Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Reviews: Auckland International Film Festival 2009

There's nothing better to do in the middle of winter than the New Zealand International Film Festival. More than 100 fine movies from all over the world are screening in Auckland, and poor old me only got to four of them -- but they were four terrific flicks, well worth seeking out. I do loves the film festivals!

Best Worst Movie
A more charmingly offbeat documentary you won't see all year. Back in 1990, a really, really bad movie called "Troll 2" was made. It's late-night marathon horror movie schlock that in its sheer awfulness (no really, it's not good) has since gone on to become a cult hit of "Rocky Horror" proportions, with fans reveling in the terrible acting, story and effects. Fans hold "Troll 2" parties and re-enactments. Now, former "Troll 2" child actor Michael Stephenson has gone on 20 years later to make a documentary about the "Troll 2" comeback story, looking at how the amateur actors see it now. But "Best Worst Movie" doesn't just mock "Troll 2," and instead turns an eye on the whole concept of trash becoming treasure, of something becoming the object of cult adoration. Best of all is George Hardy, the square-jawed fellow who played the lead role in "Troll 2" who has since gone on to be a small-town Alabama dentist. Hardy is a delight, an outgoing, charmingly sincere fellow who still has affection for his brief moment in the spotlight (he even tells patients about "Troll 2" during cleanings!), and who sees in the "Troll 2" revival a last chance for fame. "Best Worst Movie" has a big open heart for eccentrics and oddballs and would-be stars, and is delightfully funny in the process without overly mocking anybody, even the pretentious Italian director of "Troll 2" who is vaguely offended how everyone is laughing at his movie, or the spaced-out actress who quite seriously compares "Troll 2" to "Casablanca." Like the best documentaries, "Best Worst Movie" takes you somewhere unexpected, and is well worth hunting out. Now I actually have to watch "Troll 2" sometime!

Big River Man
Like a cross between "Borat" and "Heart of Darkness," this amazing documentary tells the tale of Slovenian icon Martin Strel, a big-bellied, beer-drinking, horseburger-eating man who, remarkably, is an ultramarathon swimmer who bas become the first man to swim the entire length of the world's longest rivers -- the Danube, the Mississippi, the Yangtze. Strel doesn't fit anyone's mental image of an extreme athlete, but he's the toast of Slovenia in the endearing prologue to this tale of his taking on the Amazon River – his longest record yet, more than 5000 kilometers of swimming in piranha and bacteria-infested waters. He does it all to draw attention to the world's environmental woes. "Big River Man" moves from a kind of yokel comedy into something deeper and stranger as Strel's Amazon epic gets underway. Sometimes, I felt like the directors got a bit too into stylistic tricks rather than focusing on the story in front of them. But the sheer chutzpah of the subject matter outweighs a few flaws. Was it worth the staggering cost for Strel in the end? I don't really know. But his feats are amazing and this guy's name should be known by people in the same breath as Michael Phelps and Mark Spitz, and "Big River Man" is a worthy tribute.

Big River Man - Trailer from KNR Productions on Vimeo.

Imagine commuting to the moon. In this stunning little movie, Sam Rockwell plays an engineer named Sam Bell who works on the moon, manning mining stations that now provide much of Earth's energy needs. He lives alone on a moon base, with a contract of three years, spending much of his time making models, exercising and trying to keep sane alone. Now, Bell is just two weeks away from the end of his contract and can't wait to get back to Earth. But something very strange starts happening around the base, and Bell begins to think he's going insane. "Moon" is clearly indebted to classic brainy science fiction like "2001" and "Solaris" (Kevin Spacey voices the station's helper computer system, which ought to be called 'Son of HAL.'), but it's an impeccably done experience. It's directed by none other than David Bowie's son, formerly Zowie, now known as Duncan Jones -- and I tell you, Jones is a director to watch. He stages "Moon" with a combination of beauty and menace, utilizing very subtle yet perfect special effects, and has utter control of the production. But the movie's biggest star is Sam Rockwell, who is basically on screen carrying the entire movie by himself. I love Rockwell, who's been great in movies such as "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" and "Matchstick Men," and he's the best he's ever been in "Moon" -- funny, heartbreaking and intense. I can't give too much away about the nature of his performance witout spoiling the movie, but let's just say he really deserves an Oscar nomination for his turn here. Genuinely haunting and beautiful, "Moon" is just about the best movie I've seen in 2009 so far. It's playing at small theatres all over now so go hunt it out.

Van Diemen's Land
In 1822, eight convicts in remote Tasmania escaped into the tangled bush. One walked out, and told a terrible tale of starvation and cannibalism. I recently re-read Robert Hughes' great history of convict Australia, "The Fatal Shore," and the episodes set in Tasmania -- then known as Van Diemen's Land -- rank as the most shocking of the sordid history of "transportation". It's inevitable that it would become a movie, and first time director Jonathan auf der Heide, a Tasmanian, does a fine job of exploring the story in a stark, lushly filmed drama with some stunning cinematography. You can see the influence of Terrence Malick in the filmmaking, which makes the endless green and grey forests of Tasmania seem quite foreboding and evil. The landscape plays a crucial part in the unfolding drama. There's a matter-of-fact approach to the violence that generally avoids horror movie shocks, which makes it all the more awful, and a nice brooding near-silent performance by the central convict Pearce (Oscar Redding). It also makes for a rather pitch-dark, harrowing movie, with a darkness that feels kind of grueling by the end, and sometimes "Van Diemen's Land" moves too slowly, with a few too many lingering tracking shots. But it's generally a gripping first feature, skirting the line between existential drama and horror movie. I tell you one thing -- I'm glad I'm not a convict in 19th century Australia. But then that goes without saying.

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