NZIFF 2018 mini-reviews (P to S)

Flicks has sent its mighty writers all over the Auckland section of the New Zealand International Film Festival. Here are the films we’ve seen and what we’ve thought of them. (This page is updated daily-ish.)

Pick of the Litter

When things get a little serious, a little slow, a little unsettling at NZIFF – bring on some animals. Pick of the Litter screams feel-good doco at you, not that you’ll be able to hear it as you “oooh” “ahhh” and “there’s a good boy” along with the rest of the audience while watching this tale of puppers going through guide dog training. Seeing what they learn to do, and the bonds formed with various humans through the process – simply adorable. -STEVE NEWALL


Nicolas Pesce’s first film Eyes Of My Mother comes highly recommended to viewers with particularly strong stomachs and an appetite for dark cinema. Like, pitch black. The complete absence of light. It’s super dark. His follow up Piercing feels positively cheery by comparison, as Pesce festoons his movie with giallo theme music and intentionally artificial backdrops, but the subject matter is still on the bleak side. Christopher Abbott proves to be a dab hand at shooting terrifying glances even while acting goofy. -TONY STAMP

Based on the novel by Ryu Murakami, Piercing takes extremely dark subject matter and turns it into the blackest of comedies with stunning, stylish success. Reed, a young husband and father, is obsessed with the idea of killing his baby daughter with an ice pick – and so hatches a plan to instead murder a prostitute, just to get it out of his system. When the prostitute in question turns out to be even more screwed up than he is, however, things go darkly, hilariously awry. Precisely, economically paced and sumptuously stylised, Piercing makes of fabulously light watch out of the darkest possible subject matter. -KATIE PARKER

Concluding too abruptly for satisfaction, Piercing is a dance in search of an ending – though if you’d prefer the seesawing dynamic between a would-be dismemberer and his call-girl target to seeing it through to the bloody end, then there may be enough here to enjoy. Painstakingly stylized, sometimes stunningly so (cityscape as striking miniature), blackly comic and disturbingly romantic, this two-hander is buoyed by Christopher Abbott and Mia Wasikowska’s performances, even when its tale of a precisely prepared psycho’s plans going awry plays like a too-clever “meat-cute”. -STEVE NEWALL


There’s a funny moment early on in this pacey and solid hagiography of US legal legend Ruth Bader Ginsburg when two of her childhood chums riff on the meme that became a book, The Notorious RBG, with one getting the letters around the wrong way. Another mentions that RBG is the closest thing that American women have to a true superhero, though the film suggests the truth lies between that notion and somewhere more, dare I say, ordinary? That’s the wrong word. Her personal trainer sums it best, “she’s a cyborg”. Her drive and work ethic are terrifying. And despite her famous dourness she loves a laugh. It’s not all propaganda, the home life shows much love via her husband Marty, but perhaps some cracks too in the children. A crash course is also given on why the Supreme Court so excites our American cousins. Warning: Contains traces of Trump. -PAUL CASSERLY

Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda

As befits its subject this doco is all about aesthetics, lovingly framed and made with an ear for sound design. Sakatmoto himself is a charming, peaceful presence to spend time with, with a lifetime of musings on art to share, and while the film touches on his recent health struggles and interest in environmental issues, his career as a musician takes up most of the runtime. The many scenes of a great artist in the act of creation provide ample goosebump moments. -TONY STAMP

Science Fair

Follow the young scientific overachievers of the world as they knuckle down and prepare to compete for a place in the prestigious ISEF science fair competition in LA. From an aviation mad young German to a calculator hacking slacker, the ideal cast of the nonexistent Revenge of the Nerds reboot, and the young Muslim American woman whose football-obsessed college flatly ignores her many achievements, there are characters aplenty here, and enough moments of sweetness or quirkiness to make this enjoyable for most ages. -MATTHEW CRAWLEY


A new addition to the fledgling movies-set-entirely-on-a-computer-screen genre, Searching succeeds mainly as a cracking mystery procedural, helped along by another great performance from the hugely likeable John Cho. Rooting for him to find his daughter via internet sleuth-work turns out to be really compelling. This isn’t arthouse fare, it’s a popcorn thriller with big twists and some fairly corny emotional beats. The setting also allows some effective shorthand: you see everything Cho types out in his online conversations, including the things he decides to delete rather than send. The runtime does sag a bit when the film can’t resist squeezing in references to true crime shows and web culture, but fans of a good whodunnit should really dig it. -TONY STAMP

It’s eery how much humanity can be conveyed with a bit of typed text on a computer screen, followed by a pause and the backspace button. This whole movie uses digital space in varied ways that feel both unique on screen and common in everyday Western life. It’s a pity the plot relies on a very basic missing person mystery formula with a conclusion that cheats its guessing game, though it does dangle some good carrots and John Cho compels. -LIAM MAGUREN


Koreeda Hirokazu does it again. This is yet another masterful observation on Japanese-ness and the family unit, although it’s harsher than most of his, and probably less relatable to those who’ll see it in cinema. Shoplifters isn’t focussed on a middle-class household, but rather a group of broken people bound together as a sort of warped family, each sinister in their own way but all determined to help each other through the daily struggle. There are a few soaring moments of happiness, but this is a quietly devastating film and I loved it. -DANIEL RUTLEDGE

Combining the breezy pleasures of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s previous whānau-mending features with a ticking-time-bomb premise gives Shoplifters a dramatic edge that cuts straight through social perceptions in order to get to the beating heart of what makes a family strong. Whether it’s Lily Franky playfully chasing his foster son around with a bung foot or the great Kirin Kiki mocking everyone else for relying on her pension, it’s a film wrapped with scenes of raw warmth. How long does such love last? It’s a question answered perfectly by the final scene. -LIAM MAGUREN

An incredible portrait of generosity and precarity, Shoplifters is just splendid. The script is economical and exacting, gracefully rendering the way poverty magnifies everyday nuisance; forgetting shampoo, spraining an ankle, a cold snap. Excellent performances from a charming familial ensemble cinched this compelling drama. -AMANDA JANE ROBINSON

Damn near impossible to dislike (waits for contradictory, negative review to publish above this one), the Palme d’Or winner charms with its depiction of an unconventional family, melts hearts with its kid actors, has light comic touches alongside drama, and unspools in gripping fashion. A full house at the Civic meant there was one hell of a crowd to please – there will be plenty more satisfied audiences, don’t miss. -STEVE NEWALL

Shut Up and Play the Piano

On the tin: an irreverent take on ‘bad boy’ contemporary pianist, Jarvis Cocker collaborator and indie album producer Chilly Gonzalez. Upon opening: an indulgent reminder that, more often than not, it’s only the rich who get to attempt reinvention and/or make art. Sigh. NB: Need reminding of how truly tone-deaf early 2000s electropop-rap was? Yr welcome. -SARAH THOMSON

Sign ‘o’ the Times

Henceforth I demand this review be known only as this symbol:


Bonkers Prince-directed concert film, with songs from the album of the same name, was a great way to wrap up the fest. Am-dram theatrics are perplexing, continuity jumps from Rotterdam live footage to Paisley Park do-over are vexing, but you can’t take your eyes off of Prince. Awesome, and would not be the same if a “true” concert pic. The batshit ideas – all part of it. -STEVE NEWALL

Skate Kitchen

Until I recognised Elizabeth Rodriguez, I’d forgotten this wasn’t a documentary. So distinctly teenage were the cast’s performances that they felt entirely real. Conversations between the girls never read like dialogue, always memories; a friend staying when they were fighting with their mum, ignoring advice in favour of accumulating own experience, willing yourself out of, and sometimes into, uncomfortable situations. Films about coming of age in New York City are not original ground, and yet Skate Kitchen upturns emotion something brilliant. -AMANDA JANE ROBINSON

Any filmmaker that can set Jaden Smith to maximum chill deserves some credit, though director Crystal Moselle deserves a lot more for delivering an infectious, pulsing, naturalistic hangout movie. It’s all about finding some breathing room – whether that’s away from try-hard dudes or a controlling mother – and Moselle makes that space sing and swing with a soundtrack that bangs, a gluttony of gorgeous skating footage, and a killer camaraderie from the core cast. Sure, the light story reveals itself to be a can of cliches while the ending glazes over its core drama, but the plot is more of a means to letting audiences experience the culture. In that regard, Skate Kitchen is flames. -LIAM MAGUREN

Speak Up

Following a group of subjects through a training and competition process is a well-worn documentary staple for a reason, introducing the viewer to a range of personalities, capturing rivalries and culminating in drama. Here a diverse group of French students prepare for a debate contest, and on paper this is the perfect fodder for this doco subgenre. Sadly Speak Up fails to be as compelling as expected – I didn’t find myself mourning those dropping out of the selection process or emerging victorious over their classmates, speaking to a film that doesn’t build enough of a bond between the viewer and characters on screen, among whom are not enough standout stars to propel the film forward. -STEVE NEWALL

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