14 August 2012

Film Festival 2012 roundup

The Film Festival is always the highlight of the winter, and this year was no exception. It's been a modest year for me - ten films in total, but there's a few additional titles I missed that will hopefully return to general release. It kicked off with Wes Anderson's new outing, took in a clutch of vintage classics, a traditional French farce, a couple of documentaries and a good old-fashioned costume drama.

Moonrise Kingdom (US, 2012, dir. Wes Anderson, trailer)

Seasoned with just the right levels of quirk, Wes Anderson's new film is finally broadening his appeal beyond his devoted band of adherents, having taken $42m at the US box-office to date. Perhaps it's the likeable young lead actors - ultimate scout Sam and the scowling, bookish Suzy - or the array of sight gags and hard-bitten lines delivered by the children a la Rian Johnson's Brick. All the Anderson traits are still evident - a cast of actorly pals (Bill Murray, Frances McDormand), brilliantly composed shots, oodles of tracking, judicious use of slow-mo, hand-written correspondence, and a pronounced fondness for binoculars and record players. Cynics will say Moonrise Kingdom is another example of a film designed solely for hipsters and film society tragics. They'll be missing out on a solid and enjoyable film that builds on an already impressive body of work. And can I just say: isn't American Empirical simply the best name for a film production company?

Mantrap (US, 1926, dir. Victor Fleming, complete film)

Charming and silly, this knockabout silent comedy sports the dynamic and effervescent Clara Bow, who would soon be known as the first 'It Girl' after her 1927 film smash It. Basically an excuse for Bow to pull out all the stops and deliver some world-class onscreen flirting, Mantrap features a devoted backwoods hubbie (Ernest Torrence, stepping outside his usual villainous roles), an honourable but soon infatuated big-city lawyer, and plenty of Bow hair primping, neckline adjusting and she-means-business skirt-straightening. (Much of which was echoed by Berenice Bejo in last year's smash, The Artist). The beauty of Mantrap - it's the name of the town, silly,  naturally it's nothing to do with Bow - to modern viewers is that Bow's character isn't the villain of the piece, she's the original manic pixie dream girl - the audience wants her to get away with her outrageous minx routine.

Le Prénom / What's In A Name (France, 2012, dirs. Alexandre de La Patellière & Matthieu Delaporte, French trailer)

This deftly-handled film version of a hugely successful French stage play zips along with an assured cast boasting chemistry and timing. In the course of an evening dinner party old friends find out more than they expected about each other when they start an wide-ranging argument about one of their number's choice for their imminent baby's name. More and more emotional baggage emerges and it all gets built into a colossal barney. This is no Secrets & Lies though - it's all strictly played for wry laughs, and there are many, along with a few surprises. Try not to read too much about it, because some reviewers will be bound to give away the best bits!

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (US, 1953, dir. Howard Hawks, trailer)

Dorothy (Jane Russell) to Lorelei (Marilyn Monroe): 'You know I think you're the only girl in the world who can stand on a stage with a spotlight in her eye and still see a diamond inside a man's pocket'. 

The legendary Russell and Monroe hit vamp overdrive in the scene-stealing stakes in this classic from 1953, which features the iconic imagery of the opening Two Little Girls From Little Rock and the show-stopping Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend. Monroe is effortlessly comedic in her gold-digger role, but for sheer ridiculous camp spectacle Jane Russell's lesser-known solo number Anyone Here For Love, with Dorothy demanding amour from the entire US men's Olympic team, can't be beat for its over-the-top vim and sass. And the fact that the film is based on a 1920s stage comedy kind of makes sense when you think of it; consider Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as a spiritual cousin of a Wodehouse farce.

Les Adieux à la Reine / Farewell, My Queen (France, 2012, dir. Benoît Jacquot, English subtitled trailer)

Farewell My Queen's glimpses into the final days of court life at Versailles in 1789 are expertly rendered, capturing a highly believable atmosphere of faded decadence, imperial hauteur and an increasingly desperate sense of rising panic as the regime totters towards oblivion and the new bloodthirsty Republic. Servant Sidonie (Lea Seydoux from Inglourious Basterds, Mysteries of Lisbon and Midnight in Paris) is Marie Antoinette's devoted reader, who finds the entire world of Versailles crumbling around her. Diane Kruger fills the role of the capricious, obsessive Queen with aplomb, and Virginie Ledoyen is her favourite de Polignac, loathed by the masses and loved by the Queen with an equal fervour. Filmed on location in Versailles itself, this is a well-crafted glimpse into what life might have been like - fleas, rats and all - in the dying days of the French monarchy.

Side By Side (US, 2012, dir. Christopher Kenneally, trailer)

This interesting doco about the aesthetic and technical considerations of the shift from film to digital movie-making involves Keanu Reeves (yes, really) talking to a who's who of Hollywood names. Reeves does a surprisingly good job of asking pertinent questions and trying to get closer to why shooting on film has such strong devotees, even as digital film-making grows ever larger. A niche topic, certainly, but for those interested in the history and the future of cinema, this is quality stuff. Particularly the bit where a director says the advent of immediate digital playback on-set revealed that most actors were less interested in their performances and more concerned about how their hair looked.

Luftskibet 'Norge's flugt over polhavet / The Flight of the Airship 'Norge' over the North Pole (Norway, 1926)

It was a treat to see The Flight of the Airship Norge over the Arctic Ocean, the 1926 silent documentary of Roald Amundsen's daring expedition here at the New Zealand film festival. Not only because it was accompanied by an entertaining score played by a talented pianist, or because a local Norwegian-speaker kindly interpreted the intertitles. And not just because it's an important historical record of a now little-known adventure and a glimpse into the far Arctic and a time in which the airship seemed destined for great things. Mainly it's because this fascinating piece of history is literally the only print of this film in existence. Naturally, there must be digital copies, but I love the idea that through painstaking work Norwegian film archivists have pieced together this previously lost work, and now they're good enough to lend the national treasure out to film festivals on the far side of the world. As a documentary it lacks a certain punch, because the journey over the pole takes up comparatively little of the running time - mainly it consists of shots of the preparations and the celebrations afterwards. But in those moments when the dirigible silently wafts in to land like an untethered cloud, to the tune of tinkling piano keys, it certainly is a special experience.  (For more details and clips, see my longer post here).

The Angels' Share (UK, 2012, dir. Ken Loach, trailer)

Ken Loach's The Angels' Share is an engaging tale of Glaswegian no-hopers who delve into the rarified world of fine whisky when they discover a lucrative auction is about to take place in a highland distillery. The urban updating of the classic Whisky Galore is notable for the natural rapport of its raffish cast - whose Glaswegian accents are mostly but not always comprehensible to foreign ears - and the rough charms of its ready wit. Young Paul Brannigan is particularly good as the gang's leader, Robbie - it was his first acting role but he delivers a highly professional performance. The Observer's Philip French described this as one of Loach's sprightliest films, and while it's hardly ground-breaking material, the warmth certainly shows onscreen.

Bert Stern: Original Madman (US, 2011, dir. Shannah Laumeister, trailer)

Photographer Bert Stern took some of the most iconic photo portraits of the 20th century, including Marilyn Monroe's famous 'last sitting', and this is his story. The fact that it's told by his four-decades-younger muse and partner Shannah Laumeister means that it's told without much overt criticism, which is fine when you consider how superb his work was at his creative peak. But while his fascination with beautiful women made him a famous photographer, it also reveals that perhaps he wasn't (isn't?) a very nice person. The direction is too starry-eyed to delve much into his very real flaws though, and too much time is spent reflecting on his present-day octogenarian condition or some frankly creepy glamour shots of the director, when all the audience wants is to see more of those glorious images from his heyday.

Existence (NZ, 2012, dir. Juliet Bergh)

It's hard making a next-to-no-budget indie film, and particularly so in New Zealand. So it's important to celebrate the positives that emerge from the Wellington sci-fi drama Existence. The film is professionally produced and shot, the idea of shooting in the wild western hilltops amidst the wind turbines was a good one, and local star Lauren Horsley (Eagle vs Shark) is a drawcard for New Zealand film fans. But despite the hard effort put into it (the crew spoke at the premier of two years' work) Existence is not a particularly successful production. The dystopian premise is initially appealing but isn't fleshed out, certain key actions taken by Horsley's character Freya occur for seemingly no reason, and the invented pidgin language that the film's adversaries speak is only interesting for a few minutes, but after that it becomes a nuisance. While I understand that budgetary constraints must have dictated what could be achieved visually, but I also found the conclusion of the film frustratingly limited. Don't get me wrong - this film isn't a stinker, and it will be valuable experience for those involved, but it does comes up short in a several important areas.     

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