31 July 2011

Film Festival 2011 roundup

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It’s been a truncated film festival for me this year. Due to financial constraints and the challenges of flitting between Auckland and Wellington, I’ve only managed to see a handful of films. But it’s been a real treat to see most of them at the mighty Civic in Queen Street. I only visited this venerable institution infrequently when I was a child, but it made a strong impression on me then, as it still must do to young people today. The pair of golden lions flanking the stage, with their red unblinking eyes; the Queen’s box, so tantalisingly close to the performance space; and the brilliant artistry of the starry-skied ceiling, which dims to a rich, deep blue as the film begins and ripples with lights to simulate passing night clouds, scudding over the Oriental splendour of the onion-domed towers. The Civic must surely be one of the world’s great vintage cinemas. To think only a few decades ago the vandals of the Auckland property development class were desperate to raze it and erect some glaring new monstrosity in its place!

Five Six Seven films – not many, but they were good ones.

Mysteries of Lisbon (trailer)
It's rare to find a film these days that justifies an intermission, but this four and a half hour Portuguese historical epic certainly does. It tells a myriad of intertwined stories of 19th century Portuguese life amongst the nobility, with detours in place and time to Venice and revolutionary France. Sticklers might find the emphasis on patient story-telling and gradual reveals frustrating, but personally I relished the chance for the various characters' stories to stretch out and breathe; indeed it became something of a running joke for characters to utter lines like "let me tell you my story right from the beginning". Replete with multiple identities, honour-staked duels, unknown legacies, wronged noblewomen, vengeful suitors, quixotic adventurers and dozens of cast members, Mysteries of Lisbon sprawls most enjoyably on the big screen, and rewards viewers who appreciate cinema on the grand scale. My only complaint pertained to the slightly melodramatic score, which occasionally swelled to intrusive proportions.

13 Assassins (trailer)
There are a few tastes of Takeshi Miike's panache for visceral gore at the start of his samurai epic, 13 Assassins. Evidence of monumental cruelty, the grisly deaths of captives, plus a couple of unflinching ritual suicides all serve to underline the rather obvious point that the Caligula-esque lord who is the target of the film's assassination plot thoroughly deserves everything thrown at him by the titular heroes. After that initial burst of ultra-violence the film is much less unsettling and quickly becomes engrossing, as the hugely outnumbered but plucky team assembles and plans its raid. There are refreshing touches of gruff samurai humour along the way, and the climactic ambush at a deserted mountain village is an extended masterclass of action filmmaking, with jaw-dropping battle scenes and a fittingly thrilling conclusion.

Submarine (trailer)
This utterly charming novel adaptation by first time director Richard Ayoade (who plays the socially challenged Moss in The IT Crowd sitcom) absolutely nails the misfit awkwardness of teenage romance in a hilarious and refreshingly unsentimental black comedy. The casting is perfect, with the young duo winningly portraying teen weirdos experimenting with A Proper Relationship (preferably with no hugging), and the comedic foils of the grown-up actors lavishing every scene with wry humour. Sally Hawkins is as sparky as ever as Oliver's uptight mum; Noah Taylor gives an quality portrayal of his hollowed-out, nerdy dad; and Paddy Considine is laugh-out-loud funny as the spiky-mulleted new age mystic who threatens to break up the family by stealing Oliver's mum away. Oliver's school friends are also reliably entertaining, offering consistently awful personal advice to the sensitive, clueless youth. With its grimy, handheld shots of a grey-skied Welsh industrial town and its deft soundtrack by Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys, and with too many brilliant moments of bleak comedy to count, Submarine is without a doubt my film of 2011 to date.

The Mill and The Cross (trailer)
This Polish film is something of a curiosity, adding as it does to the increasing number of films about famous paintings. (I recently saw Peter Greenaway's Nightwatching, with Martin Freeman as Rembrandt). In this case, it takes the viewer into the Flemish master Pieter Brueghel the Elder's 'The Way to Calvary', a crucifixion scene in a fantasy landscape populated by a multitude of contemporary Flemings and their then Spanish overlords. The real joy in the film lies in the simple recreation of everyday life of the various characters in the grand painting. The awe-inspiring wooden workings of the mill, a crowd of rambunctious and misbehaving children, stubborn farmyard animals, and peasants courting and fighting - all this is expertly realised. There's a decent cast too - Rutger Hauer is suitable contemplative as Brueghel, while Michael York and Charlotte Rampling appear as Brueghel's noble patron and a mother of a religious martyr, respectively. But given that the theme of the painting and of the film is the unflinching depiction of the effects of religious intolerance - in this case, that of the Catholic Spanish for their subject Flemings - The Mill & The Cross is hardly light viewing. A grim tone sets in as heretics are persecuted, and one wonders how well it went down in the director's native Poland, where Catholicism is still strong. Still, the one magic moment in which Brueghel raises his hand and the entire crowd scene halts, including the mighty sails of the mill, is an impressive compensation for viewing implacable inhumanity in the name of religious uniformity. Special mention must also go to the New Zealand cloudscapes, which were listed in the end credits. What, Poland doesn't have clouds that are suitably dramatic?

Page One: Inside the New York Times (trailer)
Print media junkies will enjoy the chance to peek behind the scenes at the venerable New York Times. The documentary offers an intriguing glimpse at the practicalities of responding to the major stories of the day, and in particular the Wikileaks-related material that dominated the headlines when the film was being made. The plight of traditional print media in an era of rapidly declining advertising revenue and burgeoning competition from online rivals with lower cost structures is a predominant theme, and it's by no means certain if the NYT can survive, even if its demise would be a tragedy for serious news reporting. Ultimately, Page One doesn't provide any answers to this looming problem. Rather, it offers up a snapshot view of the business of modern news-gathering, perhaps as it nears the end of its lifetime. The film certainly shines when telling the story of its gravel-voiced narrator, the formerly hard-living David Carr, who is awash with pithy quotes and if given a trilby and a Remington manual typewriter would fit right into any of the newsroom scenes in His Girl Friday.

How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr Foster? (trailer)
This film is a love story to one man's vision of architecture, and while I agree that Sir Norman Foster has produced brilliant and innovative buildings that will stand the test of time, surely a depiction of a career of such stature could have benefited from at least a few critical voices. He failed to win a few tenders - why? Has he made any duds in his long career? Is he a good employer? These are the sorts of questions a film like this should ask, to avoid being labelled a hagiography. And ultimately viewers don't learn an awful lot from the Foster interviews peppering the film, aside from the fact that he's very creative, very driven and seemingly rather nice. But despite this, it's still a fascinating film, and it's at its very best when gliding, swooping and tracking through Foster's dream buildings that adorn some of the world's greatest cities, because these are indisputably impressive works of art.

Le Havre (trailer)
The story of the down-on-his-luck shoe-shine man, his hospitalised wife, and the runaway West African migrant boy is certainly charming, and the community spirit that sees the working-class locals rally around to help the boy evade capture by the police is appealing. A whimsical French fantasy from Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki, Le Havre is boosted by moments of playful humour, such as a lovely scene in which a dastardly police inspector surveys a suspicious bar-room whilst brandishing a freshly-bought pineapple. However, many of the scenes are rather implausible and the staging is occasionally stilted and unnaturalistic.

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