14 August 2015

Film festival roundup 2015

’71 (dir. Yann Demange, UK, 2014)
Troubles drama :: The Roxy Cinema 99 mins :: ★★★★

Rather than an expansive narrative of a British squaddie's tour of duty in Northern Ireland during the grim years of the Troubles, '71 instead focuses on one increasingly traumatic night for Private Hook, a green private from Derbyshire who is beset by an increasingly vicious and unpredictable series of calamities. This is no gung-ho war flick, with a hero spraying baddies with hot lead, left right and centre - for one thing, there are no goodies and baddies in '71's Belfast, only a bleak spiral of guerrilla warfare, violent retribution, official corruption and bitter betrayals. French-born director Yann Demange knows how to ratchet up the tension and throw compelling gut-punches to keep the audience off-balance, and in its lead actor Jack O'Connell the film boasts a gripping performance as the increasingly brutalised and isolated soldier struggles to survive the night with seemingly everyone in Belfast wanting him dead. This is no propaganda film for the British Army in Northern Ireland, or for one side or another of the Catholic-Protestant divide - while there are moments of humanity across the religious chasm, the general futility of the situation dominates and the kill-or-be-killed ethos rules the day. Unsurprisingly, '71 was filmed in the English Midlands rather than on location in Belfast.

The Forbidden Room (dir. Guy Maddin & Evan Johnson, Canada, 2015, feat. Mathieu Amalric, Charlotte Rampling)General surrealism :: Paramount Bergman 130 mins :: ★★★½

An inventive expedition into the nightmare imagination of Canadian outsider Guy Maddin, The Forbidden Room stitches together an increasingly bonkers series of 1920s B-movie-style episodes into a sprawling, nonsensical and deeply silly homage to the days of hyperbolic intertitles, flickering filmstock and planet-shaking over-acting. At times it's wonderfully silly, such as the orthopaedic surgeon obsessed by bones who is kidnapped and seduced by Women Skeletons (sorry, 'WOMEN SKELETONS!!') and forced to wear a poisoned leotard that induces him to sign a fraudulent insurance document, or the cranky volcano god (sorry, 'Valcano God!!' [sic.]) that demands tapioca tribute and punishes notorious squid thieves with aerial scoria bombardment. You have to be in the right mood of whimsy to appreciate the chaos, and I'm afraid the woozy, constantly mutating and flickering shots coupled with the over-saturated, high-contrast lighting treatment gave me a massive headache.

Lambert & Stamp (dir. James D. Cooper, USA, 2014)
Music doco - The Who's 'management' :: Embassy Deluxe 117 mins :: ★★★½

An invaluable addition to the Who stable of lore, Lambert & Stamp views the rise of one of the greatest rock bands through the impact and guidance of its gonzo management, the indefatigable duo of upper class Kit Lambert and East End ace face Chris Stamp (brother of actor Terence), who both took a sideways career change from the film business into managing what became one of the biggest bands of the 60s and 70s. Neither was particularly suited or skilled in the complex and newly-developing art of managing a band, but both offered an important blend of skills to the band of misfits. Lambert, suave, Oxford-educated and gay, helped to shape Pete Townshend into a world-class songwriter and studio arranger, while Stamp brought his incredible energy and persuasive powers to secure the band's notoriety and eventual superstar status. It's only a pity that three of the cadre - fabulous bassist John Entwistle, lunatic drummer Keith Moon, and the increasingly drug-addled Lambert himself - are no longer around to contribute to the story. Predictably, then, it is the voluble Townshend and Stamp that rack up most of the screen time, although Roger Daltrey and other key figures pop up to endorse the sentiment that without Lambert and Stamp, the High Numbers may never have changed their name to The Who and broken through the London mod scene to the big time.

Jauja (dir. Lisandro Alonso, Argentina, 2014, feat. Viggo Mortensen, Vilibjork Mallin Agger)Drama - Viggo's gaucho tale :: Embassy Deluxe 108 mins :: ★★★½

A beautifully-shot South American western, Jauja depicts the wilderness trek of a Danish ex-cavalry officer (the multi-lingual Mortensen) through the rugged Patagonian wastes, in search of his 15-year-old daughter Ingeborg (Viilbjork Malling Agger) who elopes with an Argentinian trooper and is later kidnapped by a rogue army officer who has fallen in with mysterious native riders. Mortensen is as solid as ever, but it is the epic Patagonian scenery that is the undisputed star, replete with lunar landscapes, lush pampas and jagged coasts dotted with rearing walruses. It's shot in a stylised 4:3 ratio with rounded edges like an old stereogram picture, which lends a vintage air to proceedings, and director Lisandro Alonso is fond of lingering at the entrance or exit of a scene for an additional 30 seconds of silence to drink in the landscape. This may or may not become irksome to viewers, but of more concern is the ending, in which Jauja (a phrase referring to a mythical never-reached land of paradise) literally becomes a shaggy dog tale. Aside from that frustrating lack of a traditional conclusion, this is a good example of how colonial-era stories can be brought to cinemas on presumably small budgets.

From Scotland with Love (dir. Virginia Heath, feat. music by King Creosote)Found footage of Scottish memories :: Paramount 75 mins + director Q&A :: ★★★★

A fine slice of Caledonian social history from New Zealand-born and Scottish resident director Virginia Heath, who worked with Fife singer-songwriter King Creosote (Kenny Anderson) to knit together a vivid palate of 20th century life and customs in Scotland. This is no shortbread-tin twee glimpse, but rather a summary of ordinary working life and pastimes sourced as much from private home movie collections as from official sources. Anderson's fine, exuberant songs and instrumentals augment the imagery perfectly without becoming obtrusive or delving into cliche or oversentimentality. In a way it's sad to ponder how little of this life and culture still exists today, but that could be said of any post-industrial society. But this film offers a snapshot of a nation working, playing, falling in love, going to war, and stinging its toes in the bracing surf at Largs, and Scotland is all the better for its presence.

Best of Enemies (dir. Robert Gordon & Morgan Neville, USA, 2015)Doco - Gore Vidal & William F. Buckley Jr.'s telly rivalry :: Penthouse Cinema 88 mins :: ★★★★

A fine counterpart to Frost/Nixon, a dramatisation of events surrounding the bitter end of the Nixon legacy, this documentary illustrates the genesis of the yawning partisan divide that emerged in the lead-up to the start of the Nixon presidency in 1968. America was bitterly divided along lines of race, wealth, class, sex and war, and a struggling ABC network needed a low-budget gimmick to fuel its ratings battle as the Republican and Democratic national conventions rolled into Miami Beach and Chicago. They settled on a firecracker combo of arch-conservative William F. Buckley Jr and scandalous novelist Gore Vidal, a pair of establishment elite intellectuals united only in their self-regard and their unceasing loathing of the other. In 10 debates they framed political discourse for years to come and fuelled a personal animosity that would last for the remainder of their lives. The documentary is that best of old-fashioned ideas - a collection of talking heads who know their subjects. Perhaps Vidal can be said to have 'won' the debates by goading Buckley into his infamous and then shocking slur 'Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I'll sock you in your goddamn face and you'll stay plastered', but that's really not the point. In these fascinating debates between two highly educated, diametrically opposed thinkers can be found the seeds of the disconnection at the heart of modern American politics.

The 50 Year Argument (dir. Martin Scorsese & David Tedeschi, USA, 2015)Doco - the New York Review of Books :: Paramount 97 mins :: ★★★½

An enlightening survey of a half-century of lucid dissent and disputation, The 50 Year Argument examines the history, influence and present state of the New York Review of Books. As an outlet for challenging and questioning authority it offers cultural value far beyond its remit - indeed, it's a Review first and foremost before it's a Review of Books. As the film shows, throughout its history the Review has questioned the accepted myths of society and news reporting and often found them wanting. The question remains: will this institution endure once its founders are no longer at the helm? Because it would be a sad loss to the world of intellectual thought if it does not.

The End of the Tour (dir. James Ponsoldt, USA, 2015, feat. Jesse Eisenberg, Jason Segel, Becky Ann Baker, Anna Chlumsky, Joan Cusack)
Dramatisation of a famous interview with David Foster Wallace :: Paramount 106 mins + short :: ★★★½

With the air of a stage play transferred to the big screen, The End of the Tour is talky fare, with author David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) and Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) bonding for a magazine article over the last few days of Wallace's book promos. Lipsky is trying to decode the literary wit behind the mammoth novel, while Wallace is wary of misrepresentation, and guarded with his confidences. Is a real friendship of like minds developing, or is Lipsky just in it for a journalistic scoop? And are writers special, or is their talent fuelled by their very ordinariness? This narrative of a three-day meeting of minds is a good opportunity to see two strong actors deliver believable and undemonstrative performances. It also features the small treat of seeing Segel act a brief scene with Becky Ann Baker, with whom he worked 15 years before on the much-treasured Freaks & Geeks TV series.

Kiss Me Kate 3D (dir. George Sidney, USA, 1953, feat. Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel, Ann Miller)
Technicolor widescreen 3D garishness :: Embassy Theatre 110 mins :: ★★★★

Of course Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson are the stars of this garish 1953 3D Technicolor musical production of The Taming of the Shrew. But for me the stand-out performer was the relentlessly over-the-top Ann Miller as a non-Superman-related Lois Lane / Bianca. A good-time gal always on the make and not afraid to fling a little unsubtle flirtation if it helps her career or her collection of finery, Miller blasts into the opening suave uptown apartment scene like a force of nature, unleashing her famed machine-gun tap skills and springing from tabletops, all the better to give a fine angle on her killer gams. What a dame! And (dis-) honourable mention must go to musical mobsters Lippy and Slug, sent to menace the players into repaying a bogus gambling IOU for "two Gs" and ending up on stage as thespians themselves, decked out in eye-watering pantaloons and serenading Keel with their own signature tune, the zesty wisecracking "Brush Up Your Shakespeare". The hoodlums even get their own reprise and exit stage right after Keel has left the scene!

Inherent Vice (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 2014, feat. Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro)
Pynchon on the big screen :: Embassy Theatre 149 mins :: ★★★★½

By rights a two-and-a-half hour film with an often baffling plot and a lead actor whose dialogue is frequently incomprehensible should be an experience of cinematic torture. Why then did I find Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice such a thrilling watch? All the way through this puzzling, hilarious, fascinating film I felt like Tim Robbins in The Player was chanting, "It's The Big Lebowski meets Chinatown!", and Inherent Vice has every bit as much charm and intrigue as those two memorable and influential classics.

Joaquin Phoenix's hippie stoner PI could easily have crashed and burned on screen, but he inhabits the role with just the right balance of wry humour and chemical befuddlement to inspire a thousand undergraduate cult viewings. The early-70s setting was perfectly pitched, and I was reminded of the most dialled-down subtlety of Quentin Tarantino's under-rated Jackie Brown, in that the decade isn't used as a throwback gimmick to freight the goings-on with kitsch nostalgia, but rather as a valuable backdrop to an off-kilter, counter-culture take on the hoary old crime investigation flick.

Unsurprisingly, Anderson has assembled a great supporting cast around Phoenix, and Katherine Waterston in particular gives a stand-out performance, particularly in one mesmerising monologue delivered to Phoenix's serially recumbent detective Sportello. Critics might argue the film is uneven, lurching from comedy to drama to thriller across its running time, but for me Inherent Vice had all the hallmarks of a modern classic that will be rewatched for years to come, perhaps for a variety of reasons, but certainly for all the right ones.

Rams (dir. Grimur Hakonarson, Iceland, 2015)
Two estranged brothers, butting heads :: Paramount 93 mins + short :: ★★★★

An Icelandic drama that could have coasted on the stark beauty of the bleak and brutal landscape of its far northern valley, Hrutar (Rams) offers a surprisingly effective mix of bluff humour, unexpected allegiances and a pair of compellingly direct performances from its two massively-bearded leading actors. Two sheep-farming brothers who run neighbouring farms but have stubbornly refused to speak to each other for 40 years are thrown into turmoil when their prize-winning flocks are infected with scrapie and the authorities descend to instigate a complete cull to preserve the rest of the nation's sheep. One brother, the menacing, wrothful Kiddi, turns to drink and bluster, while the thoughtful, calculating Gummi decides on an altogether more inventive solution. Dotted with stand-out scenes of farm humour, a scene-stealing farm dog who acts as a messenger between the brothers, and a surprising conclusion that illustrates the raw power of the Icelandic winter, Hrutar richly deserved its recognition at Cannes, where it was awarded Un Certain Regard. Jury president Isabella Rosselini said it won "for dealing masterfully through the tragicomic, the undeniable link that unites human nature and animal nature", and that sounds just about right to me.

The Wrecking Crew (dir. Danny Tedesco, USA, 2008)
Legendary sessioners for hire :: Light House Petone 101 mins :: ★★★½

A valuable exploration of the engine-room of the US west coast pop powerhouse of the 1960s and early 70s, The Wrecking Crew details the superhuman workload of a hand-picked bunch of expert session musicians that played on most of the hit records of the day. The Monkees make an appearance, because it was the 'revelation' that they didn't play the instruments on their own recordings that was splashed across the news, but in reality hardly anyone played on their own tracks - back then, if it was recorded in LA, the Wrecking Crew probably played on it. The Beach Boys, Herb Alpert, the Mamas & the Papas, Sonny & Cher, the early Byrds recordings, anything by Phil Spector: all the Wrecking Crew. The film collects a few of the surviving players to reminisce and does a good job of shining the light on each, and it is the (sole?) female player, Carol Kaye, whose perspective is particularly appealing, largely for her chutzpah and fine recall of details of recording sessions nearly half a century old. The film leans rather heavily on former ace Crew guitarist Tommy Tedesco because the director is his son, but the effects of a stroke in 1992 mean Tommy's story-telling isn't quite up to the screen time his son devotes to him. Fortunately, an old 1980 VHS recording of Tedesco telling fine yarns and demonstrating his superb Latin guitar stylings helps to shift the balance back in his favour. For enthusiasts, consult the 2013 doco Muscle Shoals, for a contemporaneous look at the famed Alabama studio players.

Very Semi-Serious (dir. Leah Wolchok, USA, 2015)
New Yorker cartoons and their awesomeness :: Penthouse Cinema 83 mins :: ★★★½

A niche interest perhaps, but for fans of New Yorker cartoons and cartooning in general, Very Semi-Serious offers an appealing insight into the venerable institution and the processes that sustain it in the 21st century. Perhaps this vestige of the 1920s is a dying art, but for devotees it is one of the highlights of every edition of the magazine. Perhaps the time lavished on the cartoon editor, himself a veteran cartoonist, is the price the viewer pays for insider access to this world, but for me it's worth it just to peer inside the head of the gag-merchants and the weirdos who populate the pages, all competing for their snippet of attention. (And if it's a choice between one and the other, I'm definitely in the camp of Team Weirdo!)

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (dir. Marielle Heller, USA, 2015, feat. Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgård, Kristen Wiig)
Coming of age black comedy :: Embassy Theatre 102 mins :: ★★★★

Young English actor Bel Powley lights up this compelling and brave Bechdel Test-acing coming of age tale set in mid-1970s San Francisco, which is a welcome female-focused take on the traditional teenage male sexual journey. Testing all the boundaries by starting an affair with her mother's 35-year-old boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgard), teenager Minnie flirts with adulthood but naturally encounters plenty of challenges as she discovers what she wants from sex, love, family and life. It's noticeable that despite the boyfriend acknowledging the problems of the ongoing relationship, those concerns revolve around the dishonesty to Minnie's mother (the wonderful Kristen Wiig) rather than, say, the moral and ethical quandary of having sexual relations with someone under the age of consent! Which is particularly alarming if you've read Nabokov's Lolita recently. But this is no victim tale: rather it offers hope, because whatever mistakes and trials Minnie falls into, the film makes it clear that despite her youth, she is well and truly in charge of her own life, and these experiments will only inform the adulthood that is just around the corner.

A Poem Is a Naked Person (dir. Les Blank, USA, 1974/2015)
Music doco - Dr John :: Embassy Deluxe 90 mins :: ★★

Director Les Blank must have been really unimpressed with Leon Russell to have made such a turgid, uninspiring documentary about such an interesting, talented performer. Captured at his peak in 1972-74, the documentary is sprinkled with fine stage performances that are the saving grace of the film. But by far the largest portion of the running time is occupied by footage designed to make Russell look like an incoherent, uninspiring hippie blatherer. It is probably a deeply unfair portrayal, and while the film does offer a sporadically diverting glimpse of the South in the early '70s, the aimless, rambling excursions away from Russell's fine music are ultimately frustrating and tedious. I can see why Russell prevented the film from being issued at the time, and even now as it comes to audiences it is a decidedly niche offering for Russell completists only. I for one was bored rigid.

Queen and Country (dir. John Boorman, UK, 2014)
Drama - National Service in 50s England :: Embassy Theatre 115 mins :: ★★

A quite comprehensively hackneyed take on early-1950s National Service featuring an out-of-his-depth lead actor (Callum Turner), weirdly misplaced accents (Caleb Landry Jones), and the most stolid of plots (for reference, see every episode of It Ain't Half Hot Mum), Queen & Country also contains huge chunks of singularly risible dialogue, as if the Mitchell & Webb 'Lazy Script Writers' sketch characters have rocked up to the task of writing a 1950s period piece and prepared by watching a Hi-De-Hi omnibus. Like National Service itself, this film is best avoided.

Lonesome (dir. Paul Fejos, USA, 1928)
Live Cinema with Lawrence Arabia and Carnivorous Plant Society
Live accompaniment to a forgotten silent film classic :: Paramount 69 mins :: ★★★½

This 1928 (mostly) silent comedy features a charming young couple (Barbara Kent & Glenn Tryon) who meet at the Coney Island funfair and fall in love amidst the chaotic sideshow hijinks. Paul Fejos' film itself was particularly sweet, but the highlight for me was the live score written and performed at the Paramount cinema in Courtenay Place by Lawrence Arabia (James Milne) and his five piece band. I say 'mostly' silent because just like in Singin' In The Rain and The Artist, talkies had suddenly became all the rage when the film was produced and the studio added three short dialogue scenes to the hitherto silent production after the film had wrapped. They don't add a great deal to proceedings, but it is intriguing to hear the actors' voices. Speaking of which, it's wonderful to see that the lovely lead actress Barbara Kent, who got into the movie business after winning a Miss Hollywood beauty contest in 1925, lived an impressively long life, surviving to the age of 103 in 2011.

Our Little Sister (dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda), Japan, 2015)
Umimachi Diary
Japanese family drama of three sisters reunited :: Embassy Theatre 128 mins :: ★★★★★

Hirokazu Kore-eda's wonderful family drama is a typically gentle and compelling glimpse of three adult sisters who invite their newly-met 15-year-old half-sister to live with them. As with the other Hirokazu films I've seen, it feels like a privilege getting to know the utterly beguiling and believable characters portrayed on screen. He has perfected the delicate balance of film-making with complex but appealing characters that draw audiences in, wanting to know more about their lives and aspirations. Like Richard Linklater's Boyhood last year, this is a film I didn't want to end, and with three well-nigh perfect films in a row (see also I Wish, Like Father Like Son), Hirokazu's work is amongst the most impressive being made today. And with a cast of four main female actors and plenty of female associates, Our Little Sister certainly passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours.

See also:
Movies: Film festival roundup 2014, 12 August 2014
MoviesFilm festival roundup 2013, 12 August 2013
MoviesFilm festival roundup 2012, 14 August 2012
MoviesFilm festival roundup 2011, 31 July 2011
MoviesFilm festival roundup 2009, 4 August 2009

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