Film festivals are the bestivals

IMG_6510A good film festival is like a church for its acolytes – a place to find solace and enlightenment, to forget your troubles and to imagine exciting new possibilities in life. 

I’ve been going to the New Zealand International Film Festival every late July and August for more than a decade now, and every year, it’s a highlight of our rainy grey winters. I’m a mere amateur compared to some of the festivalgoers who manage 12, 15, 25 or 30 of the nearly 150 movies that unspool over two weeks or so. This year I’m managing eight, and it’s a spectrum of images and ideas, enough to make me close my eyes at night and dream of red curtains parting to see white screens.

On a Thursday I see documentaries about legendary film critic Pauline Kael and about the Satanic Temple, on a Friday I see a kiwi director’s gory delight, on a Saturday I see a documentary about a meth-addicted magician and on a Sunday I see a pulpy delight of a Korean gangster movie.

IMG_9530 KEY-2000-2000-1125-1125-crop-fillOn a Tuesday I attend a splendorous red-carpet premiere for a documentary about a Tongan family in New Zealand, which also featured brass bands, Tongan dancers, members of the Tongan royal family and grand and colourful frocks in a  dazzling, warm-hearted celebration of New Zealand’s rich Pacific culture. On a Thursday I see Aretha Franklin’s last bow and on a Friday I close it all up with a bizarre-sounding French movie about a man who falls in love with his new jacket. 

nosferatuNo wonder I can’t stop thinking about movies. It’s a kaleidoscope of cinema every year – in past years I’ve seen grand revivals of Sergio Leone movies, silent classics like “Nosferatu” and Andrei Tarkovsky’s epic, enigmatic Russian epics which demand to be seen on a gaping big screen.

And always something new or novel. Always something that just sounds like it might be interesting, whether it’s a documentary on tea in China or about the band Bikini Kill or a sprawling sci-fi epic or a thriller about zombies taking over a small New Zealand town.

Festivals like this remind me of why I’m so ambivalent about streaming. There’s great things about it, but I hate how it’s slowly eclipsing all other forms of cinema with what feels like an endless flood of cookie-cutter corporate “content.” Try finding more than a few token movies made before 1980 on Netflix. It’s much easier to sit and binge your brain on 12 episodes of some forgettable new show than it is to hunt down and figure out how to watch the greatest hits of a Billy Wilder or Robert Altman.

And while I’m down with the superheroes and the blockbusters there’s something special about gathering in the dark with a film festival crowd, whether it’s a bunch of twisted gorehounds cackling at gruesomely hilarious violence in one movie or an audience full of Tongans roaring at the quirks and jokes of their own closeknit culture.

Film festivals are the bestivals, every year a window into dozens of different worlds all flickering to life on the vast white screen. 

NZIFF: Ant Timpson’s “Come To Daddy” review

come to dady1.jpg.hashed.735adc58.desktop.story.inlineI joined a crowd of hundreds to cringe, scream and laugh last night at the premiere of NZ filmmaker Ant Timpson’s directorial debut “Come To Daddy” at the New Zealand International Film Festival, always one of my favourite weeks of the year. 

Timpson’s a national treasure for NZ film geeks, having run the Incredibly Strange Film Festival for 25 years, the 48Hours film contest and produced such slices of taboo-poking kiwi-fried film strangeness as “Deathgasm,” “Housebound” and “Turbo Kid”. Now he’s finally directed his first film, “Come To Daddy” starring Elijah Wood. 

Wood is Norval, a gawky man-child returning to visit his estranged father for the first time in decades. Dad (Stephen McHattie) lives in a surreal house on the edge of the sea, an alcoholic loner who apparently asked his son to visit but then batters and harasses him almost from the moment he arrives. “Come To Daddy” shapes up as an epic, tense battle of the wills between twitchy Norval and loathsome Dad, but then it takes a turn into stranger territory entirely. 

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It’s hard to review “Come To Daddy,” a shapeshifter of a movie that boasts wild shifts in tone from melancholy to bitingly nasty wit to grind house horror. This frenzied energy will likely make it a midnight-movie perennial, but it also means it’s the kind of movie that will really appeal most to those who like to get a bit battered by their cinema. The anything-goes craziness reminds me of Peter Jackson’s earliest gorehound work before he settled down to Middle Earth’s tranquil blandness.

Timpson’s got a very confident director’s eye as “Daddy” fluidly shifts its tone. He sets the stage with lots of languid shots of beaches and trees and Wood’s endlessly fascinating face, all rounded curves and rabbity energy. There’s some shots that manage a grotesque beauty out of the ugliest moments. Some of the secondary characters aren’t as well developed as Wood and McHattie’s, and unfortunately a pivotal character introduced halfway through seems more of a sketch than a fully-rounded human being. But amidst all the chaos that unfolds on screen, “Daddy” manages to say something touching and universal about the meaning of fatherhood.

Wood is the MVP of “Daddy” and the entire movie falls apart without his committed performance. This ain’t no Frodo Baggins. His career has been driven by his extraordinarily expressive deer-in-the-headlight eyes, which “Daddy” uses to terrific effects as Norval wrestles with his anger and guilt over his relationship with his father. His Norval is dressed in awkwardly hanging hipster’s clothes, a strangely sculptural haircut and topped off with a scribbly moustache that suggests facial hair hibernating for the winter. 

Like a lot of Ant Timpson-produced films there are scenes that will have you going OHMIGODNONONO as you cringe from the screen, guiltily chuckling all the way. There’s no better way to see them than in a crowded theatre with dozens of like-minded twisted souls. It’s the kind of defiantly original movie film festivals are made to celebrate, and I hope Timpson doesn’t wait too long to direct another film.

I thought I’d grow up to be a hero: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid at 50

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“I got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals.” – Butch Cassidy

For a movie that’s just hit its golden years, “Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid” is still surprisingly modern. There’s a lot of great revisionist westerns I love, from Sergio Leone’s Clint Eastwood showcases to the gory nihilism of “The Wild Bunch,” but thanks to the late William Goldman’s Oscar-winning script, “Butch” is the only one that’s eminently quotable. 

Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, “Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid” is the blueprint for the flawed quippy heroic icon that exploded through the ‘80s in everything from “Lethal Weapon” to Han Solo to Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark. It’s based on the true story of two charming rogue robbers as they fumbled their way through history, but it’s no dry period piece.  

“This is no time for bravery.” – Butch

B004LQEYAG_butchsundance_UXFX1._SX1080_The movie begins and ends with sepia tones, homaging an imagined western past that America has fetishised for decades. But in between “Butch Cassidy” is a determinedly modern movie, with Joss Whedon-worthy jokes being cracked left and right by Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Rather than the stoic masculine glares of an Eastwood or John Wayne, you’ve got Paul Newman’s motormouth Butch, whose first act of violence in the film isn’t a grim showdown – it’s kicking someone in the nuts. Meanwhile, Robert Redford’s Sundance Kid is the more traditional hero of the two, but he still shows cracks in his western hero facade. They don’t act like western heroes were ‘expected’ to: When trouble comes, they run. 

“Listen, I don’t mean to be a sore loser, but when it’s done, if I’m dead, kill him.” – Butch

Sundance Kid: “Love to.”

For fans of great movie writing, Goldman’s book “Adventures In The Screen Trade” is an absolute must-read. Goldman (who also had “The Princess Bride” and “Marathon Man” to his credit among many others) delivers a master-class in script writing, including reprinting his entire “Butch Cassidy” script and then unsparingly analysing its failures and successes. It’s pretty fascinating to read his process and even his admission that ‘it’s not about what I meant it to be about.’ 

00Butch“Butch Cassidy” is one of those pivotal movies of the ‘60s and ‘70s that forever cracked the old of the traditional heroic figure. The reason it still seems so relaxed today is that we’ve been surrounded by Butch and his offspring for years. Long may they ride. 

Butch: “You know, when I was a kid, I always thought I’d grow up to be a hero.”
Sundance Kid: “Well, it’s too late now.”
Butch Cassidy: “What’d you say that for? You didn’t have to say something like that.”

 

Movies I’ve Never Seen #2: The Exorcist

the-exorcist-2What is it: The world’s most famous demonic possession story, the 1973 horror classic “The Exorcist” was a global smash, a taboo-breaking story that also ended up nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture. 

Why I never saw it: I love horror movies, but I’m more of a monster-movie dude rather than slasher-horror or Satanic possessions kinda guy. I actually read the novel of “The Exorcist” yeaaarrrrrs ago (younger than I probably shoulda) and I think I built up in my head that the movie was far too creepy for a gentle fella like me. 

Does it measure up to its rep? Definitely. It’s hard watching ‘classics’ sometimes where they’ve been so influential on other movies that what were originally groundbreaking, influential moments can seem almost like a parody when you finally get around to seeing the original source. But “The Exorcist” is creepy and filled with a sense of pensive dread, highlighted by Linda Blair’s remarkable performance. The movie builds up slowly (like most older movies do when viewed from the vantage point of today), but it works because it convinces us of how normal the relationship between Regan and her mother is.

levitating-above-bed-740x400@2xIt makes what follows later that much more profane and shocking. And the movie’s most iconic moments – the possession of Regan and her gruesome actions – are still truly horrifying today. Every parent of a teenager has that moment of disconnection when your child suddenly seems like an alien to you, and “The Exorcist” dramatises that perfectly to terrible extremes. 

How was it different than I thought? Like I said, a bit slower to start, but that actually works to the picture’s benefit. I also expected Max von Sydow’s Father Merrin to be more of a main character and didn’t realise Father Karras would be more of a focus. It was definitely as gruesome and harrowing as I imagined, and unlike some horror movies viewed years later, you definitely didn’t want to laugh at the scary bits. 

Worth seeing? Absolutely. Just maybe leave the lights on. 

When Bob Dylan was the greatest rock star in America

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I’ve seen Bob Dylan four or five times, but it’s mostly been when he’s been in his 60s and 70s. 

Dylan can be inconsistent as a live performer – at one show every lyric sounded like “muzza muzza BUZZA muzza” and on another, he was an elegant elder statesman who even SMILED at one point. 

But there was a point where Dylan was a blazing fireball on stage, during his mid-1970s Rolling Thunder Revue tour. It’s the subject of a new documentary by Martin Scorsese, and it’s must watching for anyone who thinks Dylan couldn’t sizzle live on stage. The man was fierce. 

In 1975, Dylan hadn’t really toured since his late ‘60s motorcycle accident. He put together a kind of travelling show featuring guests like Joan Baez, Mick Ronson, Roger McGuinn, Allen Ginsberg and more to play smaller, intimate venues. The Rolling Thunder Revue had a theatrical bent – Dylan painted his face white, like a kabuki performer, and added touches like a dazzling electric violinist to his songs. There was a freewheeling electricity to the atmosphere. 

He’s performed thousands of shows over more than 50 years, but I’d argue that for the 50 or so shows of Rolling Thunder, Dylan was never better. Scorsese’s documentary shows him commanding the stage, stalking, staring and singing like his life depends on it. There’s no mumbling here.  He spits every syllable of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” with a power that makes this account of a racist murder a harrowing listen. Chestnuts like “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” or “Blowin’ In The Wind” seem revitalised. Then-current songs like “Isis” and “Hurricane” rage when he performs them. 

Clear-eyed and potent, there’s a fierceness to Dylan’s presence that’s remarkable to watch. Sparks fly off him when he enters a room, not in a showy David Bowie or Mick Jagger way, but in a concentrated, smouldering focus. He combines the intensity of young folkie Dylan with the more grizzled maturity of someone in their mid-thirties, and it lends his songs new power. 

“Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story” is a great movie, and fitting with Dylan’s mystique there’s a bit of flirting with fiction and masks (let’s just say some of the people interviewed are not what they seem). But in the end it’s a celebration of one of Dylan’s most fertile periods and a reminder that one of the greatest songwriters of all time could throw down with the best of them when he wanted. 

Batman mania revisited, 30 years on

2008_CSK_05425_0129_000()Thirty years ago today, I was standing in a line. A bunch of us were all queued up for what was then the biggest comic book movie of all time, Tim Burton’s Batman. Nobody quite knew what to expect.

There’s a lot of thinkpieces lately about what an event Batman was. You couldn’t escape that symbol, on T-shirts and lunchboxes and gum wrappers. It was the first superhero movie marketing event (the original Superman movies were a lot less pimped out by industry, to be honest). We’ve grown pretty used to that in the years since, but at the time it was dazzling. Good or bad, you HAD to see this movie.

As a kid who’d already been reading comic books for years before “Batman” hit the screen, I was hopeful. I remember painstakingly clipping out newspaper articles about the casting in the months before release – Jack Nicholson as the Joker, well, everybody knew that was perfect, but Michael Keaton as Batman was a bigger question mark. If there was an internet back then, casting “Mr Mom” as Bats would’ve cracked it in half. 

s3-BatmanWaikiki3It’s hard to explain to fans of today’s slick, streamlined and gorgeous Marvel Universe movies that seeing a comic book movie in the ‘80s and ‘90s was mostly a matter of lowering expectations, of accepting flaws and looking for the bits that worked.

Sure, Superman IV was godawful, but hey, the scene where Christopher Reeve tells the UN he’s taking away the world’s nukes was cool. Yeah, Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey shred the screen as the most overacting villains of all time in Batman Forever, but I kinda dug Val Kilmer. OK, Howard The Duck might not have quite worked, but… well…. the puppet was interesting….

“Batman 1989” isn’t perfect either, but seen decades on, it’s still a remarkably intense, dynamic vision, one that shaped the portrayal of Batman in the comics for years to come. The late Anton Furst’s designs of a haunted, impressionist Gotham City are still remarkable – while the Marvel movies are pretty great, they’ve rarely created as bold a sense of place as Burton’s Gotham is. It’s a WEIRD town, explored further in the sequels, where gangs dress like clowns and oppressive architecture overwhelms humanity at every turn. 

Jack Nicholson’s Joker, which received the lion’s share of press going in, has dated a lot worse than Keaton’s Batman. It’s never a bad performance, but it’s hard not to just see it as “Jack doing his Jack thing”. Recently I’ve been rewatching a few of Nicholson’s classic ‘70s films like “The Last Detail” and “Five Easy Pieces,” where you see what a fiery talent he was, and compared to those years, his “Batman” role is more reminiscent of when actors like Vincent Price would appear on the old ‘60s Batman TV show – amusing, yet not all that deep. 

84-ogBut Keaton’s Batman has only grown in strength over the years. He never quite has the classic physical profile – seen in a tuxedo in an early scene, his Bruce Wayne’s shoulders would barely fill half the Bat-suit – but acting is often concentrated in the eyes, and Keaton’s eyes hold a balance of resolve and regret. His Bruce Wayne seems closer to the edge than some – look at the scene where he takes on the Joker in his civilian clothes: “You want nuts? Let’s get nuts!” In contrast, his Batman is more of a blank, grim slate, a mask that wipes out Wayne’s humanity and focuses his mission. 

I’d argue that Christian Bale and even Val Kilmer (who I think is kinda underrated in the Bat-acting pantheon) better represent the Batman character from the comics, but Keaton’s Batman still has a mysterious haunted power that makes him unforgettable. 

Standing in that line outside the theatre 30 years ago, I never would’ve imagined as a middle-aged dude I’d still be lining up for movies featuring characters like Ant-Man, Aquaman and Dr. Strange, but I’m glad I am. There’s a lot of movies given credit as ‘ground zero’ for the current superhero explosion, from “X-Men” to “Blade,” but as a phenomenon, there’s still no touching the craziness that Batman inspired three decades ago. 

Movies I’ve Never Seen #1: ‘Head’, or how the Monkees blew themselves up

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It took me a little while to warm up to The Monkees. 

They were the pre-fab, ‘reality TV’ Beatles, or so I thought. But eventually, I cottoned on to their easygoing talents, the goofy charms of the TV show, and some of the most ingratiating pop nuggets of all time. 

I’ve seen what’s left of The Monkees twice in the past few years – in 2016, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork did a terrific Monkees revue here in Auckland, and last weekend, Dolenz and the only other surviving Monkee Mike Nesmith took one last turn through town for another nostalgic blast. (Peter Tork died this past February, sadly.) The 2019 show was good fun, although hampered by muddy sound and the ageing limitations of the surviving band (the 2016 show was a lot more energetic, to be honest). I was still really glad to see Nesmith, 76, who’s been in ailing health, because he’s one of the great unsung songwriters of our time. 

movie-poster-for-the-film-head-starring-the-monkeesI’ve seen three of the Monkees live now, and I’m happy to have done so. But there was one last Monkee fan hurdle for me to cross: Their mysterious, controversial 1968 movie “Head,” which is either their finest moment or their nadir, depending on who you ask. 

I’d never seen it until this week. I expected a dated hippie mess. I had no idea it was a dazzling comic horror movie that would fill me with existential dread. 

“Head” is a strange, groundbreaking film that assumes you know who the madcap Monkees are, and then proceeds to tear the ground out from under you. There’s not much of a plot – the movie apes the surreal skit humour of the TV series, but with a jarringly nasty edge. You know you’re not in kiddieville anymore when a song featuring shots of screaming female fans cross-cuts into the infamous images from the execution of a Viet Cong officer – it’s like a Backstreet Boys video suddenly morphing into a Marilyn Manson joint. 

I’ve generally a low tolerance for psychedelic storytelling, which tends to really only work if you’re stoned yourself, but the Jack Nicholson script (yes – THAT Jack Nicholson) to “Head” never gets too completely up its own navel to become incoherent. Despite its scattershot approach, “Head” is about a fictional famous band who are trapped on a treadmill of fame in a world they can’t escape. “Head” frequently breaks the fourth wall to show the sets and cameras the Monkees are forced to perform on, but it never gives us the possibility of escape. It’s “meta” before anyone really even knew what that meant. The movie even rewrites the famous theme song:

maxresdefaultHey, hey, we are The Monkees / You know we love to please / A manufactured image / With no philosophies. 

In a world where “Love Island,” “Married At First Sight” and their ilk have overwhelmed commercial TV, it’s still a cutting little blade of a film. It’s a movie that begins with Micky Dolenz’s apparent suicide and ends with the screaming Monkees being stuffed into a featureless black box and driving away into unknown horrors, forced to perform endlessly in a never-ending hell, a scene that is as dark as any ending from a David Lynch film. (Twin Peaks, meet The Monkees!) I can’t imagine how a teenybopper fan of the band would’ve reacted to it in 1968. 

“Head” is weird, funny and fragmented, but it’s also a stunning little rebuttal to the goofy hijinks of the Monkees TV series and a warped meditation on the fame machine. It’s a miracle it ever got made, and it’s no surprise it sank like a stone at the box office, who expected “A Hard Day’s Night” and got something like a Monkees Apocalypse Now. More than 50 years on, it’s a stone cold trip.