28 Feb 2019

Preview: Auckland and Wellington’s film societies for 2019

From Widescreen, 3:26 pm on 28 February 2019

Monday nights at the pictures just got a whole lot better with the return of the film societies in Auckland and Wellington, says Dan Slevin.

Zhao Tao stars in Zhangke Jia’s modern Chinese epic Ash Is Purest White.

Zhao Tao stars in Zhangke Jia’s modern Chinese epic Ash Is Purest White. Photo: NZIFF

In a cinema world that is increasingly focused on blockbusters and crowd-pleasers, I am very happy to report that the programmes for the Auckland and Wellington film societies are the best I have seen since I started paying attention to these things several decades ago.

The programmes themselves are put together by the New Zealand Federation of Film Societies with input from the local committees, which means that many of the titles (27 by my count) are shared across the two cities and plenty of those films are likely to make their way to the many other local film societies that the New Zealand moviegoing public support.

As usual, there’s a potent mix of Hollywood classics (Sunset Boulevard, His Girl Friday), legends from the arthouse that are almost impossible to see on the big screen nowadays (Last Year at Marienbad, Daisies), a selection of recent German cinema supported by the Goethe Institute (the Institut Français does something similar for French language films), and there’s a healthy smattering of returns from recent film festivals – especially useful for those people whose festival screenings aren’t counted in triple digits.

Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant sparring in Hawks’ His Girl Friday.

Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant sparring in Hawks’ His Girl Friday. Photo: Criterion

Film society membership really is the best value in cinema because you don’t just get over 30 screenings at (roughly) $4 a screening, your membership also entitles you to film festival discounts and (in Wellington) discounts at Aro Video. It practically pays for itself.

Here are four titles (playing in both Auckland and Wellington) that I am particularly looking forward to, either because I’ve seen them before or because I haven’t seen them before.

I have watched Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday (1940) annually since I first saw it projected via 16mm on to a wall at my high school many years ago. For a long time, the only home video version available was a very rough public domain version because the film (originally released by Columbia Pictures) had fallen out of copyright. Last year, the legends at the Criterion Collection restored it and now we get a chance to see this classic comedy look better than ever. Based on the stage play The Front Page, Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell battle it out as a once-married newspaper editor and his star reporter, His Girl Friday has been described as having the fastest dialogue in Hollywood history. Wisecracks and banter abound.

With the first big screen adaptation of a James Baldwin novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, about to hit local cinemas, there has never been a better time to watch (or re-watch) Raoul Peck’s exemplary documentary about Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro (2016).

James Baldwin in Raoul Peck’s documentary about him, I Am Not Your Negro.

James Baldwin in Raoul Peck’s documentary about him, I Am Not Your Negro. Photo: Madman

One of my highlights of the New Zealand International Film Festival last year was Ash Is Purest White (2018) by Jia Zhang-ke. I’m always a sucker for films about modern China and I chose this one last year because there wasn’t the usual jaw-dropping documentary on the subject. Ash is a quiet epic, the two decades story of a small town gangster (Liao Fan) and his lover (Zhao Tao) or rather it’s the story of a small town gangster’s moll and her lover, as Zhao is the beating heart of this extraordinary film.

My final pick is another documentary: Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson (2016). If I may be so egotistical, I’ll quote my festival preview of a film that I’ve been thinking about a lot since I first saw it:

Documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson has been witness to some of the most extraordinary people and events of the last 20 years and in her first film as director she’s produced a remarkable and unique memoir proving that she’s as sensitive and sure-footed a director as any of the collaborators she’s worked alongside. All of the footage in Cameraperson was shot for other reasons, other projects, but by reassembling them (and often extending shots beyond the versions that were used for other films) she has created an immensely powerful personal narrative. It’s a portrait of the life of an artist but it’s also an involving meditation on many different iterations of motherhood.

To be honest, I could have picked any four more and be just as excited. Don’t miss out.

Both the Auckland and Wellington film societies launch their 2019 programmes on Monday 4 March. Auckland screenings are at the Academy Cinema and in Wellington they are at the Embassy.

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