“God help the poor idiot who has to review that“. A couple of years ago the film festival opened in Auckland with I Am Love, Luca Guadagnino’s magnificent third collaboration with Tilda Swinton. I really had no idea what to make of it. I remember saying as much to the friend I saw it with, and naturally, when the film subsequently turned up on general release, the 50/50 vagaries of the Listener film reviewing schedule dictated that the poor idiot who had to review it was me.
It ended up being one of the most interesting reviews – to write, I mean – that I did that year, and I ended up loving the film. But I had to see it a second time before I could write about it confidently. The same thing happened the following year with Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life; or rather, the same thing raised to the nth power. As I was leaving the theatre the first time I saw it, I bumped into a colleague who was already on his second viewing. (He had decided to go to all the Auckland screenings of it. At the time I thought he was mad). I don’t quite remember what I said to him – some version of “What the hell just happened?” – but I remember his reply: “It’s a lot better the second time”. The Tree of Life ended up being my favourite film of 2011.
This is the first year we’ve tried blogging the film festival. ”We” would normally mean the Listener’s usual film review team of David Larsen (hi) and Helene Wong, but Helene is on sabbatical for the next three months. Her chair is being kept warm by Hugh Lilly, a.k.a. the man who told me to see The Tree of Life again. We’re basically just going to go to as many films as we possibly can and write about them, though there may be the odd attempt at an overview or general remark. I have a fantasy – every year I have this fantasy – where we see everything and write the definitive account of the whole shebang. One of the film festival’s less celebrated cultural functions is to teach film reviewers humility. Usually this is purely because of the numbers: so many great films, so little space in which to do them justice. This year we’re giving ourselves the infinite space of the internet, which means the humbling factor will be time: not just “so many great films, only so many hours in the day”, but also, in my case, “so many challenging and complex films, so little time for my thoughts to settle”. Here are some first impressions from the festival’s first couple of days. Offered in all humility. Have fun out there.
Beasts of the Southern Wild (Hugh Lilly) In first-time director Benh Zeitlin’s enchanting fairy-tale Beasts of the Southern Wild, “the end of the world already happened.” Those words are heard in voiceover narration from our six-year-old protagonist, Hushpuppy, as she gives us a sort of guided tour of her Louisiana bayou island community, “The Bathtub.” Flood-ravaged and soon to be evacuated after a Katrina-like disaster, the Bathtub is overwhelmed by omnipresent, invasive Mother Nature and her destructive forces. In this southern wild, pets, livestock and wild animals alike are on equal footing with Homo sapiens. (At film’s end, the Bathtub plays host to some very real beasts called ‘aurochs’ that’ve floated down to the Gulf of Mexico encased in ice.)
Absent any clear parental guidance, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is left to fend for herself. Her father – an alcoholic, like many of the loose-knit community’s residents – is dying of an unspecified ailment, and her mother isn’t around at all, is possibly even “no longer with us.” This is not to say she is unloved or uncared for by those around her—quite the opposite, in fact—but merely that there’s no one to cook her meals. Her attempts to do so herself lead to a fairly spectacular, and initially quite funny, set piece.
The film is a dreamlike fable, recalling the childlike wonderment at the centre of Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are even as its visual grammar almost bare-facedly appropriates the work of Terrence Malick. (Its young female narrator-protagonist is an unashamed admixture of the innocent sensibilities of Linda Manz in Days of Heaven and Q’orianka Kilcher in The New World—albeit without half the grace and humility evinced in those young actresses’ portrayals.) David Gordon Green’s George Washington and Lance Hammer’s under-seen 2008 film Ballast were almost certainly additional sources of inspiration for Zeitlin and first-time screenwriter Lucy Alibar.
Zeitlin’s adventurous/exploratory handheld, grainy shooting style—on display in his 2008 short film Glory at Sea, evidently something of a sketch for Beasts—also nods to two in a series of commercials made by Wieden+Kennedy for Levi’s; one, directed by Cary Fukunaga (Never Let Me Go), has the tagline “Go Forth,” while the other, directed by John Hillcoat (The Road) is simply titled “To Work.” Both take Malick’s magic-hour preference and harmony-with-nature template and fixate upon them; the latter commercial even goes as far as to brazenly make use of the exact same Wagner extract Malick employed in The New World. (In the ad-series’ grating 2011 update, an avuncular narrator pithily intones bizarre truisms such as “Your life is your life”.)
The musical score for Glory at Sea—like that for Beasts, co-written by Zeitlin and the producer-composer Dan Romer, who has worked with the singer-songwriters Ingrid Michaelson and Jenny Owen Youngs—comprises brassy, anthemic cues not dissimilar to Funeral-era Arcade Fire. Mercifully fewer of them appear in the feature’s 93 minutes than in the short’s comparatively cramped 25 minutes. In Glory at Sea, the score becomes grating; in Beasts, its occasional presence is a welcome accompaniment.
Even if some in its sizeable cast of supporting characters are underwritten, the film is charmingly imaginative, and undergirded by the wide-eyed and appropriately naïve performance Zeitlin exacts from Wallis. Even Beasts’ minority of detractors, for whom the film’s ad-agency sheen and/or childlike point-of-view are irritants rather than objects of celebration, agree on one thing: the film’s one terrific scene near the end—something of a bacchanal set in what seems like an afterlife way station-cum-brothel. In Beasts’ earthy, in-touch-with-nature vibe, Zeitlin achieves — through unreal characters fully inhabiting an almost plausible, fantastic near-reality —a joyous, vibrant mood.
Where Do We Go Now? (David Larsen) I could mention niggles over this detail and that. Actually I need to: the striking thing about Nadine Labaki’s second film is the way the niggles (some overly contrived heist-style manouvering here and there, some forced acting at one key moment) register as real, without registering as important. The overall mood always trumps the negatives. “Feel-good” is a term I don’t love – it always seems to suggest a pharmaceutical quality – and in any case this is a serious-minded film about religious war and mothers facing the deaths of sons and husbands. But it’s also a warmly humane ensemble comedy, a worthy successor to (and in some respects even a step up from) Labaki’s delightful Caramel. And it will, yes, make you feel good.
This time the setting isn’t explicitly in Labaki’s native Lebanon; we’re in a small village somewhere in the Middle East, where Christians and Muslims are managing to maintain a fragile peace. A striking opening sequence in which black-clad women of both faiths dance their way bleakly to the town cemetery shows us just exactly how unreliable this peace is: every one of them has a man or boy lying there. Tensions are starting to build again in the rest of the country, and the women embark on a secret campaign to prevent the men from fighting. The film is about unity in the face of division: one gender insisting the other not be allowed to behave as though they’re not all human and part of a single community, simply because some of them go to the mosque while others go to the church. (In a nice twist, the only men on the women’s side are the town’s imam and its priest). So it’s nicely appropriate that the film achieves such a remarkable unity of tone with such disparate elements. There’s genuine tragedy here. There are also musical numbers and moments of high farce. Somehow, Labaki fuses it into something cohesive and powerful, at once light-hearted and utterly serious. Comedy, it’s often remarked, is just as hard to do as tragedy, and it can hit harder. Don’t miss this film.
¡Vivan las Antipodas! (David Larsen) If I didn’t already have tickets to something else in the same time slot, I would go to next Saturday’s second (and final) Auckland screening of this astonishing documentary. I badly want to see it again. The concept is simple: director Victor Kossakovsky and his collaborators travel to four pairs of antipodal locations around the planet and document what they find there. That is, they go to, as it might be, rural Argentina, and then to the exact opposite side of the Earth, following a direct line through the center of the planet, which in this case happens to lead to Shanghai. Kossakovsky extends this Quixotic notion into a study of themed opposites, using simple but remarkably effect camera tricks to convey the idea of unity within opposition, while at the same time completely defamiliarising conventional images. Flipping from a makeshift bridge over a river in Argentina to Shanghai, he shows us cars zipping over a motorway bridge. But he maintains Argentina’s frame of reference, and shows them to us upside down. I can’t tell you offhand how many hugely expensive CGI images I’ve seen in science fiction and fantasy films this year, but the cognitive estrangement Kossakovksy achieves with his upside down cars is more powerful than any of them: we all know that things on the far side of the planet are upside down relative to us, but just try watching it for two minutes. The film is leisurely, intellectually playful, and full of the most spectacular cinematography. We’re informed at the outset that one of the locations on the itinerary is Castle Point, and when we finally arrived at it I was a little let down to discover how brief this segment is: a flaw only in terms of my parochial expectations, and I mention it so you can set your own ones aside and enjoy one of the great, unlikely wonders of this year’s festival. From start to finish, it’s a feast for both the eyes and the mind.
The Hunt (David Larsen) The odds are strong that if you buy tickets to this powerful Danish drama, you’ll do so on the strength of the festival’s programme notes, which include a brief, non-spoilery plot outline. Your experience of the film’s first act will be very, very different depending on whether you do or don’t have this outline informing your expectations, and since I’m about to recapitulate it, anyone who doesn’t yet know what the film’s about might want to consider jumping ship right now and going to it in a state of tabula rasa innocence. It’s a searing, difficult story, problematic in a couple of non-trivial respects, but superbly acted and worth seeing. Last chance to stop reading. Still with me? Okay: this is the story of a daycare center worker falsely accused of sexually molesting a child. As soon as you know this, the opening scenes, in which we see Lucas (the great Mads Mikkelsen) happily playing with kids at work, chatting with his neighbours, and hunting deer with a gang of male friends, become almost unbearably tense. It’s a perverse relief when things start to go wrong for him. A young girl glimpses some porn on her teenage brother’s laptop, and says something which convinces one of the other daycare workers that what she saw on the laptop was actually done to her: by Lucas.
Once word of this inadvertent accusation gets out into the local community, Lucas finds himself in a chillingly plausible predicament. The middle section of the film, where we see things go rapidly from bad to worse to nightmare, is hard to fault: tightly constructed, with strong performances, especially from Mikkelsen, and an overall impact which will be haunting my dreams. I found the closing scenes implausible, but not in a way that was badly damaging to the story, and the very final scene is extremely well judged.
The problem with the film, and it’s substantial, though not fatal, is the bridging sequence which gets us from “Lucas: everyone likes him” to “Lucas: everyone thinks he’s a pedophile”. The head of the daycare center promises the parents of the supposedly abused child that “we will of course follow procedures to the letter”, but her actions suggest this center has no procedures for this situation; in fact they suggest that no one there has ever contemplated it as a possibility. 20 years ago, this would have been all too believable, but as the laptop with its porn website makes clear, this film is set in the present. Yet we see the center head and Lucas’s other co-workers act in the most unprofessional way imaginable, asking leading questions (the worst possible thing to do when dealing with a preschooler and a sensitive subject, as any trained early childcare worker knows), after which they jump to conclusions, and release the details of the investigation to all the other parents without telling Lucas anything. When Lucas turns up at the center to demand an explanation, an entirely predictable event, his boss responds by running out the back and screaming at him not to follow.
The father of the child is Lucas’s best friend, and the investigation has a terrible effect on Lucas’s son. The other daycare workers are all women. So in this film about the cruel treatment of a man accused of sexually abusing a child, the women act irrationally, and although most of the men do as well, the only people we see struggling to deal with the implications of the situation with any degree of nuance or humanity are male. It’s not as though a man could never end up in Lucas’s situation in today’s world, and director Thomas Vinterberg does an excellent job of forcing us to feel what that might be like; but the route which gets the film to the central meat of its story sets up an uncomfortable subtext: “men are victims, women need to calm down”. It was during these set-up scenes, not the later ones where terrible things are being done to Lucas, that I noticed a few people walking out. They missed some extraordinary cinema. But I could see their point of view.
Moonrise Kingdom (David Larsen) Analysing a Wes Anderson film feels uncomfortably like building a plaster of Paris model of a spiderweb: the essential gossamer charm of the thing under discussion can’t easily be captured with the tools to hand. Let the record show that I saw this one immediately after The Hunt, i.e. while shell-shocked, and that a more perfect balm for the spirit would be hard to imagine. I think it may be Anderson’s best to date. Two young actors – Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman, both in their first big screen roles – give wonderful performances as a pair of star-crossed 12 year old lovers (for an entirely age-appropriate value of “lovers”) in 1965 New England. A stellar adult cast play the obstacles to true love, and do so without the least hint of Big Stars Deigning To Play Small Roles. Bruce Willis (never so understated) and Bill Murray (gloriously understated as ever) are particularly wonderful. Anderson constructs his story with enormous discipline and skill, and really, there was never a moment when the film didn’t have my number. Be advised that you will emerge in love with the music of Benjamin Britten.
The Cabin In The Woods (David Larsen) If you’re reading this, you’re online, and if you’re online, is it possible you don’t know all about The Cabin In The Woods already? I feel ridiculously smug that I made it to the Friday night late screening at the Civic without having the plot spoiled: not easy work, amigo. It was, I think, the best audience I’ve ever been part of at the Civic: loud without being unruly (well, only in a good way) and everyone overjoyed to be there. I’ve seen one or two people lamenting the fact that this genre-wise, self-referential horror film turns out to be as much a comedy as a horror, which I report for the sake of strict accuracy: it was probably only 99.99% of the audience who had a great time. Drew Goddard directs, and he does a fine job, but the Friday hordes were out for the screenwriter, some guy called Joss Whedon. (Goddard is an alumnus of the Whedon ur-text, Buffy The Vampire Slayer). I know smart, film-literate people who get very tired of the general geek adulation for Whedon, and fair enough; he has his flaws. If more people who wrote fantasy, horror or scifi had the basic bedrock genre literacy and storytelling skills he has, we would no doubt be less inclined to fall on his competence, his wit and his evident pleasure in his work with such glad cries.
What can I say that won’t ruin the film for anyone still waiting to see it? Very little. Whedon has a grand time playing hob with the established tropes of the field, sending the quintessential group of implausibly gorgeous young Americans – the jock, the bimbo, the smart girl, the smart boy, the comic relief stoner – off for a weekend at the eponymous vacation spot, where Bad Things Gonna Happen. They do. But not entirely as you expect. In the process of overturning the form’s apple cart, Whedon delivers all the predictable scary bits, none of which anyone versed in these movies will find the least bit scary… but as well as a lot of good clean all-gonna-die-now fun, the “not entirely as you expect” aspect of the film has some actual horror to it, cunningly derived from the capacity of people to dissociate themselves from images of other people’s suffering: in other words, from their capacity to enjoy horror movies. Yes, it’s self-referential horror, folks. My favourite kind. Great cast. (Richard Jenkins and The West Wing‘s Bradley Whitford are especially good). Nice effects. This film has been at least a medium-sized hit overseas, and it was slated to go direct to DVD in New Zealand, because horror films, apparently, don’t make money here. I never expected to be thanking the film festival for making it possible for me to see the next film from the guy who made The Avengers, but there you go: the festival is a house of many mansions. We’ll be visiting more of them soon.