17 Jul 2023

Whānau Mārama New Zealand International Film Festival Preview (part one)

From Widescreen, 1:03 pm on 17 July 2023

Dan Slevin previews three titles from this year’s Whānau Mārama New Zealand International Film Festival.

The New Zealand International Film Festival is almost back to its prodigious pre-Covid size with 129 titles featuring in the Auckland edition which opens on Wednesday.

I’ve managed to preview a few of those titles and will give you a heads-up here. Some of these are not in the headline list of must-see pictures so I hope you’ll find this useful.

Movie still from Jerzy Skolimowsky's 2022 film EO featuring a donkey in a field.

Photo: fot. Aneta Gębska, Filip Gębski

EO (Jerzy Skolimowski, 2022)

This was an absolute gut punch of a movie, as powerful a conclusion as I have seen in recent years. But like the proverbial iron fist inside a velvet glove, it’s also one of the most beautiful and elegiacal films I have seen in the same period.

It’s a film in which a humble donkey becomes the way we see modern Europe, our exploitative relationship with animals and the hypocrisy of humanity’s so-called love of nature.

It’s a road movie of a sort, and we follow the donkey EO (played by six different donkeys, in fact) from a Polish circus to … well, no, I can’t tell you where we end up but I can say that we meet several characters whose economic or political desperation causes them to mistreat the non-human characters around them

Inspired by Bresson’s 1966 classic Au Hasard Balthazar, EO in fact stands as a masterpiece in its own right. Polish writer-director Jerzy Skolimowski is a veteran who was making his early films at the time that Bresson’s film came out and EO is the best of his illustrious career.

My first film from this year’s NZIFF catalogue, I came out thinking that nothing I could watch afterwards could top it. We shall see.

(L to R) Jake Ryan, Jason Schwartzman and Tom Hanks in director Wes Anderson's ASTEROID CITY, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features

Photo: Courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions/

Asteroid City (Wes Anderson, 2023)

Of all the pictures in the festival most likely to make a swift return to cinemas, Asteroid City is at the top of the list. In fact, local theatres have posters up advertising that return.

Why, then, spotlight it here? Because, even though all Anderson’s films are rich enough to merit multiple viewings, Asteroid City is one I believe that will reveal more of its mysteries the more exposure one has to it. Which is to say, it’s more baffling on first watch than some of his more crowd-pleasing ones.

The first source of bewilderment is the multiple framing devices that Anderson and regular collaborator Roman Coppola use. On one level it’s a 1950s television documentary about the making of a Broadway show including stentorious hosting by Brian Cranston. But we soon find ourselves in a very Wes Anderson location-based cinematic recreation of the story of the play.

A war photographer named Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) has brought his ‘brainiac’ eldest son Woodrow (and his three daughters but the event is for Woodrow) to a Junior Stargazers convention in the Arizona hamlet of Asteroid City, famous as the site of a meteor landing thousands of years ago. He has a secret that he is keeping from his children until his father-in-law (Tom Hanks) persuades him to reveal it, which he then does (ineptly).

Also in town for the convention is glamourous movie star Midge Campbell (Scarlet Johansson) and her super-smart daughter Dinah, also getting a prize at the convention.

There are plenty of other characters, all of whom seem to talk and behave in that combination of hyperarticulate deadpan that Anderson characters specialise in. But, there is something different here. Sometimes the frenetic pace drops and the melancholy takes over. Loss and grief overcomes the central characters (and the actors in the play that the actors in Anderson’s film also portray).

But there’s also a melancholy about our (often wilful) ignorance. This is a film about how powerless we find ourselves in the face of the unknowable, no matter how smart we think we are.

As I say, there’s lots more to unpack – and future viewings might even find me contradicting some of these conclusions. Also, if you are one of those people who are immune to Mr. Anderson’s considerable visual and verbal charms, Asteroid City is not the film that will win you over.

Willem Dafoe in the 2023 film Inside.

Photo: NZIFF

Inside (Vasilis Katsoupis, 2023)

Talking of ‘unpacking’, that’s something that Inside also requires a lot of.

Willem Dafoe plays Nemo, an art thief who breaks into a luxury Manhattan apartment with a shopping list of works to snaffle and a ticking clock to avoid the alarm. But, something goes wrong with the security system and everything around him locks, leaving him trapped dozens of storeys above the city.

He discovers that this was less an apartment to be lived in than one to simply display the art collection. There is no running water – except for the sprinklers keeping the indoor garden alive – very little food in the fridge, no phone and an air conditioning system that is either very, very hot or very, very cold.

A kind of castaway movie, Inside sees Dafoe attempt to jerry up some basic living conditions from found materials but as his mental health deteriorates we start to wonder whether a) he has become an art exhibit himself, on show for a watching patron or b) is becoming an artist himself as he desperately repurpose or deconstructs all the works around him in order to be heard or seen by the outside world.

It's quite a gruelling watch but in lesser hands than Dafoe, this film would be even tougher than it is. Carrying the whole thing on his shoulders, he can access a lightness of touch that gets you through the existential anguish.

Whānau Marama New Zealand International Film Festival opens in Auckland on Wednesday 19 July and then travels around the country until September.