the audience build it’s own opinion. It’s certainly a complex situation but the failings of the profit driven capitalist system are ever prevalent as is the systems victims, everyday family’s caught in the wake of the all consuming machine. In this case the victims are the Nigerian and Ghana families; one could sympathize with the militants even as they wore balaclavas and held rocket launchers, mostly because as they explained, all they wanted was to leave something for their children and bring some of the profit from the oil drilling back into the community.

115298_galAs the title suggests, all these major players are motivated by the desire to be big men, and Boynton looks at this ego-driven mentality as one possibility for the chaos that surrounds the business of extracting such in demand resources as oil. The CEO’s want to protect their reputation, the African government leaders want more for their country (and their own pockets) and the militants want the profit to be directed to the communities.

These are the broad themes but the film also tackles specific deals, particularly between Kosmos negotiating with the Ghana government over the first drilling of oil within Ghana, documenting the financial collapse as it directly effects these events. I recommend the watch never the less.