In our reviewers’ final sweep of the NZ Film Festival splendour, titles include a David Attenborough documentary without David Attenborough and a Nick Hornby adaptation
Happy As Lazzaro
Chalk one up for strategic ignorance. I’ve had mixed results this year with my favourite film selection method, the one where if I loved a director’s previous films I’ll sign up for their new one and then go to great lengths to avoid learning anything about it. (“Nadine Labaki makes warm-hearted films with a social conscience! I need not research Capharnaüm, and indeed can slot it in after some very dark-looking things in case I require cheering up!” Cue existential crisis.) But Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy As Lazzaro would have been a different and lesser experience if someone had breathed any of several words at me before I saw it. I’m about to use all of these words. Fair warning.
Rohrwacher wrote and directed The Wonders, which was one of my sweetest surprises at NZIFF 2014. It’s a complex, bitter-sweet, altogether gorgeous story about a family clinging to a barely viable rural Italian lifestyle, shot by Helene Louvart, who’s also worked with Agnes Varda and Wim Wenders. If you want a go-to example of what having a good eye means, you could do a lot worse than Louvart: she combines intelligent composition and good use of light with a quiet lack of interest in showing off. She’s the cinematographer on Happy As Lazzaro as well, and again, you could spend the whole film ignoring the story and just appreciating the way she brings the observed world alive. Except that the story is too interesting to ignore.
We’re back in rural Italy, immersed in the lives of a small community of hard-scrabble sharecropping peasants. The first thing we see is an after-dark squabble between two young women over whose turn it is to use one of two light bulbs being shared between about twenty people; so this is not earlier than the twentieth century. But these people seem to be something very close to indentured labourers. Was that a thing in twentieth century Italy? Surely not by the final decades, but would isolated dirt-poor communities in earlier decades have had electricity? A number of things about the setup seem anomalous as to time period, but the character interactions are rich enough to keep you from fixating on it — until it abruptly becomes clear what Rohrwacher is doing. This is the first of several moments when she slips a card from her sleeve and you realise she’s playing a deeply prepared game: at each of these moments, the film gets both larger in scope and stranger. It initially seems as though you’re watching a slightly soft-focus pastoral with a hidden social realist edge, and you are, but also, you seriously aren’t.
The key words I’m glad I hadn’t heard before going in are “magic realist” and “holy fool”. The title character is a simple-minded young man with an innocent willingness to trust the people around him. (Adriano Tardiolo, who plays him, has never acted before, and without seeing him in other roles it’s hard to know whether he’s a major find, or just someone with a lovely smile and a locked-in tendency to under-react to things. Either way he’s a gift to the film). Rohrwacher extracts a powerful implied social critique from his interactions with the community and the landowners exploiting them, and therefore there’s no reason to suspect that she has something more daring in mind for the character. So it comes as a shock when the film’s second half makes Lazzaro the pivot point of a major change in register: suddenly the whole modern history of Italy is bearing down on him, and we’ve made an overt shift into fable. Does this move entirely come off? I’m still arguing with myself about that, but I’d say the film loses slightly more than it gains. On the other hand it’s such an interesting piece of work. Rohrwacher stays on my mandatory just-book-tickets-and-go-for-the-ride list.
Yeah, I really didn’t get this one at all.
Lucretia Martel’s Zama adapts a 1956 Argentinian novel about an 18th century Spanish colonial administrator, going nowhere in a backwater posting in Paraguay and desperate to be reassigned. Zama, our administrator, is a bewildered hack who grasps neither what’s going on around him, nor the extent of his ignorance: a dignified patrician type with an elegant profile, he thinks of himself as a civilised man marooned among savages, and doesn’t notice the many ways he’s being mocked or the extent to which he’s despised.
So, colonialism unpacked and satirised. What’s hard about that? Well, this: Martel locates us very tightly within Zama’s point of view, and frames her shots so that we don’t see a lot of what’s going on around him. Frequently this involves not seeing things other people are reacting to. For the first ten minutes of the film I was sitting in the front row at one of the Reading cinemas and I thought my constant sense of not quite being able to keep up with the film was to do with not being able to see the subtitles and the action at the same time. (Reading has replaced the lost lamented Paramount as a festival venue this year, and I booked my tickets without actually having been in the place before; I like sitting close to the screen, but Reading’s front rows were designed for people who want the screen to fog over every time they exhale.) After those first ten minutes I managed to move back to a seat from which I could see the whole screen at once, expecting that this would let me find my feet within the film. I never did, because Zama never finds his. Martel throws you enough bits and pieces of story information that I think you could feel your way through the narrative very comfortably, if you were quick on the uptake and made all the right leaps. It’s embarrassing to report that this is only a theory, because I wasn’t, and I didn’t; but there you go.
Mega Time Squad
I enjoyed Tim van Dammen’s new feature Mega Time Squad so much – with the exception of what I think is an unforgivable and completely avoidable misstep. This time-travelling crime comedy set in Thames is so good. It’s funny and clever, it has heart and is so well executed. The film’s lead character, John, steals a bracelet which gives him the ability to time travel. In a Primer-esque time loop John makes an alternate version of himself, and another and another. Through some outstanding and unobtrusive special effects, soon the film is awash with Johns. Anton Tennet gives an excellent performance as all the Johns. His and the rest of the cast’s performances showcase van Dammen’s directing skills, which he’s developed over years of making some of Aotearoa’s best music videos and his first feature Romeo and Juliet – A Love Song. My favourite scene takes place in a suburban house where CCTV follows the multiple Johns around while his associated local criminals try to catch what they think is just one John. I think a lot of people will talk about the film’s script and the performances, but I was also impressed with its art direction. The film really captures Thames and Paeroa – there are some great cars and exceptional attention to detail in some of the cluttered corners of the world. I also want to just celebrate the costuming and hair and make-up. I could write a whole other review about Kelly’s bronzer and hair. The two long strands of hair that hang as a no-cut fringe show the level of understanding of the characters and their world.
This film has so much going for it, so why – I’m so frustrated by this – why does it have to be so lazy in its representation of Chinese New Zealanders? The film starts, and I’d argue relies, on a strong narrative of people from somewhere else coming and ‘taking’ something from people who feel entitled to it. I was really excited, I thought maybe as well as being really funny, Mega Time Squad might complicate this hateful part of the national conversation. For a split second toward the end of the film I thought, ‘Here we go. It understands what it’s doing with this. It’s going to get self-aware.’ But the moment passes and the characters slip back into their stereotypes of the ‘baddies’ of the film. I get this is a film for the genre circuit. I know the tradition it’s writing into – the B-grade karate movie, the triad crime story, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the cringe-inducing representation of yesteryear – but the rest of the film is so smart and fresh, and this is just so old-fashioned. Every character in the film lives under the weight of complication and interest. They’re characters which risk stereotype but through thoughtful writing avoid it – with the exception, I’d argue, of the three characters who are Chinese. It doesn’t feel like the film wants to do this, there are glimmers of complication and individuality in these characters but then there’s a joke about having to return something because it’s ‘made in China’. I feel like somewhere there’s a whole bunch of footage of Yoson An that is amazing. He does incredible work with the little he’s given. My dad says I take things too seriously. I understand the tone this film is going for, at least I think I do, but it seems to be trading on its ‘kiwi-ness’ and then failing to represent a huge part of the ‘kiwi’ experience by buying into quite tired stereotypes. Why couldn’t it be rich white guys who move into town and threaten to take away the local gang’s drug trade? Couldn’t the film punch up in this way? I know. I know. It’s not my business to write about the film I wanted to see, and that’s what I’m doing here, but I just feel so sad about this missed opportunity to add another really original element to this film.
The Ancient Woods
A David Attenborough documentary without David Attenborough, and what a good idea. I love Attenborough, to be clear; he’s the Platonic ideal of the informed voiceover naturalist. But Lithuanian film-maker Mindaugas Survila just gives you the natural world, with no explanatory voiceover at all. I was not quite sure going in whether an hour and a half of silent “Look! A badger!” moments were going to hold my attention. What becomes obvious very quickly is that it depends on how well the badger is shot. This is one of those fruit-of-long-obsession films where the footage was captured over many patient years: two minutes of screen badger, months of badger-tracking. Every shining second is pristine and startling.
Also, “silent” is the wrong word. Survila’s sound design is attention-focusing almost to a fault, with bird calls, especially, piercing at one end of the spectrum and booming at the other. The sense of immersion in a complex ecosystem is remarkable. We follow the seasons somewhat, opening in winter and moving slowly on through to another winter, but aside from that the only organising principle is that everything we see comes from the same European old growth forest. I frequently found myself wishing Survila would stay with a particular sequence longer, rather than jumping from deer to spider to snake to crows to storks; compared to a dialogue-free film like Le Quattro Volte, say, the pacing here feels almost rushed. On the other hand his more intrusive editing rhythm lets you see so many things. There are moments, too, where he breaks the illusion of naturalism with slow motion sequences and perfectly executed time lapse effects, all of them well judged to show you things you couldn’t otherwise grasp. The scene where frenetic feeding birds abruptly slow to a pace where we can see what they’re eating is masterful. (It’s also the only moment here that could do mood-setting duty for a horror film). In the main the film is peaceful, beautiful, and rich with incident. Children with reasonably good attention spans would enjoy it, I think, and afterwards you could have a useful conversation with them about the many ways storytelling can free itself from language.
I have just noticed Judd Apatow’s name in the producer credits for this Nick Hornby adaptation, and oh my god, that makes so much sense.
Really that sentence should be the whole review, except that the implication would be that I stand apart from this middlebrow mainstream crowdpleaser, sneering a quiet cinephile sneer. Whereas in fact I completely loved it. Or at least, I found myself loving it as soon as Ethan Hawke showed up, playing an Ethan Hawke character: slacker-cynic-burned-out-rocker, a shiftless bad boy back in the day and now a would-be adult, trying to be a good dad to the only one of his many children he has yet to let down. (The midlife Ethan Hawke character is distinguishable from the standard midlife Nick Hornby male character and the standard midlife Judd Apatow male character in one single respect, which is that he looks like Ethan Hawke).
(One other note about Ethan Hawke characters: two weeks ago I would have used this term as shorthand for “Hawke’s career has been all about playing affable, charming, fundamentally weak characters, all of whom have the same affect and the same accent”. Then I saw his astonishing performance in First Reformed. It turns out he can step outside his usual range to powerful effect).
This particular Ethan Hawke character, Tucker Crowe, recorded an obscure album twenty years ago, and then mysteriously vanished from the music scene; we start the film in the company of two people living with the fallout. Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), a typical Hornby/Apatow boy-man, is obsessed with the album, and Annie (Rose Byrne), Duncan’s partner, desperately wishes he wasn’t. I did not initially find their standard-issue midlife relationship troubles a promising subject for a full feature film. I slumped in my seat, and thought dark thoughts about the state of mainstream cinema. But then Annie writes a scathing review of Tucker’s album on Duncan’s website, and Tucker emails her to tell her he entirely agrees, and romantic entanglements and long overdue life choice consequences start intersecting in ways I found entirely charming.
There’s an argument we could get into about the presence of a Nick Hornby adaptation in the film festival. This argument could also take in the presence of a film like Searching, because if easygoing midlife crisis comedies and well crafted English-language suspense thrillers are festival fare now, then you have to wonder, what isn’t? The problem with this argument is that to have it intelligently, you’d need a deeper understanding of the current realities of theatrical distribution than I possess. What I do know is that it’s a more complicated issue than it looks. In any case, Juliet, Naked is a lovely and entertaining film. No further justifications required.