Adventures In Celluloid

Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things film.

Dominic Corry: Videotapes, reality and Peter Jackson at the Film Fest

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Woody Harrelson in Rampart. Photo / Supplied
Woody Harrelson in Rampart. Photo / Supplied

Okay. Reality is starting to fade and I just saw a film called Reality. I am now 24 movies into my Film Festival experience and I've lost all sense of what is scripted and what isn't. It feels good.

On Tuesday afternoon I took in the found-footage horror anthology V/H/S, which I was greatly looking forward to. On the whole, the film didn't disappoint, with some degree of inventiveness present in at least the set-up of all the stories: One plays out over a Skype conversation, while another utilises a first-person camera hidden in a pair of glasses.

The wrap-around story in which some dodgy dudes break into a mysterious house and end up watching a bunch of weird videotapes they find, is pretty cool. And the handycam look ensures a sense of plausible unease hangs over the entire film, even when some of the stories culminate conventionally.

He may be starting to resemble old school horror icon Rondo Hatton, but Woody Harrelson gives the performance of his career as an eloquent, corrupt, martini-swilling and cigarette-chugging LAPD cop in the dark drama Rampart, which I saw on Tuesday night.

Co-written by director Oren Moverman (who directed Harrelson to an Oscar nomination in 2010's The Messenger) and legendary crime novelist James Ellroy (LA Confidential, The Black Dahlia), it's a dense, unflinching film with a raft of welcome stylistic flourishes that recall Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out The Dead.

Even though it's set in 1999, it's the first film to really capture the moral haze of Ellroy's Los Angeles in a contemporary context, besting earlier Ellroy-scripted efforts like Dark Blue (2002) and Street Kings (2008). The heavyweight supporting cast (Steve Buscemi, Sigourney Weaver, the great Ned Beatty, among others) does a great job of texturing the universe of the film.

I was very much ready for some lighter fare when I attended Liberal Arts on Wednesday afternoon, and the charmingly understated dramedy didn't disappoint.

How I Met Your Mother star Josh Radnor wrote, directed and stars in the film as a 35-year-old man who faces a moral quandary when a 19-year-old student at his alma matter (played by nascent starlet Elizabeth Olsen) attempts to pursue a relationship with him.

It's familiar cinematic territory, and I can't help but be suspicious of any director who casts himself as the object of a beautiful young woman's affections (except Woody Allen), but the film works. Radnor isn't the most dynamic lead actor ever, but his blank stare is reasonably effective here and his character's thought process comes through empathetically.

Olsen, meanwhile, radiates wisdom beyond her years while remaining true to her character's naivety and Richard Jenkins (The Visitor, Six Feet Under) is fantastic as Radnor's retiring mentor. This is just the kind of nice, small film that we most likely wouldn't get a chance to see on the big screen if it weren't for the Film Festival. I'm really glad I took it in.

Things took on a more surreal quality later than evening when I attended the aforementioned Reality, the new film from Italian director Matteo Garrone, who made a big splash a few years ago at the Film Festival with his previous film, the searing crime drama Gomorrah.

Reality focuses on Luciano, an enthusiastic young family man from Naples who tries out for reality TV sensation Big Brother. When he makes it through to the second round of interviews, Luciano gets waaay ahead of himself and starts re-adjusting his life and family to accommodate his impending stardom. He inevitably loses all sense of you-know-what.

The film is full of heavily protracted tracking shots that locate the viewer right in the middle of the action while creating a palpable sense of place. The opening shot is one of the most dazzling long-takes I've ever seen in a movie, and I'm still trying to work out how the filmmakers achieved it.

Luciano is the kind of dreamer that seems right at home in the movies, but Garrone lays out the real-world implications of his actions to devastating (and often hilarious) effect. The Fellini-esque qualities promised by the festival guide only pop up momentarily, but there's no shortage of classic Italian cinematic theatricality here.

My first true endurance test of the festival came in the form of Julia Loktev's The Loneliest Planet, which stars pint-sized heart-throb Gael Garcia Bernal (Y Tu Mama Tambien) and Hani Furstenberg as an engaged couple backpacking through Georgia.

After they pay a local guide to take them through the stunning Caucasus mountains, a tense incident halfway through the trek sheds light on their relationship. I thought the shots in Reality were pretty protracted, but that's practically a Michael Bay film compared the glacial progression of the scenes in The Loneliest Planet.

This is the first time I ever felt like a film was giving me the silent treatment. See our lead couple dismantle a tent in thrilling real time! See three tiny figures enter a still wide shot on the left of the screen, gently amble across the frame, then exit out the right-hand-side five minutes later! Six or seven times!

The mountains were pretty amazing to behold, but there's only about 10 minutes of actual things happening in this film, and very little of what surrounded those things felt like it had a role to play in the overall story. Maybe it's movie fatigue, but The Loneliest Planet really tried my patience.

Later on Thursday, I attended the Auckland screening of the Peter Jackson-produced doco West of Memphis. After Jackson introduced the film, he took his seat just a couple of rows in front of me. I resisted the urge to tap him on the shoulder and ask what him his favourite Ray Harryhausen creature is and instead sat back and took in the two and a half hour film about the West Memphis Three.

The film is a devastating and clear illustration of a severe miscarriage of justice, and watching it is equal parts maddening and inspiring. As Sir Peter explained in his introduction, West of Memphis came about when Jackson and Fran Walsh saw the 1996 documentary Paradise Lost on DVD in 2005 and began corresponding with Lorri Davis, the wife of Damian Echols - who at that point was on death row for triple murder.

Walsh and Jackson began financially contributing to Echols' defence efforts, and when a judge threw out all the new evidence they had gathered, they hired director Amy Berg to present their findings in a documentary.

As powerful as the film was, what came across most on the night was the strength of the bond between Jackson and Echols. In the lengthy Q&A that followed the screening (Sir Peter got a standing ovation, natch), both Jackson and Echols spoke eloquently and movingly about the journey that had brought them here. Sir Peter Jackson really is the greatest dude ever.

There's only three days of the film festival to go, but plenty of awesome movies still to screen. Check back here next week for my final batch of reviews and a summation of my experience.

* How's your film festival going? Did you catch any of the above? Thoughts? Comment below!

Follow Dominic Corry on Twitter.

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