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NZIFF 2019 reviews: Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Vivarium, By the Grace of God, and more

What to see, and what not to see.

NZIFF 2019 reviews: Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Vivarium, By the Grace of God, and more

Jul 24, 2019 Film & TV


Metro reviews the New Zealand International Film Festival 2019. Check back here for continuous updates of our thoughts as we sort through the must-sees and the duds.

The Nightingale | Mid90s | Mr JonesThe Farewell | By the Grace of God Come to Daddy | Take Me Somewhere Nice Under The Silver LakeVivarium Portrait of a Lady on Fire

This Twilight Zone-esque concept was stretched a little too thin, sometimes a little too on-the-nose with its sci-fi parallel of claustrophobic nightmare suburbia. The first third was very fun, that first dip into the pool when you’re learning about this new world and what rules it bumps up against. The rest just hummed along. Although there’s something in its bare-bones minimalism, it needed more meat in the middle, more for the audience to grab on to. It felt like potential wasted, especially when there were a lot of things to like about it; the production design, with the rows and rows of identical Monopoly houses and utterly generic, bland interiors were a highlight. Imogen Poots, as one half of the happy couple, carried the film – the transition from brighter beginnings to weary and dead-eyed by the hum-drum droll of being trapped in this day-to-day life was convincing as hell. – Jean Teng

Also showing: 31 July, Event Cinemas


?Portrait of a Lady on Fire
This riveting 18th-century love story is restrained, never overwrought, but bursting with barely suppressed raw emotion. With Portrait, French filmmaker Céline Sciamma (Tomboy, Girlhood) has created a masterpiece. The story takes place in relative isolation; there are scarcely more than four characters in the entire film and this lends a slightly surreal feeling to what takes place. The characters are in a world of their own, in remote and beautiful coastal Brittany, next to dramatic cliff tops and constantly roiling waves. Most notably the characters appear to exist in a world without men, but shaped by the rules men have set, whether that be the necessity for marriage or the restrictions set on female painters at the time. How refreshing to watch a lesbian love story unfold through a distinctly female gaze – there are no Blue is the Warmest Colour marathon sex scenes to be found here, and the depth of feeling between Marianne and Héloïse, the film’s leads, is all the stronger for it. Women’s lives, their loves, and their losses are keenly felt in a near-perfect two hours of cinema. – Tess Nichol

Also showing: 1 August, Hollywood Avondale | 2 August, Civic Theatre


?Under The Silver Lake
Tess Nichol: Is Under The Silver Lake worth seeing?

Me: It’s Mullholland Drive level weird.

Me: So yes if you’re into that.

Tess: Oh I hated Mulholland Drive so that’s fine.

To be very honest with you, that’s all you need to know. But it’s weirder, than Mullholland Drive actually. It’s got that LA starry quality, but also it’s colourful, full of mystery and folklore and murders documented only in comic books. Sam (Andrew Garfield) has no job, few obligations and runs around with his arms by his sides, gate crashing parties in Silver Lake (a cool, hipster neighbourhood in Los Angeles) and uncovering increasingly less-believable conspiracy theories. And being naked a lot. Usually alone. It goes all over the board with clues in backward songs, references to old movies, Kurt Cobain’s guitar. They go back to the retro slow zooms and close-ups as characters stare at each other like this was made in the 60s. It has an honest-to-god olden-days film score. Also from the 60s, the film’s weird Male Gaze focus; women are watched objects who exist only by their proximity to men in this movie. It’s an attempt to comment on Hollywood’s sexism and the toxic entitlement of the main character, but is engaging in misogyny the best way to critique it? The director, David Robert Mitchell has been watching too much David Lynch and it shows. Or maybe you’re just allowed to go wherever you want if you look like Andrew Garfield. Nonetheless, it’s vibrant, far from much else I’ve seen lately and if nothing else, I count it a win to leave a cinema baffled. So if you like weird, you’ll like this. – Alex Blackwood

Also showing: 3 August, ASB Waterfront Theatre

 Take Me Somewhere Nice
I once wrote an essay about Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise in university and as a result have seen that film about three times. It was in the back of my mind through most of this movie, and apparently consciously so: first-time director Ena Sendijarevic cites him as one of her biggest influences. It is essentially a road-trip film, following a Dutch teen returning to Bosnia to visit her father in hospital, getting entangled with her cousin and his younger “intern” along the way. This is a very pretty film to look at, washed in pink and blue. In a way this makes everything dreamy, but there’s a lack of sentiment, a deadpan humour which doesn’t quite tip it over into the self-indulgence of similar coming-of-age flicks like Palo Alto. I love empty space in cinema, and there’s plenty of that here, with short, terse dialogue and interesting angles executed to alienating effect. Characters will often be cut off from one another in framing, the camera communicating a tone of isolation and boredom which speaks to the film’s anxieties, where we’re languishing in a state of flux. This film won’t be for everyone, wandering and lacking a narrative drive (or, at least, not caring too much about its narrative drive) but there’s enough here to make me want to keep my eye on Sendijarevic. – Jean Teng

 Come to Daddy
Picture Elijah Wood, wearing Dunedin cool-kid Nom*D, in the woods, by the not-so-sunny beach. Now spatter that wide eyed little hobbit in (someone else’s) blood. There’s your mood board for this movie. Norval (Elijah) has travelled a long way to visit his estranged father. But (for lack of a better phrase to avoid spoiling the whole movie), not all is as it seems.  It’s directed by a Kiwi, Ant Timpson, and you can see our fingerprints in the blunt, well-timed jokes, irreverent to the constant, bloody violence throughout the film that could’ve only been Kiwi. Or British. And Norval’s innocent protests that he isn’t a murderer (“you just killed someone literally ten minutes ago”) as he descends further and further into definitely-a-murderer territory are adorably hilarious. As my fellow film watcher said on exiting, “Elijah Wood carried that movie on his back.” And indeed he did. He was in every scene. But Madeleine Sami, Martin Donovan and Michael Smiley were also bloody memorable. Though I wish they’d let Sami keep her Kiwi accent. I just think it would’ve been funnier that way. – Alex Blackwood

?By the Grace of God

I surprised myself at how deeply moved I was by this film of paedophilia and sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, slowly unravelling with a quiet fury. Unlike 2015’s Spotlight, By the Grace of God centres its victims rather than investigative journalists, lending raw compassion to the agonising process of resurfacing past suffering and the pursuit of justice, helped along by some very good performances. The film opens on seemingly perfunctory epistolary voiceover. But the sense of mundanity, even though the material contains objectively horrifying revelations from the first victim to step forward, Alexandre, builds an immense feeling of frustration. Second and third acts snowball as more victims are found and an association is formed, landing some interesting commentary regarding faith and trauma as it does so. More importantly, this is a depiction of a real-life case, with real-life consequences: since the film has been made, the abusive priest Preynat has been defrocked by the Vatican, and the cardinal who didn’t report him, Barbarin, submitted his resignation to Pope Francis. Not like any Ozon film I’ve ever seen before. – Jean Teng

Also showing: 26 July, Rialto Cinemas | 31 July, Rialto Cinemas

The Farewell
Roll this film up and inject it directly into my veins; in some ways, it feels pulled right out of me, anyway. Lulu Wang’s The Farewell is a story about an East/West immigrant experience which so perfectly understands the troubles born out of straddling two countries and two cultures, strung together in little moments which spark up zings of recognition. That’s something immensely satisfying in itself, but to see it played out through affecting, nuanced performances all around – particularly by Awkwafina and Zhao Shuzhen – and with natural, intuitive humour means a lot to me, and will to a lot of others, too. The film is not clumsy with its dramatic strokes. Instead, executed with restraint and subtlety, it navigates complex family dynamics with incredible emotional resonance; I kept tearing up at the tiniest, simplest twitches of facial expressions. – Jean Teng

Also showing: 25 July, ASB Waterfront Theatre

Mr Jones
In 1933, a Welsh journalist named Gareth Jones finds himself in an impossible situation: lie and save the lives of six innocent men he knows, or tell the awful truth and potentially save millions of innocent Ukrainians from starvation in Stalin’s man-made famine. There are some weird, frenetic time-lapse sequences that seem out of place and distract from an excellent, coldly told story, but these aren’t events easily forgotten. Directed by Agnieszka Holland and starring James Norton, Vanessa Kirby, Peter Sarsgaard, the film is utterly harrowing. It hurts to watch, and it’s based on real events. I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone, but I’d urge you to see it if you can handle it. – Alex Blackwood

Read her full review here.

Also showing: 1 August, Civic Theatre

I love when a film does its thing and does its thing well in less than 2 hours. Mid90s comes in at an hour and 25 minutes, a slice-of-life coming-of-age story driven by nostalgia – but not nostalgia romanticised. Sure, there’s some of that self-indulgence peeking through, but the pieces that skitter together are mostly convincing in that stripped down way, most notably the performances of its teenage-boy ensemble cast. (Allison Jones, who was responsible for casting, knows her shit – she also casted Freaks and Geeks, Booksmart and Eighth Grade, amongst others.) There are moments – too many – of confrontational discomfort which don’t add anything to the story, the tonal whiplash causing many a gasp in my theatre. And although I appreciate that short runtime, the film could have benefited from some minutes to sketch out cardboard-thin character development to add to those great, cinema verite-esque scenes of just hanging out. More of Na-Kel Smith, too, please. –Jean Teng

Also showing: 4 August, Hollywood Avondale

The Nightingale
I will never watch this movie ever again. That was the first thing out of my mouth walking out of a Civic session that was curiously empty for an 8.30 screening at this venue, and after a day to digest the film, I don’t think my thoughts have changed. Jennifer Kent’s (The Babadook) 1825 Tasmanian revenge tale is hard to look at without curtaining your eyes with your fingers at some points; it’s not just the blood or the violence, but the Academy ratio aspect and manner in which the camera closes in on the depiction of pain in characters’ faces. It is terrifyingly haunting and claustrophobic – every corner is unsafe, including the psyche inside the main character’s mind. The film has suffered some criticism not just for its over gratuitous violence (the same point repeated again, and again), but to the endless brutalisation to every Aboriginal Tasmanian character on screen in the pursuit of ‘realism’. It’s safe to say that criticism is founded. – Jean Teng

Also showing: 24 July, Hollywood Avondale | 2 August, Academy Cinemas

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