NZIFF: The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came To Eden (USA, 2013)

Doco about a weird unsolved murder mystery in the 1930s Galapagos Islands. There were only a handful of people on the island of Floreana, all eccentric or mad to various degrees, locked in strange jealousies and rivalries. It’s a small cast of characters, none of whom are particularly endearing, all destined to be either victims or suspects.

It was a good watch, but like more than a few docos I’ve seen in the last few years, it was slooow. There was a tight, excellent 90-minute documentary film inside this 120-minute version, and I would much rather have seen that. But I can recommend it anyway – there is much in this account worthy of eyebrow-raising, and that is surely a good measure of a documentary’s worth.

NZIFF: Under The Skin (UK, 2013)

Scarlett Johansson is an otherworldly being who seduces Glaswegian men to their otherworldy doom. It’s shot, framed, told, and paced as an art film, but the narrative itself is fairly straightforward. (Which is good! That’s not a criticism!) There are many mysteries, mostly unexplained, although the shapes of answers are given. There’s a lot of improvised stuff where unsuspecting Glaswegian locals found themselves interacting with Johansson in seduction mode. The whole sequence on the beach is one of the most upsetting things I’ve ever seen.

I loved it. Best thing i’ve seen in ages. But this is really not for everyone.

NZFF: Cabin in the Woods (USA, 2011)

Awesome fun, but.

A Goddard/Whedon clever-clever horror movie that takes the stereotypical slasher film structure and dismantles it. I fought hard to avoid being spoiled for this film but it turns out I needn’t have bothered, because it pretty much unfolds completely predictably from the juxtaposition set up in the first two scenes. The joy of it isn’t surprise though, it’s in execution, particularly in the gags. This is funny stuff. I did guffaws.

What it doesn’t do, is say anything clever about the horror genre, and I think it was trying to. There’s a subtextual thing in there that, I think, really doesn’t get what horror films are for, or conversely, what audiences want from horror films. So while I really enjoyed the film, I also want to argue with it. I suspect that the bits that threw me out of the experience – without exception, these were times it pulled a turn from grim nastiness to funny, which is trademark Whedonesque – failed for me because they were founded on this misapprehension.

Conversely, what it *does* do is celebrate scary movies. And it celebrates beautifully. It gets how scares work and how gags work and how tension unites the two. It plays out, on a scene level, beautiful beautiful moments that I will always remember. They didn’t all add up for me, but I definitely got my money’s worth. Would very happily watch again.

(Also a Go Girl takes her top off.)

NZFF: The Imposter (UK, 2012)

Documentary about a family who found their lost son after four years, only it turned out it wasn’t their son at all, it was an imposter. Told from the point of view of the imposter.

This is a heck of a story, and it’s easy to see why people have been eagerly talking about it. The main figures are fascinating (the core family, the increasingly odd imposter), and the supporting characters are memorable (including an FBI agent who is, er, not the best advertisement for that agency, and a Private Investigator who is a born star).

The twists and turns don’t seem quite so gasp-worthy to me though, and probably to anyone else who studied psychology. “How could the family possibly accept this chap was their son?” Well, “very easily”, says psyc. Because if there’s one thing psychologists know that they can’t seem to get into the public domain, it’s that we are way more cognitively fallible than society tells us. You Are Not So Smart.

Like most documentaries I see these days, it is too long – it would probably make for a great BBC 60-minute no-ads TV documentary, but at 90 minutes it really felt like it took ages to get going. Anyone who goes to see documentaries on film (or rents them on DVD) will know this phenomenon though, and it’s pretty forgiveable really.

So, I didn’t gasp and I thought it was long. That sounds pretty negative. Actually I really enjoyed this film, I’m just unwilling to talk about why because it’ll spoil the surprises – and the filmmaker really makes the most of those surprises. Definitely worth your time.

Farewell (France, 2009)

I was one of the many many people who saw this film at its Monday festival screening. Lots of familiar faces in the audience. Embassy Theatre was heaving. It’s a nice cinema always, but especially when it’s heaving.

So: this is a “based on a true story” of prominent 80s KGB informant Vladimir Vetrov, who passed secrets to the West that enabled the discovery and complete dismantling of substantial USSR infiltration of Western technology programmes. (Flicking through webpages on the subject, somewhere I read “the West was basically in a technological arms race with itself” because as soon as a breakthrough happened, the Russians caught up thanks to their network.)

It was enjoyable, if somewhat undisciplined, and (as is apparent from just a cursory search of Wikipedia) substantially divergent from what really happened. The filmmakers make no apologies for this – they renamed their informant for a reason. But it does make some of the familial relationships that drive the film feel a bit empty, knowing they were contrived for the film rather than summarised for it.

It’s a French film so it features men having affairs, a bearded protagonist, and lots of unscrupulous Americans. (One of the Americans is Willem Defoe, hurray!) There are actors in the roles of Mitterand, Reagan and Gorbachev, who verbalise the impact of the passed information. They were all fine in the roles of such well-known public figures, but I think the film would have been stronger if it found another way to show those aspects of the story. The strongest elements are the personal relationships around the spies – I was actually reminded of Donnie Brasco, a great filmic study of the familial costs of a life of deceit.

It’s a bit too broadly played to be fully satisfying, and knowing how far it was from the truth feels like a let-down to me, even though it made no claims to be anything other than a dramatic story that echoed some of the things that happened. But it was engaging and often genuinely suspenseful (although it pulled the same suspense trick twice for two of its tensest scenes, which felt like scriptwriting laziness to me). Above all, it’s very watchable. I had a good time watching it; I think most everyone would.

Plus, Freddie Mercury in white pants cameo as part of some Queen concert footage. On the giant Embassy screen… well. Those pants were tight.

La danse: The Paris Opéra Ballet (USA/France, 2009)

Those people who advised about going to see films without expectation or even choosing were right – this was not one I’d have chosen, and I think it’s my favourite of the five I’ve seen so far. We inherited tickets from my parents, who found late that they couldn’t go.

There’s not much film to sum up. US documentarian Frederick Wiseman takes his cameras inside the highly-respected Paris Opera Ballet, mostly into rehearsal rooms but also into administration offices, costume-workshops, and the rounds of the maintenance men. As the film goes on we see some of the actual performances, seven ballets in total from the traditional pleasures of the Nutcracker to a bunch of others I’d never seen before. It’s long, two-and-half hours, with extended sequences of nothing but dancers dancing and choreographers feeding back to them.

It was riveting.

I should clarify that I’m not a ballet aficionado in the slightest – I’ve seen, hmm, three ballet performances in my entire life, including last year’s Peter Pan. It’s a medium towards which I’ve never been drawn. That hasn’t stopped a strong thread of awe at what dancers do, and what they represent – the power and potential of movement alone, movement performed and experienced, and the many layers of communication that entails. Perhaps one of the reasons it isn’t my medium is because I’m so caught up with words, whereas dance is almost the opposite of words – one point in the film almost made me laugh as it addressed this so precisely, where a choreographer advised a dancer, as they talked through what the character might be thinking, “don’t put words to the movements or you’ll kill it”. And he was obviously right. Dance is a parallel track and its rules are different but no less potent for that.

This film, I felt, spoke to me very clearly about the creative process and creative expression, particularly shared and collaborative creativity. I was humbled by the sheer amount of work the dancers put into their craft, and pleased by their obvious joy in what they were doing. And as the film approached its end, and we started to see the ballets in performance, I found myself utterly caught up in the full realization of all that masterful development. Once or twice I might have forgotten to breathe.

I don’t want to oversell this film – as much as I loved it, I don’t know that I’d recommend it without caveats. It resonated with me personally, but I don’t know how another random person might take it. I don’t know that I’d watch it again, either. I think, if it sounds interesting to you, you’d probably enjoy it.

But yes, for me, this has been the highlight of my festival selection.

The Most Dangerous Man in America (USA, 2009)

Doco about Daniel Ellsberg, an ex-Marine Pentagon/Rand staffer whose eventual conclusion that Vietnam was unwinnable then turned to horror when he discovered that the U.S. had been the instigator from the beginning. Ellsberg then leaked the history of the origins of the Vietnam War, first to senators and congressmen who did nothing with the information, and then directly to the press. Cue uproar, and Nixon in full-on supervillain fury mode.

Ellsberg was disappointed that the leak didn’t have the impact he’d hoped. Predictably, the story became about him, not about the facts of the origins of Vietnam. The fury he must have felt watching the similarly contrived build-up to war in Iraq can only be guessed at; Ellsberg is depicted protesting against that war too.

I found this fascinating and educational. I only knew the broad strokes of this story, so it was great to have it unpacked and explored. And as much as Ellsberg was unhappy the story became about him, his personal story is indeed fascinating, such as his on-again off-again love affair with a woman tied to the peace movement while he was working in the Pentagon on the war.

I would have appreciated a bit more detail on the secret history Ellsberg was unveiling. The collusion of five U.S. Presidents in lying about Vietnam was sketched very briefly – a few more minutes on the subject seems worthwhile to me, as I expect many in the audience would be just as uncertain about the detail as I am.

Apart from that, a solid doco, well-made, about a subject that rewards the interest. It doesn’t strive to illuminate any higher truth, which is probably to its benefit. To be honest, it felt like reading a really well-written chunk of journalism from the New Yorker or the Atlantic Monthly, and I mostly mean that as a compliment but an also an observation about style. A lot of film docos use the medium to explore things no magazine article could touch, but I don’t think that was much the case here. This was a more traditional journalistic style, rigorous and eye-opening. Recommended.

Movie site

NZFF: Candyman (NZ/USA, 2010)

Next flim fevistal offering: Candyman. NZ filmmaker Costa Botes went to California to make this documentary about David Klein, the inventor of the Jelly Belly jellybean. This was a candy product that, not to overstate the case, revolutionised candy production in the U.S. (and, some speculate, helped humanise Ronald Reagan). Klein sold out of Jelly Belly in the 80s, for a pittance relative to the worth of his invention. More importantly, he has been written out of history by the Jelly Belly company, who simply do not acknowledge his existence.

So the film is a character study of an interesting character who had a great idea, followed it through with his heart and soul, then lost everything.

Klein is fascinating. He’s entrepreneurial and good at business operations, with an instinctive eye for marketing and branding – the Mad Men advertisers could learn something from him. But at the same time he’s compeletely not cut out for business-as-she-is-played. That fateful act of selling out was a ridiculous decision from any sensible business perspective. More importantly, Klein’s heart is not in profit at all – he marries his business sensibility to a deep love of helping people, regardless of the cost to himself. Unfailingly, stupidly, generous, he was never going to thrive in the world of real business.

So this is a fascinating doco looking at Klein, at who he is and what makes him tick, as well as the ins and outs of the Jelly Belly story. It will particularly resonate in the U.S. where this candy brand is a genuine cultural icon.

However, I can’t recommend this unreservedly. It felt, to me, like a 45 minute documentary packed into a 75 minute package. There wasn’t enough in it to sustain my enthusiasm.

So: very good, but not great.

(And, special mention to the music by Lower Hutt’s finest, Tom McLeod. Music in a doco is often hard to get right, but this was a delight – it’s no surprise Costa made special mention of it when introducing the film.)

NZFF: The Illusionist (UK/France, 2010)

First Flim Fevistal experience of the year was this animated piece by the fine minds behind Triplets of Belleville. It’s an adaptation of an unproduced (and apparently deeply personal) script by French comic filmmaker Jacques Tati. In the fading years of Vaudeville, a stage illusionist travels where the work takes him, and in the Scottish Highlands he acquires a young girl who is enchanted by him and believes his magic is real. The remainder of the film plays out in Edinburgh, as the illusionist tries to make ends meet, and the girl – a true naif – starts learning a thing or two about life.

We bought the tickets to this one based on Katie’s recommendation on my grumpy-about-film post. It was indeed a stunningly beautiful rendering of Edinburgh, enough to load me with a heavy shot of missing the place. That mood sat well with the film itself, which was gentle and wry and shot through with sadness, right to its final frame. Not a happy movie at all. It didn’t fully transport me, principally because the story never quite resolved its fable-aspects with its realistic-aspects, but it kept me engaged and fascinated throughout, and the ending was marvellously right. (And endings are so very, very difficult to do well.)

So, a successful outing. Good flim. Has chipped away some of the film-grumpiness of recent times.

Next NZFF: Candyman. (Not the guy wth the hook – the guy with the jellybeans.)