Wednesday, 30 August 2017

NZIFF 2017: Dramas

I have volunteered at the New Zealand International Film Festival since 2010. I started reviewing the festival in 2015 -- and I feel like that was the high point. In 2016, I was unable to do too many shifts due to other commitments, and I don't think my reviews were that interesting.

I managed to see quite a lot in 2017. Too many, as it turns out. To make the posts as reader-friendly as possible I am going to group the reviews (roughly) according to genre and release them one at a time over the next few months.

Let's jump in.

Beatriz at Dinner (dir. Miguel Arteta)
I have enjoyed Miguel Arteta's previous movies (Youth in Revolt and Cedar Rapids), and I like Salma Hayek, but this movie felt a bit like a breakthrough for both of them.

A practitioner of alternative medicine, Beatriz (Hayek) finds herself attending a dinner hosted by her wealthy clients. Lost in this alien environment, she finds her world view challenged by the callous self-absorption of her hosts and their guests.

Another movie based around an awkward dinner party, Beatriz at Dinner benefits from a terrific lead performance and understated, razor-sharp direction.

Salma Hayek is the real calling card here. The movie is good, but every time she is onscreen the movie is elevated to greatness. Beatriz is a potentially frustrating character: incredibly empathetic and spiritual, she does not talk so much as monologue. With someone else in the role, Beatriz could have been a hippy caricature, a joke, but Hayek gives the character a weight and earnestness that prevents this from happening.

John Lithgow plays Doug Strutt, a billionaire who becomes Beatriz's moral and ideological opponent. Like the title character, Strutt could have been an archetype of white male privilege. He is, but Lithgow underplays the bluster, giving Strutt a noxious level of self-confidence that feels more real.

Overall, the cast here are really terrific (Connie Britten is also good as the woman who invites Beatriz to dinner). Considering the issues the movie deals with, the cast do a great job to underplay the subtext. Nobody plays it too big or obvious, and so what could have been obvious and didactic is instead a skewering of the superficial morals and empathy of upper-class white people.

The third act I found somewhat puzzling. Beatriz is eventually ejected from the dinner. She does not really gain the upper hand or change any minds. After daydreaming about stabbing Strutt to death, she leaves in a taxi and goes to the coast, where she runs into the sea and disappears. The implication is that she is going to swim home to Mexico.

Is this sequence real? Is it a fantasy?

It is the one beat that I do not quite have a handle on. If this is her response to having views challenged is to a) commit suicide or b) revert to a childhood fantasy, then the movie is not saying anything complimentary about her principles.

When I first made my notes for this review, it was late July. Some pretty crazy shit has happened in the US in the month since, and it made me reconsider some of my initial impressions.

Thinking about the hypocrisy of the dinner guests, and their willingness to laugh off Strutt and the damage he is causing to people outside their bubble, it reminded me of the statistics breaking down the voting patterns in the last US presidential election. This movie is clearly designed to viewed through the prism of contemporary politics, but I feel that you could have made this movie at any time. The underlying issues of race and class would remain the same.

Beatriz spends the movie trying to remember where she knows George Strutt from. She recalls another gringo who came to her home town with false promises of jobs and prosperity, but just ended up destroyed her community. Ultimately it turns out that Strutt was not that man - but the movie's point is that it does not matter. Strutt is sadly just one member of this upper echelon. But the people who have given him power are the people who give him a free pass so that their lives can continue to prosper in his shadow. The movie is extremely bleak.

Overall, Beatriz at Dinner is a really enjoyable flick, and a sadly relevant indictment of America's white upper-classes.

Una (dir. Benedict Andrews)
Based on the play Blackbird by David Harrower, Una is directed by Benedict Andrews (making his film debut after a career as a director for the stage), and stars Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn.

A young woman, Una, (Mara) tracks down Ray (Mendelsohn) , the man who abused her years ago, looking for answers. Their confrontation does not go the way she expected...

Though it informs Una's journey, this movie is obsessed with frustrating any sense of closure or catharsis. The film is extremely oblique in style and tone - at the level of editing and (especially) sound design, the director Andrews never lets the characters or viewer get comfortable.

Like the central character, the viewer is constantly disoriented and displaced. We get brief flashes of Una and Ray's relationship, but not enough to cement anything. Rather than reveal anything, these slivers of the past just add more questions that the filmmakers never address. Even at the climax, a potential confrontation is deflected.

The acting by the principals matches the style of the movie. Mara's accent comes and goes, bt she gives Una a fractured quality which encapsulates the character's anger and confusion. Simultaneously strong and weak, worldly yet childlike, Mara is terrifically understated.

As Ray, Mendelsohn is a study in unreadability. Is Ray's remorse genuine, or is he just continuing his manipulation of Una? By the end o fate movie, it is hard to empathise with the character, yet Mendelsohn manages to articulate his sense of helplessness (which makes Ray even more unsettling).

Nobody fits into an easy box here. Una is a deliberately messy movie, framing catharsis and resolution as alien concepts, as inapplicable as young Una's romantic dream of running away with Ray.

If you are looking for easy solutions and  a tidy ending, this movie is not for you. Una does not tread lightly around its subject, and the filmmakers' avoidance of a more conventional structure and resolution does it justice. As Una recognises, there are no easy answers, and the wounds Ray has caused cannot be repaired.

A tough, uncompromising look at child abuse, Una is a tough watch but definitely worth a look, particularly for the performances.

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