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Film Festival Day 15, 09/08/2013

With my ongoing sleep debt, my sleep credit rating must be terrible. I’ve certainly had trouble with my eyes foreclosing.

Foreclosing? Okay, well, it seemed hilarious when I thought it up. 🙂

Film #73: Maidentrip (& Strongman)

The short was a not-so-young intellectually disabled man who we see striding into the water, and starting to swim; we’re gradually lead to understand why. I thought that it was well done.

The documentary was about the young woman Laura Dekker, who decided to become the youngest person to sail around the world. After fighting a court case to prevent Child Services from making her a ward of the state (on the grounds that her father was negligent to allow her to sail off by herself), she sets out in the boat that she and her father restored from scratch. She deliberately builds in time to explore the places that she is going to visit along the way – she dismissing Holland as “boring” in that absolute way that teens can, and a large part of the voyage for her is the exploration of the new.

(There are a number of times where she makes sweeping, absolute statements, like saying her mum never came to anything for her. And we see her argue with her dad, which makes you realise how young she is. But she’s also determined, resourceful, and resilient, and she absolutely deserved the chance to try to do this.)

It is interesting to contrast her attitude to that of the teens in The Bling Ring. They crave the attention of their peers and the media, are excited by the label names, and see tiny setbacks as huge dramas; while this young woman is sometimes obviously annoyed by the media attention, comes to enjoy the solitude of the sea, and laughs at a kitchen accident that spreads ravioli all over the mess (and her).

I don’t trust the sea, and the idea that you could go to sleep and leave the boat to sail itself is crazy to me. And given the choice of pirates or storm waves bigger than my boat, I would choose to be at home in my armchair. 🙂 I know that she got sponsorship for this voyage, as well as working her butt off, but I don’t know how she’s going to support herself if she wants to keep sailing. But I hope she manages it.

Film #74: He Toki Huna: New Zealand in Afganistan

It’s good to see a journalist annoying the government enough to get the prime minister to call him a liar (that isn’t Nicky Hagar, bless him). Basically, the New Zealand public has been told that our army is there for “reconstruction”, which conjures images of the sort of disaster relief that we’ve done in the Pacific; but people aren’t shooting at us in Samoa or the Cook Islands, and we aren’t conducting patrols and handing over people we capture to groups that we know may well torture prisoners, as Job Stephenson has revealed we’ve done in Afghanistan.

This film is not, as some politicians have alleged, an attack on the integrity of the armed forces. In fact, it is because our armed forces have moral issues with orders that they have been given that we know many of these things. There are echoes of The Gatekeepers in this film, with an unclear and expanding mandate leading those on the ground into an untenable position.

(One weird thing about the Q&A afterwards – the person who introduced them basically asked them six or seven questions in a row, making it less a Q&A and more an interview. Then again, many of the questions asked weren’t much cop, being of the “I’ve got the mike now, so I’ll thank the film-makers and then give my vitally important views to this captive audience, without actually asking a question” variety.)

I hope that Stephenson stays safe, and continues to reveal annoying truths; and that these film-makers keep making films.

Film #75: Gideon’s Army

This film’s title refers to the man Earl Gideon, who was forced to defend himself because the state of Florida refused to provide him with the attorney that he couldn’t afford. His subsequent actions got the Supreme Court to rule that a defence lawyer must be provided for all cases, not just capital cases or cases where the defendant was intellectually disabled.

There are a number of things that this documentary makes clear. Firstly, these lawyers have ridiculous case-loads and pitiful pay – one of them talked about having $20 discretionary spending a month, after rent and gas.

Secondly, the system is biased towards pushing those arrested to plead out, because it takes so long for cases to go to trial, and the bails are set so high. Pleading a lesser charge is less of a risk than a jury trial, and results in a known outcome for the defendant… and most of the time, the performance appraisal for the DA and police rest on number of convictions, not the type of conviction, so they have an incentive to offer the plea. And bureaucrats like it, because it’s cheaper than a jury trial; and politicians like it, because it improves the statistics.

About the only people who don’t like it is people who want those who actually committed the crime to be captured and punished.

Thirdly, the job of a public defender is hard, hard work. Leaving aside the case-load, there’s the emotional involvement with the clients whose innocence they believe, but cannot prove (for example, because they lack the resources to do lab tests, or because associates have implicated their client as part of a plea deal). And worse, there the clients who are guilty, and admit that they’re guilty, but insist on a jury trial, and whom the public defender is morally required to represent to the best of their ability.

I kind of prefer the French inquisitorial system to the combative one that the Anglo-Saxon world has ended up with. But while we’re under this model, the public defenders are important people.

I thought that this was a really good film about really good people.

Film #76: Fantail

This film has the best use of the phrase “Physical challenge!” in any movie I’ve seen, hands-down.

Anyway, a petrol attendant who works the night shift (and then goes home to look after her mum) feels very strongly about her Maori heritage, even though she looks much more European than her brother, who is falling in with the wrong crowd. The siblings are making plans to go to Surfers to see their absent father; it is clear fairly early on that there is some issue in the relationship between the girl and this man. (We see him in the film, reading the story of Maui’s attempt to defeat death; the piwakawaka that causes the plan to fail provides that title for the film.)

As well as family issues, there’s also an audit going on at the petrol station, with a young, slightly awkward guy fresh out of university trying to assess the performance of the girl and her boss. There is a contrast between his casual disregard for his Maori heritage, and the girl’s defiant claim of hers.

This film is occasionally funny, but fundamentally sad. It started life as a dramatic monologue, and was made by a first time writer (who starred) and a first-time director. I enjoyed it, but there were a few Chekhov’s Guns put in place that were never fired (including what seemed to be an obvious Doomed Supermarket Display), and emotionally it was hard work.

Film #77: Which Way To The Front Line From Here

In contrast to He Toki Huna above, while Afghanistan did feature, this film was focused on the character of a journalist, rather than exploring a particular situation. The fact that he died while documenting a war is a low hum in the background throughout the movie, and his background means that there are plenty of images to go along with the narration.

There are plenty of graphic images of death, but he seemed to be more interested in capturing people’s lives. Accompanying the rebels in Liberia, he took photographs of the graffiti scrawled by these young soldiers, filled with drawings of AK47s and pleas that the reader “pray for this young man”. He was also involved in the documentary Restrepo, where he was embedded in an American outpost.

One of the features that he became interested in was the bonds that form between men in times of war; the man that he made Restrepo with claimed that it was the only situation where men are allowed to truly love one another, which I think is a very sad (and incorrect) belief.

It was well put together, and the humour and passion of the man came through. I don’t agree with all of it, but I did like it.

Film #78: You’re Next

A well-off family gather at an enormous remote house that the father bought as a hobby for his retirement. There are strong conflicts between the siblings (witnessed uncomfortably by the sibling’s partners), but that falls to the wayside when ruthless killers start eliminating people one-by-one. Actually, no, that’s a complete lie – even when they are terrified and people are dying, the brothers find opportunities to argue about things.

This is a messy horror film, with plenty of jump-scares, plenty of blood, a fair number of laughs, and some nice tension. There are some plot holes, but everything goes along at such a clip that you’re prepared to accept everything, and it’s a lot cleverer than the first section suggests.

While horror movies (especially gory ones) are very much something I only watch occasionally, I did like this one, though the more ridiculous deaths did tend to distance me. I thought it was pretty good.

Film Festival Day 14, 08/08/2013

Film #68: Hannah Arendt

This looks at the woman who coined the phrase, “the banality of evil” while covering the trial in Israel of the Nazi war criminal Eichmann, who had been snatched from South America by Mossad. She infuriated many people by claiming that not only was this monster just a boring bureaucrat who filled cattle cars with people not because he hated them, but because he had orders to follow and a schedule to keep; and far worse than that, she said that the leaders of the Jewish communities had made the situation worse and the death-toll greater by cooperating with the authorities. I’ve not read the New Yorker article or the book that followed, but I don’t believe that she was saying, “And so Eichmann is not guilty” or “And the Jewish leaders should have foreseen what would come from cooperation, and are just as guilty for the Holocaust as the Nazis”; but that is what some people seem to have taken away, especially at the time.

She was called a self-hating Jew, a Nazi sympathiser, and worse; her university tried to bully her into resigning (but she refused, which her tenure allowed her to do); and she lost many friends. But she refused to back down.  This was complicated by her association with Heidigger, who became a Nazi.

The movie was good, with many excellent female roles (and not a few good male ones). The switching between languages was fluid and believable, and the integration of archival footage from the trial was well done.

And as to the “banality of evil” — I hadn’t realised that one of the scariest psychology experiments from around that time (Dr Stanley Milgram’s series of experiments) was actually inspired by the Eichmann trial and the questions that Arendt raised.  And other experiments, like the later Stanford prison experiment (which showed how quickly people can start to abuse power, and the Robber’s Cave experiment (which showed how easy it is to foster inter-group conflict, and how hard it is to fix it) are also hard things to accept. It is a lot easier to believe in monsters than to believe in relatively ordinary people doing monstrous things.

Anyway, I liked the film, and it made me curious to read the original articles.

Film # 69: Mood Indigo

It’s a Michael Gondry film, with all the things he likes best in it – stop motion, projection, puns, a dreamlike logic, and a weirdly textured world. Oh, and there are a number of scenes where rows of typewriters travel along long desks, passing from one typist to another… and I thought, “Hang on a second, I’ve seen that room before!” And I had, in It Boy – it was the French Communist Party headquarters auditorium.

Anyway, the basic story is that a young man, on hearing that his best friend has fallen in love, declares that he will do the same. He does, it’s cute, they marry… and things start to go downhill.  Not in the relationship, but in the world.  There’s a constant weird menace in the background that grows as the film progresses, and for every swan bubble-car swung through the sky on a crane there is a series of factory worker deaths due to a supervisor boiling up impenetrable philosophy texts and dripping it into his eyes.

I enjoyed it, for the most part, but would not claim to understand it completely. I’d need some time before I felt like seeing it again.

Film #70: Much Ado About Nothing (& The Captain)

The short was a very strong contrast to the main film – Taika Waititi is an airline captain who wakes up drunk in the wreck of an aircraft, puts his jacket and hat on a corpse, and runs off. That’s pretty much it – the effects artists did an excellent job in creating the crash, so I feel kind of bad that they did so much good work in service of such a one-note nothingness.

The main attraction, on the other hand, relies on the conviction of the actors to drive the story. Shot in black and white, with Shakespearian language in American accents and contemporary dress, it all just works. Some of the physical humour is a bit broader than I would have preferred – Benedict’s jumping about while listening at the window as the others talk about Beatrice’s love for him, for example, though I believe that this was a reference to an earlier version – but in general, the performances drove the story along. And there were plenty of non-textual touches that worked really well – the bumbling lawmen locking themselves out of their car, for example.

This was a more successful translation than Romeo and Juliet: A Love Song, because I could always understand what they were saying. I liked both, but want to rewatch this one more.

Film #71: What Maisie Knew (& I’m Going To Mum’s)

This short was good – a divorced couple share custody of a kid, and their fighting spills over into how they dress him (because his mum believes his father is irresponsible about clothes). The kid decides to protest in the only way he can think of. The child actor is engaging, and you can feel how scary the adults arguing would be. I’m glad it was made.

The feature is apparently an adaptation of a much older book with a similar theme – the parents are getting divorced, and while they obviously love their daughter when they’re interacting with her, they’re also using her to hurt each other, and they’re very quick to drop her in someone else’s lap if something comes up in their lives. And this attitude extends to the other people who they’ve drawn into their orbit… both in their thoughtlessness towards them, and using them as tools in their fight.

The little girl playing Maisie is believable because of her reserve; she’s nervous around new people, and doesn’t give a running commentary on her inner life. She gets to act like a good-natured kid, and that means that the adults actions are made all the more heart-warming or horrible.

I liked the film.

Film #72: The Gatekeepers

The Shin Bet are the Israeli internal security service, making them to Mossad what the FBI is to the CIA, I guess… if the FBI were also responsible for an occupied Mexico. This documentary interviews six former heads of this service, intercut with archival footage.

The interviewer sometimes talks off-camera, and does ask hard questions, but his tone is not confrontational. The former heads of the service were open and blunt in their assessments, and often appeared to need no prompting. For example, one of them admitted to ordering the killing of two captured terrorists (who he claimed had been brutalised by the army before his people received them); when asked whether this was moral, he declared that there was no “moral” in the fight against terror, only effective or ineffective; and when asked if he would have done things differently, he said that he would have, because there had been a reporter there.

They admitted their failings – that they didn’t foresee the Intifada, or the assassination by a Jewish right-wing radical of the Israeli president intent on finding a compromise on the Palestinian problem. They talked about the arrest of the radical Jewish group who was determined to blow up the Dome of the Rock in order to trigger a war with the all Muslim states (as a prelude to the end times)… and the politics that meant that all those responsible were either not touched, or out of prison soon after they were found guilty. They talked about how targeted killings have become a problem, because they (and so many other things that Israel does) are used to achieve tactical rather than strategic objectives: it doesn’t matter how many leaders you kill if you leave the conditions that caused those leaders to emerge untouched.

The oldest of the former heads (and one who was described as “feared” by some of the other people interviewed) lamented the fact that the situation had trained the people of Israel to be cruel – not just to the conquered nation that they are holding onto, but to each other.

The film is very pessimistic about the future of the Israeli state.

This film is very good.

Film Festival Day 13, 07/08/2013

Is there some sort of prestige associated with having the wrong time on your clock if you’re a Wellington bus driver? Is it like young folks who like having a cracked screen on their iPhone? I think I’ve only had one bus that had the right time in all the rides I’ve had during the Festival.

Film #63: Village at the End of the World

This was a documentary about a small Inuit community in Greenland. The fish processing factory closed, and the people are slowly draining away. One of the people that the film focused on was a 17 year-old who has been raised by his grandparents – his mother lived in a nearby house, and his father… well, he believed he knew who he was, but the man refused to talk to him about it. Given that there were only about a dozen houses, that’s pretty impressive, in a sad way.

They are dependent on a government subsidy to ship goods out to keep living out there, but their young people are slipping away to the larger towns and cities. During the film, they are trying to set up a collective to buy the factory from the company that shut it down, but that company is being uncooperative. And the ice is getting thinner, and coming later in the winter, making some of the hunting more difficult.

They talk to the rubbish collector, who also collects the nightsoil from large buckets in each house; he’s an outsider from southern Greenland, who met his wife over the internet. Because he’s was the only one who speaks Danish and English, he’s also ended up being the guide for the tour groups that occasionally come from visiting cruise ships. There was that weird vibe that you get when people show traditional ways of life as theatre for tourists, who go away thankful that there is this corner of the world unspoiled by modernity, while around the corner a child checks her Facebook profile on a pink laptop.

I’m not sure whether these places can last; but while they do, I wish them well.

Film #64: Like Father, Like Son

A high-flying architect and his wife discover that their six year-old son, who they’ve been grooming to get into a good primary school, is not their biological child. Instead, their son is living as the oldest of three with a couple in a slightly run-down electronics shop; the wife works part-time at a take-away food place. The architect’s house is clean, orderly, quiet, and focused; the rooms behind the electronic shop are jumbled, raucous and fun. The parents must decide – should they leave things as they are, swap, or do something else?

The hospital staff in the film say that most parents in this situation choose to swap, which just boggles my mind. By the time a child is six, they’ve been a person for a while, a person who you have hopefully grown to love – I cannot imagine any circumstances that would induce me to swap. I mean, I can imagine offering to help with a scholarship for the blood relative, and I don’t think I’d exclude them from my life if they wanted to know me; but I can’t imagine handing someone who I’d been responsible for to strangers like that. Then again, there are the legal isssues, and I understand feeling a sense of responsibility to your biological child, and that the other parent might feel the same. And it’s a different culture, so priorities might be different.

The movie itself is fairly spare and quiet, without much in the way of flashy emotional display (although the emotions are definitely there). The architect’s gradual growth as a person that this event prompts is believably gradual – he doesn’t leave architecture to become a clown or write children’s books or anything, he just… thaws slightly. And the kids, while mostly pleasant, are not as pliant as they might first appear.

I enjoyed it.

Film #65: Valentine Road

This film made me very angry.

One fifteen year-old asked a fourteen year-old to be their valentine. This severely embarrassed the one being asked, and all their friends hassled them; so the next day, they bought a gun to school, and shot the other kid in the back of the head, paused, and shot them again. The basic argument of the defence was that the kid who shot their classmate in class hadn’t gotten in trouble before, that they had been provoked, and that it was at most manslaughter, not murder; and that they should definitely be tried as a juvenile, not an adult.

The kid who was shot was a small male half-Latino who had fought for his right to wear makeup at school; the kid who shot him was a white male associated with a white pride gang.

Now, I have a certain amount of sympathy for the proposal that he should have been tried as a juvenile rather than an adult, since the reason there was legislation allowing them to charge him as an adult was introduced to prevent gangs from using minors to commit murder – he was not being used by adults in that way. On the other hand, there was no question that this was not premeditated, since he had to return home after he headed out to retrieve his gun. His defence claims that he was considering not to kill the boy, until he heard that the boy had decided he wanted to be called by a female name. It was the defence that brought that up, mind you, not the prosecution.

I guess the key for me is – what if it was a girl who had been embarrassed by an unacceptable guy in front of her peers. Would anyone try for a provocation defence then? Or a Hispanic girl asking a guy in front of his white power friends? And yet the jury hung the judgement, and five of them turned up on national television with “Free Brandon” wristbands, along with the sort of “well, dressing like that meant she was asking to be raped” victim-blaming that is incredibly frustrating.

After the trial dragging on for three years, he plea-bargained out to get 21 years without parole. His victim, of course, still got life.

Film #66: Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia

He was a witty, incisive man who knew what he wished America would be, and was constantly disappointed when it failed to live up to what he saw as its potential. I don’t agree with everything that he said or thought – for example, while I doubt Cheney was a Machiavellian genius, I’m not sure that he was as bumbling as Gore suggested.

I liked that they let their subject speak a lot, and that they let some of those that disagreed with him speak, and I enjoyed both. Oh, and by showing a bunch of archival footage, they got to relive some of his best, most cutting moments – for example, his debates with William Buckley, and the crack about Reagan’s presidential library (that there was a tragic fire, and both books were lost; and the second one he hadn’t finished colouring in).

But I think they also succeeded in showing more than just the acerbic humour and intellect; that he was something of a shy man, who used humour to defend himself as much as to attack those that he felt needed attacking.

I enjoyed this film.

Film #67: Blood Brother

A slightly aimless American called “Rocky” goes to India, visits an HIV orphanage on a whim, goes away… and is drawn back. The film is the result of his best friend visiting after Rocky’s second visitor’s visa is granted, and filming what he saw.

He is completely unworried about dealing with the kid’s cuts and bruises, and the kids are exuberant. They’re naughty sometimes, since they’re kids, but they do seem to genuinely love him, and he loves them back. It is very far from easy, and he talks about the kids that he has lost, and we see him at the hospital bedside of one of the children we’ve previously met, who is very near death.  We also hear him when he is trying to deal with some of the things that he sees, when he’s not sure he can handle it.

He is a lot braver than I think I could be, and while there’s a certain amount of weird cultural stuff going on (with the villagers ranging from mildly friendly to openly hostile), he desperately does not want to let these kids down, no matter how hard things are for him to deal with. So he doesn’t. (Or at least, he hadn’t by the time the movie was finished.)

I liked it.

Film Festival Day 12, 06/08/2013

Another thing that I was reminded about by Mud – lyrics to old songs are frequently more troubling than you’d expect. I mean, it wasn’t “My Sharona”-level icky, but I hadn’t realised that “Help Me Rhonda” basically says, “My girlfriend broke up with me, and I wanted to marry her; but you’re cute, so please be my rebound.” Way to woo a girl, Beach Boys. 🙂

Film #57: Ernest & Celestine

A cute French animated film for kids – bears hate mice, and mice are terrified of bears. Celestine isn’t so convinced that all bears are terrible, and Ernest… well, initially Ernest is just hungry. They meet, they help each other, and complications ensue.

I liked the art style, and Celestine’s forthright manner; I would enjoy watching this with my nibblings.

Film #58: The Venice Syndrome

Tourists have achieved parity with the inhabitants of Venice; by 2030, it’s projected that all of the residents will have left. Public services such as maternity wards and post offices have closed, and the rental costs/house prices have sky-rocketed. They showed images of the cruise ships coming in, dominating the skyline, and listen to a surveyor contrasting the 300 year-old lime mortar (which he says will last another 200 years) with the shoddy repair work that has been done (which he says will last 20 years, if that). And they show the tide flooding the streets – flooding them with canal water, which is where all the sewage goes.

And yet, I think to myself – they have these cruise ships, but at least they don’t have hotels that size dominating the skyline permanently. And residents lament the shut-down of services, but at least they aren’t knocking down buildings for strip malls, or getting a bunch of glass and steel skyscrapers anonymising their city into the shape of every other metropolis. Venice may end up becoming a museum, rather than a living city… but you maintain the exhibits at a museum, so maybe there are worse things that could have happened? And maybe it’ll become a city again sometime in the future?

Film #59: Die Welt

This film starts with a Tunisian youth trying to stop a customer from making the terrible mistake of ordering Transformers 2. It then moves through, looking at the limited opportunities available to young Tunisian men – work for a relative (if you’re lucky), find a lonely visiting European woman, steal from the docks or smuggle yourself across into mainland Europe.

It was all right, but slow enough that I was worried that I’d misread the programme — it felt like it had been significantly longer than the 80 minutes it was meant to be.  This wouldn’t normally worry me too much, but I was meant to be meeting Jenni with tickets to the next movie, and I only had a 10 minute gap.  But soon after I discretely turned my phone on to check the time, it came to a meandering, slightly ironic halt.

It was okay, but I’m not sure I could recommend it.

Film #60: The Bling Ring

A bunch of rich bored teens graduate from stealing out of cars to raiding celebrity homes, basing their escapades on internet coverage of the celebrities’ out-of-town events. They evade notice for a while because they don’t clean the houses out, and the stars in question (like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan) have so much stuff that millions of dollars of designer swag going missing was not obvious. But boasting to friends, posting pictures on Facebook, and keeping personal items from the stars meant that they were pretty easy to bust once they were found… which led to the unedifying sight of them scrambling to justify their actions, and leverage the publicity to launch their brands.

A lot more label porn and partying than I really needed to see, but perhaps that was the point – there’s nothing deep about these kids or their actions, and there’s no evidence that they learned anything from what happened, other than how easy it is to get famous in America.

Film #61: 2 Autumns, 3 Winters

This looked like it might be a fluffy French comedy like It Boy. It wasn’t, really.

I mean, it had funny bits, but I would not describe it as “light”. The main characters addressed the camera directly, describing what was happening on-screen in the past tense. The main themes seem to be romantic relationships (and how unprepared middle-class late-twenty/early-thirty-somethings are to deal with them), and death – in fact, two of the main characters have near-death experiences.

I’m not sure I have anything interesting to say about this film. It was all right.

Film #62: The Summit (& Maul)

The kiwi short was a… horror? Maybe an absurdist horror? It was about rugby, kind of, and the team as organism; but it wasn’t developed quite enough to be scary.

The main feature was about the climb of K2 where 11 climbers lost their lives. More generally, it was about how stories about extreme situations can differ, depending on the observer. They had interviews with one of the Italians who was on the first successful K2 expedition, who says that he and his climbing partner took oxygen up to those who ended up reaching the summit; but the story that the other climbers told when they came down was that he and his partner used the oxygen themselves. Can the truth be known?

And there were people in the fourth camp who refused to go to the aid of climbers in trouble above them, while there were some who chose to, and some who were ordered to. Many of those who tried to help died; so does that confirm that those who chose not to put themselves in danger for people who weren’t adequately prepared made the right choice? Or at least, a right choice?

One of the people who got in trouble (also an Italian) who got themselves most of the way down claimed that the climber he had been with (an Irishman) had gotten confused and wandered back up. But there’s evidence that the Irishman actually went back to help three Korean climbers that they passed, and managed to get them close to safety before an icefall killed them, him, and the Sherpas that the Korean team leader ordered up the mountain to help them. (The Korean team leader did not come across very well in the movie.)

There was a combination of archival footage from the climb, interviews from the survivors, and recreations with actors. I don’t particularly like heights, and there were many shots that were pretty vertiginous; but there were also many impressive vistas, including the view of K2’s shadow trailing off into China.

I have no interest in mountain climbing, but I found this story interesting, and would recommend it.

Film Festival Day 11, 05/08/2013

I just came out of a film where someone appeared to have had a critical skittles accident — a pool of them were sitting in the middle of a seat, as if the Easter bunny had gotten a very nasty fright.  But let’s focus on the films I saw yesterday.

Film #52: Romeo and Juliet: A Love Song

I had a bit of trepidation about this – the classic Shakespearian tragedy as a musical, retaining much of the language, and set in an Auckland holiday park?

In actual fact, it worked well more often than not. I didn’t come out humming any of the tunes, but I thought that they worked in the classic lines pretty well. The main problem that I had was understanding the lines at all – I found that the combination of archaic language sung in a rock style with a Kiwi accent meant that I really wanted to be able to turn on the subtitles. I mean, I followed the plot without problems, but it was sometimes hard to make out exactly what was being said. Maybe it was the audio in the theatre?

I liked the costuming and the sets, and the over-the-top style worked for me.  And I think they made the right call in dubbing all the actors, so they could pick the best faces for the roles without worrying about their singing chops — we don’t have a big enough pool of actors for that to be viable.

I was worried that it would be high-concept, but better described than actually seen; I’m glad I was wrong.

Film #53: A Touch of Sin

A extremely loosely connected set of vignettes about various people deciding to kill other people for one reason or another – though they can mostly be traced back to greed and/or sense of entitlement. It shows a China deeply uncomfortable with the way it is modernising, and with who is benefiting from these changes.

A little slow, very violent… it was all right.

Film #54: Terms and Conditions May Apply (with #Postmodem)

Okay, the short at the beginning felt very self-consciously weird. There was a some slightly uncertain laughter from the audience, and a bunch of live footage mixed with what looked like crappy Second Life graphics, with an implied story about augmentation to interact with the virtual world better, followed by renunciation of that path. I’m not sure that it achieved what it set out to do.

The main documentary was about the relatively rapid eroding of consumer’s rights to privacy in the digital world. There was a certain amount of slightly overblown rhetoric about the death of privacy by people who appear to have forgotten that not everyone lives in a city and has a smart-phone, but it’s certainly true that things like the ability to track phone locations mean that it’s gotten harder for whistle-blowers to hide, even as it’s gotten easier to get more data to whistle-blow.

They did a good job of graphically presenting the changes in privacy over time, both figuratively and literally – the diagram of Facebook’s increasingly public defaults in all its categories over time is a good example. The fact that all the consumer privacy protection legislation got derailed by the 2001 terrorist attacks is a little worrying, but it’s not what concerns me most.

Instead, my main worry has three prongs. The first was illustrated by the people digging through the AOL search logs, who found a set of searches that showed someone was looking up “how to murder your wife” repeatedly. The web immediately concluded that whoever was behind that ID was obviously a wife-murderer (or a potential one); instead, it appears that it was a writer for the show Cold Case. Or there’s the nine year-old kid who tweeted that Obama should be careful now that Osama had been killed (because he was worried), who got a visit from the Secret Service about his threat towards the President.

The second was the apparent move towards “pre-crime” arrests, where people like the street-theatre troupe that were planning to perform in protest of the royal wedding, or the group of people who were going to stage a zombie wedding miles from the celebration were arrested as at their homes. That sort of pre-emptive arrest seems a little like stifling legitimate protest, and likely to be a big problem when combined with the first prong.

The third prong is that the retention rules and cheaper storage mean that stuff can be (and is) stored for longer, so if one person gets in trouble, all the people even marginally associated with that person will be examined in unsympathetic detail. And everyone knows about the Echelon programme by now, which is as elegant a bit of sophistry as ever normalised something previously forbidden, which means that they’ll have been gathering this stuff for a while..

All that said – you know how it’s part of the humour Zeitgeist that Facebook was created by intelligence agencies to allow people to inform on themselves? For example, there have been offhand comments in Persons of Interest, and various Onion articles. But what if the NSA explicitly offered a service? What if they said, “Our spies and other intelligence agencies are going to be looking at this stuff, and we might hand stuff on to the police, but random people won’t get to look at it, and in return you get free unlimited storage, with revision history going back five years, access anywhere in the world, and excellent automatic indexing and search capability. And we won’t sell your details to WalMart.” In a situation like that… I can imagine a bunch of people taking them up on their offer.

Heck, I might take them up on it. I use Gmail, don’t I?

But I still don’t put most details on Facebook, or link stuff between accounts, or put my real birthday in things that ask for it. Because none of that is any of their business. 🙂

Even though I didn’t completely agree with all the points the film made, I enjoyed it.

Film #55: The Human Scale (with The Mobile Meat Processing Unit)

It was obvious that the short preceding the movie was inspired by the nursery rhyme “Mary had a little lamb” – basically, a girl goes to school (followed by the lamb), and the eponymous processing truck pulls up and lowers its ramp, offering “fabulous prizes” based on weight of meat processed. All the animals (including the cat, dog and wife) and foliage are offered up to machine; the girl is only saved by the fact that the lamb (which should have been towing a big “symbolism” sign at this stage) had followed her, and so was able to tip the scales for the prize-hungry father.

It deliberately had the bare minimum of animation it needed to be to get its point across, with some film, some 3D models, and some jointed pictures. One of the points that they were making was that gambling, or even the semblance of gambling, is a powerful motivator – hence the rise of the free-to-play “random chest”, some types of which some countries have had to ban based on the harm they do.

However, the message was very much front-and-centre, with little or nothing in the way of layers; I would have liked a little more depth. So… I dunno. It was only okay.

The movie itself was about the need for city planning to think about how what it measures influences what it improves – if it only measures traffic flow, then that’s what will drive its decisions. And cars are a lot more expensive to cater for than pedestrians, and it’s a lot harder to make an impulse purchase or window-shop from inside a car. And there are things that make surprising differences – building height is a public health issue, for example, because the further up a building you work, the less likely you are to go out during your lunch break.

It featured a section on the Christchurch rebuild, and the National government’s grabbing of control did not come across particularly sympathetically. It also talked about the resistance to the “Eurofication” of New York as streets were converted to pedestrian-only, as well as the programme’s apparent successes.

One thing that it only really talked about in passing was public transport, but it had plenty of interesting detail, and I quite enjoyed it.

Film #56: Mud

What did this film teach me? Well, it turns out that 14 year-old boys in the American South still say, “Yes sir” and “Yes maam” to their parents; and that if you find a strange man camping out in a boat washed into a tree on an island by a recent storm, he’ll like the Teeny Weenies that you buy from the Piggly Wiggly more than the tin of pumpkin pie filling you swipe from your mum’s cupboard; and a boy can only really rely on other relationships with other males, or his mother.

Oh, and if you’re a Kiwi watching a movie and thinking, “Why are the kids so worried about a creek-bed full of eels?”, it’s probably because they’re not eels at all, but highly poisonous cottonmouth snakes.

Okay, that’s not all completely accurate, but it’s close enough. A couple of boys end up helping a man they find hiding out on an island in the delta; one of the boys, Mitch, helps because he wants to believe in love (because his parents are having problems), the other, “Neckbone”, helps because he’s been promised the stranger’s pistol (because, hey, pistol). This help ends up being a lot more dangerous than it appeared at the beginning.

I enjoyed it.

Film Festival Day 10, 04/08/2013

The only downside to a Penthouse day is that you can’t actually get a meal there, unless you go for cabinet food – the gaps between films are too short. In fact, the wee laptop I have with me would have taken most of the time between movies just to bring up Windows, so I didn’t get any writing done, either. Oh, the first world problems, they are so tragic. 😉

I bumped into a bunch of people up here – my team lead, someone else from work, and my ex-girlfriend’s parents. I had a longish chat with all of them.

Film #47: The Spirit of ’45

This film was an unabashed celebration of the election of the Labour government in Britain after the Second World War. They talked a lot about the unemployment and casualization of workers before the war, as well as the condition of slums. (They showed the state of the typical blankets in those houses, which were literally crawling with insects. I mean, Three Sisters also had the girls picking lice out of their clothing, but it looked significantly worse than that.) It’s a little weird to think that Churchill lost the country after winning the war, but as the film points out, he was a Conservative leader of a Labour administration, and the party itself was associated with appeasement.

I have mixed feelings. I think that the NHS is an unabashed good – allowing your neighbour to get sick is just dumb, since infections don’t respect the colour of your credit card. But I remember someone at work complaining how hard it was to get anything done through the old government-owned Telecom. It feels like a variation of the Tragedy of the Commons: how do you minimized selfish exploitation?

There were many good points made – for example, that privatization of functions often appeared to be driven on idealogical grounds. If you outsource cleaning, you’re not just moving a wage bill from one place to another – you’re also introducing a layer of administration, and bringing in a player whose objective is to keep their costs down, rather than keep an environment clean. And if you’re a hospital, the cost of a single additional infection is likely to wipe out any nominal savings made by moving cleaning outside the institution.

(On the other hand, a quest for autarky is generally a bit of a fool’s game. I can certainly believe that, in some circumstances, it might end up making financial sense to outsource something like cleaning, if your needs are sufficiently standardized that there are savings that the people you’re hiring can make based on size. But what’s true of an office isn’t necessarily true of a hospital.)

There’s also the point that the government has been keen to sell off the profitable bits of various services like Royal Mail; conveniently, those are also the bits that companies want to buy. But that means that the unprofitable (by socially important) bits suddenly cost money, since they’re no longer subsidised by the profitable bits… which may end up being a good excuse to shut them down, if you’re suitably Machiavellian.

It was a good documentary, but not especially balanced.

Film #48: We Steal Secrets: The Story Of Wikileaks

One of the major points of this documentary is that Julian Assange has managed to tie WikiLeaks quite firmly to himself, and that there’s a weird conflation in many people’s mind between the charges against him in Sweden, and those against Private Bradley Manning. I mean, I agree that the vigour with which Assange has been pursued is interesting, and I’d like to know if there are any other men with similar charges pending that have rated Interpol warrants. (I kinda hope they have, ‘cos it’s not a trivial thing he’s accused of, and letting these women have their day in court seems like the right thing to do.)

For what it’s worth, I hope that WikiLeaks is seen as a proof of concept, a model rather than the only game in town. The well documented fact that various groups will use “national security” or “commercial sensitivity” as a figleaf for “we’ve done something embarrassing” means that whistleblowers are an important check; but those who publish things do need to take their responsibilities seriously as well. However, if it’s seen as okay to punish and call out small actors like WikiLeaks in a way that governments wouldn’t go after established newspapers, that’s a bit of a problem.

Film #49: Fill The Void

In a conservative Jewish community, a woman dies in childbirth. The dead woman’s mother wants her other daughter, who is starting to think about marriage, to marry the bereaved son-in-law, so that her grandchild won’t move to Belgium.

It is a little less coercive and creepy than it sounds.

We’ve seen the prospective pair joking with the sister before her death, though neither of them are keen on the idea initially. This isn’t a movie about challenging societal norms – the prospective bride is worried about losing the chance to grow with her husband, and what her sister would have thought, not about whether or not she wants to marry at all. (Apparently there’s normally a short interview process so that couples can ask each other a few questions before they marry, but otherwise there’s very little contact between the sexes.) In fact, I think that most of the movie was more about how the women interact with each other, and how they see themselves.

I liked it, but I’m not sure we got the happiest possible ending.

Film #50: Blancanieves

A weird retelling of Snow White as a black & white silent movie, where the king is replaced with a famous and rich matador, the evil queen is a nurse who meets him while he is being operated on, and the dwarves… well, they’re dwarves, but they’re a travelling troupe of entertainers that fight bull calves for villages. All this is told in an exaggerated style, with elements fading in over the top of the main picture, and a mythic sensibility. I liked it a lot until the last ten minutes, where I felt it veered into exceedingly creepy territory.

So… I don’t know. It’s still pretty neat, but the end didn’t work for me.

Film #51: My Sweet Pepper Land

Basically a Kurdish Western about corruption and attitudes to women. A former fighter for Kurdish independence has turned policeman, and volunteers to work in a community on the border near Turkey and Iran. The other stranger in the village is a young woman, only daughter of a man with twelve sons, who has been assigned to this remote outpost and lives alone in the school – but the local warlord doesn’t want her there. Rumours start about the two almost immediately, bringing out a weird dichotomy – a woman living by herself is seen as a moral problem, but allowing a warlord to smuggle and break the law is not.

The new sheriff (because that’s what he basically is) is unwilling to turn a blind eye to what the warlord sees as his ancestral rights, and it’s obvious that conflict is inevitable. This is exacerbated by the appearance of a group of female Kurdish freedom fighters.

There’s some unexpected humour. For example, the police station isn’t finished yet, but there’s a row of portraits of former police chiefs… and their guns and hats. And the woman plays an instrument I’d not seem before, called a “hang”, which has a pretty neat sound; I’d assumed that it was traditional, but apparently it’s very new, having been developed recently in Germany.

Anyway, it wasn’t the strongest film I’ve seen, but I liked it.

Film Festival Day 9, 03/08/2013

Why do I have blended ice drinks, when they seem almost guaranteed to give me a temporary headache? Curse you, frozen tastiness!

Film #42: Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel With The World

This was a documentary made in the 1960s, with parts taken from lectures and seminars that Robert Frost was doing at the time. He would have been in his 80s, and they panned around the audience looking at all the university students intent on his every word. I hadn’t realised that his father had been closely involved with the running of the Democratic party, and that he’d been there rather than at school – that would probably give you an education on the public and the democratic process that is something like a butcher’s education on cows. He was also clearly pro-military and pro-America, which can’t have hurt his chances to be embraced by the establishment.

But he also seemed to have a sense of humour about people who wanted to over-analyse his work, seeing avatars of doom in images of crows and hemlock trees (which, to him, evoked his local environment rather than dark portents and Socrates’ suicide). And many of his poems have a nice melody, shape and feel. The images of him pottering around his old house, making himself coffee from crystals out of a jar and packing a battered suitcase, and wandering about doing the gardening made me think of someone’s grandfather.

I kind of wish for a more modern version of this film, but it was nice to hear so much of him in his own words, and interesting to try and put yourself in the tenor of the time. For example, he mentioned talking to men that he saw with a copy of his book, who apparently invariably said, “Oh yes, my wife is a great fan of your work.” 🙂

Not great, but good.

Film #43: Ilo Ilo

Set in Singapore, a boy has been acting out since his grandfather died, and his heavily pregnant mother (who is still working) dictates to his father (who is secretly in trouble, work-wise) to hire a Filipino maid to help out around the house and keep an eye on him. We see the mother locking up the valuables before the maid arrives, and taking the maid’s passport off her as soon as she walks through the door (so she won’t run off, the mother explains). The maid is then shown where she is to sleep – on a trundle bed in the boy’s room.

It was interesting to see how this kind of family lives. (Or possibly, lived – the movie was set in the economic downturn in the 90s, but the Tamagochi that the child plays with is one of the few things that suggest that it couldn’t be set during today’s shrinking economy.) The maids have only one day a month off, and will often take another job illegally during that time; the maid is advised to sneak out during the day and work, as well. But none of the characters are saints or villains. Even the mum, who is bossy and sometimes mean to the maid when she’s feeling insecure about her relationship with the boy, is mostly just worried rather than actively malicious, and does not (for example) confront the maid over the little touches of lipstick that she has stolen.

Ultimately, the story is a little sad, but not tragic. I quite liked it.

Film #44: Three Sisters

I felt every one of the 153 minutes. Actually, that’s a lie – I’m pretty sure I nodded off briefly during it. This documentary watches three girls who start the film living by themselves in a small house in a rural village in northern China – the eldest is 10, the youngest is 4. Their father is in the city, trying to earn money; their mother is… just absent. They eat at home, or at their auntie’s, or with their grandfather. The houses are hazy with smoke in the evenings from the pine and turf that they burn (as well as the tobacco from any adults); many of the kids, particularly the eldest, are continually coughing. And we watch them herd sheep, and make a mash for the pigs, and squabble among themselves, and generally live life.

The documentary style they used was to just have the camera there, and shoot what happens – no questions, no commentary, and no context. I often find this style to be a bit frustrating, since it provides a lot of flavour, but unless the subjects are particularly talkative, there’s usually not as much substance as I’d like. It felt like you saw some of the bits of how this life worked, but it was just not what I was hoping for.

Film #45: The Selfish Giant

The original Oscar Wilde story has a happy ending.

This one didn’t.

It was probably more powerful for it; but I don’t know whether I’d watch it again any time soon.

The main character is a hyperactive kid from a broken home, whose medications are stolen by an older druggie brother, and who can’t stay still or stop talking. He and his best friend see thieves pulling up cable from beside a railroad and laying it on the tracks, using a passing train to cut it. While the thieves are distracted by a guard, the kids run off with the cable, and sell it to a scrap merchant… which starts the main character’s obsession with finding scrap (including stealing more cabling) and making money.

I really dislike people who steal from public spaces and infrastructure. Lead from church roofs, telecommunications cables, public artworks – they’re basically saying, “I am more important than all the other people who use this put together.” And the fact that they’re basically wrecking something more valuable (e.g. working cabling) in order to make something less valuable (wire scrap), that adds to my dislike. It’s no different to large companies coming in and poisoning rivers with mercury in order to extract gold more cheaply, or knocking down historic buildings to build shoddy new ones (with shell companies that can conveniently declare bankruptcy when problems arise).

Anyway, rant aside, this film was very good at showing a slice society that felt real, and that I was very glad that I don’t live in.

Of course, the next film made my dislike of thieves seem really petty.

Film #46: Silence in the House of God

This was a film that I didn’t want to see. I knew it was going to be hard to watch, and that I would not leave the theatre happy. But it felt hypocritical and disrespectful to the victims to go to Gardening With Soul, and not go to this.

It was well made, if a bit focused on America – but given that it was made by HBO that’s not terribly surprising. It set out the steps taken by a group of deaf men who had been systematically abused by a particular priest while at a school for the deaf that he ran, and the stonewalling they received from the Vatican hierarchy. The film did a good job of talking about some of the internal politics that have made the situation worse – while the Vatican prefers to present itself as a monolithic entity, there has always been a tension between the pontiff, the Vatican bureaucracy and the College of Cardinals. And there is always a temptation, when you’re inside an organization, to look at how things will affect that organization, rather than looking for the right thing to do for everyone involved.

There were some things that made me a little uncomfortable about the film itself – for example, using the words “young zealots” to describe one of the Catholic societies that one of the guilty priests formed is not a neutral way to describe that organization; though to be fair, I’m not a big fan of the Opus Dei crowd, and those guys sounded similar. Or the claim that the Vatican state was an invention by Mussolini, ignoring the long existence of the papal states in “the Italies”. And there was a weird thing going on where winning compensation from the Church was somehow a measure of success, which might be an American thing? (I would have thought that putting those people responsible in prison or the psychiatric ward would be more of a success.) But it is hard to criticize this film without feeling like you’re in the same camp as Men’s Rights activists who try to claim that lower funding for prostate cancer is equivalent to (or worse than) the many inequalities faced by women. Not every documentary has to give equal time to “both sides” – sometimes one side is demonstrably in the wrong.

The people who did these things should be punished and prevented from hurting anyone else; those who protected them and failed the victims should be made accountable; and the victims should be acknowledged, and helped.

I hope that things get better.

Film Festival Day 8, 02/08/2013

 Film #35: William Yang: My Generation

I don’t think that I was the target audience for this film. There was a target audience – I know, because they were there, and applauded at the end – but I found that the bulk of the film was a barrage of names I didn’t know and didn’t understand why I should care about, having parties and dinners and fashion shows and spats. It seemed to be a listing of events, with no overarching narrative or deeper context. There were flashes of interest, and it was well made, but on the whole I kinda wish I’d blown it off and gone to play with my nieces at Te Papa instead.

(I did go and play with my nieces, but it was a very truncated affair.)

Film #36: Making Utu

This was a really interesting (and short) documentary, although the maker (who was there) said that there was a five-hour film struggling to get out. (She was non-committal as to whether we would ever get to see that film.) She also talked about the movie that she originally wanted to make – she wanted to have a discussion about the ownership of land at each of the places that filming happened, with the making of the movie acting as backdrop; but she found that people shied away from the camera, both off set and on, so only flashes of that original concept survive. It would be interesting to see her go back to this material, and have that conversation now, when people are more comfortable with being on screen and have had more time to talk about this issue.  Weirdly, I recognised one of the things in the film (the Taranaki New Zealand Wars Memorial) from a recent Historic Places Trust bulletin, so it’s not like this stuff has faded away.

The film itself was really interesting – both from the point of view of how they tried to get things right (from a historical perspective), and how they did things from an effects point-of-view. For example, I had wondered how they had made the tattoos on his face so textured, so seeing the latex being applied to the main actor was really interesting; and seeing the gaffer tape and cardboard props used for the uniforms of the British troops only seen in the distance was very cool.

I’m glad that I saw it, and that I stayed and listened to the Q&A afterwards – the person from the film society lamented that this film didn’t spawn a genre, and it’s weird to think how NZ would have evolved if the Maori land wars had become our Western.

But then I had to hoof it from the City Gallery to the Embassy.

Film #37: Frances Ha

If you were to draw the main character, I imagine you’d have her walking, head in the clouds, with a trail of her belongings falling out of a hole in her bag that she hadn’t noticed yet. Tonnes of passion, not a lot of finesse… and not big on backup plans. There’s a lot of emphasis on not feeling grown up, on not feeling like you know what to say, or what to do…

It was a little slow, and I think that she’d be a frustrating friend to have. And I’m not as in love with New York (or dance) as these people seem to be. But she ended up being a pretty endearing character, and it was a pretty enjoyable film.

Film #38: North by Northwest

If you made this film now, you’d probably have about quarter of the expository dialogue (fortunately), and ten times the number of explosions (unfortunately); and some of the attitudes have aged a bit. But it’s suitably convoluted, some of the lines are still crackerjack, and it bumps along at a fair pace. In fact, one of its problems is that it has is that it’s famous enough that there are a few scenes that are iconic, which means you know they’re coming up; it would have been amazing to have seen it when it first came out.

In some ways, the architecture is one of the real stars – it’s something that’s aged a lot better than some of the leisurewear. 🙂 I liked it when I first saw it, and I liked it this time, too.

Film #39: The Strange Little Cat

An odd film. An extended family is getting together for a meal, and they arrive in drips and drabs. There’s the chaotic movement of a bunch of related people in a small space, punctuated by barking by the dog, and the occasional anecdote… which each seem freighted with meaning, perhaps in part because they’re in a movie. I liked the feeling of a family bumping along and teasing each other, and that part of it seemed really truthful; but if you’re going in expecting a narrative, rather than a slice of life, you’d be sorely disappointed.

My first session at the Film Archive. It was okay, but not as good as I had hoped.

Film #40: Starlet

There was a lot more explicit sex in this movie than I was expecting. I mean, it’s not extended or gratuitously shot, and it’s completely relevant to the story they’re telling – they pretty much just show that, yep, sex is happening, and then pan away to other stuff that’s going on. So… just something that you might want to be aware of, going in.

I liked all the performances – the old woman was suitably curmudgeonly and proactive, the dog was well-behaved, the main antagonist is suitably self-centred without being cartoonishly evil, and the main young woman is suitably blithe. The backstory is only sketched in to the bare minimum, and there’s plenty that is left unanswered because it’s irrelevant. I thought that they were very good at building up tension by having a whole wardrobe worth of shoes waiting to drop, and then being very judicious with which ones they let fall; and the director talked about how they chose to finish the film the way they did because they felt that what happened after that end was private.

Anyway, it wouldn’t be for everyone, but I liked it.

Film #41: V/H/S 2

Okay, this is basically a horror anthology with a framing device of a creepy house with a bunch of cursed videotapes – so all the short films are constrained to contain the cameras that are filming in the narrative of their story. This film follows a similar collection last year.

This collection, much more so than the last one, relied on jump scares and copious blood and mutilation – this meant that I looked away from the screen occasionally, but there wasn’t anything that’s likely to dwell in my mind as much as some of the parts of the previous film. There were a number of neat ideas – for example, guy with helmet cam gets turned into a zombie, so then you get a zombie point-of-view; or that some medical prostheses let you see things that you can’t normally see, which also allows them to get you. But I’m not sure that the shorts themselves give you much that a paragraph summary wouldn’t – I mean, they were mostly well-made (though the creepiest one, involving a cult compound, was let down by an unconvincing main monster), but by and large the films never really surprised me.

In fact, sometimes they sound better in concept than in execution. For example, the medical prostheses one let the main character perceive ghosts, and they’re angry for reasons that are never explored. (I guess the car accident that caused the injury the prosthesis was for could have killed the people whose ghosts are haunting him? But there’s no reason to think that’s the case, other than the car crash being mentioned in passing.) But my main issue is: why ghosts? Why not go with equating it with second sight, and showing fairies – there’s plenty of precedent for fairies not being particularly happy with being spied on, and you could go from beautiful and weird to terrifying pretty easily. Or aliens, though you’d need to be careful to pick a metaphor that hasn’t been overused – aliens as communists, aliens as consumer culture. Aliens as surveillance state, maybe? Though it’s probably a whole lot cheaper to make people up as ghosts…

Anyway, it was a bit disappointing; I’m not sure I could recommend it, unless you’re very into the genre.

Film Festival Day 7, 01/08/2013

 Film #30: Wadja

Filmed in Saudi Arabia, which has no cinemas. It’s about a smart, independent young girl who decides that she needs a bike so that she can race a boy that she’s friends with… so she decides to win a religious club contest to earn the money. (Women, of course, aren’t allowed to ride bikes; they’re also not allowed to drive, aren’t listed in the family tree, and have to go inside if workmen can see into their playground.) And while things aren’t going as well for the Mum (who can’t have more kids) as for the daughter, the film is mostly upbeat.

A neat film. I hope that none of them get in trouble for it.

Film #31: This Ain’t No Mouse Music

Chris Strachwitz founded Arhoolie Records in order to get to record the music that he enjoys listening to. Escaping East Germany as a teen ahead of the Russians, on coming to America he heard Lightning Hopkins and was hooked.  And once he was hooked on the blues, he didn’t stop there, spreading out into zydeco, bluegrass, polka, tex-mex, country, rhythm and blues, and all sorts of other branches of the American musical tree that people get together and dance to. He wasn’t interested in collecting history; instead, he was interested in collecting music that moved him.  What he actively despises is “mouse music”, music that doesn’t have conviction.

As I may have mentioned in the past, I have been accused of having musical taste that’s “eclectic, in a bad way”. I am sure that a lot of the music that I enjoy would fall into what Strachwitz would label “mouse music”; but I’m glad that he collected what he did, and may be ordering a few discs…

Actually, I’ve been thinking about that. Most of the time, I’ll be listening to music at work, and that almost always ends up meaning that I’m listing to something on Bandcamp. (Which I will then buy if I find I listen to it more than once, even though I am still likely to stream it.) Sadly, I seem to have passed the event horizon where I cannot read, listen to, watch or play all the cool stuff that is out there; I seem to end up buying it as a promise to myself, that I’ll come back to it. But one day…

This film was finished with Kickstarter money; I’ve contributed to a bunch of Kickstarters, and I hope that this continues to act as another source of funding for films like this.

Film #32: Blue Ruin

A wild-haired man living out of a rusting car finds out that his parents killer is released. Events ensue.

The lead was believably “average guy, driven to extremes”. And while it was violent and showed a lot of blood, you could tell that it didn’t think it was sexy or slapstick like Cheap Tricks – violence meant something, and I think I preferred this film because of that. The situation was believably drawn, and things rolled along with a kind of inevitability. The main character isn’t portrayed as heroic; he is just doing what he thinks he has to, without bravado or particular flair.

I liked it.

Film #33: Dirty Wars

Basically, a US journalist gradually uncovering how JSOC (the Joint Special Operations Committee) have expanded their power and influence, and how the seductive simplicity of kill lists have replaced the tedious process of judicial hearings and diplomatic pressure. The reporter was especially outraged that one of the people targeted for assassination was an American citizen, which I felt a little uncomfortable with; but his basic point seems valid.

I guess my main problems with all this is twofold.  Firstly, the “kill them all, and God will know his own” approach is morally abhorrent, plain and simple.  But secondly, the tactical mindset appears to have overwhelmed the strategic one. Some of those interviewed mentioned that the lists of deadly enemies are not getting any shorter, and the relatives of those killed unjustly are just going to add to those lists. Part of this will be due to perverse incentives – those ordering the killings are charged with eliminating the people on the list, not eliminating the existence of a list.

There’s a weird resonance with Blue Ruin in this, as well as Utu.

It was all right, but I kind of wish there was more detail.

Film #34: The Past

A woman gets her husband to come back after a four-year separation to sign the divorce papers in person. The man she wants to marry isn’t in the house, but his son is, as well as the two daughters from previous marriages (one of whom is dead-set against the new man). The woman appears to be ready to fight with any of them at the drop of a hat, but the pressures on the all of them gradually emerge over the course of the film.

The writer and director have done a very good job of slowly building up a picture of what has happened for us, revealing the ex-couples’ past through confrontations between the wife and boyfriend; and what has happened since the husband left four years ago as he learns it. And there are several times where we find that we, like those in the film, only have an incomplete picture of events.

I liked it, but don’t think I’d watch it again.

Film Festival Day 6, 31/07/2013

 Film #25: The Missing Picture

This was an interesting contrast to The Act of Killing. It was made from the point of view of the victims, rather than the perpetrator; and the violence wasn’t just an extension of gangsterism, but an exercise in ideology, which often seems to mean that the suffering is more pervasive, and the defence of the actions at the time is more eloquent. But there were similarities, too – the narrator talked about how the village head who terrorised them under the Khmer Rouge never suffered any consequences for his actions, and still lives in his village with many children.

It’s weird to think that all of this was happening as I was growing up; that I could have starved to death on a collective farm if I had just been born not so far away. It didn’t have as much of an impact on me as The Act of Killing, but I’m still glad I saw it.

Film # 26: The Broken Circle Breakdown

He’s a bluegrass banjo player; she’s a free-spirited tattoo artist. (Obligatory “They Fight Crime!” reference.) They live in Belgium, and their six year-old daughter is dying of cancer. We jump back and forth in time, watching their relationship both evolve and disintegrate, intercut with songs from his (and eventually, their) bluegrass band. However, there’s a basic contradiction in the religious faith embodied in some of the songs, and the man’s strong atheist convictions, which ends up causing problems when they’re both dealing with grief.

I enjoyed the music, and both the interactions of the leads (who sing, and sing well), and the interactions of the background characters (and everyone but the couple and the daughter is firmly in the background). Unfortunately, I was sitting next to someone who couldn’t manage not to make little derisory noises whenever George W. Bush appeared on their television or said anything. But then again, that was another key element – the attraction of the idealised America of dreamers, as opposed to the actions of the U.S. as a modern state.

Very sad, but I might enjoy watching it again.

Film #27: Utu

We started with an introduction full of interesting detail from the director and the DoP. For example, the severed head prop used in the movie was brought from Sydney to New Zealand in hand luggage, leading to an interesting conversation when Customs spotted on the X-ray. Another anecdote involved the director being told, after the blessing, that he’d get whatever weather he pull on the call-sheet for the next day… and that’s exactly what happened for the rest of the shoot.

I was a bit nervous that I wouldn’t like the film. After all, many dramatic films made in the 80s come off a bit naff. And there were a few bits that brought me out of the film – when a character strikes a dramatic pose, and get a cheesy musical sting, for example. And a few of the performances were a bit awkward.

But for each problem, there were plenty of cool things – for example, the few clumsy bits in the commanding officer’s characterization were contrasted with him blazing away with his pistol, rather than cowering in his room. The humour hit more than it missed, and I liked many of the female roles… though I’m not sure it passes the Bechdel test.

So, all in all, I liked it.

Film #28: Camille Claudel 1915

Not as slow as Gebo and the Shadow, but still very meditative. Basically, the artist of the title does appear to have paranoia and mood swings, but she’s also obviously better able to cope than most of the others in the asylum in which her family has immured her. She talks constantly about how it is like a prison (which suggests that she has no idea what a real prison is like), and begs to be taken back home. Her brother, who is a Catholic in the mystic tradition, visits her during the period of the movie; it is hinted that there are parallels between the intensity of his religious experience and her obsessive thinking (though he is definitely more functional than her).

It was well made, and an interesting historical situation… but I’m not sure it gripped me.

Film #29: The Spectatular Now

The class clown, who may be a high-functioning alcoholic, is dumped by his long-term girlfriend; he ends up, more-or-less by accident, going out with a shy, bright, dutiful, geeky girl who is into manga and is preparing to give up her dream of going to university because of her perceived duty to her mum. He, being a teenager, does his best to mess this up by being as caught up in his own life as a teenager usually is.

This manifests by him obsessing over an absent father who he is sure was driven away by his mother (who he is sometimes actually horrible to), a father who is not the person he has been built up to be. Luckily, he compensates by actually being a genuinely nice guy, who seems to be genuinely glad to help those around him – even the guy who ends up dating his ex. It managed to shock me, and make me dislike things he did without, in the end, disliking him; that’s a fairly major feat.

I liked it.