“They said what?!” – international critics on Aotearoa’s films

It’s fair to say New Zealanders are somewhat sensitive to how we’re perceived overseas. And movie critics’ opinions are under severe scrutiny the world over. So, what happened when some of the leading American and Australian critics saw movies made in Aotearoa? Read on and try to figure out which  films they’re talking about in the following review quotes (answers provided),

Roger Ebert

Perhaps the best-known film critic, Ebert served at the Chicago Sun-Times for nearly 50 years and, alongside fellow reviewer Gene Siskel, brought movie reviews to TV – along with the notion of giving films a thumbs up/thumbs down rating, leading to the treasured Two Thumbs Up when they were in agreement.

Criticised by some for being too positive, the reviewer looked himself up on Metacritic to see he did in fact grade films higher than other critics. That spoke to two things – his enjoyment of popular cinema (celebrated in this enthusiastic defense of Speed 2: Cruise Control) and a comparative grading system that compared films with one another within genres. As he explained in his Shaolin Soccer review:

“When you ask a friend if Hellboy is any good, you’re not asking if it’s any good compared to Mystic River, you’re asking if it’s any good compared to The Punisher. And my answer would be, on a scale of one to four, if Superman (1978) is four, then Hellboy is three and The Punisher is two. In the same way, if American Beauty gets four stars, then [The United States of] Leland clocks in at about two.”

Find out more about the late Roger Ebert by watching biographical documentary Life Itself.

So – what are the following films from Aotearoa he’s reviewing?

(1) “One of the more excruciating experiences for any movie lover is to sit through a movie filled with frenetic nonstop action, in which, however, nothing of interest happens.”

(2) “The murder of a young person is a tragedy, the murderer is a monster, and making the victim a sweet, poetic narrator is creepy. This movie sells the philosophy that even evil things are God’s will, and their victims are happier now”.

(3) “It is also the story of certain New Zealand characteristics, among which is self-effacing modesty. ”

(4) “Resembles Z and The Battle of Algiers in the way it combines ideology with fiercely-paced action”

(5) “We assume the movie will end in violence, but [it] finds a more thoughtful and probably more realistic conclusion”.

(6) “You don’t often see acting like this in the movies. They [the lead performances] bring the Academy Awards into perspective.”

(7) “A film like this would have little chance without the right casting […] Like many child actors, he has a natural quality adults can only envy.”

(8) “Reading in the paper recently about a crowd of teenage boys who beat an innocent youth to death, I was reminded of this film.”

(9) “Prefers the unexpected turns of actual human behaviour to the predictable plot developments we might have expected, and, at the end, there’s another turn, a fascinating one.”

(10) “Sounds too ethnic, uplifting and feminist, right? The genius of the movie is the way it sidesteps all of the obvious cliches of the underlying story and makes itself fresh, observant, tough and genuinely moving.”

(11) “As peculiar and haunting as any film I’ve seen”

(12) “Tells its story calmly and with great attention to human detail and, watching it, I found myself drawn in with a rare intensity.”

ANSWERS: (1) The Frighteners (2) The Lovely Bones (3) The World’s Fastest Indian (4) Sleeping Dogs (5) Broken English (6) Once Were Warriors (7) Boy (8) Heavenly Creatures (9) Smash Palace (10) Whale Rider (11) The Piano (12) An Angel at my Table

Pauline Kael

Eschewing star ratings, Pauline Kael’s 20-something years of film criticism for the New Yorker – and collections of her essays – saw Kael become a legendary champion of emerging voices in cinema from both the United States and much further abroad. One collection of reviews was titled Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in a somewhat despairing description of “how seldom movies are more than this”. Elsewhere, her review of Raging Bull contains these great lines: “Jake says, “You dumb fuck,” and Joey says, “You dumb fuck,” and they repeat it and repeat it. And I think, What am I doing here watching these two dumb fucks?”

Kael didn’t review a ton of NZ films, in fact we could only find two for this post:

(1) “This film can pull you in deep, but some people don’t like its almost documentary surface and the fact that the characters are believably real and not unusual–they feel it’s too much like life, and that they see it going on all the time”.

(2) “[The director] has an instinct for popular entertainment and a deracinated kind of hip lyricism. The film has sweep, yet it’s singularly unpretentious–irony is turned into slapstick”.

ANSWERS: (1) Smash Palace (2) Utu

Leonard Maltin

Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guides used to be movie-watchers’ bibles until being killed off by the internet. In their pages you’d find an incredibly comprehensive list of films, graded on a four-star scale, but one that starts with “BOMB” ie zero stars.

One might think a few sentences per film would be barely enough to offer a description, but Maltin generally managed to do just that, plus add an evaluation and, frequently, idiosyncratic observations – all delivered in an economic, expressive, writing style. So economic, that he probably holds the record of shortest review ever, his response to 1948 musical Isn’t It Romantic?: “No”.

Because of Maltin’s diligence and brutal efficiency, nearly 16,000 films are listed in the final 2015 edition, making him perhaps over-represented here. But what are these NZ pics?

(1) “Well made but trite, features a solid role for Lawrence, the ubiquitous star of New Zealand films”.

(2) “Downbeat, dull, and full of stereotypical characters”.

(3) “Addle-brained drama”.

(4) “Fascinating concept defeated by confusing direction, illogical plot development, insufficiently defined characters”.

(5) “Predictable (and implausible) car chase drama”.

(6) “Routine action film”.

(7) “A grim, thinly scripted, but visually arresting account”.

(8) “Overlong, but original blend of paranormal, horror, and black comedy ingredients”.

(9) “Title is absolutely accurate in describing this gory comedy”.

(10) “Intriguing (and extremely good looking)”.

(11) “Crammed with offbeat touches, hidden meanings, and agendas; at its best when exploring the complex relationship of the three female characters”.

(12) “Keenly observed drama will be too low key for some tastes”.

(13) “This likable absurdist comedy gives off the same vibe as Napoleon Dynamite, but seems overly self-conscious”.

(14) “The film has much of the feel of a genuine medieval fable.”

(15) “An openhearted film, not for cynics”.

(16) “Astonishing, vigorous, inventively gruesome comedy is—one hopes—the pinnacle of its kind”.

(17) “Horrifically funny and gruesome Monty Python-esque horror comedy recalls early Peter Jackson”.

(18) “Entertainingly loopy psychological thriller that’s also a keenly observed feminist fable”.

(19) “Amiable comedy/road movie”.

(20) “Borderline precious but measured enough not to cross that line […] Believe it or not, Michael Jackson is a key component of the story”.

(21) “Sometimes confusing and overly melodramatic but still worthwhile”.

(22) “Gets its surprising NC-17 rating from an exuberant bed-breaking scene of young lovers in love”.

(23) “Stunning, biting autobiography”.

(24) “Film’s title indicates where the picture is headed, but that doesn’t diminish its inspirational tone”.

(25) “A highly original fable, showing the tragedy and triumph erotic passion can bring to one’s daily life”.

(26) “Dark, exhilarating story […] Very well acted and stunningly directed”.

(27) “Shattering drama […] Not to be missed”.

ANSWERS: (1) Bridge to Nowhere (2) Utu (3) Race for the Yankee Zephyr (4) Sleeping Dogs (5) Shaker Run (6) Battletruck (7) Vigil (8) The Frighteners (9) Bad Taste (10) The Quiet Earth (11) Crush (12) Rain (13) Eagle vs. Shark (14) The Navigator (15) The World’s Fastest Indian (16) Braindead (17) Black Sheep (18) Mr. Wrong (19) Goodbye Pork Pie (20) Boy (21) Smash Palace (22) Broken English (23) An Angel at my Table (24) Whale Rider (25) The Piano (26) Heavenly Creatures (27) Once Were Warriors

Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton

Closer to home, Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton became household names in Australia thanks to nearly three decades spent reviewing films on TV. First as hosts of The Movie Show and then At The Movies, the pair took turns reviewing a film then would discuss it together and each give it a star rating. It’s a discussion element that isn’t seen enough in a critical landscape dominated by sole, usually male, voices. Below you’ll see review quotes attributed to either Pomeranz (MP) or Stratton (DS).

You know the drill – try and figure out the films they are talking about:

(1) “There’s a poignancy to [the film], apart from the humour which is a great component of the film, to make it a truly original piece of cinema. It is full of craziness and heart.” MP

(2) “Writer/director […] handles the story with considerable intensity, and there’s a wonderful performance […] as the troubled teenager who becomes the focus of attention.” DS

(3) “The laughs are few and far between in this would-be satire, the humour is so undergraduate that it’s almost an insult to university students to call it that.” MP

(4) “Takes its time to tell [the main character’s] story – but it’s time well spent, because this is a winner in every sense.” DS

(5) “Depiction of […] a man on a knife edge of mental stability is so true, so well done, you can’t help but be moved by it.” MP

(6) “There’s probably nothing very new to be said about men behaving badly in whatever environment.” DS

ANSWERS: (1) Boy (2) In My Father’s Den (3) What We Do in the Shadows (4) The World’s Fastest Indian (5) The Dark Horse (6) Sione’s Wedding

This story is part of our month-long celebration of 40 years of NZ film. Follow all our daily coverage here.

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