13th Floor’s intrepid team – Steve Austin, Clayton Barnett and Marty Duda – have been hunkered down in cinemas around central Auckland enjoying everything the New Zealand International Film Festival has to offer. This is a daily diary of capsule reviews of movies viewed on, Monday 20th July.
Strap yourself in for a thrilling experience. Mostly taking place over one night, ’71 covers the harrowing experiences of a young raw recruit as he’s accidently abandoned by his unit following a riot on the streets in Belfast. French director Yann Demange, who made a name for himself directing British TV, makes a stunning feature debut with this BAFTA-nominated tension filled thriller. He’s cited The Battle of Algiers and The Warriors as influences and this film has that classic stamp of an auteur. Written by another debutant, Gregory Burke, the two don’t take sides, letting the politics almost take a back seat to this behind-enemy-lines tale.
Lensed by Demange’s longtime collaborator Tat Radcliffe (Pride), the filmmakers take standard streets and make them nightmarish nocturnal war zones, getting you up close to the urban battle with hand-held camerawork. There’s a chase sequence early on that’s worth admission alone. It’s good to point out every life matters in this film, it’s not Die Hard, but be warned some of the violence is fast, bloody and brutal and not for the faint-hearted. Jack O’Donnell shines brightly here, showing real heart and emotion. Seriously making a name for himself, he’s suffered for his art with a string of great performances in Starred Up, Unbroken and now ’71. He’s truly stepped up as a reliable leading man.
Even if you know nothing about Northern Ireland’s turbulent history, that’s alright, the filmmakers let you know the basics without spelling it out, and leave you with a gripping thriller that will leave your pulse pounding. (CB)
Evel Knievel was about as close as you could get to being a real-life superhero. Dressed in his star-spangled jump suit and cape, Evel jumped fountains, cars, buses, rattlesnakes and canyons on his trusty Harley-Davidson motorcycle, suffering 433 broken bones along the way. Oscar-winning director Daniel Junge takes the viewer on a thrill ride of his own as he tells the story of America’s most colourful daredevil. Knievel grew up in the small town of Butte, Montana in the 1940s and 50s where, even at an early age he believed he could get away with anything; keeping the local cops on the run and taunting them along the way. Junge seems to have interviewed everyone who ever met Evel, and they all have a story to tell. One of the best is when Evel attempted to leap over a crate of rattlesnakes and cougars while promoting a car dealership. He made the jump, barely, his bike flipping the crate in the air, sending angry rattlesnakes flying in the air and into the crowd. Incredible and hilarious.
Things get darker as Knievel gets more famous. By the mid-70s he is a household name and the fame, the drugs and the women all catch up to him. But Evel seems to believe his own hype and he can’t quit. His long-suffering wife gives an indication of how hard the man was to live with and promoter Shelly Saltman is on hand to recount Evel’s assault on him with a baseball bat, leaving Shelly with a broken arm and Evel in jail. Modern-day daredevil Johnny Knoxville adds a more contemporary perspective. Junge presents all this at a breakneck speed, resulting in one of the most entertaining documentaries I have seen in a long time. (MD)
For a more in-depth look at Being Evel, click here to read the 13th Floor interview with director Daniel Junge.
Peter Sarsgaard stars in this dramatization of the life of influential psychologist Stanley Milgram. In an effort to understand how human beings could be coerced into participating in such horrific acts such as the Nazi atrocities, Milgram came up with an experiment in the early 1960s to measure the influence of authority over obedience. His team of lab-coated technicians rounded up subjects from around Yale University, where the experiments were held, and instructed them to apply electric shocks to another subject if that subject would answer a series of questions incorrectly. This was ostensibly done to find out if the person answering the questions could be “taught” by these increasingly-powerful shocks. In reality, no shocks were really administered, the “subject” being taught was in on the experiment and the real test was on the person asking the questions…just how much voltage would they apply to the person, who could be heard screaming in pain and begging to be let out of the experiment. Incredibly, a majority of the subjects were willing to hand out the full 450 volts of “discipline” and Milgram gained an important insight into human behaviour. Needless to say, his methodology was considered controversial and he was accused of being unethical. In reality, his peers just didn’t want to accept the disturbing findings he uncovered. Think of this as Masters Of Sex without the naughty bits.
Sarsgaard turns in a mildly creepy performance, often breaking the “4th wall” and addressing the audience directly. Winona Ryder is on hand to play Sasha, his supportive wife. The film is at its best early on when depicting Milgram’s ground-breaking experiments; he also conducted many others including one on human connectedness that established the “six degrees of separation” theory. Milgram is a fascinating subject and director Michael Almereyda approaches him with creativity and flair. (MD)
It’s a shame Girlhood (Band de filles) won’t be seen by people who are the subject matter of this film, as it’s more authentic and less moralistic than a lot of the sweet teenage fluff Hollywood produces. Writer director Celine Sciamma (Water Lilies, Tomboy) offers a fresh perspective on the classic coming-of-age film, focusing on Marieme (Karidja Toure), a shy black girl from the same rough suburb that spawned French gang film La Haine. She’s struggling with an abusive older brother, failing grades and the boy gangs in the neighbourhood. But things all change when she’s accepted into a girl gang and grows in self-confidence. Newcomer Toure is a revelation, you totally believe her character transformation, and for a movie that is focused on her character and her character alone, she does an amazing job carrying the film.
Sciamma, who usually tackles white middle-class fare, provides a strong female voice through a funny, moving and powerful script. There are beautiful moments with Vic and her newfound cohorts where you feel you are a fly on the wall of real teenagers just being themselves (and singing along to Rihanna). Speaking of which, the electro-synth influenced soundtrack, produced by Sciamma’s longtime collaborator Jean-Baptiste de Laubier (aka Para One), is fantastic. Plus Girlhood is gorgeous to look at. While the projects are grey and oppressive, Sciamma throws up vibrant pops of colour to break it up, with stylised filming of the locations gorgeous to watch. This is broken up with some bursts of violence, which did cause a few people to up and leave, but it’s reasonable low-level compared to other films at the festival. It does take a shift in momentum in the last quarter and almost overstayed it’s welcome, but it’s Marieme’s powerful transformation that keeps you glued. And hoping that we see more of Toure in the future. (CB)
Tim Wong steps from behind his desk as chief editor at Lumiere Reader and slips easily into the director’s chair to guide this clear outlining of our history in cinema with a fresh intellectual perspective. It seems we’re at a stage in our country where we’re now able to comment with a bit more breadth and intelligence than ever before. Wong tells this history with clips chosen from various lesser-known movies and flits back and forth through time to paint a picture of the country that has shaped them, all to excellent effect. Early on, the documentary charts a course from Sam Neill’s disquieting theory of Cinema of Unease through a rural Pictorialism, picking out that our individualism is borne out of other artistic styles and displacement of our shores by force of distance. It questions the pride in our own image put out to the world, digging through (and past) mainstream and counterculture to reclaim our cinema as truly our own, sparingly cut through with historical footage and subtle present-day stagings to heighten the sense of history. The urban doesn’t fit easily in NZ cinema in general, so also has an uncomfortable place in this document.
Broken into several episodic entries echoing themes at the heart of New Zealand, it is thoughtful and open to the juxtapositions and contradictions of our stories and their tellers. NZ arrived late to the game of cinema, so there is little in the way of depth of expression, but excellent discourse and advice back from international directors – Herzog, Spielberg, Scorsese – which puts us in a context that is eye-opening. Just as telling is what’s not included. Genre cinema is only lightly touched on and treated almost as the elephant in the room, which leads to a bemoaning of the lack of politics in fictional narratives and later even in documentary cinema.
Writer Eleanor Catton provides caring succinct narration, giving the documentary an observational quality and an even deeper intellectual clarity. Take a notebook – you’re going to want to write down the titles of all those unsung classic kiwi movies that you’ve missed for future viewing. (SA)