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Festival titles are return­ing to cinemas at such a rate that it seems like pre-Festival cinem­a­goer cyn­icism was well-placed. 50% of this week’s new releases were screen­ing loc­ally only a month ago but as they are eas­ily the best half of the arrange­ment I’m inclined to be forgiving.

Armagan Ballantyne’s debut NZ fea­ture The Strength of Water is a strik­ingly mature piece of work and one of the most affect­ing films I’ve seen this year. In a remote Hokianga vil­lage a pair of twins (excel­lent first-timers Melanie Mayall-Nahi and Hato Paparoa) share a spe­cial bond that tragedy can’t eas­ily break. A mys­ter­i­ous young stranger (Isaac Barber) arrives on the scene, escap­ing from troubles of his own and… and then I really can’t say any more.

Full of sur­prises from the very first frame The Strength of Water shows that qual­ity devel­op­ment time (includ­ing the sup­port of the Sundance Institute) really can make a good script great. Ballantyne and writer Briar Grace-Smith offer us lay­ers of fas­cin­a­tion along with deep psy­cho­lo­gic­al truth and gritty Loach-ian real­ism. The mix is com­pel­ling and the end product is tremendous.

Pop Quiz! You want to watch a film about a female French artist in the early part of the 20th cen­tury. Which are you going to choose – the beau­ti­ful, suc­cess­ful fash­ion icon or the dowdy, devo­tion­al “naïve” paint­er who dies alone and unre­cog­nised in a lun­at­ic asylum? If you chose (or are choos­ing) Coco Avant Chanel then you chose wrong as Séraphine is roughly three times the film.

Séraphine was clean­ing woman and ser­vant in Senlis, rur­al France, who believed she was chosen by God to paint, so paint she did. Unable to afford oil paints or can­vas she impro­vised stun­ningly beau­ti­ful impres­sion­ist­ic (although not ‘impres­sion­ist’) stud­ies of nature. While her strik­ingly mod­ern paint­ings were col­our­ful and vivid, her tim­ing sucked and WWI inter­vened just as she was dis­covered by German art deal­er and cur­at­or Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur). Fleeing to Germany he is forced to aban­don Séraphine until the late 1930s when he re-discovers her and her art and begins to sell her work to the art-lovers of Paris. Knowing noth­ing about Séraphine de Senlis, I was con­vinced that we were in for a happy end­ing but it was not to be.

An out­stand­ing cent­ral per­form­ance by Yolande Moreau is up there with any screen act­ing you will see this year and Séraphine gets closer to under­stand­ing the com­pul­sion to cre­ate than Coco or La Vie en Rose.

The Cove is a tautly-constructed doco about the cam­paign to expose the slaughter of dol­phins by Japanese fish­er­men sup­posedly cap­tur­ing them for shows in aquar­ia like Marineland. Not only are they killed for food, the meat is fraud­u­lently mis­rep­res­en­ted as whale and is full of tox­ic mer­cury. So, there’s not much to recom­mend the prac­tice on any level then and yet it still goes on. A crack team of sci­ent­ists and adven­tur­ers go under­cov­er (and under­wa­ter) to try and get proof of the shock­ing busi­ness and help put pres­sure on the Japanese to find some oth­er way of express­ing their cul­tur­al independence.

Effective though the film is in rais­ing aware­ness (and if any anim­al deserves anthro­po­morph­isa­tion the dol­phin would appear to be it) it still ends with no achieve­ment and no clear call to action for us as view­ers – just send­ing a text mes­sage or vis­it­ing a web site. So, even if you have no inten­tion of watch­ing the film (and it would appear that not many of you do) you can have as much impact as the rest of us by going to Worthy, mov­ing but ulti­mately frustrating.

The best of the com­mer­cial releases this week is Taking Woodstock, dir­ec­ted by Brokeback Mountain ’s Ang Lee. The Apollo moon land­ing is not the only 40th anniversary to cel­eb­rate this year – in August 1969 half a mil­lion people turned up at Yasgur’s Farm in White Lake, NY for a music and arts fest­iv­al that some people would like to think changed the world. It cer­tainly changed White Lake. Avoiding the music entirely is a brave approach to take (we nev­er get closer than half a mile from the stage) and Lee and writer James Schamus focus on the com­munity and the split that opens up when the Jewish fam­il­ies (Yasgur and Teichberg) wel­come the Festival, the dirty hip­pies and the money. I haven’t yet worked out wheth­er Lee is a genu­ine auteur or just a fab­ulously tal­en­ted hired gun but by the end of Taking Woodstock I was lean­ing towards the former.

Finally, two hor­rid pieces of garbage that I am loathe even to acknow­ledge: Orphan is anoth­er satan­ic child hor­ror that is simply repulsive.

And The Ugly Truth reveals more about the empty inner lives of its makers than any truth about human rela­tion­ships. The tal­ent­less Katherine Heigl plays a straight-laced TV pro­du­cer forced to work with boor­ish host Gerard Butler and learn what sup­posedly makes men tick. The centre speak­er was blown at the screen­ing I was at and the entire exper­i­ence might only have been improved if all the oth­ers were also broken along with the lamp in the projector.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 2 September, 2009.

Notes on screen­ing con­di­tions: The Strength of Water was screened at the Wellington Film Festival a month or so before cinema release; Séraphine was at a com­mer­cial week­end screen­ing at the Lighthouse in Petone; Taking Woodstock was at a com­mer­cial screen­ing at the Empire in Island Bay; The Cove was screened to the pub­lic off a hard drive media play­er (looked like stand­ard defin­i­tion rather than hi-def) at the Paramount; Orphan and The Ugly Truth formed a dis­pir­it­ing double-bill at Readings on a Thursday night.