NZ International Film Festival (Christchurch) – Review Round-Up Pt. 1

 

Deerskin (Directed by Quentin Dupieux), 77 minutes – 7/10

 

At 44, Georges (Jean Dujardin) is facing a mid-life crisis, becoming obsessed with his new 100% deerskin jacket and its ‘killer style’. Setting out to fulfil his (and his jacket’s) dream of making it the only jacket in the world, Georges embraces filmmaking as his medium, drawing in a local editor Denise (Adèle Haenel) into his world. Powering through at 77 minutes, Quentin Dupieux’s paranoid and surreal take on masculinity stays absolutely committed to its core premise, no matter how mad it or its protagonist become, somehow offering its own bizarre meta-take on auteur filmmaking in the process. In the end, Deerskin brings a dark, unsettling humour to this festival, and will almost certainly leave audiences wondering what the f*ck they just witnessed.

 

 

Apocalypse Now: The Final Cut (Directed by Francis Ford Coppola), 182 minutes – 9/10

 

It’s been at least four years since my first and only viewing of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and despite this being a different cut, it remains as nightmarishly haunting as I remember. Getting to see this on the big screen, and at the wonderful Isaac Theatre Royal was a treat, and I’d recommend this experience to fans of the film in a heartbeat. I’ll admit that I’m not sure what was added and/or removed between my (now) two viewings, but the film’s structure seems (to the best of my knowledge) to remain mostly intact, taking us once more into the heart of darkness, during the Vietnam War. Speaking for myself though, I did find that somewhere between the second and third acts, I dropped off slightly, finding that last act a bit more of a labour than the previous two. That said, the film remains iconic for a reason, and still confidently holds its spot among the best war films.

 

 

Under the Silver Lake (Directed by David Robert Mitchell), 139 minutes – 8.5/10

 

Coming off the back of the very successful horror, It Follows (2015), director David Robert Mitchell has turned his attention to Hollywood, with this captivating neo-noir. Sam (Andrew Garfield) is an unemployed slacker, behind on his rent, spending his days spying on his neighbours and reading zines. After his neighbour Sarah (Riley Kough) disappears overnight, Sam quickly spirals into an obsessive search to find out what happened to her. Mitchell brings an Old Hollywood feel to this film, with mesmerising cinematography, a kickass score, and strong performances to boot. The film’s descent into conspiracy only ups the paranoid ante, critiquing Hollywood whilst happily confounding its audiences. This is a film that I suspect will prove divisive to many, but will almost certainly have something new to offer with repeat viewings.

 

 

The Third Wife (Directed by Ash Mayfair), 96 minutes – 7.5/10

 

Claiming awards in the festival circuit is Ash Mayfair’s stunning debut, The Third Wife. Set in Vietnam during the late 19th century, we follow May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My), the new third wife of wealthy landowner Hung (Long Le Vu) and her relationships with Hung’s other wives, the first, Ha (Tran Nu Yên-Khê) and the second, Xuan (Mai Thu Huong Maya). The film makes the most of its rural mountain environment, with Chananun Chotrungroj’s dreamlike cinematography juxtaposing and diverting your attention from the internal politics and realities of the traditional, patriarchal structure of this community. Thankfully, the film refuses to directly pit the wives against each other, in some Game of Thrones-esque drama. Instead, we are treated to a story of women, as wives, mothers, sisters and daughters, with emphasis place on how those roles can overlap. Admittedly selective with its dialogue, The Third Wife will reward more patient viewers, with information often revealed through furtive looks and glances, than expositional monologues. The Third Wife is a fantastic debut for director Ash Mayfair, and she should be proud of her accomplishments with this unique, feminine story.

 

 

High Life (Directed by Claire Denis), 113 minutes – 3/10

 

High Life is a film that genuinely baffles me, but not in the good way.

This is, to the best of my knowledge, my first experience with acclaimed French director, Claire Denis, and I honestly can’t say that I’m impressed. I came into this film genuinely wanting to enjoy it, having heard good word-of-mouth, and, with its interesting premise, I assumed I’d be in for a treat. High Life stars Robert Pattinson as Monte, an astronaut single-handedly manning a spaceship as he cares for his infant daughter. Told in a nonlinear fashion, the film explores what became of Monte’s fellow convicts, and their role in the reproductive experiments of the ship’s doctor, Dibs, played by an uninhibited Juliette Binoche. The film is, for the most part, nice to look at, and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux colourfully highlights the beauty and emptiness of space in equal measure. I also enjoyed Stuart A. Staples’ music throughout the film, and Pattinson and Binoche gave strong performances, albeit fairly subdued in the case of the former. This is largely the fault of the Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau’s script, and the former’s direction. High Life misses some key storytelling steps, namely, properly establishing its characters, their motivations, and what they were like in the past, before they were shot into space on their suicide mission to a black hole. Without understanding characters’ motivations or their past, I felt nothing toward their actions (good or bad) on this spaceship. Supposedly, these actions were the product of this cold, isolated environment, but without that necessary connection, I just couldn’t invest in them whatsoever. This is exacerbated further by concepts being introduced with no payoff, such as the drugs given to male prisoners in exchange for their semen. High Life is clearly a character-focused film, which in theory, would mean less explanation is required for the scientific mechanics or for the aforementioned, poorly explained concepts. Unfortunately, this film drops the ball on its potential-filled premise, failing to engage me whatsoever.

 

 

Judy & Punch (Directed by Mirrah Foulkes), 105 minutes – 7/10

 

Reworking traditional puppet show Punch and Judy, comes Australian director Mirrah Foulkes’ directorial debut, Judy & PunchThe film takes place in the small fictional town of Seaside (nowhere near the actual sea), a anarchic town filled to the brim with superstition and an execution-happy mentality. Trying to resurrect their marionette show are the self-proclaimed legendary puppeteer, Punch (Damon Herriman) and his patient, put-upon wife, Judy (Mia Wasikowska). We quickly learn that Judy is not only the superior puppeteer of the two, but that the couple were forced to return from the “big smoke” due to Punch’s drinking getting the better of him. It’s this alcoholism and drive to succeed that lead to the tragedy that drives the rest of the film. I went into this film knowing even less than this, and I’d like to keep potential viewers in the dark as much as possible. Mia Wasikowska’s Judy is the patient, sweet and authoritative rock to Damon Herriman’s Punch is a man whose roguish charm and ambition thinly covers a deep well of rage, alcoholism and delusions of grandeur. Unfortunately, their relationship is sadly familiar, with the film’s larger political metaphors being just as on the nose. The script, written by Foulkes, generally sticks to its vaguely defined period, despite the score determinedly dragging itself into the present day through various remixes. The film also refuses to confidently settle on a tone, but this is buoyed by its underlying quirkiness. It would not be a stretch to describe Judy & Punch as being exactly halfway between a dark fable of old and the silliness of Monty Python, but ultimately, this works to its credit.

 

The Art of Self-Defense (Directed by Riley Stearns), 104 minutes – 8.5/10

 

The first of Jessie Eisenberg and Imogen Poots’ coincidental double entry into this year’s festival, The Art of Self-Defense is Riley Stearns’ wonderfully subdued satirisation of toxic masculinity. After a seemingly random mugging, Casey (Jessie Eisenberg) wants to find his masculinity; he wants to become, as he puts it, “what makes him afraid”. So, he joins a local karate dojo led by a charismatic sensei (Alessandro Nivola) to learn how to defend himself. To me, The Art of Self-Defense is very much a tribute to Fight Club (1999) and, in many ways, could be considered a spiritual successor or companion piece to the cult classic. The narrative is similar in its exploration of masculinity, violence and fraternity, but Stearns’ script takes a much more darkly comedic bent on its subject matter, often utilising the kind of stilted, over-explanatory dialogue I’ve come to expect from a Yorgos Lanthimos film. Eisenberg delivers as the wimpish, insecure Casey, standing in stark contrast to the enigmatic Sensei, as charismatic as he is frustratingly steadfast in his misogynistic worldview. The dojo’s star pupil, Anna (Imogen Poots), who refuses to leave the dojo despite being constantly kept down by the literal man, is darkly funny and brutal. A confidently awkward satire, this film works both as a black comedy and indictment on today’s current climate of toxic masculinity.

 

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