Sunday, 23 July 2017

Berlin Syndrome: NZIFF Review

Berlin Syndrome: NZIFF Review

Berlin Syndrome: NZIFF Review
The holiday romance turns very sour in Berlin Syndrome, the first NZIFF title to feel like a commercial release.

In the adaptation of Melanie Joosten's 2011 novel, Brisbane back-packer Clare (Teresa Palmer, I Am Number Four) is on her own in Germany when a chance meeting at a traffic lights with English teacher Andi (Max Riemelt, Sense 8) takes place.

Attracted to each other, the pair edge their way to a highly charged encounter. The following morning, when Andi goes to work, Clare finds herself locked in the isolated apartment. Assuming it's an error, she dismisses it, but when the key she's given the next morning doesn't work and she discovers her phone's SIM card is gone, terror starts to creep in....

Berlin Syndrome had the potential to be a cliché (and sadly heads that way a little at the end), but instead offers a thriller that's more unsettling and psychologically creepy as it unspools.

It helps that Palmer has the right mix of vulnerable and lost in the early stages as she mixes the scared and excited of a tourist in a new city when she exits the Berlin underground. Not your typical backpacker and not saddled with a 'I'm running away /finding myself' back-story, Clare's actions seem plausible as the story plays out.

Director Cate Shortland (Somersault, Lore) takes time to build an atmosphere that's filled with inherent dread as the captivity begins and as Andi becomes cold, distant and definitely creepy. Shortland front-loads the bases from the get go, giving Berlin Syndrome a sense of something sinister lurking; whether it's shots of the ancient architecture of Berlin or the foreshadowing in art book. 

It helps that Max Riemelt plays Andi without the usual tropes of a maniac and seems all the more unhinged because of his own charm and detached affability. In scenes with his father and with hints of the Berlin Wall past trauma, there's lots left unsaid that help to build an atmosphere but which may frustrate those looking for a simple reason why he is what he is. (Though, arguably, he's responsible for some truly laugh out loud lines as he carries on like an apparently normal couple - pesto will never look the same again.)

But subtle is what Berlin Syndrome does best in its terrific opening half, as we follow Clare, discovering the clues as she does and leading to those heart-in-mouth moments. Palmer does much to imbue her character with a retreat-in-your-shell mentality to help with survival.

Ultimately, and sadly, Berlin Syndrome may lose some impact because of its resolution, but what plays out prior to that is quite gripping and filled with suspense.

Thanks to Shortland's eye for the smaller moments and Palmer's carefully selective and introverted turn, Berlin Syndrome ends up being more captivating and psychologically disturbing than you'd expect.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

My Year With Helen: NZIFF Review

My Year With Helen: NZIFF Review

Director: Gaylene Preston

There's plenty to get frustrated about with Gaylene Preston's latest My Year With Helen, in which the Kiwi doco-maker spends time within Clark's camp as she tried for the job of UN Secretary General in 2016.

However, it's primarily the boys-led system that will have you raging as the film plays out, not the way the film's constructed.

Tagging along with Ms Clark, Preston had the idea to follow and see what doing good (as was Clark's desire) could actually achieve. But what, of course, transpired is that Helen Clark became the eye of the hurricane in a bid to become the next UN Secretary General.
My Year With Helen: NZIFF Review

Hindsight is both a blessing and a curse to this documentary.

It's a curse in that we all know the depressingly failed outcome of Clark's campaign, but it's also a blessing because what Preston actually captures, rather than an intimate diary of her moods, dreams and desires is the fact the UN is in crisis. Having had 8 men run it since its inception, what Preston's doco does is show what exactly is wrong with the UN, and why the zeitgeist desire to get a woman to the top job galvanised so many, and ultimately, why the final result was so head-slappingly dumb and a thumbing to those campaigning for glass-ceiling change.

Preston's smart enough to use the camera to capture the trappings of the UN, and while there are a few candid moments when Clark is less guarded (though these come primarily when she is relaxing with her father in the Waihi Beach home, making meals for her dad - I defy anyone not to release a Helen's Chilli Con Carne after this-  or a fleeting glance of her using social media in the back of the car on her way to yet another press the flesh meeting), there's little salacious or shocking on show. Throughout the entire film, whether it's scouting on a plane to Botswana, or attending meetings with the likes of Nancy Pelosi, Clark is the diplomat you'd expect at the UN and the restrained politician so familiar to so many.

While Clark's campaign becomes the film's raison d'etre, and Preston's camera wisely captures the voices around her, rather than seeing Clark grandstanding, the United Nations becomes more of a focus of the documentary as it goes on.  There's a terrible nagging sense of it being desperately out of touch with the people it serves, whether it's a subtle side shot of a US politician texting while an impassioned plea is made for those stuck in Syria, it's here that Preston's masterful touches pull back the curtains on the horrific political machinations within.

If there's a criticism, it's that there's little debate and debrief into what went wrong after the final straw poll and the galling decision to install yet another white man in the top job; in the immediate aftermath, Preston captures the hubbub of others rather than using the exclusive in to get Clark's immediate reaction. So it is that once she shows, she's already in composed mode, the perfect politician.

But it's also in this moment, that Preston reveals her master stroke interview technique.

In just four words, a very laid-back intro of "What a thing, eh?" leading into the post-failed campaign interview, Preston says it all. It's at this moment the candid camera captures the pragmatic resilience Clark is famed for, her never off-guard manner personified, but threatening to crumble. It's fascinating to see, and depressing for its implications to so many.

However, in hanging on Helen for a little longer in this muted debrief, Preston draws us into her eyes, and the disappointment and dejectedness that lies within them. It's an utterly enthralling moment to behold and a technique that delivers an emotional and unexpected pay-off.

While My Year With Helen's focus is more on the UN bid (as would have been necessitated by events), and regardless of how you feel about Helen herself (the brief insights probably won't change any deep-seated beliefs) what actually emerges is a definitive rallying cry for change within; not just for feminists but for all those frustrated with political back and forths in the 21st century.

It's a sickeningly fascinating examination of the human condition, the politics of change and the lip service that goes in, but thanks to Gaylene Preston's light and deft touch, what it becomes is a dignified and restrained yet undeniable clarion call to arms.

Trophy: NZIFF Review

Trophy: NZIFF Review

Perhaps the most confrontational, yet sensitively nuanced piece of documentary making, Trophy takes you into the world of big game hunting and the arguments which lie within.

Opening with a father and son climbing into a camouflaged outpost before the son shoots a deer and concluding with the shooting of one of our species' finest, this documentary is provocative in ways you'd expect and disappointing in ways you wouldn't.

Smartly deciding to avoid any sensationalism, filmmakers Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau decide to follow one hunter, Phillip,  who's determined to kill the Big 5 and one South African businessman John Hume whose belief and desire is to legally flood the market with rhino horn to prevent the tide of poachers.

It could be a potent mix, and in parts of Trophy, perceptions and arguments over big game conservatism get a good solid airing, as figures point to the fact that since 1970 the world's lost 60% of its wild animals.

Equally, both Schwarz and Clusiau don't shy away from showing the horrific aftermath of a poacher's rampage - and certainly the sight of a rhino calf crying and running around in the equivalent of Greek mourning after its mother has been killed is nothing short of heart-rending and harrowing

Trophy's strength is how it flips perception of the argument and how you think you know what's going to be said, before actually giving you the other point of view. Even though it falls a little into its own trappings, with Phillip given enough rope to show his ignorance later on and Hume being given the chance to shine.

But it's entirely complex in its handling of the arguments and simply offers up no easy or obvious solutions. It merely showcases and balances the debate as well as juxtaposing the clashes of ideologies against a backdrop of a hunter shooting a restrained animal in the head. This is no easy journey, and it's refusal to adhere to a  no hear no evil, see no evil approach deserves commendation.

In the back of the doco, it perhaps squanders some of the more interesting elements over Hume's crusade and desires coming back to haunt him, but one suspects this was a time constraint and perhaps it's fair to suggest this was the meatier part of the final debate - the cost, both literally and figuratively, to those involved. It's a complex and confronting doco that doesn't squander sensitivity for the salacious by any stretch of imagination.

Ultimately, Trophy is a smartly put together piece on an endlessly difficult subject. It deserves commendation for an unswerving dedication to both sides and be aware, it won't leave you with a feeling of resolution at the end, merely the feeling the debate needs to be had.

It Comes At Night: NZIFF Review

It Comes At Night: NZIFF Review

Cast: Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison Jr, Christopher Abbott, Riley Keough
Director: Trey Edward Shults

Balancing tension, claustrophobia and paranoia in equal measures, Trey Edward Shults' film It Comes At Night is a chamber piece for the doomsday preppers among you.

Opening with an old man struggling to breathe before he's put in a wheelbarrow and unceremoniously rolled out by gas-masked unknowns, accompanied by a red jerry can and a gun, It Comes At Night goes for the gut-wrenching right away, a veritable sucker punch to the "This could be any of you" ethos that punctuates its survivalist core.
It Comes At Night: NZIFF Review

Revealing the gas mask wearers to be a family, headed up by patriarch Paul (Joel Edgerton, bearded and downbeat), It Comes At Night zeroes in on their isolation in a house in the woods. With his wife (Ejogo) and son Travis (Harrison Jr) in tow, Paul's family unit is embedded into this post-apocalyptic world.

But when Christopher Abbot's desperate Will breaks in to their house one night, seemingly searching for supplies for his wife and child, a ticking time bomb of suspicion and mistrust is placed within this tight-knit unit.

And things are further exacerbated when Will brings his brood back to the house....

Less an outright horror, more a creeping insidious terror, It Comes At Night is perhaps more a psychological experience than a full-on fright fest.

It helps that surrendering to Shults' rhythms is the way to settle into this sedately-paced film that lies on soundtrack and palpable tension to ratchet things up. With claustrophobic close-ups and wide shots of corridors and an ominous red door in and out of the house, the dread is easily created early on.

Shults uses his weary-looking cast to ramp up an atmosphere of unease that's as menacing as it is frustrating, though an over-reliance on differently aspect-ratioed dream sequences involving Travis' night terrors punctuate way too much of this film as it unfolds.
It Comes At Night: NZIFF Review

Bleak and desolate it may be, while relying on the hoary trope of the unseen menace within the woods and that's always at arms-length, It Comes At Night uses its sparing sense of fear to reasonably terrifying effect. Dialogue propels great amounts of the implied ambiguity within as the survivalist nightmare reaches to a crescendo.

It's not exactly the kind of film which is going to leave many feeling bright and breezy, though with the reminder of a constant fear from the Doomsday Clock edging ever closer to midnight in these current climes maybe informing the NZIFF's desire to programme this, it does seem scarily prescient.
Abbott and Edgerton make for uneasy bedfellows as Will and Paul, and Travis' mixing of sexual awakening with a creeping sense of voyeurism at the new family (in particular, the wife played by The Girlfriend Experience's Riley Keough) proving to be a heady mix of uncertainty, there's more than enough to creep out those watching.

Fundamentally slow (despite its brevity and 90 minutes run time) and distinctly unsettling, It Comes At Night may prove to be a polarising film festival experience, but its quietly devastating voyage is deep-rooted in singularly human basic instincts - and is all the more terrifying for it.

I Am Not A Witch: NZIFF Review

I Am Not A Witch: NZIFF Review

Muted and yet surprisingly moving in its final moments, debut director Ryungano Nyoni's I Am Not A Witch is the tale of Shula, a girl living in Zambia.

The nine-year old is accused of witchcraft and hauled in front of local authorities, where the policewoman in charge is regaled with tales of her witchiness, including how she hacked off one man's arm with an axe (even though he tells the story with both arms intact.)
I Am Not A Witch

As the will of the village is to condemn her as a witch, Shula is sent to be part of the witch's community, an ostracised sect that live with ribbons tied to their backs, and whose freedom is held in check by giant rollers that go wherever they go.

But Shula's "powers" are questioned when she's asked to preside in a trial over a theft, and to identify the thief. Apparently being blessed with the sight, Shula's showered with gifts of gratitude, some of which are taken by her charge, the corrupt government official Mr Banda and the rest which are given to the remaining members of her witch's community.

However, Shula herself begins to resist the idea of being pigeonholed as something she is clearly not....

I Am Not A Witch is mournful and despite offering some obviously comic moments, Nyoni's film has depressing overtones for the world we currently live in. With Trump's America and The Handmaid's Tale clearly ringing in our collective ears, it's hard not to view I Am Not A Witch as some kind of rejoinder to this state of current global affairs. And while Nyoni's view is that the film mocks the Zambian way of life, it's heartbreaking to see the nine-year-old girl caught up in a world which literally shackles the women around it, in an overt form of slavery.

In among all this, Margaret Mulubwa's turn as quiet little Shula makes the film quite poignant and ultimately impressively moving. Whether it's dealing with a tourist who just wants a picture with the witch as she sits dejected in a totem she's been placed in for days or simply watching the village harangue and turn against her early on, Mulubwa's eyes do it all.

And while some of the scenes feel a little stretched and could have been excised, there's no denying the final sequence's power and imagery. Throughout I Am Not A Witch, Nyoni imbues the screen with some powerful shots and some simple images that speak volumes. It's here the power and tragedy of I Am Not A Witch emerges.

Bittersweet, sad and scathing of Zambia, Nyoni's I Am Not A Witch really does have a way of casting a spell on you that you'd perhaps not expect.

Kedi: NZIFF Review

Kedi: NZIFF Review

Cast: Cats, Istanbul vistas, People
Director: Ceyda Torun

It's perhaps no surprise that a documentary about cats is as fluffy as one of the feline's tails.
Kedi Film Review

But it's also perhaps no surprise that this gentle doco is as amiable and as universal as they come.

Against the backdrop of Istanbul's streets, so beautifully captured and brought to life on the big screen, Kedi follows seven different cats with distinct personalities and a grip on the people who inhabit the streets and live their daily humdrum lives.

With Torun running a street level rig, the film follows the pussies as they weave their way in and out of people's lives, shopfronts and cajole them to feed them.
There's no ground-breaking reason for Kedi to exist; it's simply a case of documenting life on the streets.

However, what emerges from the cod-philosophising of the nameless faces that extol the virtues of the rampant animals running amok in a friendly way, is a sense of community and a sense of belonging that these critters engender.

Despite the odd hyperbole spun by some of the anthropomorphizing and projecting tendencies of the commenters (one woman draws a long bow between how the female cats stand strong and upright in their dignity, whereas women of their religion are cowed and oppressed and that she "doesn't see elegance in women like that anymore"), what starts to emerge is a city with a tremendous sense of heart above all else.

As is mentioned early on, the cats have been there for thousands of years, and have seen empires grow and fall; they are as timeless in the fabric of the city as those who look after them.
From the baker who has an open tab at the vets to help to the sailor who feels duty bound to hand rear a litter of kittens whose mother has disappeared, this is the milk of human kindness writ large on the screen. Along with furry feline interactions - whether it's cat looking like it's been caught on camera stealing fish or another staring photogenically down the lens, there's something for all animal lovers here, though the more hardened cinema-goer may find parts of their own fur bristling as time goes on.

Slow-mo close-ups will look radiant upon the big screen and the film-makers in their gentle touches do nothing more than desire to elicit a sympathetic "Aww" from those subjected to this endless parade of cute.

Unlike the viciousness of former fest outing White God's canine uprising, Kedi has a soothing tone and deceptively simple ambitions to fulfill which it hits with relative ease throughout; it aims to showcase a city awash in humanity, with a co-existence of cats and their masters, basking in the glow of simpler times.

Kedi may not be cinematic catnip to the likes of Gareth Morgan, but there's a strong case to say that any animal lover or family seeking a gentle outing will be entranced by the warmth of this microcosm of furry life.

The Party: NZIFF Review

The Party: NZIFF Review

The Party: NZIFF Review

Continuing the British desire to only unburden repressed feelings in social gatherings, Sally Potter's The Party builds a fragile house of cards at a soirée, only to consequently scatter the deck without any food being served.

Opening with a 'how did they get here?' moment, the black and white melodrama plays out with some acidic aplomb by the troupe of players.

All gathered to celebrate Kristin Scott Thomas' Janet's ascension to ministry and politics, a group of fractured and apparently fragile friends begin to unravel in only the delicious way the Brits know how.

As the group comes together, Timothy Spall's Bill sits solo in the front room, hunched and haunted on a chair, with a wine glass in one hand, and with a near catatonic look on his face. But as the night goes on, everyone comes under scrutiny in some form or other.

Like a scab being ripped off or an itch incessantly being scratched, The Party's thrills come from the unexpected turn of events and the inevitably entangled revelations.

Perhaps it teeters perilously towards the end with disbelief, but Potter's black and white film crackles with dry acidity and typical scorn throughout, all topped off with a deliciously dark dry tragedy languishing within. It's fraught with spoilers to unveil what transpires within, but needless to say the troupe of players from Spall's distanced Bill, Thomas' haughty and yet easy to humble Janet, Patricia Clarkson's acidic April to Cillian Murphy's on edge Tom, all delivering in spades.

It helps the script is laced with one-liners and withering moments, as the sourness of the situation becomes more evident. In many ways, the film feels like a play with its whirling deliciousness on words and desire to ratchet up the moments to near contrived, but in Potter's hand, the curt run time feels just about right; any more would over-egg this pudding and any further reveals would push this dangerously close to cliche.

The Party's power lies in the picking over of the relationships and the unbinding of those ties; it's thanks to all involved that the polish and sheen comes tumbling from the screen; in black and white and close up, every detail is nuanced; from Spall's heavily white flecked beard to Murphy's drug-induced sweats, Potter's camera captures every subtlety.

This is most definitely one party to RSVP to at the Festival.