09 August 2016

Film festival roundup - Part 2

Following on from yesterday's Part 1 covering the first half of my film festival movie-going, here's Part 2 covering films 11 to 19.

The Death of Louis XIV (La mort de Louis XIV, dir. Albert Serra, France, 2016) :: Embassy Deluxe 105 mins :: ★★★½

LA MORT DE LOUIS XIV adds to the canon of Sun King films, alongside the recent A LITTLE CHAOS, directed by the late Alan Rickman, who played Louis himself with suitable gravitas. Jean-Pierre Leaud, on the other hand, is here tasked with playing a much diminished royal personage in the last weeks of his life. Confined to his bedchamber in 1715 with a worsening affliction of deadly gangrene, the film offers a faithful recreation of his grim decline, and the doctors and courtiers who surround him in these final days. Despite the life and death stakes, there is comparatively little drama - merely the struggle of loyal medicos out of their depth and valets who try and fail to encourage the king to eat and drink something, anything. While this ensures the film lacks a broad appeal beyond Francophiles and history buffs, it is a valuable curiosity and one that is sumptuously realised, with a strong central performance from Leaud, who is 72 (almost the same age as Louis was) but looks decades older here, recumbent and massively wigged in his regal death bed while the world waits for news with bated breath. A pungent, striking final scene - which I won't spoil - sticks in the memory long after the film and its titular king have departed.

After the Storm (Umi yori mo mada fukaku, dir. Kore-eda Hirokazu, Japan, 2016) :: Penthouse Cinema 117 mins :: ★★★★

Kore-eda Hirokazu has in recent years become one of my favourite directors, thanks to his amazing run of deftly observed, whimsical character studies of modern Japanese family life. I WISH, LIKE FATHER LIKE SON, and OUR LITTLE SISTER were all charming in equal measure, exhibiting great warmth and respect for the relatively ordinary people who populated their tales. This year's offering, AFTER THE STORM, is similarly a gentle, keenly observed window into its characters' lives. Ex-novelist Ryoto, now a part-time private investigator and full-time failed writer, pines for his ex-wife Kyoko, who is seeing a moderately spivvy new fellow, and longs to be a better father to his 12-year-old son Shingo. Ryoto's sprightly but elderly widowed mother Yoshiko would dearly love if Ryoto and Kyoko got back together too, but knows her son is probably too much like her unreliable gambler of a husband, who died not long before. A glowering typhoon strikes Kyushu and everyone is forced to hunker down at grandma's tiny retirement flat for a long night of home truths, potential reconciliation and discussion of the elusive joys of happiness and fulfillment. While the film's premise and staging is perhaps more subtle and less crowd-pleasing than his three previous films, this is still rich material, and the performances of its lead actors are a real pleasure to behold.

Mercenary (Mercenaire, dir. Sacha Wolff, France, 2016) :: Paramount 112 mins :: ★★★½

MERCENAIRE revolves around a fine central performance by young untrained Polynesian actor Toki Pilioko, who flees the brutal realm of his dictatorial father's New Caledonian shack for a club rugby contract in rural France. There the gentle Soane finds he's expected to bulk up on banned steroids (and urinate on cue through a fake penis that's rather the wrong skin tone), act as a team enforcer, and avoid the dual threats of jealous teammates and his crooked compatriot agent. Marred only by a rather trite conclusion, this is solid material illustrating the French Polynesian contribution to French society. If only a similar film existed to laud the crucial Polynesian role in New Zealand - I mean, does SIONE'S WEDDING count? 

Midnight Special (dir. Jeff Nichols, USA 2016) :: Embassy Theatre 111 mins :: ★★½

Up-and-coming director Jeff Nichols' MIDNIGHT SPECIAL is a somewhat frustrating earth-bound sci-fi thriller with a solid and watchable cast (Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver). It manages to maintain the premise of a middling low-budget Spielberg homage for much of its nearly two-hour length, and as such will make for a dependable if uninspiring rental watch. But on the big screen its flaws emerge more strikingly - particularly in terms of pacing and payoffs, which are vital for a successful thriller. When working with a low budget, like Gareth Edwards' 2010 ultra-cheapie MONSTERS, it's vital to string the audience along and keep them engrossed and surprised. MIDNIGHT SPECIAL provides little drama and almost no surprises until its 'big reveal' near the end, which although commendably realised, still ultimately feels like a slim reward after the mechanical join-the-dots of the plot. For a more confident emulation of the '70s-'80s formula see JJ Abrams' SUPER 8 from 2011.

Francofonia (dir. Aleksandr Sokurov, France, 2015) :: Paramount 87 mins :: ★★★½

Aleksandr Sokurov's RUSSIAN ARK (2002) is still one of the most striking and daring examples of modern filmmaking, with its bravura hour-and-a-half single-shot homage to the Hermitage in St Petersburg. Now turning his focus to foreign soil, in FRANCOFONIA Sokurov romanticises another museum and city he loves: the Louvre and Paris. While plenty of sumptuous art is displayed, this is not a conventional museum biopic, nor is it a behind-the-scenes documentary like NATIONAL GALLERY (2014). Rather, it melds the dramatisation of RUSSIAN ARK or Vienna's Kunstmuseum in MUSEUM HOURS (2012) with personal musings on the Louvre's role in French history. The dramatisations see the camera flirting with a flighty Marianne intoning 'liberte, egalite, fraternite' as she wafts amongst the sculptures, or verbal fencing with an egotistical Bonaparte as he reminds the viewer that so much of the art on display is the legacy of his martial pillage across Europe. Most time is devoted to recreating encounters between Count Metternich, the German entrusted with securing French treasures during the Occupation, and Louvre curator M. Jaujard, who worked with Metternich to safeguard France's heritage from the rapacious German high command. FRANCOFONIA is a distinctly personal view and may be frustrating for those expecting a straightforward documentary, but its idiosyncratic approach offers some gems for the persistent viewer. (See also: DIPLOMACY (2014), a French-German coproduction depicting the delicate negotiations between a Swedish diplomat and the German general ordered by Hitler to destroy Paris before its liberation)

Chimes at Midnight (dir. Orson Welles, Spain, 1966) :: Embassy Theatre 116 mins :: ★★★

Orson Welles had to fight for years to film his dream role as Shakespeare's Sir John Falstaff, the fat, vain and cowardly knight. In the end it took Spanish and Swiss money and the filming of CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (1966) took place in Spain, with a script assembled around excerpts from five Shakespearean plays. Expecting an ultra-low-budget affair, it was pleasing to see a top-flight supporting cast including John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, and ambitious crowd scenes including superb recreation of the Battle of Shrewsbury with 180 extras, in which the bulbous Falstaff capers around in gigantic armour, cowers in bushes to avoid the danger, and alienates the Prince of Wales by claiming in a bold-faced lie to have killed Henry Percy, when in fact the Prince did the bloody deed himself. So much of the film is devoted to barbed jests at Falstaff's massive girth - which Welles was amply equipped to portray at the time - that at times it feels like a Shakespearean celebrity roast. Welles gives a very fine performance, his almost spherical bulk and gnarled white beard creating a perfect depiction of tragicomic excess. The camerawork is very fine too despite the cheap filmstock, and the only place the budget really shows is in the all-redubbed voice track, which is no major distraction.

Johnny Guitar (dir. Nicholas Ray, USA, 1954) :: Paramount 110 mins :: ★★★½

Written under a pseudonym by the blacklisted Ben Maddow, who also wrote THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, the Joan Crawford-starring JOHNNY GUITAR (1954) is a striking and rare feminist Western in which the menfolk dither and make foolish decisions, but the ultimate rivalry is between two headstrong, forceful women. Bitter Emma Small is convinced haughty saloon proprietress Vienna (Crawford), an outsider, is responsible for all the town's ills, even including the stagecoach robbery that killed her brother. Emma takes every opportunity to whip up mob sentiment to drive Vienna out of town, or even worse. (As the posse is riled into vigilantism and the sheriff displays an utter inability to uphold the law, there are strong parallels to the McCarthy Hollywood communists witch-hunt). No-one reckons on the return of Vienna's old beau, Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), who unsurprisingly is a Man with a Past and with Feelings. The film may be named for Hayden's character but it's Crawford's picture through and through, and it fits more within the territory of the 1950s melodramas of Douglas Sirk than of the umpteen male-led Westerns of that decade. What would now be regarded as over-acting is in full display - it's not subtle, but it's certainly effective as 50-year-old Crawford barks her orders, flashes her steely gaze, and the menfolk clamour to woo her. Throughout you're wondering: most Westerns end with the protagonist and the antagonist facing off in a shootout - but surely Hollywood wouldn't when it's women instead of men? Just you wait and see.

Variety (Variet√©, dir. E.A. Dupont, Germany, 1925) :: Paramount 95 mins :: ★★★½

The 1925 German silent drama VARIETE was always going to be one of the highlights of the festival, because it's received the live score treatment and was accompanied in the Paramount by a 12-piece orchestra. The film itself has been expertly restored, and depicts a tragic love triangle between Boss Huller, his young mistress Berta-Marie, and a talented but amoral acrobat, Artinelli. The social mores of the time dictate that any expression of female sexuality inevitably leads to ruination (see also: THE BLUE ANGEL, PANDORA'S BOX), but while the pixieish flirt Bertha-Marie (Lya de Putti) vamps up a storm it's Emil Jannings as the Boss who gives the film's most powerful performance, running the gamut of silent film emotions. Jannings would be the first Oscar recipient, although there are claims that he was actually only the second most popular actor after Rin Tin Tin. Only a few years later this style of acting would be rendered redundant by the onset of talking pictures, but here he owns the screen. Throughout, the film's portrayal of variety performers including the three star-crossed acrobats, and its gleeful depiction of Weimar-era excess, are fascinating glimpses into a distant cinematic age.

A Touch of Zen (Xia nu, dir. King Hu, Taiwan, 1971) :: The Roxy Cinema 180 mins :: ★★★

XIA NU (Eng: A Touch of Zen) is a sumptuous 1971 masterpiece from Taiwan that, in its restored and untruncated form, stretches out over three hours to make superb use of its characters and setting, thereby inspiring a generation of martial arts films, not to mention the overwhelmingly popular CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON. Lingering over milquetoast scribe Ku, the viewer expects a bumbling comedy to emerge, but when fugitive warrior maiden Yang and her mysterious associates cross his path the film shifts into full Kurosawa mode. A lengthy and hugely entertaining battle scene is followed by an elegant, mystical running duel amidst a bamboo forest, which in turn takes a swerve into the metaphysical with the arrival of a troupe of Buddhist monks who Shall Not Be Trifled With. Concentrating both on the physical prowess of the legendary combatants and the balletic beauty of the martial arts, the film is justly regarded as a classic of Asian cinema.

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