12 August 2014

Film festival roundup 2014

The Skeleton Twins (dir. Craig Johnson, USA, 2014, feat. Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Luke Wilson) ★★★

I'd watch SNL compatriots Kristin Wiig and Bill Hader in just about anything, and their presence drew me to The Skeleton Twins, a story of a reunion of two long-estranged, emotionally troubled siblings. In their scenes together - Hader as a actor recovering from a failed suicide over a gay romance, and Wiig troubled by her own lack of enthusiasm for her doting husband - there is real chemistry and some pleasing rapport that develops into a genuine sense of fun. This is particularly true for an entertaining musical number set to 80s cheeseballs Starship's 'Nothing's Gonna Stop Us'. However, the story itself and the relationship it depicts are relatively by-the-numbers and a little predictable. One for fans of those participating, certainly - including Luke Wilson as the dutiful, straight down the line husband.

We Are The Nobles (Nosotros los Nobles, dir. Gary Alazraki, Mexico, 2013, feat. Gonzalo Vega, Karla Souza, Luis Gerardo Mendez) ★★★

An old-fashioned Mexican farce about a tycoon who tricks his spoiled young adult children into thinking their fortunes have been reversed so they have to go into hiding, penniless. Cue pampered socialites and playboys having to get a job and actually work for a living in the real, dog-eat-dog world. This is solid, traditional comic fare, and it's not hard to see why it's been the most successful Mexican film ever in its native land. While the film has broad appeal, particularly for the performances of the wastrel siblings who fritter away their Papa's money on foolish pursuits, a few more doses of social satire would have been welcome. As it stands, the plot is fairly conservative and predictable: lessons are learned and family values are reinforced. This film could easily have been made in any of the last nine decades. On the plus side, poverty causes the son who lusts after older women to ditch his inexcusable hipster moustache, and a greedy blackmailer illustrates the useful contemporary adage that one should never trust a man wearing orange trousers.

Pulp: a Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets (dir. Florian Habicht, UK, 2014, feat. Jarvis Cocker) ★★★★

I have to try to be dispassionate about this review, because I'm a massive fan of Pulp and Jarvis Cocker, and for me this film was a proper thrill. So in attempting to appraise how good a film it is, I have to admit that for someone who is unfamiliar with the work of Sheffield's finest band, this might be an odd experience. There are no huge insights into the psychology of the band members or their indefatigable lead singer, and while the snapshots of regular folk from Sheffield in the weeks leading up to Pulp's final UK gig in December 2012 are often appealing, they provide no enormous insight into life there. For a tale of utter devotion to a band that attains almost mythical proportions, see Shane Meadows' recent Made of Stone about the Stone Roses' reunion gig, which is a more coherent film documenting the rush of public enthusiasm and climaxing with a lengthy gig workout. Taking a different approach, New Zealand director Florian Habicht does sprinkle his film with selected highlights of the Sheffield gig, which capture the band in fine form, but most of the film prefers to amble about the city in a series of hit-and-miss interviews with fans and passers-by. Some of the staged scenes work well, re-setting Pulp material in a local context - my favourite being the collection of moderately decrepit folk in a dingy canteen performing Help The Aged.

Jimmy’s Hall (dir. Ken Loach, UK/Ireland/France, 2014, feat. Barry Ward, Simone Kirby) ★★★½

Ken Loach here offers the true story of the persecution of Irish communist James Gralton and the free-thinking community hall he built to give poor local folk in Effrinagh, Co. Leitrim, a place to gather away from the arch-conservative clergy and their reactionary allies in government. Set in Depression-wracked rural Ireland in 1932, the film depicts Gralton's ambition as simple idealism against the colluding forces of ultra-conservative Catholicism, the intolerant right-wing victors of the Irish Civil War in the early 1920s, and de Valera's government in Dublin that will brook no dissent. The achievement of replicating the hall and the community that thrived within it is impressive, and for Ireland this film must be a valuable social document. For outsiders unfamiliar with the source material, however, Jimmy's Hall is more of a curiosity. Barry Ward gives a strong performance as Gralton, but the script lays on the saintly saviour of the people theme rather thickly. (This from a confirmed urban liberal viewer!). The hall scenes are impressively realised, but feels like a mistake to cast the much-loved Jim Norton (of Father Ted's 'Kicking Bishop Brennan Up The Arse' fame) as the controlling and draconian Father Sheridan, who gives a good performance but is given almost cartoonishly one-dimensional villainous lines that it's hard not to laugh at. Similarly, some of the cast are amateur actors and while this helps to keep costs down, their performances are often jarringly noticeable. Still, this must have been a hard film to get made, and a highly uncommercial project, so it's impressive it's made it to screens across the world at all.

Diplomacy (Diplomatie, dir. Volker Schlondorff, France/Germany, 2014, feat. Niels Arestrup, Andre Dussollier) ★★★★

I love a good play cleverly transferred to the big screen. Diplomatie is such a play, with two experienced actors locking horns in extended dialogue scenes, often in a single room. In portraying the true story of a Swedish consul who tries every possible approach to convince the German general commanding the doomed defence of Paris in 1944 to disobey Hitler's order to destroy the City of Light to delay the Allied advance, and to wreak revenge on the city for outshining bomb-ravaged Berlin. Obviously the viewer knows the end result, but the film displays commendable skill in depicting the seemingly impossible task of the consul Nordling to save the city he loves from devastation, by convincing the ageing warrior, von Choltitz, to betray everything he holds dear.

The Double (dir. Richard Ayoade, UK, 2013, feat. Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska) ★★★★

Richard Ayoade (Submarine) is growing into a compelling storyteller and a reliably watchable director, and in The Double he has created the ultimate love-letter to Terry Gilliam, specifically to his 1985 masterpiece Brazil. Jesse Eisenberg's Simon is an anonymous worker drone in a grim, Orwellian dystopia, longing forlornly for the company of pretty loner Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), a co-worker in a drab, highly regimented nightmare workplace so fondly depicted in Gilliam's films. Simon is soon unnerved by a new co-worker James, who boasts not only the same face as him, but the same clothes too, but none of Simon's insecurities. What follows is a bleakly humorous retelling of an 1846 Dostoyevsky story with two impressive lead performances from Eisenberg as the increasingly paranoid Simon and the confident, striving James, building to a pleasing climax reminiscent of the clever 60s and 70s fantasies that Ayoade understands so well. Replete with stylish camerawork, expertly crafted lighting and well-chosen music, and featuring cameos from numerous young British acting royalty, The Double is a minor gem in the black comedy genre.

The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden (dir. Dayne Goldfine & Dan Geller, USA, 2013) ★★★½

Part historical documentary, recounting a notorious 1930s scandal in the far-flung Galapagos, and part sociological survey, searching for the character of the human inhabitants of the islands and what drives them, The Galapagos Affair is a commendable fusion of styles. When exiles from Europe were drawn to the uninhabited isle of Floreana to live out a fantasy escape from the Depression, Nazism, consumerism and society in general, they find the aberrations and conflicts of the civilised world are harder to abandon than they first imagine. Splicing together the various written narratives of the German settlers who lived and mysteriously died on Floreana, the film may not have clear answers but it shows the larger-than-life characters in all their glory and idiosyncrasies, particularly the Nietzsche-quoting, unbending Dr Ritter and the fantastical, hyperbolic Baroness von Wagner with her scandalous harem of two devoted male servitors. In allowing the modern descendants of the survivors of Floreana to give their views, the film provides an interesting glimpse into the soul of some of the most physically isolated people on the planet - all of whom are impressively articulate story-tellers in their own right.

Frank (dir. Lenny Abrahamson, Ireland/UK, 2014, feat. Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Fassbender) ★★★½

Frank is certainly hard to classify, but its charms are insidious. Domhnall Gleeson is the white-bread keyboardist Jon, accidentally parachuted into the intentionally unpronounceable and mostly f***ed up band 'Soronprfbs' with a trio of glowering musos backing the bizarre genius lead singer Frank, who is never seen out of his giant papier-mache head, even in the shower. (The head is a tribute to the real-life outsider artist Chris Sievey, who wore the head while portraying his character 'Frank Sidebottom'). There are bleakly funny scenes in a dank Irish wood as the band spend a year getting around to recording an album, and once Jon hears Frank actually performing he knows underneath the fake head there lurks a major (if somewhat twisted) talent. But the other band members, particularly the menacing Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) seem to do everything they can to prevent Frank making accessible, popular music, which infuriates the hugely ambitious Jon. When his secret Youtube videos and Twitter posts land them a gig at the prestigious SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, it's time to see whether Frank is a mad genius or just plain mad. This is an odd tale, but its pleasures lie in its unpredictability, its wry humour, and the odd burst of legitimately excellent music. You can only wonder how hot it must have been for Michael Fassbender inside that head in Texas!

The Salt of the Earth (Le sel de la terre, dir. Wim Wenders & Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, France/Italy, 2014) ★★★★

Wim Wenders' profile of the hugely influential Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado is a co-production with the photographer's son, and takes us through a 40-year career documenting momentous events across the world. Salgado made his name with arduous multi-year projects to capture frequently astonishing images of human life, often in the very poorest regions. His photographs are always powerful and expertly composed, but the messages of his most challenging work in places like famine-torn Ethiopia and the Sahel in the 1980s and in genocide-riven Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s are particularly indelible, and have helped to build global consciousness of the effects of famine and mass refugee displacement. Indeed, watching the utterly grim images of massacres in Rwanda it's astonishing that Salgado emerged with his own life. His psychological response to documenting decades of human cruelty is revealed at the film's end, and is ultimately encouraging. Salgado's photographs deserve the exposure that the big screen offers, and this film is the perfect vehicle.

Boyhood (dir. Richard Linklater, USA, 2014, feat. Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Ellar Coltrane) ★★★★★

12 years to make one film - checking in with the cast each year to film new scenes in the developing story of one boy, his sister, and his separated parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) - equals an enormous and ambitious endeavour, and one that has paid huge dividends. Boyhood is both compelling and engrossing, and it's a rare compliment to emerge from a 164-minute film wishing there was more to see. There are no villains and no saints, just a very real depiction of a series of friends, stepfathers, relatives, boyfriends and girlfriends that spread out over more than a decade in Texas, director Richard Linklater's own home state. Young Ellar Coltrane as Mason and Lorelei Linklater (the director's daughter) as his sister Sam sprout before your eyes from a mop-haired kids to college-departing young adults, making this the dramatic equivalent of the famous documentary Seven Up. It's remarkable how effective the narrative remains when it could easily have been disjointed, and how the segments combine into a seamless mix of drama, comedy and social realism. The performances are all uniformly excellent, too. Boyhood is an absolute treasure. Someone should put it in a time capsule immediately, because film-making doesn't get much better than this.

The Lady from Shanghai (dir. Orson Welles, USA, 1947, feat. Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth) ★★

A historical curiosity - an onscreen pairing of the then-married Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, the year after her heart-stoppingly alluring performance in Gilda and the year before the couple's divorce. While those involved are illustrious, the film itself is a dog's breakfast of unbelievable characters and far-fetched plot contrivances, no doubt at least in part due to the savage cutting and re-shoots ordered by Columbia's president, Harry Cohn, who was completely at odds with Welles' first cut. The film is also famous for Welles' secret plot with Hayworth to lop off her famous long red locks that had helped make her a star in the first place; the studio was furious at their dyed-blonde star. Wish I'd known it was Errol Flynn's yacht they used for the sailing scenes, so I could've looked out for him in the background of the cantina scene.

Snowpiercer (dir. Bong Joon-ho, South Korea/USA/France, 2013, feat. Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Ed Harris) ★★★½

I was expecting a bonkers Korean sci-fi set on a post-apocalyptic train circling the ice-clad Earth and containing the last remnants of humanity, and that's what I got. Whether it amounts to a great movie, I'm uncertain. It definitely looks fantastic - the sets are superb as the oppressed and beaten-down Tail-dwellers fight their way to the Engine through a myriad of bizarre carriages. There are good performances, particularly from the always watchable Tilda Swinton - every scene she's in, she completely reigns over - and Chris Evans provides a suitably chiselled and emotionally tortured action hero. There are pleasing elements of humour sprinkled through the narrative, as befits a script derived from a French graphic novel, particularly in Swinton's delivery, and a short cameo from Alison Pill as a brainwashing train school-mistress who leads her charges in a devotional song to the train's great leader. The film is far from perfect - its violence is needlessly drawn-out and brutal, the dialogue is strictly conventional, and the ending is both over-long and faintly ridiculous. But the world is a slightly better place for the fact that a film this odd and this technically proficient made it to cinemas.

National Gallery (dir.Frederick Wiseman, USA/France, 2014) ★★★½

With a thoroughness that borders on fanaticism, National Gallery illustrates the working life of Trafalgar Square's northern linchpin, one of the finest art galleries in the world. The sense of completist scope is evident in its three hour running time - this documentary is not for the faint-hearted or those with short attention spans. The largest portion of its running time is devoted to fly-on-the-wall glimpses of curators, guides and restorers lecturing to gallery visitors and guests, and there are no voice-overs or captions to lead the viewer through the process. Nor are they necessary, which leads me to believe more documentary makers could trust their audiences in this way. There are also a few judiciously-chosen meetings filmed, to show the administrative side of the gallery's business, but luckily these are in the minority. Mostly, the art is allowed to tell its own story, amidst the sea of visitors from all over the world.

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet (L’extravagant voyage du jeune et prodigieux T.S. Spivet, dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet, France/Canada, 2013, feat. Helena Bonham Carter) ★★★★

This splendid work of imaginative film-making is perfectly in its element on the big screen at the Embassy in Wellington - glorious 3D cinematography displayed to full effect on the largest canvas possible, allowing the Spivet spectacle free rein. Young T.S. (Kyle Catlett) is a gifted 10-year-old inventor who receives an invitation to the Smithsonian in Washington DC to receive an award for a remarkable invention, but only because the museum doesn't realise he's only a boy. Striking out on his own from his home in the Rockies, this is an impressively rendered fantasy suitable for most ages (apart from some naughty swearing near the end). It's a pity that most people may end up seeing this on DVD release rather than on the best screen possible, because it really does make superb use of the visual storytelling power of properly-thought-out 3D film-making. Now if only the boy could be convinced to speak his lines a little more clearly so we could make out exactly what he's saying, it would be near perfect.

Show People (dir. King Vidor, USA, 1928, feat. Marion Davies) ★★★★½

What a delight - this restored silent classic may be missing a few frames here and there due to celluloid decay, but even so it makes for a surprisingly modern and utterly charming satire of the Hollywood film business that still resonates with today's audiences. Marion Davies is hugely endearing and consistently silly as the comic hero Peggy Pepper, brought by her father the Colonel from the plantations of Georgia to take the silent film world by storm, which she promptly does thanks to the aid of slapstick comedy actor Billy Boone. But Peggy has aspirations to be a 'serious actress' and falls in with a high-falutin' starry set. Will she forget her daft-as-a-brush heart? Of course not, but there is tremendous fun while she works it out, from a tortuous scene where her jolly nature prevents her from crying on cue despite an exasperated director's every outlandish effort, to her hilarious chipmunk-toothed expression as she tries to mimic a 'proper celebrity' (probably screen siren Gloria Swanson), to Peggy meeting 'herself', the actor Marion Davies, at the film studio lot and clearly not being impressed in the slightest. Show People is a dotty, warm-hearted circus, and it deserves a far wider audience in the 21st century to appreciate its great showbiz spirit and the winning comic performance of Miss Davies.

Wild Tales (Relatos salvajes, dir. Damian Szifron, Argentina/Spain, 2014) ★★★

Oh crap. I know I'm going to be out of step with nearly everyone when I say I didn't enjoy Wild Tales. This Argentinean film is an impressive achievement, well constructed, and boasts some strong performances in its six comic tales of people behaving badly. Very badly. But apart from the final wedding scene, I struggled to enjoy the film due to its bleak vision of human nature - every scene brings out the worst in its characters, and if something can go horribly wrong, it does, and then it goes even more wrong. I was reminded of the first main scene of Lars von Trier's Melancholia, which was also a technically proficient film that attained critical acclaim, but which I strongly disliked because every character featured in it seemed to be a complete cretin. The aforementioned wedding scene was probably my favourite because it was the most conventionally farcical, and boasts an excellent performance from the increasingly psychotic bride. But like I said, most other people in the audience enjoyed it greatly, so don't let me put you off!

Particle Fever (dir. Mark Levinson, US, 2013) ★★★★

This solid, rewarding documentary follows several personable theoretical and experimental physicists through five years in the life of the hugely ambitious Large Hadron Collider project at CERN in Switzerland, from its tentative early steps through to its first major release of data. What could be a thoroughly dry, obtuse subject matter is explained at a perfectly pitched level for general audiences, with just the right amount of detail to interest without baffling viewers. Judicious use of graphics to illustrate the physics concepts helps a great deal too. And the scientists on screen are characterised by their immense passion for their jobs, and for the all-consuming desire to Know The Answer. The film might not give you all the Answers because we don't know them yet, but it does hint at the possibility that we're getting ever closer to the truth (are you Team Supersymmetry or Team Multiverse?). Trivial niggles include the somewhat overblown music cues, which are a tad patronising, and the sci-fi captions for interview subjects, which makes the names harder to read. But these are minor concerns, and it's the small details that make this an excellent film: I love the notion that CERN physicists are font trolling the world with their Comic Sans use. Bloody boffins.

See also:
Movies: Film festival roundup 2013, 12 August 2013
Movies: Film festival roundup 2012, 14 August 2012
Movies: Film festival roundup 2011, 31 July 2011
Movies: Film festival roundup 2009, 4 August 2009

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