08 August 2016

Film festival roundup - Part 1

In this year's Wellington film festival, which finished with a flourish yesterday, I viewed 19 films, which I think is a record for me, although naturally it is dwarfed by the binge-watching of more committed aficionados. I'm pleased to have seen an eclectic range of material from across the world, but it's a small pity that nothing in the New Zealand offerings garnered my interest. Next year, hopefully! Overall my choices this year were appealing and rewarding, but none of the new films I saw stood out as potential classics. Unlike last year, there was no Inherent Vice, no Our Little Sister. My highlight of the festival then was Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs Miller from 1971, and as always it was a huge treat to see it on the massive Embassy screen. It was also great fun to hear from director Terence Davies at the screenings of his films A Quiet Passion and Sunset Song - a hugely talented artist and a witty, engaging speaker.

For the numbers geek in me, it's also strangely appealing that my festival watching has contributed to a 28-film viewing streak without a rewatch. Thanks Letterboxd for that stat!

Now if only the film festival can do something about eradicating boomers who've lost their hearing talking to each other loudly during the films (or, as one talkative gent sitting next to me claimed inventively, talking to himself), or calling in merciless ninja assassins to deal with the unknown cinemagoer who sat next to my friend Bec, who not only received but also answered two mobile calls during the screening of Tanna

Herewith, then, are my brief thoughts on my first 10 festival films in chronological order, with the final nine to follow in Part 2:

I, Daniel Blake (dir. Ken Loach, UK, 2016) :: Embassy Theatre 100 mins :: ★★★★

Blessed with simple, naturalistic performances and not restricted by its use of non-actors in supporting roles, Ken Loach's I, DANIEL BLAKE is another fine addition to his canon. With deep-running themes of human kindness and solidarity, and frustration at a cruel social welfare system that shirks its responsibility to maintain the self-respect of those forced to use it, the film also brings a deft vein of humour in the form of the bluff but gentle title hero, invalided carpenter Blake (comedian and actor Dave Johns), who befriends isolated single mum Katie (Hayley Squire), who is struggling on the poverty line in Newcastle, a town where she has been moved by social services but where she knows no-one. It's sad to say that not many stories like this make it to the big screen any more, but their power is at least recognised by Cannes, which honoured I, DANIEL BLAKE with the Palme d'Or. (Not to mention the 'Palm DogManitarian Award' for featuring a three-legged dog, more of which later). Have a look at the UK trailer here.

McCabe & Mrs Miller (dir. Robert Altman, USA, 1971) :: Embassy Theatre 120 mins :: ★★★★½

An absolute gem on the big Embassy screen - Robert Altman's 1971 anti-western, MCCABE & MRS MILLER, with Warren Beatty and Julie Christie in the best form of their lives. The film itself is an amazing achievement, with every gritty, grubby, beautiful scene realised in incredible detail. It richly debunks the cliched heroism of the traditional Western at every opportunity, offering an intriguing counterpoint to the popular perception of American frontier history. Sure, the dialogue is a bit inaudible, but that's a small price to pay for so many memorable scenes. And how often do you get to say this: Warren Beatty gives an absolutely outstanding performance.

A Quiet Passion (dir.Terence Davies, UK, 2016) :: Embassy Theatre 124 mins :: ★★★★

Another night, another film featuring Keith Carradine, only this time it's 45 years older. We're talking about the very fine A QUIET PASSION, the poet Emily Dickinson biopic. Expertly filmed in Massachusetts and Flanders, this is Cynthia Nixon's role of a lifetime, and veteran English director Terence Davies was present at the Embassy in Wellington for a Q&A afterwards. Davies was quite a hoot: '...the only thing I get excited about now is scatter-cushions'. Audience: venerable; tubercular; lass in front had clearly not been to finishing school because she took off her shoes and rested her feet on the seat in front.

Sunset Song (dir. Terence Davies, UK, 2015) :: Embassy Theatre 135 mins :: ★★★★

Second in Wellington's Terence Davies double-header, his 2015 adaptation of a classic Scottish novel, SUNSET SONG, featuring the ludicrously photogenic model-turned-actor Agyness Deyn in a tale of young farm life in Kincardineshire in the first decades of the 20th century. Lush Canterbury wheatfields stood in for Scotland, so there's a New Zealand connection too. Clever, bookish and conveniently stunningly beautiful Chris (Deyn) learns from family travails and the mixed blessings of wedlock, until the Kaiser hoves into view. Throughout, Deyn is no model pretending to act - she is genuinely watchable - and her brogue seemed convincing to a Sassenach at least. The challenge though, as seen when the luminous Nastassja Kinski led Polanski's TESS, is that it can be a little difficult to sympathise completely when someone so godlike in appearance in comparison with we mere mortals suffers onscreen misfortunes. Still, this is fine film-making, and will justly popularise the 1932 novel outside its home country.

Land of Mine (Under sandet, dir. Martin Zandvliet, Denmark/Germany, 2015) :: Embassy Theatre 101 mins :: ★★★½

UNDER SANDET (Eng: LAND OF MINE), a convincing Danish drama of the immediate post-war mine clearance of the sandy western shores of Jutland, which were strewn with millions of German landmines. German POWs, usually startlingly young, were forced into clearance parties, often with dire consequences. The film follows a dozen boys, most not even 18, threatened into obedience by vengeful Sgt Rasmussen. But as their inexperience and growing hunger takes hold, accidents are inevitable - will the isolated beach also be their graves? While at times a little predictable there are decent performances from all concerned, and overall the film is a good example of how to make a successful low-budget WW2 drama. Does anyone feel like making a film version of Vincent O'Sullivan's play Shuriken, about the 1943 Featherston Camp riot/massacre?

Captain Fantastic (dir. Matt Ross, USA, 2016) :: Embassy Theatre 119 mins :: ★★★½

The good thing about Viggo Mortensen's post-LOTR work is that, aside from the damp squib of HIDALGO, he's made some really interesting film choices in the past decade. His most recent, CAPTAIN FANTASTIC, may not be a standout work, but it offers both a curious, mischievous and subversive view of modern parenting, childhood and family life. Raising six children off the grid in the Pacific Northwest, Ben (Mortensen) teaches his children how to survive off the land and the hippie ideal of never trusting The Man. Despite never having attended school, the children are all precociously well-read, discoursing freely on economic theory or the civic implications of the Bill of Rights. But events, dear boy, intrude, and the family must travel the length of the country, venturing into the 'real world' and dealing with its inhabitants, including their extended family, despite having no experience of how society actually functions. Raising appealing questions about the strictures of modern child-rearing and education, and satirising both the sedentary and cloistered nature of urban youth and the elaborate far-left conspiracy theories that drive Ben and his family, CAPTAIN FANTASTIC may not be everyone's cup of tea. Instead of birthdays the family celebrate Uncle Noam Chomsky Day, and at one point the eldest exclaims to his dad, 'I'm not a Trotskyist, I'm a Trotskyite! Only a Stalinist would call me a Trotskyist!' It certainly wasn't as accessible as, say, the more conventional LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. But for me, it possessed a certain absurd charm.

Long Way North (Tout en haut du monde, dir. Remi Chaye, France/Denmark, 2015) :: Penthouse Cinema 81 mins :: ★★★½

TOUT EN HAUT DU MONDE (Eng: Long Way North) is a French animated tale of a fictitious late-19th-century Russian teenager, Sasha, who determines to track down her famous grandfather's lost expedition to the North Pole. The plucky young adventuress struggles at first dealing with the Russia outside her privileged aristocratic bubble, but soon learns the ropes both literally and figuratively as she convinces a crew of hardy mariners to accompany her into the grim white north. It's here that the film excels, with splendid artwork depicting the bleak, brutal wilds of the high Arctic, and great sound design highlighting the implacable power of shifting, growling ice as it threatens to crush their flimsy vessel. A story rich in apt girl power themes, it's only let down somewhat by its lacklustre English dubbing, which seems rudimentary. And its sentimentality: for as everyone knows in the high latitudes, first on the menu when supplies runs out are the expedition's faithful canines. Spoiler: No animated huskies were harmed in the making of this picture. (See also: To the North Pole by Zeppelin).

Tokyo Story (Tokyo monogatari, dir. Ozu Yasujiro, Japan, 1953) :: Paramount 136 mins :: ★★★★

TOKYO MONOGATARI (Eng: Tokyo Story) is the much-lauded 1953 classic by Yasujiro Ozu that makes brilliant use of its square format and fixed, low-angle camera position to take a distinctive view of post-war Japanese family life. The visit to Tokyo of two elderly parents from the Hiroshima Prefecture is not heralded with much affection by their busy, self-absorbed adult children, and only their war-widowed daughter-in-law, cooped up in a tiny one-room singletons' hostel treats them with great kindness. A gentle, measured elegy to the gradual distance that emerges between children and their parents as age and physical separation weakens traditional bonds, the film is also notable for its radical simplicity - it seems to emerge from at least two decades earlier, with its sparse, flat framing and lines delivered directly to camera as if in a silent film. Often voted one of the best films ever made, TOKYO MONOGATARI is not an exciting film to watch, but its subtle charms remain affecting and the themes expressed are truly universal. (It does feel a little weird seeing it without film critic Mark Cousins' Ulster brogue intoning over the scenes though, given how much he rhapsodises about it in The Story of Film).

Obit (dir. Vanessa Gould, USA, 2016) :: Paramount 93 mins :: ★★★½

Vanessa Gould's documentary about the New York Times' famed obituary division, whose job it is to encapsulate the lives of the great and good for posterity in the nation's journal of record, often on the shortest of possible notice. At times it seems like New York is the most documented city in existence, such is the onslaught of NY-themed documentaries: in recent years there's been PAGE ONE: INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES, BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK, and SLIGHTLY SEMI-SERIOUS (the New Yorker cartoons doco). Despite what readers may think, the theme of a good obituary is not death, but celebrating lives led to the fullest. The film is interspersed with well-chosen examples of notables such as the man who coached JFK on his TV presentation skills in the famous 1960 televised debate that helped him defeat Nixon, and a venerable aviatrix whose 'advance' obit was first written in 1931, so certain was the newspaper that she would die young. (She outlived their predictions by many decades). In between these lives, we learn about the writing process, which is an appealing mix of 21st-century research and 19th-century-style archive trawling. A niche interest, but worthwhile for those with a fascination for the Times and its work.

Toni Erdmann (dir. Maren Ade, Austria, 2016) :: Embassy Theatre 162 mins :: ★★★★ 

TONI ERDMANN is the fictitious, mischief-making alter ego of Winfried, a semi-retired teacher, who flies to Bucharest to inject some chaos into the life of his work-driven, unhappy adult daughter Iren. Donning a ludicrous wig and fake teeth, he spins increasingly far-fetched stories amongst Iren's high-powered business world circle: devoted to climbing the corporate ladder, she has no friends to speak of. And while viewers might be expecting a heartfelt meeting of souls in which father and daughter reconcile their differences and emerge happier and closer, the film takes great glee in confounding expectations. In allowing its actors great leeway to experiment, the film is seriously long - and a 162 minute runtime is daunting for any film, let alone a comedy. Certainly the lead performances are appealing, particularly as they never veer towards cheap sentimentality or broad farce, but the characters are also often hard to read because they fail to conform to the usual predictable comedic payoffs, instead preferring a more oblique strategy. And if approached with an expectation of conventional logic and comedic structure, the film will probably prove frustrating; if you consider each scene with the expectation that it was included because it's funny for 'x' reason, you'll likely be disappointed. In fact, I should have found this meandering, inscrutable film powerfully irritating, but I developed quite an affection for its wilfully contrary approach, despite not being fully able to explain why. (Check out the trailer here).

Next: Film festival roundup - Part 2

See also:
Movies: Film festival roundup 2015
Movies: Film festival roundup 2014
Movies: Film festival roundup 2013

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