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Little Richard: I Am Everything

 I Am Everything is more about the history than the music, not containing a complete song performance. It is committed to correcting the history of rock 'n' roll music and giving Little Richard the credit he deserves for an influence that is ubiquitous in modern popular music. His influence is abundant in rhythm, in vocal styles, in fashion, in stage presence and use of the stage and in uninhibited self expression. It contextualises the musical, cultural and inter-racial workd he emerged in and the impact he had upon it. It also tells the story of his complicated relationship with religion, sexuality and his queerness.


Film Festival appetiser: Barbenheimer

We are very blessed to have the film festival we have here, especially in a city as small as Wellington. I have attended film festivals in Sydney and Melbourne where the audience are routinely lined up and herded like cattle. The Venice Film Festival is held on a campus resembling a military base. With all those A-list celebrities and red carpets there is high security, barriers everywhere and the movies are shown in gigantic buildings resembling aircraft hangars. The New Zealand International Film Festival remains friendly and personable despite being comparable in size to festivals in much bigger cities.

We have the benefit in this part of the world of not being important. This allows for much better programming, thanks to the programming of Sandra Reid and Michael McDonnell, as well as the ripples of the legacy of Bill Gosden's expansive and discerning taste. Other film festivals are burdened with the weight of so many mediocre “important” films. They want prestige, they want premieres, they want sponsorship. Most film festivals are largely funded by corporate and state sponsorship. These are expensive operations and these festivals have obligations to their sponsors. They will for sure show the great films, but they'll show a lot of boring stuff that looks good on paper. The sort of films that win Oscars, or at least want to. The 2022 London Film Festival I attended was flooded with so many Netflix films they had their own desk in the lobby. NZIFF is rare as a film festival that obtains about 90% of its running costs from ticket sales, and so its obligation is to its audience, as the programme reflects, curated for cinemagoers of diverse inclination, but certainly for the pleasure of its audience.

An element I am happy to see has survived from the Gosden years is the quality of the film notes. Most film festivals have brief descriptions of the plot or the filmmaker's previous work that resembles vapid and unconvincing advertising copy. Although certain phrases, such as "world class", that would not have survived the integrity and sincerity of Gosden's editorial eye, may have slipped through, the commitment remains to writing notes that describe the film in a way that will attract the audience that will appreciate it. Rather than blandly sell it to whoever is credulous, there is an attempt to describe the film's form and style as well as content, its context and its impact in a way that can actually help you know if it's the right film for you. Because we know that if it's not, there will surely be others that are.

And it goes a week longer than most other film festivals!  And the films play all day at all venues, not just evenings and weekends, catering not just for the unemployed amongst us, but those who take time off for the film festival.

Since having attended cinemas in countries around the world I have rediscovered how great a place to see a movie Wellington's Embassy Theatre is. The spectacular and elegant lobby is great, but I prefer the comfortable seats, huge screen and perfect sight-lines from every one of the 900 seats. Barbenheimer is my pre-film festival appetiser.

Barbie is Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach's attempt to make a blockbuster that is socially responsible; a story for tween girls that will appeal to everyone; set in a perfect world where things are complex and confusing; encouraging girls to be anything they want to be, but that it's okay to be ordinary; a movie about depression and anxiety that is fun and uppifting; a frothy celebration and a serious critique of an extremely successful and protected brand, totally approved by them. They attempt to subvert expectations while totally satisfying them and they pretty much succeed at all of this, which makes the film feel a bit too thinly spread. But they made a lot of money.

Nolan's directorial style remains as oppressive as usual. He attempts to beat his audience over the head with subtly for as long as he can get away with, in this case three hours.


Punch (2022) Welby Ings, New Zealand -98m-

A young boxer in small town New Zealand trains hard under pressure from his alcoholic father and meets an unassimilated gay man living in a shack on the beach.

Tim Roth has top billing as an exhausted alcoholic with no energy left for anything in life apart from his son's boxing training, but his character definitely takes a backseat to the two distinctive and empathetic young men, played by Jordan Oosterhof and Conan Hayes. Oosterhof plays Jim, a boxer with a lean, muscular body and sensitive blue eyes, who passes in this shitty, uptight small town because he's an athlete and masculine. Hayes plays Whetu, who is a social reject from the start of the film; gay, out and Māori, with no known social connections. He is an artist and a sex worker and has carved a tiny world for himself in a beautifully decorated shack in the sand dunes of a big empty black-sand beach past a “no trespassing” sign.

The two characters are so vividly drawn and delicately performed that their coming together is real and meaningful, because we know why they reach for each other in such a place. Away from the highly constrictive social expectations of the town they have a little paradise in Whetu's shack, decorated with many odd artefacts found and created by him. It is through each of them seeking solitude in the wilderness of the beach that they meet, and it is here that they are able to spend time, nurture each other and find love.

The small town of Pīrau and the other characters that inhabit it are merely mise-en-scene for their relationship and the transformation it allows in each of them. It successfully colours in the background that contextualises their internal and external limitations and their expanding identities. A small town with no opportunities, a culture and people who are determined to aggressively limit each other. They are two young men who have allowed themselves to enjoy rich inner worlds, who have not been deadened by small town life and of course will inevitably escape.

Their first encounter is when Jim, passing with his straight mates, drive past Whetu and call out “faggot”. Whetu is already known as an outsider, but at that moment Jim is curious enough to turn around for another look. Their first meeting is on the beach. Jim often goes out there to train and this time, believing he is alone, he gets naked and runs through the dunes and the surf. Whetu is hanging out with his little dog and Jim is embarrassed and instinctively defensive. They tell each other to fuck off and Whetu shouts, “This is Māori land!” This remote empty beach is clearly a sanctuary of safety and self-expression for each of them, and they have invaded each other's space. Their next meeting, Whetu is weaving flax in the dunes when Jim gets stung by a jellyfish and screams for help. Whetu takes him to his little shack hidden in the dunes on a stream bed, pulls out the tentacles and rinses his stings with vinegar. Jim is very impressed with the tranquillity of the place and the care put into each of the strange objects that decorate it. To Whetu's surprise, Jim returns the next day and they discover a place of mutual sanctuary where they can connect away from the expectations and derision of the town.

This is the first feature film from Welby Ings, who has made various shorts. The two characters here are clearly enriched by the protagonists in his short films Sparrow (2016) and Boy (2004). Sparrow is about a sensitive and isolated boy, who wants to fly and never takes off his home-made wings, coming to terms with the macho images he's expected to live up to. Jim tells Whetu about how when he was a child he used to come to the dunes with his wings and try to fly. We briefly observe a spiritual trace of them discarded in the sand as Jim rediscovers his open-heartedness with Whetu. The protagonist of Boy is an isolated teenager who is scorned by the town, a sex worker who picks up men in the public toilet and who has a sanctuary in an abandoned warehouse where he creates strange and beautiful doll sculptures. Whetu is a sex worker who makes no effort to fit into the roles this small-minded town finds acceptable and who instead creates a solo world for himself with strange, beautiful sculptures. Having seen these shorts, both of which can be streamed for free, the lives of these characters are real outside of the events and timeline of the present film. Though they encounter each other at this pertinent moment when they're both ready for change, they have pasts that can only be hinted at, inner worlds that they can only attempt to express to each other, and futures outside of Pīrau in which they will create something totally different of themselves. We get a joyous and moving glimpse of this future at the end.

These shorts were also poetic in the sense that they didn't really work on a narrative level and though they hinted at the beautiful inner worlds of these strange isolated boys they remained somewhat unsatisfying. In Punch he has created a more conventional narrative film with satisfying character arcs, but retained the delicate, poetic hinting at rich inner worlds; Whetu drinking wine from a china teacup; Jim running naked through the dunes. The narrative takes breaks into moments of subjectivity, some beautiful imagery and a little too much use of distorting lenses. The gentle pacing of the protagonists discovering each other was engaging, though the ending was unfortunately abrupt and unresolved.

It is typical to cast pretty actors to play romantic leads, but here we find characters who we love because they are beautiful as complete humans. The love story refreshingly has nothing to do with perpetuating the romantic myth or attaining the higher state of a monogamous committed relationship. These two characters, so coherently woven into the world of this moving film, are merely two people who take the opportunity to open their hearts to each other before moving on with their lives.


Mi vacío y yo [2022] Adrián Silvestre, Spain -98m-

My Emptiness and I

A young trans woman in Barcelona deals with her transition, dating and daily life.

The film has a straight-forward narrative style to the extent that it borders on documentary, though every scene burns with an authenticity that is entirely engaging. It is emotionally intense and yet naturalistic, confronting complex existential issues, yet never melodramatic. Nothing is played for pathos and yet I was entirely emotionally invested.

Written in collaboration with the protagonist, played by Raphaëlle Pérez, the film depicts the process of her being diagnosed with gender dysphoria, taking hormones, support group discussions with other trans people and the general emotion and confusion of transitioning. The joys and pains of dating and sex with men via an app are dealt with candidly. Finding authenticity is difficult when men are likely to have one of various reactions to her transness: shock, curiosity, fetishisation, uncertainty. She moves through these struggles neither as a victim nor a warrior, simply as a person confronting what is necessary in order to create the life she wants for herself.


Titanic (1997) James Cameron, 25th anniversary 3D re-release

Who hasn't seen this already? The depressed rich girl meets the free-spirited poor boy and the biggest boat ever built sinks into the middle of the freezing Atlantic Ocean.

25 years after I first saw it at the cinema as an innocent and impressionable 13-year-old at the start of 1998 the film remains the same, apart from becoming slightly 3D, and yet I have changed immeasurably. Leonardo DiCaprio is a lot less convincing as a worldly romantic hero, but he is so gorgeous and charming that the more bitter and cynical 38-year-old version of myself can believe that I would have fallen in love with him anyway, if I was Rose, as did much of the world at the time. I was so immensely moved and thrilled by the movie as a child that I wonder whether I too was allured into giving up my domestic banality and security to live an adventurous and nomadic life, falling in love with any beautiful, open-hearted man I meet.

The music is unashamedly manipulative, filling in the cracks that the thin characters and weak performances leave to make the film as emotionally moving as it is visually. Apart from Kate Winslet dragging the film behind her with admirable commitment, many of the characters are cartoonish and it's amazing that they teeter miraculously on the right side of laughable. Luckily we only need to care about the two romantic leads, and they are so sexy and so hot for each other, and so blank that we can project all our most outlandish romantic fantasies upon them. This is the sort of toxic, unattainable romantic fantasy that seeps into the core of impressionable 13-year-olds like me and stays there for life, disappointing us with every real relationship that fails to compare. Maybe I've been lucky enough to have a Leo or two in my life, maybe I've tortured myself and my lovers in pursuit of fantasy ever since.

At three and a quarter hours the pacing is exceptional; the drawing us into the world, the getting to know the situation, the escalation of conflict and of course especially the application of the inevitable disaster are expertly deployed. Everything comes at the moment you want it. The sinking of the ship – the technical description, the anticipation, the fear, the chaos, the humanity, the beauty, the tragedy, the spectacle – all remains shockingly convincing, both in the visual effects and the editing. When the ship is sinking there are moments of transcendence both ironic and cinematic that don't need protagonists to be achieved; the ornate and meticulous first-class dining room filling up with water and then the spectacular domed skylight shattering under a torrent of water; the half-empty lifeboats waiting in the cold while hundreds of people drown and freeze in front of them.

A spectacle that sucked the whole world down with it into the depths of its allure.

Of an Age (2022) Goran Stolevski, Australia

Melbourne, 1999. A young Serbian-Australian ballroom dancer on the verge of adulthood discovers a surprising connection with the calm older brother of his chaotic best friend.

A tightly focussed dramatic portrait that successfully reveals the protagonist's emotional state-of-being. Capturing that vivid moment at the end of high school where he has not had a chance to yet discover who he is, how he will live or even what life is really like for a queer boy who will inevitably have to find his own way in a world that offers no role-models. He is so used to being lonely that he is genuinely shocked to discover someone who is not only openly gay, but who he actually likes and can effortlessly connect with in a meaningful and genuine way. Though the connection is brief, the need behind it is deep and long-lasting. Ten years later, the tragedy is that his life has changed drastically but the need is the same and remains equally unfulfilled.

The film focuses on only three characters at two distinct moments to make the most of its limitations. One day in 1999 the two men meet in transitional moments for them both and find a feeling of stability together. One day in 2010 they meet again and the resonance of that brief meeting ten years earlier is felt very strongly. Though the best friend/sister who connects them is vividly drawn and enthusiastically performed, the social milieu of the characters swirls around them and the film wastes no time in cutting to its primary focus. The depth and subtlety of how this brief and genuine encounter plays out, and what it means for the protagonist, are conveyed in a naturalistic way that continues to resonate after the film is over.

Sublime (2022) Mariano Biasin, Argentina

 A teenage boy in Argentina practices with his rock band and falls in love with his best friend, struggling to tell him how he feels.

A film that has been described as “underplayed” but I would describe as undeveloped. Many scenes play out with no clear purpose, nothing is revealed of the characters and nothing is developed in the plot, which becomes quite frustrating. The aspect ratio is wide, though the camera holds claustrophobically close on the actors' faces or the backs of their heads, and the focus is shallow, suggesting an intimacy and interiority. However, even the protagonist, who takes up most of the screentime, we learn nothing about, what he is thinking or feeling, witnessing only his moody eyes and messy, black, curly fringe.

This is a film that wouldn't exist without the undiscriminating market of the international queer film festival. There is an endless array of films about cute teenage boys struggling with their sexuality. However the actors are usually older than the characters and we are privileged with a depth of insight into their external and internal worlds. Here the actors look like they're actually teenagers, they burp in each other's faces for laughs, cannot communicate their feelings and spend lots of time staring moodily at their phones. Rather than witnessing a penetrating artistic portrait, I felt like I was just hanging out with immature and inexpressive teenagers, which was not fun.

There is a genuine feeling to the milieu, but no depth to the characterisations. The authenticity is most evident in the band performances. The characters are clearly writing and rehearsing their own four-piece rock band, genuinely working hard and improving. There is no post-dubbing or conspicuously well-rehearsed performances. But like most newly-formed teen rock bands, they're not very good.

(Spoiler alert.) The film does not justifies the title, awkward being a more appropriate adjective. A more appropriate title would be Nothing Will Change, a phrase that is whispered in one of the only sublime moments, when the protagonist is dreaming of intimacy with his best friend and bandmate. It is indicative of his friend accepting him after the revelation of his attraction, but also an unfortunate admission that there is almost no development in the entire running time of the film. The only point of tension is whether or not he will admit his love, and there are many frustrating scenes in which he does not. When he finally does it is very underwhelming, though there is a certain poignancy to it not being a big deal.


Lonesome (2022) Craig Boreham, Australia -95m-

A young rural Australian man escapes a small-town scandal to Sydney, meeting another guy through Grindr.

The plot feels less important than the intimacy between the lead actor and the filmmaker. The filmmaking is stark and direct, dealing with the moment-to-moment reality of the protagonist's marginal life. The impressive performance of lead Josh Lavery is unusual and takes time to reach its full impact. At first I thought his character was too underplayed, but slowly throughout the film I felt the impact of his hopelessness and the tangible reality of his survival-mode. Similarly, there is a lot of nudity and no aspect of his experience is excluded for good taste, the cumulative effect of which is deep empathy and familiarity, like the intimacy of getting to know a new lover. Subsequently, the extent of my identification with the protagonist by the end of the film was quite shocking.

His relationship with the Grindr hook-up that doesn't end is also depicted in a matter-of-fact way that somehow creates a cumulative impact, where the casualness of their commitment to each other obscures the evident fact that they have something very real and significant to offer each other. I hope this film gets a chance to reach the world and that Josh Lavery gets opportunities to surprise us further as a performer.

Close (2022) Lukas Dhont

An intimate friendship between two 13-year-old boys in Belgium is damaged when the boys start high school.

An exceptionally tender depiction of this unself-conscious relationship gives way to an emotionally manipulative tear-jerker. The screening I attended there was one person who couldn't stop sobbing before the film was even halfway through and had to be gently led out by her partner. I remained unmoved as I tried to throw myself into the despair of the film's world; I wanted to cry too. The tangible reality and tragedy of the situation were not conveyed, neither the true impact the events had on the protagonist, so we merely watch the characters go on with their lives, interrupted by long scenes of various people crying. The beauty of the intimacy between boys, the protagonist with his friend, and with his brother, is delicately conveyed in a few gestures and expressions, and it's rarity and precarity is poignant.


Blueback (2022) Robert Connolly

Abby, a young woman working as a marine biologist, recalls her teenage years with her mother in Western Australia. She is introduced to the diverse marine life in the bay she grew up in, makes friends with a blue groper and helps her mother fight to protect the bay's marine life from encroaching property developers.

A straight-forward, heart-felt film with a pleasant, leisurely pace about pursuing a passion to protect something you care about, aimed at a young audience. The flash-back narrative structure is nostalgic and makes clear why the adult Abby is working to protect the bleaching coral reef, but it obviates any emotional or dramatic impact from either time-period. The underwater photography of the ocean life, and the actors interacting with it, is very beautifully shot, tranquil and convincing of the film's thesis, to protect ocean life. Though short on depth and complexity the film successfully depicts the simplicity and integrity of spending your life caring for your immediate environment.