Friday, 3 November 2017

NZIFF 2017: Thrillers

Here is Part 3 of the Midnight Ramble's reviews from the New Zealand International Film Festival.

Six Days (dir. Toa Fraser)
From 30 April to 5 May, 1980, a group of Iranian Arab gunmen held a group hostages at the Iranian Embassy in London. Members of an ethnic minority, their ultimate aim was to gain sovereignty for the Arab-majority province of Khuzestan. After the Thatcher government refused to negotiate with the gunmen, the Special Air Service staged a raid on the Embassy building and killed the hostage-takers. The event signalled a major shift in the way governments dealt with hostage situations, and established the SAS in the public consciousness.

A dramatisation of the  siege, 6 Days is the new film from New Zealand filmmaker Toa Fraser.

Since his debut, No. 2, a decade ago, I have been fascinated by the breadth of his filmography: you have a family drama, a period piece with a dash of magical realism; The Deadlands, a straight-up action flick; and now this movie. It is great to see a local filmmaker avoid the usual paths of new filmmakers: A lucky few, like Peter Jackson and Roger Donaldson, get to go to Hollywood (which is no guarantee  of success in itself - see Lee Tamahori and Geoff Murphy). Others have carved out a career in TV (like Crush director Alison Maclean). Others fade into obscurity.

6 Days is not the first attempt to dramatize the siege. The action movie Who Dares Wins was released in 1982 starring Lewis Collins (from the TV series The Professionals). Basically a home-grown version of a Cannon film, it stirred up a bit of controversy for its jingoism, but is basically forgotten today.

Unlike the filmmakers behind Who Dares Wins, Fraser plays the events straight. He frames the story from several different perspectives - the leader of the SAS team (Jamie Bell); the police negotiator (Mark Strong); the leader of the terrorists (Ben Turner); the BBC reporter on scene for the final assault (Abbie Cornish); and the politicians attempting to work out the overall plan. These shifting perspectives prevent the movie from establishing an easy good - evil binary. This is not an action movie; it is meant as a docu-drama of the events and people involved.

Acting by most of the cast is good; particular standouts are Jamie Bell and Mark Strong.

Bell is fantastic as Rusty Firmin, the leader of the SAS team. He plays the role with no histrionics or machismo - he carries himself with the quiet confidence of a professional, not an action hero, and it adds to the movie's verisimilitude. It is a testament to Bell's abilities that this restrained, professional character remains highly compelling. But Rusty is not the most interesting character in the movie.

That character is Mark Strong's negotiator Max Vernon. Vernon is a man stuck between placating the hostage-takers and jumping through the various hoops the government keeps throwing in his way. While the preparations for the raid are propulsive and more 'cinematic', the negotiator's section of the movie is the most resonant aspect of the movie.

While the movie's fidelity to the real events is laudable, it works against the movie dramatically.

With all of these different perspectives, the movie lacks an overall sense of focus. The most dramatic plot lines are the SAS raid, and the police negotiator's relationship with the hostage-takers, yet these dramatic lines are watered down by cutaways to Cornish's Kate Adie  and the political machinations behind the scenes. While both of these subplots feed into the overall story, they feel padded out, and should have been cut down. Aside from her arrival at the finale, Adie's subplot is pointless - her role is just to wait outside and narrate what is going on.

Before the screening, Adie herself introduced the movie and related a tid-bit of information which was missing from the movie: Apparently she was not supposed to be at the embassy on the final day, but the senior correspondent left early because of a dinner party. This story, with its inference of casual sexism, could have given her character more of an arc, but the movie never references this twist of fate.

Ultimately 6 Days is a decent movie, but it is not as good as it could be.

Malglutit (AKA Searchers, dir. Zachariah Kunnik)
When his wife and daughter are kidnapped, a father and his surviving son head out into the unforgiving cold to get them back.

Throughout this movie, I was wondering what a Hollywood take on this would look like. That lack of an outside perspective is one of the most interesting aspects of this film. What I liked about this movie was the lack of ethnographic exposition about the characters' culture and lifestyle. Had this story been framed through an outsider's lens, I'm sure this would have been foregrounded in an unnatural way. Writer-director Zachariah Kunnik handles the story with an emphasis on functionality and narrative economy. He trusts the audience to figure out what is going.

With its laser focus on characters trying to survive in a tough environment, this movie feels like a distant cousin of Mad Max: Fury Road. While the heroes are defined by their communal spirit, the villains are defined by their selfishness, which in this environment is incredibly destructive.

Like Fury Road, at its most basic level Malglutit is a western. The story was inspired by John Ford's The Searchers, only without that film's racial dynamics. Instead, the moral delineations are based on the characters' relationship with notions of survival.

The western influence is most overt at a visual level. Alternating between roving handheld close-ups and still wide shots, the film evokes the iconography of the western, but instead of the POV being that of white colonists entering alien territory, it is indigenous characters making their way through an environment that they understand and have a relationship with.

On a purely aesthetic level, there are several shots in the film which are genuinely jaw-dropping: marvellous vistas in which our heroes are tiny figures dwarfed by white plains and jagged mountain ranges. One of the most striking examples of this visual style (and one of the most thematically resonant) is the final showdown, which is framed an extreme long shot with hero and villain positioned in the corner of the frame. Humanity's struggles are more incidental to the environment they live in.

As far as the characterisation and acting goes, it is very spare. As the protagonist Kuanana, Benjamin Kunuk manages to feel like an ordinary guy, rather than some kind of one-note vigilante. My personal favourite was Karen Ivalu as Kuanana's wife Tagaq. Though she is a prisoner, she is always trying to escape. Her best moment is also one of the film's funniest sequences - her kidnapper demands a cup of tea and she splashes him in the face with it. Great stuff.

The other notable aspect of the film is the score, by Tanya Tagaq and Chris Crilly. A mix of synth textures and a variety of human vocalisations, it acts another layer that removes the film from a western frame, while functioning in a similar way.

It takes a little bit of time to get going, but once the chase begins this movie becomes extremely accomplished thriller. Pleasingly stripped-down, the film does not try to elaborate on its central premise and is all the better for it.

A strong example of a different perspective on a familiar idea, Maliglutit is worth checking out.

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