The Listener at the NZ Film Festival: five early highlights

By Helene Wong, David Larsen In Now Showing

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PERSISTENCE OF VISION [David Larsen]

I fell in love with this extraordinary little film at the point where it introduced someone to us as “The only man who ever punched Walt Disney”. Well before it ends, you, too, will want to punch Walt Disney; but that’s a passing moment of outrage in a sea of much richer emotional responses. Wonder, sadness, hilarity… I have seen nine films since this festival opened three days ago, nearly all of them good, several of them exceptional, and this is far out in front as the best.

Persistence of Vision

It looks, at first, like a meat and potatoes talking heads documentary: look, we interviewed people! We have intercut the footage! We will do this for an hour and a half and you will learn things! Much of the footage is rather old, rather grainy, and the general impression is that a joyless trudge down Biography Lane lies in front of you. The biography in question being that of one Richard Williams, according to legend the greatest master of animated film never to complete an actual masterpiece.

There are more than a few surviving fragments of his work, and we see some of them early in the film. But the smartest of the many smart moves director Kevin Schreck makes here is keeping things mostly at the meat and potatoes visual level for long enough that by the time the really impressive animated sequences arrive, you know what it took to create them, and you’re already fascinated by the crazy, self-sabotaging perfectionist who oversaw their creation.

“Oversaw”, because animation is a studio-based craft, and this is the key fact that lets this film work. I saw it directly after watching We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, another documentary whose primary subject – Julian Assange, in that case, and don’t let the title persuade you otherwise – refused to be interviewed. We Steal Secrets (which you should watch, by the way) resorts to all sorts of dubious tactics to finesse this problem. All Schreck has to do is sit down with some of Williams’ many colleagues, who, unlike Assange’s, have worked closely with him over many decades, and are able and willing to give a robust, convincing account of his character.

What a character. The film provides an excellent overview of the animation industry from the 50s through to the late 80s, and it’s equally good as a study of the tensions between commerce and art, which are common to most – all? – creative enterprises, though not at animation’s level of intensity. (So much money required to produce anything at all, in animation. Who’s going to pay for it? One of the funniest and most heart-breaking moments in the film is when a glorious, surging piece of heroic impressionist-style animation turns out to be an ad for aftershave). But the portrait of the artist as lunatic perfectionist is what makes this so specific that it becomes universal. You have never known anyone exactly like Richard Williams. But if you’ve spent any time on the planet at all, you’ve known (or been) someone with his fatal urge to make things as good as they can possibly be… which is to say, someone who will never allow themselves to finish anything, in case it isn’t good enough.

But the things he nearly finished! We see enough to know that they’re astonishing. So, in the end, is this film.

OH BOY [David Larsen]

Oh Boy

The difficulty of reviewing something slight is that you will over-describe it. To put it in franker if more embarrassing terms, my difficulty, in reviewing Oh Boy, is that my command of language is not up to the task. This is a delightful confection, and it was the definite highlight of my first full day at the festival, but its pleasures are of the melt-in-your-mouth variety. It’s a sorbet of a movie, and your best move, frankly, is to stop reading this, avoid expecting a Thunderbolt of Majestic Artistic Splendour, and just go watch it.

Niko is a young drop-out living in Berlin on his father’s money. He is having a bad day. Also a weird day. A series of one-off encounters maps out a curve from the mildly unpleasant to the distinctly surreal. And he cannot seem to find anyone who will agree to sell him a cup of coffee. I hesitate to call this is an indie slacker comedy, though it absolutely is one, because I’ve seen more than enough of those for the current decade, and I expect you have too. But this one is gorgeously shot in black and white – Berlin has rarely looked better – and the writing has exactly the right light touch, and Tom Schilling, as Niko, has a fine variety of disconcerted expressions. He needs all of them. Myself, I walked out beaming.

MUD [David Larsen]

The morning after I saw Jeff Nicholls’ Mud, I heard the news that the next Superman movie will also be a Batman movie. It would be a lie to say that I’m as fond of superhero films as the next person, because unless the next person is actually wearing a costume, I’m quite a lot fonder. (I believe I still hold the record for longest ever review of an X-men movie.) But to see the mainstream internet going wild over this bit of marketing while the film teenage boys should be lining up in droves for gets art-house distribution, if it’s lucky – it gives me the horrible feeling I just woke up and discovered our culture has gone bankrupt.

Mud

Old news, I guess, and in any case, the jeremiad can wait. Let’s talk about Mud. Adults will enjoy this film. Girls will enjoy this film. But this is a boys’ film, fair and square, and the best I’ve seen since – um. Since Stand By Me? That can’t be right. But I’m struggling to think of anything else as good from the last three decades.

Ellis and Neckbone are 14, and they live on the Arkansas banks of the Mississippi. Neckbone is a simple soul: on some far off, unimaginable day he would like to get laid, and in the meantime he wants to hang out with Ellis and have fun. Ellis’s idea of the world is almost equally simple, but in a more romantic vein, and he is newly aware that his parents may be splitting up. When he and Neckbone find a man hiding on a river island, waiting for the love of his life to turn up so they can escape some unspecified troubles together, Ellis instantly decides that this is a story in need of the right ending. He sets out to make it happen.

The man on the island is called Mud, and he is played by Matthew McConaughey. I have already have a couple of conversations on the general theme, “No, really, he’s rediscovered acting, you need to give him a chance”. As much as I enjoyed him in Magic Mike, this is McConaughey’s best performance to date, not least because, here as in Mike, he clearly understands that the film isn’t about him, and creates a larger-than-life character without using up anyone else’s oxygen.

Ellis, on the other hand, is exactly life-size, a fierce, loyal, sane boy with a lot of illusions and a powerful need not to lose too many of them too quickly. The story pushes him right to the edge, and young Tye Sheridan, who plays him, does a wonderful job of making us care whether he’s going to manage to grow up fast enough to survive… without growing so fast that he breaks.

Several times, especially towards the end, Nicholls takes the time to spell out things that don’t, from an adult vantage, need spelling out. This is one reason I call this a boys’ film: its pacing and its exposition are timed for an audience the same age as its characters. But the better reason is that this is a film that celebrates boys without romanticising them. Comparisons with Mark Twain are inevitable, and for once they’re deserved.

BECOMING TRAVIATA [Helene Wong]

To call this a ‘making-of’ video would rightly earn me a jolly good oral seeing-to with soap and water, but ultimately that’s what it is, only a million times better than the mostly useless stuff thrown together for DVD extras. No offstage byplay, no celebrity carry-on, no mutual verbal stroking of colleagues – just a close documentation of the work that went on between singer (soprano Natalie Dessay) and director (Jean-François Sivadier) as they prepare Verdi’s La Traviatain Aix-en-Provence in the summer of 2011.

Becoming Traviata

As an examination of the creative process, this will appeal to more than just lovers of opera. Watching professionals at the top of their game wrestling with and testing out their artistic choices is absorbing and thrilling, and for those moments we are right in there with them. And while you might think rehearsals are boring to watch – and they are – Philippe Béziat and his team of photographers, and editor Cyril Leuthy have produced a tight and lively visual narrative that focuses on the emotional work at the most important of the opera’s plot points, while allowing the film to breathe and simply observe when appropriate. There’s a cinematic style at times that elevates it beyond simple documentary.

Dessay is a feisty, almost Piaf-like presence, a concentration of energy that makes her Violetta passionate and gutsy. Her fellow singers (an impossibly handsome Charles Castronovo as Alfredo, and Ludovico Tézier as his father) along with the chorus, acquit themselves with excellence, but it’s Dessay’s show. Sivadier is a gentle and encouraging director, clear in what he wants but trusting her to find it in herself … and she does, with splendid results.

This is no grand gold-and-velvet production. It’s in an outdoor theatre, with minimalist costuming and set, and we see enough of it to know that it will suggest all that’s needed without distracting from the emotions being played out in front of them. We don’t get to see any of the final performance, but we don’t need to. We’ve seen it at its moments of raw discovery, and that’s enough.

ANTARCTICA: A YEAR ON ICE [Helene Wong]

You’ll think twice before using that overworked word “awesome” again after seeing Anthony Powell’s film. Yes, the film’s spectacular, but it’s the Antarctic itself that personifies the adjective. We might know this in an abstract way, but Powell’s images, shot over several years while working at Scott and McMurdo, make it manifest. Time-lapse footage gives natural phenomena such as encroaching ice sheets and the aurora australis a dimension we’re usually not around or privileged to see: the telescoping of creation and change.

Antarctica: A Year on Ice

Since most of us will never have the opportunity to visit the place, this is the next best thing. It’s not all earnest stories about scientific endeavour; it’s a human scale look at living on the ice year-round. Interviewed are mostly employees who provide the base services, ordinary citizens who happen to work in an extraordinary office, and they’re ready and willing to talk frankly about their experience. The majority are Americans at McMurdo, with an occasional and very amusing contribution from the other bases, and by the time we’ve been through a year with them, we’ve got an acute sense of the place and the highs and lows.

This highly personalized encounter has the effect of demystifying the place, but it never trivialises it. We sense the importance of the research, and there are understated references to the effect of climate change and the continent’s uncertain future politically.

But above all this, it leaves the wonder intact. There are moments when what Powell’s cameras have captured will bring you to tears. Which is why you need to see it in the dark, on a big screen.

See also: David Larsen reviews We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks

More by Helene Wong, David Larsen

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