Saturday, September 14, 2013

NZIFF 2013: Best Three

I recently saw about 20 or more movies over the course of a couple of weeks: before my memory fades completely, I am recording some impressions. There are only two I wish I didn't see (I'll get to them) and a handful I wish I had seen, but there's a limit to what can be done. Being realistic, I know I won't write a separate post for every movie, but maybe creating little groups is more viable? These three movies were all very different, but they all worked on me in the same way, to make them my personal favourites of the festival. In order of seeing them:

Sheen of Gold   

This movie made me all sorts of nostalgic for things I never actually experienced. It was almost a hagiography of Palmerston North punk band, the Skeptics and its main man, David D'Ath who died of leukaemia in September 1990. I did not move there until the mid 1990's: they formed while in school in 1980 and moved on to the bright lights of Wellington in 1985. Much was made of their uniqueness and isolation in the Palmerston North of the early 1980's, of how they had to start their own club to get any sort of scene going and then to start their own studio. Oddly enough, it made me wish I had been there myself in those days (even though it sounded quite horribly conservative) and to have had mates at school with whom I could have started a band (something I have never wanted until I saw the movie). It also made me wish I had actually paid more attention to the Skeptics while it was still possible: they played a couple of gigs in Auckland while I was living there and I think I was back in the country when they had their magical last gigs at the Gluepot (just a matter of days before he died).

The movie was largely made up of interviews with the surviving members, about life in the band and the technicalities of making music Skeptics-style, and footage of gigs. One of their songs gained some notoriety, as it was shot in a freezing works: not to make any particular point, but because it was very Kiwi. Oddly enough, even though they said they spent the last months before David died facing up to his death, there is no footage of him, apart from performing in the band. I thought they might have turned a camera on him. Their early gigs were in a school library (a band member's dad worked there): they were untutored (their sound engineer said he found something very "primitive" in their music, it reminded them of deep blues music in that respect) and experimental (we see Robin Gauld trying out bringing his electric razor close to his guitar, to see what sort of effect is created). The thing is that these guys all managed to find each other and create something (even if Nick Roughan was scared to replay the music made all those years ago). The movie ended on a very sweet note: with Chris Knox experiencing the music, and being moved to dance. DVD is due out before Christmas: I'll be in for a copy. In the meantime, here's Agitator.

There is a nice history and a copy of an obit written by Chris Matthews (who also showed up in the movie) at

Mud (directed by Jeff Nichols)

This movie shared something with Sheen of Gold in that it evoked a time and place I will never know, but not one I fancy joining. Its a slice of Americana, set primarily in a riverboat (I'd have called it a house boat but they didn't) on the Mississippi in Arkansas, and told through the eyes of 14 year old Ellis (Tye Sheridan). It is a life under threat: his parents' relationship is going through a rough patch, mainly because mum wants a more regular life. It seems the authorities want to do away with riverboats: mum is owner of the boat but if she gives it up, she can't sell or gift it to anyone; the boat will be set adrift. His dad looked like the kind of guy you're not going to trust or think very much of
but he turned out to be a decent guy, trying hard to protect his son from the relationship breakdown and very invested in river life.

But all of this is in the background: the main story is concerned with Ellis and his mate Neckbone. They find a boat stuck up a tree
and think its a cool place to hangout. Unfortunately, it has an inhabitant (Mud - Matthew McConaughey) who is on the run - from the law and the family of a guy he's killed.
He's hiding out on this island, hoping to re-connect with the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), and has a big plan to get the boat back into the water and escape the river with her. Yep - he's quite the manchild, and leans heavily on the two boys, both to rebuild the boat and his relationship with Juniper. Ellis in particular idolises Mud, Juniper and their relationship although (of course) all is not as it seems. So Ellis learns more truth then he can cope with.

The odd thing about the movie is that it takes so long for the guys after Mud to actually catch up with him, but this I think was a deliberate ploy to let the story cook: the movie hits a critical point where the guys are lying in wait, the perception has been generated that Mud is a no-good coward, Ellis has lost faith and Mud has to act decisively to, quite literally, save Ellis's life and put his own at risk to do so. And so there's a showdown, with bullets a-plenty (including from across the river: as soon as it was revealed that there was retired master sniper living in the boat across the river, I knew he had to have a function in the movie).
Like Father, Like Son (Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda)

I liked this movie so much that I decided not to go to the one after it so it would be the last of the festival for me. The basic story is quite simple: parents find that through sheer malice of a nurse, their son was switched at birth with the son of a different family. Maybe I'm a sucker for a happy ending, but the movie ended so sweetly, it brought a tear to my eye.

Of course, the families are as different as possible. Keita's dad (Ryoto) is very driven, and wants his son to be a success - in business, in playing the piano, in anything he sets his mind to. We also get to see what Ryoto's own father was like and thus see old patterns being repeated. They live in an obviously expensive apartment but, well, dad has put hard work and financial success ahead of a meaningful relationship with his son. I don't think this was done in any sort of critical spirit, it was just presented as the way things were, the way things are for many families. Ryusei's parents, Yudai and Yukari, are poor, honest people - Yudai works in an electrical supply shop at the front of his house but seems to only sell minor items like light bulbs. He's a bit of a joker and great with kids. They have three other children and are very happy, playful and engaged with each other.
But when Ryoto finds out Keita is not his actual son, his first impulse is to think that is why Keita is simply not very good at following in his footsteps, so that surely Ryusei will work out differently (the kids are only 6!). His second impulse is that there is no way that Yudai and Yukari can give any boy a decent start in life, so schemes to get custody of them both (until his wife intervenes).

So what they decide to do is have the boys visit their proper families for a while, to see how things take, and to ultimately have each boy return permanently to his real parents and break all ties to the family he had grown up with. Keita gets the better part of this deal, as it is rather a lot of fun to be with Yudai, and having siblings is quite a revelation. Poor Ryusei is a bit lost - Midorino (his mum) works hard but he is not used to having an absent father or no siblings and living in an upstairs apartment with no local play areas. But his expectations for Ryoto to be more like the dad he knows help to get Ryoto into a more playful mood. I guess it helps that Ryusei is even worse than Keito at the things Ryoto expected them to succeed at but ultimately, Ryoto finds that he misses Keito.

Of course, Ryoto has some ground to make up (Keito is never given any explanation as to why he has been sent to live with this family of amiable strangers) and, as with Mud, I wondered if Ryoto was actually up to the task.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Bright Star, a movie by Jane Campion

In the three years before his untimely death in 1821, John Keats was in love with Fanny Brawne: he saw her as "the very symbol of beauty, the reconciliation between real life and his poetic". Although there are those who say that it is impossible to write well while in the throes of deep emotion (Thomas Mann for example), Keats probably needed this emotional life in order to flower as a poet: his last poems are often said to be his very best.

This movie shows these last three years, although the primary point of view is that of Fanny: we are never with Keats without her, and when he goes away (to the Isle of Wight and then, ultimately, to Italy) we stay in Hampstead with Fanny. Indeed, there are a couple of suggestions made that Fanny is the Bright Star of the title, and for Keats she probably was, but is she the Bright Star of the poem?

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art--
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors--
No--yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever--or else swoon to death.

It seems more like he himself wants to be the Bright Star, which given his illness and the death of his brother at about the time he wrote it, makes sense.

Anyway, the movie starts with Fanny, we see her at her work in which she takes a good deal of pride and seems to be very skilled
It soon gets to their meeting. Although there is talk of Keats as a bit of a joker, the movie seems content to make this point by having him play an initial joke, but then tends towards the serious and sombre. One other moment of humour comes in these early scenes. Keats has just published Endymion. To make the point of its lack of commercial virtue, a bookseller moans that he has ordered 20 copies when he is unlikely to sell any. Fanny sends her sister in to get one, so that "she can read it first to see if he is an idiot or not". Of course, there is plenty of poetry recited, as well as talk of how poetry is: Keats basic take is that it must come naturally or one is not a poet.

Poor old Keats: at about half an hour in, he says he is not sure if he has the right feelings towards women, is suspicious of his feelings, is attracted to Fanny without knowing why, says "all women confuse me" has in reality only ever loved his sister.

This idea of Keats having no money is a constantly repeated motif: he and Fanny's mother seem agreed that since Keats can't provide for Fanny, they cannot marry. Mum thinks that, really, they should not spend so much time together, as people are talking. Keats' apparent best friend, John Brown, also thinks they should be apart, but his concern is that she will interfere with his writing.

He might have his own aspirations where Fanny is concerned: although he tends to run her down and joke at her expense (such as her liking of Milton's rhymes in Paradise Lost: he later makes the point there are no rhymes), he does send an ill-advised valentine, which seems to catalyse things between Fanny and Keats.

But this episode makes things clear for Keats: he talks in terms of a holiness of the heart's affections and they take on the quality of an established item from that time on, taking nice walks on the heath and doing what comes naturally.
Keats goes away to the Isle of Wight to earn some money: Fanny gets a right grump on, is totally miserable without him or any letters, can't get out of bed for five days
"Is this love ... so sore I believe I could die of it". But he redeems himself, writes a letter in which he confesses he wishes they were butterflies, to live but three summer days with her would have more delight than fifty common years could ever contain. He does get a bit heavy: says she has destroyed his freedom, can't enjoy himself properly as weighed down with memory of her and her absence but this doesn't seem to trouble her - she fills her room with butterflies. I think this scene shows a lot with no words being said: Fanny brings her work into Keats' workspace and just placidly sits down, despite the concerns raised about her attachment and its unsuitableness.
(Not that Brown stays long or Keats stays working long! It is no time after that that Brown has Abigail (the maid) pregnant.) But well, it is not to last: Keats comes in out of a storm with a chill, and I knew enough of his history to know that this marked the final act of his life (about 40 minutes from the end) - he gets packed off to Italy for the summer and never returns. Of course, Fanny is as much help to him as she can be, can't give up on him (Brown gets in the way somewhat) and, if only it were possible, would have gone to Italy with him (not even Brown does!). Had a wee tear: at his last meal in London, mum says "Come back, live with us, marry our Fanny" even while wondering if mum knew it was a fairly safe thing to say. Keats is more aware "I doubt we will see each other again on this earth". Pretty sure Fanny suggests they spend this last night together: he is all "I have a conscience". It is kind of nice that this is the last we see of them

The record of Fanny's appearance has her as blue eyed, sallow, somewhat thin in the face - Abbie Cornish doesn't look much like her,
but I could fully get that he'd fall fer her. There is a point at which Fanny is playing outside with her family, with Keats looking out at them:
I fully shared the simple joy and pleasure he took in the scene. I also felt some of her grief when she finally got the news which had to come.
She looked absolutely stunning in mourning, but:
To have her walk the heath reciting his Ode to a Nightingale seemed the absolutely way to finish this marvellous movie.