October 17, 2016
Rarely does a documentary leave you with a feeling of such unbridled joy, but it would be impossible to watch this particular documentary and be left feeling otherwise. Poi E: The Story of Our Song is as upbeat and life-affirming as the song that inspired it.
In 1984, ‘Poi E’ became the first song to reach number one on the New Zealand charts written and released entirely in Te Reo Māori. It remained in the charts for thirty-four weeks, outsold Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ and has been in the New Zealand Top Ten every decade for the past thirty years. The song was co-composed by Dalvanius Prime and Māori language composer Ngoi Pēwhairangi. Dalvanius, with an international career in R&B had then recently returned home to care for his ailing mother. This incident was something of a trigger, sparking a desire within him to forge a stronger connection with his Māori heritage. He sought out Ngoi, they composed ‘Poi E’, and Dalvanius convinced the Patea Māori Club to perform and record the song, hustling the locals and business owners of Patea to lend money to the cause.
It would be too easy to simply consign ‘Poi E’ as just a musical phenomenon, although it certainly is that -it’s incredibly catchy, synthesising traditional Māori waiata and 80s pop; it exudes happiness, and will leave anyone grinning. The story behind the song, however, and the impact it had, go far beyond just breaking musical records. Director Tearepa Kahi has lovingly crafted a documentary that traces Dalvanius Prime’s extraordinary life, whilst celebrating an important aspect of Māori culture. The impact ‘Poi E’ had not only in the charts, but in fostering the acceptance of Māori language and culture in New Zealand (particularly popular media) is not lost. All this is set against the backdrop of the small town and tight-knit community of Patea, almost ruined by a financial crisis, but revitalised thanks this song.
The influence of Ngoi Pēwhairangi is strongly felt, not only as composer, but as a Māori language teacher and advocate. Having passed away long before this film was even conceived of, respect for her and for the language she taught permeates this documentary. Dalvanius himself is an immensely fascinating, entertaining character – archival footage and interviews, as well as interviews with those who knew him at the Patea Māori Club paint a picture of a highly driven, talented, warm-hearted, sometimes stubborn, but always passionate man; his desire to reconnect with his heritage, as well as his personal struggles and losses, provide some of the films most poignant moments.
Poi E is full of memorable characters – Aunty Bib and Nana Bub, Joe Moana (the guy who could do ‘the Michael Jackson thing’), the community of Patea, and even musician Stan Walker and filmmaker Taika Waititi, who both recall ‘Poi E’ as being a huge influence on their youth; anyone who’s familiar with Waititi’s Boy (2010) may already be a little familiar with ‘Poi E’! There are plenty of laughs to be had, and the sense of community embodied by the Patea Māori Club flows through Poi E, embracing the audience, and leaving you with a warm glow.
Towards the end of the film, Waititi and Walker laugh about how everyone knows the tune, but no one knows the lyrics. So the film obliges, offering us something of an encore with the lyrics translated, and confirms just how much depth there really is to ‘Poi E’. This is not just the story of a thing of the past – ‘Poi E’ continues and will always continue, multi-generational, with The Story of Our Song as its newest, vibrant, emotional chapter.
October 10, 2016
It doesn’t take long before The Girl on the Train (dir. Tate Taylor) reveals to us that Rachel (Emily Blunt) is an alcoholic. A young mother with her baby sits next to Rachel as she takes her twice daily commute on the train, notices the bottle of alcohol in her handbag, and moves seats as quickly as she sat down; so quickly, in fact, that Rachel (and the audience) are not even sure that she had sat there at all. Within the opening minutes of the film, Rachel has been established as the ‘unreliable narrator’, and it is soon made clear that much of the drama that unfolds hinges on just how trustworthy (or untrustworthy) Rachel’s memories and perceptions are.
Based on the novel of the same name by Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train has variously drawn comparisons to David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014) and Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) – the latter seems far more appropriate, but the former only makes sense superficially. The film follows Rachel as she makes her daily commute to Manhattan and back on the train, keeping up the pretence (in her mind at least) of going to work, despite the fact that her alcoholism cost her her job months ago. Every day, she goes past the house she used to live in with her ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), who now lives there with his new wife, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), and their baby daughter. But Rachel has also becomes obsessed with the ‘perfect’ couple who live a few houses down. Megan (played in an aloof, detached style by Haley Bennet) and Scott (Luke Evans) remind Rachel of everything her life used to be, or everything that she wanted her life to be, and she spends her time dreaming up elaborate fantasy lives for the young couple. One day, Rachel witnesses something in Megan and Scott’s house that she can’t help but find shocking, and a series of events is set in to motion – the most serious of these, is that Megan has gone missing.
The Girl on the Train switches between the perspectives of these three women – Rachel, Anna, and Megan – throughout and jumps between points in time while doing so; from Rachel in the present day, we cut to Megan six months ago and so on. Initially, these cuts and flashbacks make the film feel convoluted. Also, presenting things from Megan’s point of view so soon does tend to undermine the mystery of her character – almost as soon as Rachel starts to wonder what kind of life she leads, the question is answered for us. This doesn’t leave much room for speculation, and somewhat dampens the intrigue.
As said, the comparisons to Gone Girl are mostly superficial, the key similarity being that a woman whose life appears perfect has gone missing. Director Tate Taylor also invokes many of the cold greys and blues that make up the palette of that film, but this is no more a unique visual tone than it would be to any other thriller. The comparisons to Rear Window are more apt, in that both films make use of the voyeuristic gaze to place the audience in the character’s frame of mind, and plays on the curiosity that comes with looking. The film is awash with shots of people looking – looking out of train windows, across balconies, out through windows to the train itself, people looking at Rachel, and Rachel looking at others. But unlike James Stewart’s Jeff, we are immediately given cause to doubt Rachel’s version of events, even as we are witnessing them first hand, due to her alcoholism.
Emily Blunt is extremely impressive as Rachel – desperately fragile, sometimes aware of her own penchant for self-destructiveness, sometimes in denial. She latches onto the one thing she can see that might distract her from her mess of a life. She does some questionable things, but ultimately we empathise with her. Blunt is the perfect mix of paranoid, brimming with fear and anger, and depressed, pitiable, and at all times believable. The Girl on the Train also presents us with a portrayal of a woman with alcoholism which is at odds with the stereotype – Rachel maintains a facade of self-control, and at first glance looks like a regular professional on her way to work; it is only a closer look that reveals the bloodshot eyes, the dry, cracked lips and the slur in her voice that is something beyond simple fatigue.
Ultimately, The Girl on the Train is not simply about Rachel, but Anna and Megan as well, and how all their lives are drawn together and affected by a single uniting incident. The mystery’s reveal was not altogether unexpected, but the way in which it was framed caught me off guard, giving the thriller an at times tense and uneasy atmosphere. If it had managed to capitalise further on this, as well as on the pleasures and dangers of looking, it could have been truly excellent. As it is, The Girl on the Train is a solid, entertaining outing that further highlights Blunt’s talents.