23 July, 2015

Dawn Redux

So here's the thing,

This year's film festival starts tomorrow, so I really should get around to posting my comments on the films I saw during the 2014 film festival. These comments were all originally posted on Facebook within a couple of days of seeing each film, so they reflect my initial thoughts and responses while each film was still fresh in my mind. They were also all written in something of a rush, so are not the most eloquent pieces of writing. Looking at the list of films, it's astonishing how so many of these screenings feel like they took place just a couple of months ago, while there are other films that feel like they occurred years and years ago.

[Comments on 29 films follow after the jump] 

05 July, 2015

Power of suspense, laughter, violence, hope, heart, nudity, sex, happy endings... mainly happy endings

So here's the thing,

If you had gone past the Paramount Cinema at 5.30 on Wednesday morning, you would have seen a solitary figure standing outside in the cold. After the disaster that the film festival online ticket bookings had been last year, I was concerned that a lot of people might revert back to booking in person, just in case, and I was determined to get in front. I needn’t have worried. It was over an hour before a second person turned up, and another 30 minutes before the next person arrived. Eventually, we were let in at 9am and tickets went on sale. And things seemed to go well with the system. Until...

We were booking my last day of films, just four films remaining to process. And suddenly the ticket agent’s screen froze. And remained frozen. I had to wait 15 or 20 minutes until the system reconnected, at which point my entire order had been lost. So we had to start again from scratch. It was now 9.40am. Unfortunately, for a few of the busiest screenings, I’d lost the very good seats I’d initially secured, but I still don’t have any bad seats by any means. On the whole, it worked.

But I’m thinking about taking a chance with not queueing next year. While they still seem to have some issues with the booking system not coping with the demand, it seems that things are much improved from last year, and (one would hope) should be even better next year. And now that the online system allows the user to make seat selections, that’s the last advantage of in-person booking gone. And so much of the in-person booking time was occupied with searching for the films I’d selected, before we even got to picking seats, that it would have been faster had I been able to just use my pre-compiled wishlist of film; I could have just selected them all and been choosing my seats within a minute. I might have been able to complete the transaction before the system went down. (And not having to get up at 4.30 in the morning would be nice.)

So I return to my car to drive to work. Except that there’s a car parked next to me. The problem is that the space next to me is nowhere near wide enough to fit a car; it’s usually used by motorcycles. So, in order for this car to squeeze into the park, they had left about 20cm space between their passenger side and my driver’s side. Obviously there’s no possible way anyone, no matter how small, could get into my car. After a moment of panic, I realise my church is just down the road. So I wander down to the office to ask whether anyone there can help me; I was imagining us trying to push the car into the road so that I could get in. Fortunately one of the people who came to help realised that he could climb into the driver’s seat from the passenger side, and was therefore able to drive it out.

So here are the films I’m seeing this year:

* The Lobster
* '71
* Dope

I’m most excited about Inherent Vice. I’ve loved Paul Thomas Anderson’s films ever since I saw Magnolia at the 2000 film festival, and was bitterly disappointed when the release of his new film was cancelled two weeks before its scheduled release date. I know that the Paramount had tried to negotiate with the distributor for a limited release to that cinema, but that also fell through. Fortunately, the festival will offer an opportunity to see the film, and at the Embassy, which is a great relief. Everything I'd seen of the film looked remarkable and visually distinctive, so I was not looking forward to only ever experiencing the film on my TV screen.

I’ve heard excellent things about the shot-in-California Iranian black-and-white vampire film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and while it has been sitting in my Netflix streaming queue for a couple of months, I’m held off on watching it in the hope it would get a festival screening. So I’m excited to see that.

I’m also really looking forward to Victoria, which is supposed to be great. A crime thriller about a girl who falls in with some guys planning to rob a bank, it’s apparently an intense and thrilling experience, and that’s before you take into account the technical feat of filming the entire 140 minute movie as a genuine single take. (None of the Birdman-style fakery piecing separate takes together to create the illusion of a single take; they apparently really did shoot it with one camera over a 2 hour 20 time period.) Consider Russian Ark, which is probably the most famous single-take film. That film was a brilliant film and technically an impressive achievement, but it took place in a single (admittedly large) location that could be controlled, and while it was enjoyable and had memorable sequences, it was also a bit impregnable if you don’t have a strong grasp on Russian history (which I don’t). By contrast, Victoria takes place over 22 separate locations, wandering the streets between each location, plus it’s almost twice as long as Russian Ark, and it should have the easy audience accessibility and pure entertainment value that comes with working in the defined crime genre. If they really have managed to pull this off, the film could be something quite special.

There’s a small selection of classic films this year. I saw The Colour of Pomegranates at the film society a few years ago, and did not care for it, so I’m not seeing that. However, I’ve never seen either of the other classic films; The Misfits (the final film of both Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable), or Kiss Me Kate (a musical adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, in Technicolor 3D). Both of those should be fun.

There’s one film I’m seeing about which I’m deliberately trying to stay ignorant. I heard the festival director, Bill Gosden, on Radio NZ’s “At the Movies” show mention The Tribe, a film apparently about a gang of teenage delinquents. What Gosden said was that the characters are all hearing-impaired, the dialogue is therefore all in Ukrainian Sign Language, and that the director believes that the sign language is so expressive that you don't need subtitles. So there are no subtitles in the film. Frankly, that intrigues me as an experience and an experiment; can I follow the film if I have no idea what anyone is saying? So I’ve decided to not know anything else about the film until I sit down in the cinema, and try to experience the film in as pure a way as possible.

There’s also a couple of documentaries that I fully expect to be difficult and challenging to watch, but that are also supposed to be excellent. The first, The Look of Silence, is a companion piece to The Act of Killing, an incredible and disturbing documentary that I saw in the 2013 festival. That film looked at the Indonesian killings in the mid-60s, when a million alleged-communists were murdered, and was strongly focused on the killers, showing them recreating the techniques they would use to murder their victims. The new film is apparently more focussed on the victims, with the central character being an optomistrist offering free eye checks to members of these death squads as an opening to discuss their crimes, including the murder of his own brother. There’s also a film called Dreamcatcher about a woman called Brenda Myers-Powell, who spent 25 years as a prostitute (starting when she was just 14), but who is now working to help sex workers leave the life. (There’s a really interesting (albeit disturbing) interview with Myers-Powell here)

I’ve decided to trust the decisions of the festival programmers where it comes to the “big night” films. I’ve had too many times where I’ve decided not to see an opening night, centerpiece, or closing night film because it didn’t interest me, only to discover later on that I really loved those films. So even though they don’t immediately interest me, I’m still going to see The Lobster (about a society where people who are turned into animals if they remain single for too long?) or Tale of Tales (about, umm, I genuinely don’t know) just because. (On the other hand, the centrepiece film, a Taiwanese movie called The Assassin, actually does seem pretty interesting.)

A couple of years ago, the festival show the Koreeda Hirokazu film I Wish, about two brothers wanting to be reunited, which everyone I heard from really loved. Unfortunately it just kept clashing for me with other priorities, so I never got to see it. (And still haven’t.) Then there was the swapped-at-birth film Like Father, Like Son. Which I also wanted to see, but which kept clashing. So this year, I decided to make his new film, Our Little Sister (about girls meeting their half-sister) an absolute priority. And I’ve managed to fit it in; I am risking a rather short turn-around between two films and different cinemas, but it should be achievable.

One thing I always find a little disappointing is the way Wellington has often been shortchanged with the Live Cinema events, where classic silent films are accompanied by live musical performances. Auckland always seems to get the big films, while we get the lesser-known films. So this year, both Auckland and Wellington are getting a film I’ve never heard of called Lonesome. I’m sure it’s a great film, and it’s nice to be able to see a film I might otherwise never get to see, and the music will be great. But then I look at my wall, and see the big picture of Charlie Chaplin with “the kid”, and I realise that Auckland is also getting a Live Cinema screening of The Kid, and I wind up feeling like I’m missing out. And that’s disappointing. Sure, it’s not exactly hard for me to find a copy of The Kid to watch at home, but it still feels like a lost opportunity.

There’s a ton of films I’ve just heard good things about and am excited to see – Ex Machina, While We’re Young, Dope, Girlhood, The End of the Tour, or The Wolfpack. As an animation fan, it will be sad to see When Marnie Was There, which (following the retirement of Miyazaki and the likely retirement of Takahata) could very well be the final film of the great Japanese animation Studio Ghibli. And the rest of the films I’m seeing are just movies that leapt out at me for one reason or another, and often I don’t really even know why I feel compelled to see some of these films. But I’m optimistic; there could be some real gems in there.

We’re now less than three weeks from the start of the festival, and I find myself getting impatient, looking over the programme again and again, wanting the festival to have started already.  And in five weeks’ time, it will all be over for another year. And so to next year...

22 February, 2015

988 minutes

So here's the thing,

The Oscars are always a weird mix of joy and frustration, where you're excited by the acknowledgement given to one film that you love, and baffled by the focus on another film that just didn't work for you. As part of that experience, it's always interesting watching all of the Best Picture nominees, and seeing what the Academy regards as the best that filmmaking had to offer in the year. This year, there are a number of absolutely incredible films that would top the list in any year, a few more that in being nominated have been a bit overrated but are still pretty good, and one film that is so blandly generic and that so completely fails to distinguish itself in any way at all that I simply cannot image how it ever gained the support to be nominated.

[My thoughts on Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, American Sniper, Selma, and Whiplash, after the break.]

12 January, 2015

I have something to say

So here’s the thing.

I tend not to post very often, and certainly never about anything that actually matters, but sometimes there’s just things you need to say. And apparently I’m angry enough to feel like I need to say this.

I first heard about the attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo when checking Twitter that morning. In the flurry of tweets on the issue, I saw someone had retweeted an old article from The Onion, called “No One Murdered Because Of This Image”. The article features a rather explicit image of Jesus, Moses, Buddha, and Ganesha involved in a four-way. The article noted that, after the image was published, “... no one was murdered, beaten, or had their lives threatened... not a single bomb threat was made against the organization responsible, nor did the person who created the cartoon go home fearing for his life in any way.” The article also states that “Though some members of the Jewish, Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist faiths were reportedly offended by the image, sources confirmed that upon seeing it, they simply shook their heads, rolled their eyes, and continued on with their day.

I’d seen the article before, back when it was first published in 2012. I was offended by the image then, and I still am now, for multiple reasons. One of those is just for taste reasons; I really did not need to see Ganesha forcing his fist into Buddha’s rear. But also, I am a sincere, Bible-believing, conservative Christian, and the image of my Lord and Saviour portrayed in that manner is offensive.

And yet, on Friday morning, I posted a link to that Onion article to my Facebook page. (Admittedly I did remove the preview of the actual image from my page; when your Facebook friends include multiple church pastors, you tend to avoid posting explicit sexual images straight onto your Facebook feed, even if they are just cartoons.) I posted that article on my Facebook page because, as much as I may be offended by that type of content, I also whole-heartedly believe that living in a free society means recognising that other people have different views to my own, that those views may occasionally be expressed in ways that I may find offensive, and that part of being a mature adult in a modern society means that we accept this risk of offence as a fact of life. And I thought The Onion article was a nicely humorous way of making that point. (Leaving the image itself aside, the supporting article is very funny, and the image has to be deeply offensive for the joke to work.)

This morning I was listening to Radio New Zealand, and heard a piece about a multi-faith prayer vigil that was held at the Wellington Islamic Centre. Leaving aside the interesting issue of holding the vigil at a centre representing the faith that the perpetrators purported to represent while committing the attack, I was particularly troubled by some of the reportedcomments from one of the vigil’s participants.

The Kilbirnie mosque's imam, Sheikh Mohammed Zewada, condemned the terror attacks, but



You do not get to condemn the terror attacks, and then follow up with a “but”. Let’s be precise about language here: the word “but” is used to introduce a phrase or clause contrasting with what has already been mentioned. In other words, using the word “but” lessens, diminishes, takes away from what you’ve already said. And when what you’ve already said is a condemnation of the murder of over a dozen people, you should not in any way be seeking to diminish that. And yes, I realise this particular sentence is the reporter’s summary of what you were saying, but the fact that you expressed anything that could be reasonably presented in this manner is a problem.

Anyway, back to the article:

The Kilbirnie mosque's imam, Sheikh Mohammed Zewada, condemned the terror attacks, but called on people to show more respect for Islam.

He said people should stop creating images of the prophet Muhammad, which is disrespectful.

Read these two sentences together, and it’s pretty clear what is being said here. And it’s not something I think we want to be said in New Zealand. Sure, the killings were bad. But then, what the victims did that led to their deaths was also bad.

And here we come to the actual quote from the imam. “‘I totally disagree with what has happened in Paris. [But] freedom of expression does not mean I have the right to abuse other people or ridicule their faith,’ he said.

See, here’s the thing. YES, IT FUCKING WELL DOES! It is inherent in “freedom of expression” that we do have the right to offend and to ridicule. Because if a person’s view is that someone else’s faith is ridiculous or offensive, and yet that person is constrained from expressing that view, their freedom of expression is absolutely constrained.

The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form.” And sure, this right is not unconstrained. You can’t use your freedom of expression to bring actual harm to another person, you can’t yell Fire in a crowded room, you can’t issue death threats, you can’t access harmful images (such as those of children being abused). But beyond these constraints which are deemed reasonable in a free and democratic society, the State has no right to impose limits on how we exercise our freedom of expression. But that is what is being called for – where there is a clash between freedom of expression and freedom of religion, freedom of religion should take precedence.

(In the piece aired on the radio, it’s even clearer what the imam is calling for: “...we need to agree to set up some kind of law to put an end, or put some kind of regulation if I can say this word, to the freedom of expression to guarantee that this world shall live in peace and harmony.” That is unambiguous. He is expressly calling for a law change to prevent people from exercising their freedom of expression if it would offend another’s (more specifically, his) religion.)

Here’s the thing: in our society, it doesn’t just stop with the person saying the offensive thing. The person who is offended also has freedom of expression. They have the right to complain, to express their views. They can even organise a protest to peacefully (I emphasise the word “peacefully” – and placards calling for death do not count as peaceful protest) express en masse how offended they are. That’s something that the Christian community has been very good at in the past (although admittedly, I do think that the Christian community has got it wrong at times; I genuinely believe we were wrong to be so offended by Monty Python’s Life of Brian or The Last Temptation of Christ, the former being one of the great film comedies, and the latter being a film that I found deeply moving and thought-provoking as an exploration of the person of Christ and His sacrifice).

And after the expression of offence, who knows? Perhaps the person causing offence will see the strength of the community view, will understand better what they have done and will think better of it. Or perhaps they’ll just be delighted by the extra attention brought to the offence. (Admittedly, that’s usually what happens in this situation; things that might have been ignored draw crowds keen to understand the controversy – after all, how many people have now seen the Charlie Hebdo cartoons because of the attack? or saw The Interview to understand why North Korea was so offended?) But really, it doesn’t matter what the outcome is. Because the important thing is that EVERYONE has freedom of expression, and was able to choose to exercise it or not.

If you’re not happy with the fact that we have freedom of expression in New Zealand, well, I’m sure there are places you can go where the prophet Muhammad is respected, and perhaps these are places that are more to your liking. But it is absolutely unacceptable for you to try to change our society and restrict our freedoms to suit your worldview.