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Orlando [1992] by Sally Potter

Orlando (image 4)

ORLANDO is quite a spectacular romp through 400 years of English history with Tilda Swinton as our tour guide.  She plays Orlando, a soft-faced young man who the queen loves enough to give him an estate, on condition that he never grow old.  So he does not. 

The costumes and the settings are lavish and the clearest indication of what historical period we are in, because Orlando tends to go against the grain of each period, pursuing his interests with utter passion and determination until he is struck by failure and moves on. 

It is theatrical but also so cinematic, what other medium could facilitate such an extravagant and unlikely a concept?  But it is Tilda Swinton who holds it all together with her dignified performance, wearing the costumes and moving through the moods as if it's all normal, staring at us through the camera when it surprises even her/Orlando. 

I came out of this film uplifted with the clever and light-hearted delight of a long life, carrying around 400 years of baggage, and letting it all go to pursue a new life in a new time.  Our greatest power, after being able to experience life intensely, is to let it all go and move on, ever-changing, ever-evolving, ever-growing creatures that we are.  Funny, spectacular and utterly delightful.

The Seen and the Unseen [2017] by Kamila Andini

The Seen and Unseen (image 1)

In The Seen and the Unseen a boy takes an egg from the offerings to the gods and then falls mysteriously degeneratively sick.  His twin sister wants to keep playing with him while he lies unconscious in the hospital bed.  She processes her defiance, her hope, her realisation and her grief through dance, denying his sickness, defying his sickness, dreaming, channeling the spirits and the animals.  The two worlds, the seen and the unseen, are painfully close, but painfully incompatible.

This is a strange and beautiful world, and this film is worth seeing simply because it is very much from a cultural context not our own.  Don't expect a narrative or a lot of stimulation, but expect gentle and embodied expression from this amazing little girl, sometimes corralling her brother to join her; costume, movement and grief without despair, channeled beautifully through the body and imagination of a child in touch with her Balinese cultural heritage.

Border [2018] by Ali Abbasi

Border (image 1)

An ugly woman working on border patrol has a strange talent for being able to smell fear and guilt on people, perfect for sniffing out who has too much duty-free alcohol.  But her talent, and her ugliness, is a mystery to her, until she meets someone who looks similar.  He likes roaming the forest and eating insects, and he has the clue to her peculiarity.

This film is fun, although it's not funny.  It is a genre film for people not dumb enough for most genre films.  Although it's dealing with trolls, mythical creatures of the European woods, there is something subversive about them roaming naked through the forest, encountering wildlife peacefully, eating insects, shrieking joyously in the river in the rain.  But the film always restrains itself, never reverting to sensationalism or sentimentality.  Always dry, always grounded and never giving in to the obvious pitfalls of genre convention.  Having said, this feels like it could be the start of a franchise, but let's hope not; let's hope that our myths are retold, as in this film, with integrity and feeling and not exploited to sell merchandise like the crap of the multiplex.


Burning [2018] by Lee Chang-dong

Burning (image 1)

Burning is an extraordinarily involving and mysterious film.  It is difficult to critique a film that is more sophisticated than me.  I was masterfully drawn into a world I totally believed in, without irony, without sensation, the film remains totally grounded, even as the characters unravel.

Three characters whose lives become intertwined, almost by accident; Jongsu, a reserved young man, supposedly writing a book; Haemi, a passionate, unstable young woman who demands Jongsu's attention and then certainly maintains it; and Ben, a relaxed and self-assured rich man who becomes Haemi's companion, to Jongsu's consternation.

We can see the reverberation of Haruki Murakami's short story source material in the softness of the characters, the mysterious changes that life forces upon them.


American Animals [2018] by Bart Layton

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American Animals is a film that will subvert your expectations.  It plays with reality and it plays with fiction.  It is a documentary and it is a drama, maybe even a thriller.  It is about an art heist, but one performed by teenagers, and based on a true story.  It is very clever and very entertaining.

Ten years ago a small group of American college students decided to steal millions of dollars of rare books from their school library.  They were bored and wanted something interesting to happen in their lives finally.  They wanted to take a risk.

In this film we get to enjoy the best of both worlds.  We get the ten-years-later reflections of the four guys involved, told through very charming and candid interviews, and we see their story dramatically and thrillingly come to life, moment by moment.  Strong characters, both real and performed, are very engaging, and the complexities of the situation spread out from the original seed of their idea as the story progresses.  They are not psychopaths, which would have helped.  They are clever, but are they well organised?

This is the dramatic debut from the filmmaker behind the outrageously entertaining and surprising documentary The Imposter [2012], about a French man who posed as the three-years-lost son of an American family.  Again, he has managed to tell a crime story of peculiar humanity and complexity in a highly cinematic, striking and involving way.  This film even has Udo Kier.

AMERICAN ANIMALS subverts expectations, subverts the thriller genre and questions the truth of its own story in a very engaging and entertaining way. This real-life teenage art heist docu-drama plays at in Fri 27 July with .

Transit [2018] by Christian Petzold

Transit (image 1)

TRANSIT is an involving drama, set during wartime but only concerned with a handful of characters. Like Casablanca, the characters are simply trying to obtain visas to get them out of occupied territory, and like Casablanca, it is full of love, passion, intrigue, big decisions and sudden unexpected shifts from the characters that make perfect sense as they reveal the undercurrents we didn't know were moving them. 

This film is not about the war, it is about relationships between people who just happen to encounter each other, who face the same predicament, and who choose whether or not to help, and whether or not to trust, each other.  It is convincingly performed, meticulously directed and a pleasure to experience. 

Ága [2018] by Milko Lazarov

Ága (image 5)

In ÁGA, the old woman has a dream that she's walking with a polar bear who becomes a young man who takes her home with him, into a deep hole where all of the stars have been taken down from the sky into that bright dazzling hole where she forgets everything, who she is, where she came from and all the world outside. 

The daily life of this old Yakut couple in North Eastern Siberia is carefully documented, travelling via dogsled, fishing, trapping, making medicine, maintaining their yurt, as the world changes around them, helicopters pass overhead, their children have moved to the city, and yet they persist with calm resolution. 

The frozen landscape is exquisitely photographed and the tiny but complete world of these characters is a privilege to be invited into.  They live in a harsh environment, but they live their lives with sensitivity and patience.  The delicacy with which they communicate, tell stories and dream of the past is very moving.

This film really is spectacularly composed, the landscapes huge and cold and unforgiving, and movingly written and performed for the warmth and depth of the human element.


The Cleaners [2018] by Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck

THE CLEANERS is a very serious documentary about a very complex and deeply problematic subject and it offers no solutions. What right do major social media sites have to censor our expressions? What responsibilities do they have when their sites are being used to promote violence?

The film merely lays out the dangerous parameters of the situation, the massive influence that Facebook, Twitter and Google have on the world and how we communicate, and suggests there is some responsibility there regarding how that technology is being utilised. It is critical of these companies using economically marginalised and untrained Filipinos to do their vast editorial work.

I left the film much more uncertain of my position on the subject than when I went in.

Leto [2018] by Kirill Serebrennikov

Leto (image 1)

LETO is about the surprising influence of UK and US punk and rock music on a scene of young Soviet musicians. Living under the oppressive watch of the USSR, but deeply passionate about the expressive possibilities of music, a group of charming young Russians, revolving around a rock music club that requires government appointed bureaucrats to approve all lyrics, manage to live the lives they want to live, slipping through the cracks and making great music; often in fantasy segments of defying authority that turn into musicals. The film goes down very easily, especially if you're into the music, but if only because of the pleasure of seeing lives lived well in difficult circumstances.

Strangely, the cinema was almost empty. Are there any fans out there of T-Rex, Lou Reed, David Bowie or Blondie? Or fans of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, another film about punk rock's influence beyond the iron curtain? Or fans of Once, that sweet fictional film about real musicians making music together? Or just good Russian cinema? (I'm in the latter boat.)

Plays again in Auckland Friday 27 July and Sunday 5 August and continues around the country.


Maui's Hook [2018] by Paora Te Oti Takarangi Joseph

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Maui's Hook is neither a documentary nor a drama, though it has elements of both.  In essence it is a conversation, and its intention is to provoke further conversation.  Suicide is epidemic in Aotearoa and it can damage families by sending shock waves through everyone involved.  The film is clear that it does not have all the answers, but there is one thing it can do: break the silence.  People don't talk about suicide because of shame and anger, but, as this film displays, talking openly with your loved ones is the first step towards healing from that trauma.

In the film, a group of whanau personally affected by suicide in their families embark on a hikoi together, a tour of marae from Taranaki, Whanganui, Rotorua, and Whangarei to Cape Reinga, to set the spirits free.  Meanwhile, a despairing young man contemplates suicide, without the support he needs.  Whanau are interviewed together as a group, and in one case this is the first time they have talked together about the suicide.

Aotearoa not only has the highest youth suicide rate in the world, but suicide is primary cause of death for Kiwis between ages 18-24.  The reasons for this are beyond the scope of the film, but it does make sense of one important element: the support of family and the openness to talk about what we are going through makes a significant difference to those affected by suicide who might be feeling isolated.

Hunger [1966] by Henning Carlsen

HUNGER is like a Charlie Chaplin film slowly descending into disconcerting disassociated distress. If you finds the predicament of the protagonist funny early, it may sink, along with any hope that he will raise himself from his poverty and alienation. 

The streets of 1890 Christiania are depicted as busy with sympathetic but confused onlookers to protag's increasingly unconvincing performance of proud and serious success. 

A bleak view of mental illness. 

Our New President [2018] by Maxim Pozdorovkin

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OUR NEW PRESIDENT is satire as collage. We are now in an age when global politics is so ludicrous and out of control that satire has become superfluous. The filmmaker needs merely to compile a sequence of the regime's own propaganda and it reveals itself for the bright, funny, corrupt and manipulative charade that it is. 

As the film shows, news is also superfluous. The masses don't need to be informed so they can make considered choices, they just need to know who the heroes are, and who the villains are.  It's not the petty facts that are important, but the larger truths.  We watch as the spectrum of Russian news channels are amalgamated into one government run organisation, Russia Today, and the most revealing moment in the film is certainly when the boss addresses his staff with an inspiring speech, “The time of detached, unbiased journalism is over… Editorial policy will be based on love of Russia.”  When a staff member asks for clarification he is accused of planning subversive activities.

It is all fairly funny and charming, as long as you don't consider the implication of such a successfully sterile bubble of propaganda.  It makes me wonder what it would look like if such a carefully constructed satirical collage was made of our own national news, what invisible ubiquitous propaganda we are exposed to.

Birds of Passage [2018] by Cristina Gallego, Ciro Guerra

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Opening night at the New Zealand International Film Festival in Auckland offered Birds of Passage, a complex juxtaposition of the traditional ways of the Wayuu people with the rising drug trade.

In Colombia 1968, in the land of the Wayuu people, the land of dust and goats, they have survived centuries of colonisation with their traditional culture intact.  The matriarch of the family speaks with the spirits through her dreams and protects her family with her precious talisman, which she always carries with her.  But a budding capitalist takes an interest in her daughter, they marry and the family is drawn into the full implications of large-scale trafficking of cannabis.

This film is a spectacular and ambitious encounter with a small world, that of the Wayuu people, encountering not the exploitation of the larger world, as one would expect, but simply its ideology and its practices: making as much money for your clan as possible, building your tiny empire and destroying all opposition.  The film is like an alegory for capitalism itself, the history of civilisation condensed down to the narrative of a single indigenous clan's "successfull" encounter with the ways of the modern world.

The world of the film is rich and reverberates on all levels.  It does not compromise for its genre, but rather the gangster genre itself is manipulated for the sake of the coherency of the film's world.  A magnificent, concise epic.

The Image Book [2018] by Jean-Luc Godard

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Less of a film, more of an anti-film, with a total commitment to not being entertaining and to disassembling our naïve and uncritical absorption of cinematic images. The pleasure of watching beautiful sequences of film is interrupted with over-exposure, sudden cuts and images being separated from their soundtracks. Coherency is interrupted with inexplicable juxtapositions, little continuity in even the commentary and even the English subtitles failing to translate all the spoken and textual French.

The first sound we receive from the filmmaker, before any image appears, is a loud and obnoxious high-pitched noise, somewhat of a “fuck you” to the audience. Was it just me, of did the commentary become more coherent a significant way through the film, when everyone who was going to walk out had already walked out in boredom or confusion? Romantic and chivalrous films and images of war are equally violated in the filmmaker's attempt to destroy both our sentimental attachment to the films and our ability to unconsciously suspend disbelief and allow the film to entertainingly indoctrinate us with its implicit ideology, either pernicious or superficial.

Jean-Luc Godard, whose moody black and white films from the 1960s are remember with such affection, is disgusted with what he sees in the world. I found, when I moved through my boredom and irritation and engaged with the language of the film, a satirical humour present only when the dissolution of the grammar and glamour of film is complete, exemplified by over-exposed old footage of can-can dancing that is the final and most sustained excerpt in the film.

Dog's Best Friend [2017] by Eryn Wilson

DOG'S BEST FRIEND is a very heartfelt portrait of a man's love for dogs, and his lifetime commitment to rehabilitating them and allowing them to rehabilitate him, and each other. 

Jacob and Jennah, with a baby on the way, have had traumatic pasts, but they have created a sanctuary of healing with many dogs. Jacob works tirelessly with the dogs for the betterment of every being involved. The love he shares with the canines is very moving and the methods he uses to rehabilitate them and keep them calm and happy is very instructive. 

A small but very genuine film radiant with love for dogs and their unflagging commitment to making us happy.

Dog's Best Friend screens at the New Zealand International Film Festival 23, 25 and 29 July.

Dog’s Best Friend (image 1)


A Kid Like Jake [2018] by Silas Howard

A KID LIKE JAKE is an attempt to make a film about the complexities of raising a child in a world of changing expectations around gender expression, but it fails to see a world outside of its very narrow cultural lens.

The differences between each of the characters could easily be listed - she's stubborn, he's effete, etc - but they're otherwise identical - reasonable, caring, easily offended - apart from the moment we all get to enjoy cringing together at the guest character who is painfully inappropriate.

I can't help but wonder whether this film needs to exist, whether even within its narrow cultural paradigm it has much to say. It seems an opportunistic "issue" film that is located very much in the left brain, even as it deals with emotions, family and communication. I can't help but think it will age painfully.


Mirai [2018] by Hosoda Mamoru

Mirai is a joyously emotional and colourfully imaginative immersion into the domestic life of a young boy after his baby sister is born. The complex and confusing experiences are vividly brought to life, with unconscious influences coalescing into elaborate dreams visualising deeply felt experiences.

Never have I seen the vividness of the inner and outer world of a small child so beautifully and exuberantly portrayed on screen.

Four-year-old Kun's life is full of love and joy with his parents and his dog in their intimate home, designed by Kun's architect father.  Until his parents come home with their newborn baby.  Kun's jealousy and rebelliousness is portrayed entirely from his perspective, and is intensely felt by both Kun and the audience.  He helps make sense of the world he feels so strongly but does not understand by allowing his mind to move into elaborate dreams and fantasies, often involving members of his family in the future and the past; he rides a motorcycle with his great-grandfather as a young man and flies through the air with his baby sister as a teenage schoolgirl.

The family home is bursting with familial love, even when there is conflict, and the film is bursting with love of life, fully and deeply felt, and exhilaratingly expressed in beautifully animated images of colour and movement.

While the film does contain a few moments where Kun's imagination erupts into images that may scare some young children, the film really is a moving and delightful experience for children of all ages and anyone who remembers or doesn't remember the intensity of experience of small children.

MIRAI is at the 2018 New Zealand International Film Festival.

Mirai (image 5)
In a moment of love for his baby sister who often frustrates him, Kun passionately promises to show her the majestic beauty of their world.