‘An Angel at My Table’

Only her second feature film, An Angel at My Table is director Jane Campion’s opus to New Zealand poet and author Janet Frame.

Based on the writer’s own autobiography and structured in three parts like its source, An Angel at My Table draws us, initially, into the chaotic, impoverished childhood home of Frame. A precocious yet popular child with a shock of red hair, it’s only in late teenage years the depression she suffered for most of her life becomes increasingly prevalent. Painfully shy, Frame (Kerry Fox – Bright Star, Top End Wedding) is misdiagnosed with schizophrenia and spent eight years in a mental institution. It’s only at the announcement of winning a major local literary prize in 1951 that saves her from a scheduled lobotomy! Leaving New Zealand for London, Frame eventually finds literary success, spending her time between the UK and Spain before returning years later to the southern hemisphere.

Fox is excellent as the gauche Frame and, whilst guilty of making assumptions on the viewer’s knowledge, the film (originally a three part television miniseries) is bitingly sincere in its unflattering but sensitive telling.

Rating: 71%


Heartwarming and full of charm, this early Taika Waititi (Thor:RagnarokJojo Rabbit) is a bittersweet coming-of-age tale of 11 year-old Boy.

Set on the east coast of New Zealand in 1984, Boy (James Rolleston – The Dark Horse, The Breaker Uperers), is an 11-year-old child full of fantasies about his absentee dad and a huge Michael Jackson fan. Living with his gran and a host of younger siblings and cousins, life is simple but laidback. But with gran away, his not-so-bright dad (Taika Waititi) and two even less bright gang members fresh out of prison turn up looking for the money buried in a hurry following a heist.

Whilst Boy may over-egg its narrative, Waititi’s big-hearted story treats the depiction of adolescence with respect whilst cramming the screen full of comical and vivid detail.

Rating: 68%

‘The Piano’

Spectacular cinematography of coastal New Zealand provides the backdrop to a visual feast in the 19th century set story of love, jealousy and fear.

Arriving from a privileged Scottish background, Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter – The Big Sick, Broadcast News) is set to marry the wealthy but crude-living Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill – Jurassic Park, Sweet Country). Travelling with her prized piano and a young daughter (Flora – Anna Paquin, TV’s True Blood, Alias Grace), she is not what Stewart or his household anticipated. But then life in the rainforests is not what Ada expected. Having not spoken a single word since she was six, things become even more complicated when her piano is sold off to neighbour and occasional employee, George (Harvey Keitel – The Irishman, Reservoir Dogs).

Writer and director Jane Campion (Angel at My Table, Bright Star) sculpts a moody, evocative tale of time and place with Ada, as her husband’s property, desperate to escape. Gothic Romanticism rules the day in a tale that ultimately settles into a menage-a-trois, albeit with excellent performances and a truly memorable soundtrack by Michael Nyman.

Nominated for 8 Oscars in 1994 (including best film, director, cinematography), won 3 (best actress, supporting actress, original screenplay).

Rating: 72%

‘Human Traces’

human traces.jpgNot everything is what it seems when handsome Riki (Vinnie Bennett – Ghost in the Shell, Fantail) arrives at a remote New Zealand research station as the new conservationist volunteer.

Mark Mitchinson (The Hobbit, Mr Pip), leader of the small team, is threatened by Riki’s presence and his ideas – especially as he feels his young wife (Sophie Henderson – Fantail) is paying too much attention to the newcomer.

Secrets, lies and misunderstandings unravel as writer/director Nic Gorman in his feature film debut creates a tense psychological thriller against the backdrop of a stunning New Zealand coastline.

Screened in the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Rating: 63%

Best of Year (2016) -Film

i-daniel-blakeAs mentioned in an earlier post, 2016 was not awash, in my opinion, with great films. Lots of good ones, a few that didn’t quite live up to expectations or some abject failures. Hence my top 10 for the year is noticeable by its lack of US ‘studio’ films and dominated by European ‘sensibility’. There’s little room for last year’s big critical darlings – only Spotlight making the cut from the Oscar nominated best films. No The Revenant or The Big Short (the latter sitting just outside the top 10).

To be honest, I was a little surprised by the way my list panned out – but it’s all based on my own percentage rating and rings true. ‘Story’ dominated – whilst I’m not averse to action and adventure, it’s the narrative that is all-important. So the indie productions are well-represented.

My top 10 films for the 2016:

10=: Captain Fantastic (Canada) w/Viggo Mortensen
Mr Gaga (Israeli documentary) dir/Tomer Heymann
7=:    The Hateful 8 (US) w/Samuel L. Jackson
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (New Zealand) w/Sam Neill
The Embrace of the Serpent (Colombia)
5=:    Spotlight (US) w/Michael Keaton
Hell or High Water (US) w/Chris Pine
4:      Indignation (US) w/Logan Lerman
3:      Nocturnal Animals (US) w/Amy Adams
2:      Mustang (Turkey/France)
1:      I, Daniel Blake (UK) dir/Ken Loach

Quiet, social commentary films are there in numbers – the devasting Ken Loach Cannes Palme d’Or winner, I Daniel Blake sitting atop the list as my favourite film of the year. That was a little unexpected knowing La La Land was my last film of 2016. Going by critical response, I anticipated the Damien Chazelle homage to Hollywood musicals of the 50s to be the film of the year. It was good – but not that good, as indicated by its failure to feature in my top 10.

Both Mustang and The Embrace of the Serpent were nominated for last year’s best foreign language film – but they lost out to the Hungarian Holocaust drama, Son of Saul. You can see my opinion (Son of Saul came in around 15th for the year on my selection). The other foreign language film on the list, Mr Gaga, is the superb documentary focussing on Israeli contemporary dance choreographer, Ohad Naharin.

Both Hell or High Water and Nocturnal Animals share the presence of a Texan sheriff as crucial to the storyline – the underrated Michael Shannon in Tom Ford’s elegant suspense feature and the show-stealing Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water.

Disappointing not to see a local Australian film in the list but the Antipodes is represented by the most successful New Zealand film ever made – the irrepressible Hunt for the Wilderpeople. And its back-to-nature setting is mirrored by the alternative upbringing of the (large) Cash family in the Washington State wilderness of Captain Fantastic.


8160964210c80b4cd26183fae2c70f78_500x735Rose-tinted 1950s nostalgia from New Zealand director Lee Tamahori – his first for more than 15 years (Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in Die Another Day) and light years away from his 1994 hard-hitting Maori drama, Once Were Warriors.

Adapted from the novel by Witi Ihimaera (Whale Rider), the Mahana family are ruled over by the powerful but successful sheep rearing patriarch (Temuera Robinson – Star Wars II & III, Once Were Warriors). It’s a time of change, represented by his 14 year-old grandson, Simeon, and Elvis Presley movies yet the focus is on the tensions within the extended family and its rivalry with the Poata family. The racism of 1950s New Zealand and wider political issues of the day are barely touched upon.

It’s a slight, mildly engaging family drama that starts off strongly but peters out into predictability.

Rating; 45%

‘Z For Zachariah’

z_for_zachariah_posterA ménage-a-trois in a post-nuclear world where civilisation has been largely destroyed.

But its dystopian setting is a stunningly beautiful mountainous valley of green pastures, where a deeply impressive Margot Robbie (Suicide Squad, The Wolf of Wall Street) has survived in rural isolation on the family farm. Her lonely idyl is interrupted by Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave, The Martian): their idyl is interrupted by the arrival of Chris Pine (Star Trek, Hell Or High Waters).

Director Craig Zobel (Compliance) creates a patient, slow burn of a film in which the three characters admirably play out the evolving storyline.

Rating: 60%

‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’

Hunt-for-the-Wilderpeople-PosterHugely entertaining and with charm by the bucketload, it’s hardly surprising that Hunt for the Wilderpeople is the highest-grossing locally-produced New Zealand film of all time.

The chemistry between Sam Neill (Jurassic Park, The Daughter) and newcomer Julian Dennison (Paper Planes) makes for a fresh, vibrant and, at times, incredibly funny road trip as the two make off into the New Zealand bush on the run from child support services.

Energy and focus may pall a little in the middle, but writer/director Taika Waititi (Boy, What We Do In the Shadows), with astute use of comedy and pathos, drives the narrative forward. A joy.

Rating: 79%