This year's film festival starts tomorrow, so I really should get around to posting my comments on the films I saw during the 2014 film festival. These comments were all originally posted on Facebook within a couple of days of seeing each film, so they reflect my initial thoughts and responses while each film was still fresh in my mind. They were also all written in something of a rush, so are not the most eloquent pieces of writing. Looking at the list of films, it's astonishing how so many of these screenings feel like they took place just a couple of months ago, while there are other films that feel like they occurred years and years ago.
[Comments on 29 films follow after the jump]
The Skeleton Twins
First film of the festival was a good, if somewhat generic, example of the typical indie comedy-drama. The film stars Kristen Wiig as a woman about to commit suicide when she hears that her gay brother, played by Bill Hader, has just tried to kill himself. So she decides to invite him to stay with her and her husband, even though the two siblings haven’t spoken in ten years. So it’s a standard indie setup – two troubled people are forced together and wind up helping each other through their problems.
What makes the film worth watching are the lead performances by Hader and Wiig. The two of them started on Saturday Night Live at the same time in 2005, and worked together on that show for seven years, and that long-term connection aids the film because they’re able to bring these years of real-world relationship to the characters. They feel like they have gone through things, like they have their own way of speaking to each other and making each other laugh, and like they know how to push each other’s buttons when they’re angry at each other. If anything, they’re possibly too close – I started to wonder why they hadn’t spoken to each other for ten years, and while the eventual explanation made complete sense, it then made me wonder whether the two had fallen too easily into that comfortable relationship and whether there should have been more tension in the earlier scenes. But is that a fault of the acting, or are the actors just doing what's on the page and the fault is with the writing or directing?
But the performances are on the whole very strong. There’s a basic principle that a serious actor will often struggle to be funny, but if you’re able to achieve as a comedic actor, you’ve generally got the ability to do great dramatic work, and both Wiig and Hader demonstrate the truth of that principle. While they are often very funny in the film (the film bought a lot of goodwill early in the film with a realistic but laugh-out-loud exchange about the ending of Marley and Me), there are points in the film where they reach a level of emotional rawness that I was impressed with. I was similarly impressed by Luke Wilson, as Wiig’s husband –the role calls for a realistically-likably-goofy performance, and Wilson throws himself into the role with an enthusiasm that I’ve seldom seen from him.
Finally, while the script was somewhat generic, I did like that it treated us like adults able to work out what was happening. It didn’t feel the need to give us every detail of the backstory, leaving large parts only barely sketched in, and even where the film does provide its audience with key information (such as the reason for the estrangement), it knows to hold on to that information until it can achieve the most emotional impact. It may seem like a strange thing to praise, but in the modern cinematic world so many movies seem to feel the need to explain every single piece of character information as soon as possible for fear of losing the audience, so it was nice to be at a film where the filmmaker’s approach was to tell us what we need to know and then leave us to figure out the rest.
On the whole, an enjoyable film experience, but I am hoping for much more from the festival.
I went into the film expecting a documentary about Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio behind films like My Neighbour Totoro, Spirited Away, and Grave of the Fireflies. In reality, it’s more of a documentary about Hayao Miyazaki. And that’s entirely understandable – Miyazaki is a great artist, and arguably one of the most important figures in Japanese animation. But it feels like it’s just leaving too much unsaid or out of the film. Isao Takahata, who co-founded Ghibli with Miyazaki, is barely in the film, although he’s talked about quite a lot, usually in the context of how his newest film is once again running over time and over budget – Miyazaki often says that he thinks Takahata doesn’t want to finish his films (it’s worth noting that Takahata’s film, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, has actually been finished and also screened at the festival). Takahata’s absence is possibly understandable (he does work at an entirely different campus from Miyazaki), but it would have been nice to get more insight into his working process, and his view of the evidently troubled relationship between the studio’s two key figures. Instead, the film is focused on the process of making Miyazaki’s final film, the flawed The Wind Rises, ending with the announcement of Miyazaki’s retirement.
The film often feels like a hagiography of Miyazaki. (There’s even a moment where they go to some convention, and find someone cosplaying as Miyazaki – he’s that much of a public hero.) And I’m not wanting to get some hard-hitting expose of the man, but it does feel somewhat whitewashed. There’s a moment in the film that hints at something more uncomfortable – one artist comments that if you’ve got anything in yourself that you want to protect, working for Ghibli may not be for you – but that’s quickly put aside. It’s as though the filmmaker didn’t want to follow any threads that are left for her. There’s even a comment that Miyazaki makes where he notes that his retirement announcement started with the words “I intend to work for another ten years” which, given that The Wind Rises is supposed to be his last film, left me wanting more explanation, but none is given. It’s just another thread left unexplored.
It was a good film. The insights into all stages of the animation process were enjoyable, and as a celebration of animation as an art, it’s genuine in its enthusiasm – there’s a wonderful moment towards the end where Miyazaki looks out the window and describes how animation can find wonder and amazement in even the most humdrum of worlds. But it felt very much like a corporate PR exercise, and I would have liked something a bit more substantial.
I don’t really know a lot about Dune. I’ve never read the book, and I only ever saw the film once, which was awful, and incomprehensible in a different way to the way most David Lynch films are incomprehensible. But there is this one legendary film version of Dune, a version that was never made but that arguably has influenced popular culture immeasurably. In the mid-1970s, avant-garde Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky wanted to make an incredible film, an important film, a sacred film, a consciousness-altering film, a film that would change the minds of all the youth of the world. His cast would have included Mick Jagger, Orson Welles, and Salvador Dali. He would have had different bands, bands like Pink Floyd, provide the music for different worlds. Major figures in science fiction design (including HR Giger, who later designed the Xenomorph for Alien) did some incredible production design work. It would have been a massive spectacle like I don’t think we’ve seen, even these days. Realistically it probably could never have been achieved in the 70s. But still, what a film it might have been. All of the art work and the storyboards for the entire film were bound together, and then Jodorowsky tried to convince a movie studio to fund the project. No-one did. And like that, Jodorowsky’s Dune was never made.
The documentary is an intriguing look at this project, simultaneously telling the story of the process of putting the project together and trying to capture what the eventual film might have been. It glories in the what-if, tries to visualise and capture what some sequences might have looked like, marvels at the incredible artwork produced for the film. It’s not a telling of the film – I have no idea how all the pieces we’re shown would have fit together – but it’s a glimpse into this project. And at the centre of the film is Jodorowsky, this insane figure whose enthusiasm and excitement for what might have been is infectious and exciting. And they trace a clear and convincing line from Jodorowsky’s project through to modern-day science fiction – the would-be special effects artist on Dune went on to write Alien and brought many of the key personnel onto that film; without Alien, you don’t get Blade Runner, and from there it’s a straight line to The Matrix and modern science fiction. The film possibly stretches a little too much when it reaches for connections between Dune and moments in other films (how likely is it that Spielberg was referencing the Dune storyboards when he shot the wrath of God climax of Raiders?), but it’s interesting to ponder how different the cinematic world might have been without this one project.
I don’t know whether Jodorowsky’s Dune would have actually been a good film – it just seems too bonkers. I certainly doubt that, had it been made, it would have replaced Star Wars as the biggest science fiction film ever (as someone suggests) – I don’t think a film like the one Jodorowsky was making would have had the same mass appeal as Star Wars. But it could have been one of the great cult movies of all time, and I want to have seen it. Towards the end, Jodorowsky himself notes that it could be made today, that modern-day animation could be perfect for making the film, and he would be happy for someone to make it. Please, someone, make that happen. Make that happen now.
My first great film of this year’s festival. Scarlett Johansson stars as an alien who drives around Scotland in a van. She picks up young men, brings them back to her house, where they remove their clothes, and then… well, it’s hard to describe, but there’s blackness, and a void, and the ground turns to liquid, and a red light in the distance, and bodies of skin with no innards, and what the hell is this? The film is based on a novel, and my guess is that the novel actually has a plot and actually explains what’s going on. The film certainly doesn’t; it’s deliberately and wilfully oblique, as though the director took the events or general storyline of the novel, but stripped it of all detail, of all explanation. There’s never any infodump moment, never any moment where we’re forced to focus on the plot mechanics (in fact, I’m not entirely sure whether the film even establishes that she is an alien before the final scene, or whether I just understood that to be the case because I knew the premise of the movie going in). We can interpret answers to some questions – I have my ideas of what they do with the men, or who the motorcyclists are – but there are a lot of questions I don’t begin to have an answer to, and even where I have my own answer to a question, I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone in the audience has a different interpretation.
The thing is, without those plot details, we’re left with something that almost a tone poem, just a series of scenes with nothing to focus on but the emotional journey of the character. Which is remarkable. Johansson is the film, and it’s a brutally-raw performance. In the first half, the character is a shell of a person, becoming who she needs to be to achieve the ends necessary, and then the film pivots, and we start to glimpse the real character. It’s quite clearly exploring the idea of female exploitation – she is a character whose looks as an attractive woman exist not as part of her, but for the purpose of bringing pleasure to men around her, so that she can lure them back in order to further the goals of the other aliens, the only representative of which is a male. When the film turns and we start to see who she is outside of this role that is imposed on her, it becomes this heartbreaking character piece of this person trying to find a place in a world from which she is entirely separated.
I feel like I need to acknowledge the music in the film, which is incredible, although not something I would ever want to listen to again. It’s deliberately designed to set the viewer on edge, it feels alien and threatening. There’s this one piece that sounds like it is played with violin harmonics that accompanies some of the more predatory sequences that just preys on the viewer’s emotions – by the end, it almost felt like I had been through the Ludovico technique, and the merest sound of that theme creates an instinctive recoil. (Indeed, I went to look at the movie’s trailer, and when that particular piece of music plays over the film title, it seriously made me feel sick, such was the strength of the association I had with that music.)
I feel like I need to acknowledge the music in the film, which is incredible, although not something I would ever want to listen to again. It’s deliberately designed to set the viewer on edge, it feels alien and threatening. There’s this one piece that sounds like it is played with violin harmonics that accompanies some of the more predatory sequences that just preys on the viewer’s emotions – by the end, it almost felt like I had been through the Ludovico technique, and the merest sound of that theme creates an instinctive recoil. (Indeed, I went to look at the movie’s trailer, and when that particular piece of music plays over the film title, it seriously made me feel sick, such was the strength of the association I had with that music.)
I feel like I’ve got a lot to say about the film, but I either don’t know what to say or how to say it – and I know there’s a lot in the film that I haven’t yet worked out are in there. I feel like this is a film that is just going to sit with me, that I’ll think about over the coming weeks and months. Walking out of the film, I wasn’t even sure if I liked it, but mulling it over overnight, I think I love it, and I expect my response to it may grow even stronger over time. I’m excited to revisit the film outside of the context of the festival, where I can have time to reflect on it without the pressure of moving on to the next film. It’s not a film for most people, but I really feel like I connected to it. And that’s what you want in a great film.
An entertaining black-comedy thriller from Norway, the film was certainly a lot of fun, but it sadly undercut itself a bit too much,. The film revolves around pillar of the community Stellan Skarsgard, whose son dies one night, seemingly of an overdose. But Skarsgard insists his son was not a drug addict, and when he discovers that his son was murdered, he starts hunting down the people who killed his son, killing them, and working its way up the chain. But his actions are misinterpreted as being the first shots in a turf war between rival drug organisations, and pretty soon the bodies are piling up faster than they can be tracked.
Skarsgard’s performance is excellent, as one might expect. He’s called on to do a lot, as what emotional weight the film has is carried by him. He’s the embarrassed citizen of the year, the grieving father, the pained husband, the man with a gun in his mouth, the figure of vengeance, even the compassionate kidnapper. The problem is that the film around him doesn’t quite work tonally. It’s very funny, frequently laugh-out-loud, but there’s something about the way it moves between the tones that doesn’t quite work. Perhaps it’s in the way the main bad guy is presented to the audience. It’s hard to take a bakery magnate seriously as a villain, especially when we’re constantly seeing him belittled by his ex-wife and when even the furniture in his house is so absurd that it elicits laughter on first sight. After we’ve laughed at his chairs moulded into the shape of a face, or at his responding to his ex-wife accusing him of letting his son eat Froot Loops with the cry “But I’m vegan!”, it’s hard to be threatened by the man no matter how many people he kills. The festival programme compares the film to Fargo, but while Fargo was a very funny film, it never allowed that humour to undercut the genuine threat that the villains presented. Here, almost everyone who isn’t Skarsgard is a figure of fun to some degree or other, and that removes much of the thrill from this supposed thriller. Add to that the absurd ease with which Skarsgard turns from everyman into a skilled killer, and it becomes impossible to take the film seriously.
Which is not to say I didn’t enjoy the film. It was a fun experience, but that’s about all. Walking away from the film, the main thing I remember is how every time someone died a black screen would appear with the name of the dead person (along with a symbol reflecting the person’s religious background), and how every time one of these screen would appear, the audience would laugh, and I would laugh with them, although I cannot articulate exactly why it was so funny. Maybe it was funny because of the way the accelerating frequency of these screens highlighted the mounting body toll. Whatever the reason, making a joke about the number of bodies being left in your wake may work in a comedy, but it’s not the way to make a successful thriller. Worth seeing for a laugh, but not a film that will stay with you.
My two films on Sunday made an interesting comparison. Both films, In Order of Disappearance and Black Coal, Thin Ice were thrillers taking place in a frozen location. But where In Order of Disappearance lessened the impact of its thriller elements through black comedy, Black Coal, Thin Ice played absolutely straight with the material. And was a lot more successful for it.
In 1999, a dozen different body parts are found in coal plants spread across the Heilongjiang province in China. They identify the victim, and discover the only people who could have distributed the body across such a wide area so quickly. But when the police come to arrest the killers, a chaotic shoot-out occurs that leaves nearly everyone dead. Five years later, the lead detective (who was the one person to survive the shoot-out) is disgraced, a drunk working as a security guard. But when another body is found divided in coal plants across the province, he decides to begin investigating – especially when he realises the wife of the first victim was seeing the new victim, and that a third person connected with her has also died under mysterious circumstances.
It’s a really impressive film. Writer/director Diao Yinan has a strong grasp on the material, with careful plotting that twists and turns before arriving at an end position of logical simplicity, and complex characters who challenge our sympathies. The investigator who is attracted to the main suspect is absurdly clichéd at this point, but such care is taken in constructing the situation that the development makes sense and doesn’t damage the picture. And the director accumulates a strong cast to support the material. Liao Fan, as the central hero, is at times utterly unlikable, but never loses relatability. Meanwhile, Gwei Lun Mei, as the chief suspect, is hardly the prototypical femme fatale – she seems constantly on the verge of tears, barely able to cope with the events that have captured her. But the story takes her in wildly varying directions, and she always navigates those developments as a consistent character.
I also quite liked the ordinariness of the environment. It can be very easy for thrillers to be isolated from the world that we live in – perhaps all the characters are low-level street thugs, or (as with a film like In Order of Disappearance) perhaps they’re all major business-leaders and recognised public figures, or there’s something else that separates the audience from the world of the film. But here the characters are all coal workers, security guards, drycleaners, people who we would know, who we would interact with every day. And I liked the everyday mundane world that this film existed in. The corner drycleaners were tiny and cramped, with every inch of space utilised; the houses are basic and poky (a climactic scene sees a team of about five people trying to squeeze their way into a kitchen barely able to accommodate them). There’s a sense that this story takes place somewhere that I can recognise with people who I could see around me, and in some ways the film becomes more suspenseful as a result.
It’s not perfect – while there’s nothing of significance left unresolved, the film does end in the middle of a moment of chaos that doesn’t appear to be connected to anything, except perhaps by coincidence. I’m not quite sure I get what the purpose of that ending was (and judging by the conversations of those around me such uncertainty seemed widespread). But that’s a minor issue, and a choice that might make more sense on reflection. Regardless, a thoroughly enjoyable film.
This will be one of the highlights of the festival for me. The film itself couldn’t be more basic – at the start of the film, we see Tom Hardy, as the titular Ivan Locke, get into his car and starts driving. Locke is a rare type of movie character – someone who is very straight-up, someone who always does the right thing, and who takes pride in being a good man. A while ago, he made a mistake, and now he’s driving to London to try to fix that mistake and do the right thing. The problem is, doing “the right thing” means taking the day off work on the only day where he cannot be away, and doing “the right thing” also means breaking a promise to his family. So he starts making calls, trying to keep on top of the work situation and making sure that everything goes well tomorrow, trying to smooth things out with his family, trying to manage the mistake, all the while trying to prove to his father (who he keeps imagining in the back seat) that he’s a better man than the father ever was.
I am not exaggerating when I say that, beyond a few workmen that the car drives past, Tom Hardy is the only human being seen in the film. The camera stays with him inside the car for the entire film. Every interaction with anyone else is by telephone. Which imposes an almost impossible acting burden on the man, especially when you remember that he’s also spending the entire movie driving, which restricts the performance even more. Fortunately Tom Hardy, who has emerged as one of the most impressive acting talents of recent years, is up to the task. His every acting choice clearly communicates who this man is. He’s someone who is passionate and who cares about getting every detail right, and it’s clear very early on just how uncharacteristic it is for him to have allowed this situation to have even occurred. And what’s great about this performance is the fact that as every aspect of his life is collapsing around him, we see who the man is through the way he responds and addresses these crises, the way he’s constantly trying to suppress his natural responses and just focus on fighting the fires as they emerge, one after another. It’s a remarkable performance, and Hardy seems to relish the acting challenge.
I particularly liked the way they presented his job. I have a job that I love, where I could sit and talk with excitement for hours about every detail of the situations I’ve dealt with. To most people, there would be few things less interesting than hearing me discuss my job; most people drift off when I begin to explain what my job even is. In the film, Locke works in construction, and is responsible for preparing the pouring of concrete for the foundation. And he talks about his job with a passion that I responded to. I may not understand what the difference between C6 and C5 concrete is, I don’t know what a rebar is or why they needed to fix them at the last moment, but because of the way he talked about those things, I cared. When he tried to articulate the importance of “the pour” by describing the spectacular 55 storey building that will be built on this foundation, and how you need to get the pouring of the concrete right in order for the building to stand, I understood and believed his passion for the job. There were points where he tries to get a co-worker to do something by appealing “Do it for the concrete”. Outside of the film, that would seem an absurd line, but it works because we understand how passionate he is for the work he does, indeed how passionate he is about concrete, and how much importance he places on the job being done well.
The film is well-made by writer-director Steven Knight. It’s a phenomenal screenplay, and in many ways as director he set himself just as challenging a task as he did for Tom Hardy. And he does a good job trying to find every variation of a “man driving a car” shot that he could. (He particularly seems to enjoy playing with light reflections.) And he accumulates an impressive cast for the people on the other end of the phone – I recognised the voice of the wonderful Olivia Colman (who it seems is near-unavoidable these days), and was surprised to realise the voice cast also featured people like Andrew Scott and Ruth Wilson, putting in good work. But the film comes down to one brilliant performance by Tom Hardy. And because of the strength of that performance, the film succeeds better than anyone could have anticipated.
I was looking forward to The Rover. I’d really liked David Michod’s previous film, Animal Kingdom, and was interested to see what he would do next. Sadly, I really did not care for this film. Rather strangely, the criticisms I would level at The Rover are mostly elements I’ve praised about an earlier film in the festival, the brilliant Under the Skin. It’s a good reminder that movies are a kind of alchemy – you get the right elements and it works perfectly, but very similar elements in the wrong context can be dire.
The Rover takes place in Australia, “ten years after the collapse”, as an opening title card tells us. In a post-apocalyptic world, Guy Pierce is a man with a car. But then that car is stolen, and he wants that car back. So he takes a truck and pursues them, eventually coming across Robert Pattinson, playing a possibly-mentally-challenged young man who is the brother of one of the people who stole the car. So they go on a long road trip, killing a lot of people (almost always with a quick loud shot to the head), all in pursuit of the car.
This sets up a number of questions. Most significantly, what was “the collapse”? I do not know – the film doesn’t really provide a lot of detail about it. Was the collapse isolated or worldwide? I’m unsure – there’s a big point made that Australian currency isn’t accepted and only US Dollars will do, which at least suggests a local collapse with a still-functioning US economy (since without that any currency is just paper); but if it is just a local event, I’m unsure why the American characters would have chosen to go to a collapsed Australia. What did bring those Americans to Australia? No idea. There are armed forces who drive around but don’t seem to keep the peace in any way, except when they suddenly do arrest people and send them off to Sydney to justify being paid. Who are they? Who is paying them? What is their role? No idea. Here’s the thing – Under the Skin left a lot of questions unanswered, but I felt like had enough pieces to develop my own understanding of the important plot points, and where we had no information, the question wasn’t essential to understanding the world. Here, the answers to my questions were required to comprehend how this particular world functioned and why things were how they were. That is a key difference. I also felt that the director of Under the Skin had a clear vision and a knowledge of what he was trying to say with the film, even if it wasn’t always fully explained. By contrast, I felt that Michod’s vision for the film was “Mad Max was cool. Let’s do that.” That’s not a strong basis for a film.
And there’s the characters. The central character in Under the Skin was an alien being whose entire purpose was to exist as a cypher, but over the film she grew and changed, so I felt like I came to understand her and have sympathy for her. The lead character in The Rover exists to be a void – he never grows or changes, and other than delivering a brief monologue at one point about the death of his wife (which if anything alienates him from the audience even more), we know nothing about him until the final scene (which provides a laughable explanation for why it’s so important to him to get that particular car), by which point we don’t care about the character at all. The other characters weren’t much better – Robert Pattinson’s character is just wearying to spend time with, and everyone else was just a bland stereotype.
And the problem with a film that lacks interesting characters is that, if you just sit and watch those characters, it fails to have any weight. Under the Skin would have these long shots that would play out as we would sit with the alien waiting, and it was interesting because the film had established a great deal of suspense in its setup and we were interested in how this character would react. But in The Rover, because the characters are completely empty, when Michod would sit with the shot and watch the characters for long periods of time, there’s no suspense of “what is this person thinking?” or “what will happen next?” I just wanted to yell “GET ON WITH IT!” Michod also seems to really love the slow-scene-followed-by-sudden-violence trick, and so tries to use his long quiet shots to lead up to one of these sudden shocking moments. And the first time he has a scene play out slowly and in near silence, interrupted by an explosive gunshot to the head, it’s rather startling and effective. But he must pull that trick a dozen times, to increasingly diminishing returns.
Even the music was annoying. Under the Skin’s music was often atonal and unpleasant to listen to, but it set a very specific tone that was incredibly effective and that elicited a strong reaction in the audience. The music of The Rover jumped wildly in styles, almost as though the film were being scored by five different people with drastically varying approaches, at times wildly unstructured percussion, at other times minimalist atonal music, or maybe even rather melodic themes at some points, without an obvious logic for the scoring approach changing within the film. It was just annoying and bothersome without achieving anything in the approach.
The simple fact is, the film annoyed me. It started annoying me very early on, and it never stopped annoying me. Which, for a film I was looking forward to and a filmmaker who had shown promise in the past, is disappointing.
I was a bit unsure of my reaction to this film, which I didn’t really care too much for. The thing is, I personally tend towards the right half of the political spectrum, and so wasn’t sure whether my response to the film was a genuine response to the film in front of me, or whether I was just irritated at the way Ken Loach (who is, admittedly, famously left-wing) was holding up an avowed communist as a hero of freedom of all things. Fortunately I talked to a friend after the film, someone who tends more to the left side, and while he liked the film slightly more than me, we completely agreed about the problems with the film. So it’s not just me.
The film tells the true story of James Gralton, who came under attack from the religious and political authorities in Ireland in the 1930s after opening a small-town hall where people could come to dance, learn, and hold discussions. And it’s a potentially interesting story – certainly I was surprised how significant the story of this one rural hall seemed to become in the country – but the story as it was scripted seemed somewhat dull and clichéd. There are numerous scenes that just play out like any other scenes we’ve seen a million times. There’s the early scene, just after Jimmy returns from the US, where they run across the youths of the village who just start pleading with Jimmy to open his long-closed hall. There’s the priest, ranting and railing against the sins of the flesh that are being indulged at the hall. There’s the person whose arrival at the hall causes everyone to go silent long before they really know that there’s anything about that person to justify going silent. There’s the awful final scene that I swear I thought would end with cries of “Oh Captain, my Captain”, and that does ends with a black-and-white freeze-frame of all the youths affected by Jimmy’s hall.
Characters are also annoying thin. There’s one young priest, played by Andrew Scott, who appears in only a couple of scenes, who is interesting – he’s someone who is devout and devoted to the church, but who also feels conflicted because he sees that they’re doing more harm than good in attacking the hall. He’s probably the only three-dimensional character in the film. Everyone else is either a good guy, and thus angelic and pure of motive, or they’re an antagonist and someone who wants to suppress and control people’s freedom. Most annoyingly, they treated the head priest, the main opponent to the hall’s operation, as a completely one-dimensional ranting and raving villain. What’s disappointing is that you could easily tweak the character’s motivations so that the character is understandable and sympathetic, even while the character’s actions are completely unchanged. But that would lead to a level of moral complexity that this film is not interested in.
But then, perhaps it’s a good thing that the characters are so thin, since most of the people on-screen (with the exception of the few main characters) seemed to be non-actors, incapable of delivering a line without it seeming like them parroting something someone else told them to say. For me, the worst offender was the woman who played the mother, seeming distractingly blank-faced and surprisingly emotionless for someone who hasn’t seen her son in ten years.
It’s not all bad. The scenes of the characters dancing, be it a folk-dance or moving to the latest jazz record, were fun and joyful. And the cinematography beautifully captured this simple rural setting. But for the most part, I just was not able to engage with the film. And if you don’t care about the film, that’s not a good sign.
You may have heard the story of the Japanese girl who froze to death in Minnesota a dozen years ago, all because she believed the film Fargo was true and she’d wanted to find the case of money that is lost at the end of the film. It was widely reported at the time. It seems it’s not a true story – there was a Japanese girl, but she had deliberately decided to commit suicide after a relationship with a man from the area ended, and the Fargo connection was a misunderstanding from people trying to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak English. The intriguing thing about Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is that it’s not based on the actual story; it’s based on the legend. What if it were true? Who, then, would this character be? (In a nice touch, the film opens with a worn VHS tape image of the opening “This is a true story” claim from Fargo, particularly since this film is exactly as true a story as Fargo was.)
Kumiko is not a happy person. She’s 29, and still working in a job that most women leave by the age of 25 to get married. She’s unhappy, evades her mother’s calls, and tries to avoid any social interaction at all (at one point literally running away from meeting someone over coffee). The one thing she has is her VHS tape of Fargo, worn to the point of being unwatchable, which she scours for clues in the certainty that she can figure out where the case of money is hidden. Then she has an opportunity handed over to her to travel to the States. Finally, this is her chance to find this money.
It’s an incredibly moving film (even my eyes were starting to mist by the end) that was an interesting portrait of – is mental illness too strong? Maybe it is, but there’s definitely something not right about her, if only because she can’t or won’t understand that Fargo is a fictional film, and that even if it were based on a true story, the film itself is unlikely to offer any clues to finding any money. Rinko Kikuchi gives a very sympathetic performance, as a character who never really feels like she has a place. The society around her is very regimented and very clear about the roles that people must undertake, and so there’s a real sense that Kumiko, as someone who (whether due to mental illness, her own choices, or something else) doesn’t fit with society’s expectations, and is therefore increasingly pushed outside, into a place where she has nowhere to go but into this fantasy. And once she finds herself in Minnesota, with barely any ability to communicate, she’s even more isolated (despite the number of people willing to help her out) and is forced to withdraw into her fantasy.
I was rather worried the closer the film gets to its end point. This is, after all, a film about someone freezing to death, and by the end I cared so much for Kumiko that I don’t know if I could bear the emotional weight that comes with watching this character die. And then the end came, and it was great. It was perfect. It hit the key emotional points, and was certainly heartbreaking, but it also managed to cap this story as the satisfying end of a journey. I don’t know how to put into words how much I loved the final scene. But the power of that final scene only works because of the extraordinary film that came before it. A wonderful film.
I skipped my film on day 7 – while I was interested in seeing The Green Prince, I was feeling decidedly unwell as I was waiting for the film to start, so decided to leave and go home. I see the film has now been released on DVD, so I must seek it out.
My knowledge of World War Two history is fairly limited, and most of my knowledge has been acquired through movies. So for instance, I didn’t know that in the last days of the German occupation of France Hitler had planned to have France destroyed, blowing a number of bridges, using the rubble to completely flood the city, and then exploding a number of landmarks for good measure. Diplomacy tells the story of how Paris wasn’t destroyed. Holed up in a hotel room in Paris, General von Choltitz discusses the destruction plan with his underlings and sends them off to prepare. But then the Swedish consul Raoul Nordling comes to visit, and appeal for von Choltitz to ignore Hitler’s orders, and leave this great city standing.
The film is based on a play, which is completely evident in the film. A token effort is made to open the film up, with the odd cutaway to the location where the preparations or the bombing are being made, but a good 80 percent of the film focuses on the two lead actors in a room, having a passionate discussion, trying to win each other over. And the two leads are very good. As Nordling, Andre Dussollier exudes a passion for the world that he is trying to save, and while we as the audience can see his desperation, knowing the consequences should he fail to make his case, he hides that behind a soft and unthreatening demeanour. But it’s Niels Arestrup as von Choltitz who completely won me over. He’s a man who is utterly broken, who knows the end is coming, who wants to do the right thing and not destroy the city, but who feels trapped and in a position where he has no choice but to do this terrible thing, and who as a result finds himself looking to Nordling to offer a way out of this intractable position.
Obviously there’s very little suspense to the film, since we all know the outcome, so the key thing about the film’s success was how enjoyable it was watching the ebb and flow of the argument. I don’t know how much of the film is accurate to the actual talks held between the two in actuality and how much is speculation, but it’s certainly engaging drama. Admittedly, there was one point about midway through the film where I felt they were running out of steam, and were just hitting points that had already been hit several times already, but the filmmakers were evidently also aware of this, since within a few minutes of my thinking that, they started to progress the film and move it towards its very satisfying resolution. Not one of the absolute best of the festival, but it’s good, and a fine example of the type of film I go to the festival hoping for.
A comedy based on the novel by Dostoyevsky, The Double takes place in a nightmarish dystopia. A timid young man named Simon, who works in data analysis and who pines in silence for the copier girl, finds that his new co-worker is his cocky and confident doppelganger. The double very quickly starts to take over Simon’s life, which causes him to have a nervous breakdown as he tries to reclaim his life.
Talking to a friend after the film, I was trying to articulate exactly why, even though I completely enjoyed the film, there was something in it that didn’t quite work for me. Eventually, my friend interrupted me and said the word I’d been reluctant to say: “Gilliam.” I’d been resistant to making that comparison because I’d heard that director Richard Ayoade had expressed displeasure when people made that reference, perhaps feeling that people were accusing him of ripping off Terry Gilliam. But the thing is, the comparison to Brazil, one of my favourite movies, is utterly unavoidable. Now, I don’t think Ayoade is consciously stealing from Gilliam, but the world of The Double is basically the world of Brazil but without ducts. It’s all poky corners, cramped multi-storey apartment blocks, offices that consist of long thin corridors, people walking while talking very quickly, computers with weird old-timey screens, weird retro TV shows and adverts, washed over with a grey colour scheme. Ayoade’s problem is that he’s making a low-budget movie that takes place in a dystopic nightmare world, and Gilliam’s work has become such a touchstone for what the world is like that anything even remotely close to that environment will feel like an exercise in making a Gilliam-esque film.
Now, that said, it’s not a bad film. I’ve loved his work as an actor on The IT Crowd, and he’s a fine comedic actor with a sharp sense of comic timing. And he brings that timing to this film. It’s genuinely frequently laugh-out-loud funny. I was utterly entertained by the movie. And Ayoade has assembled a strong cast. Following his work on The Social Network, we’ve lost track of how genuinely funny Eisenberg was in earlier films like Zombieland, and in this film he does a good job delineating the two characters, even when they’re identical down to the clothes they wear, and both characters elicit strong laughs. It was also a nice surprise to see the great Wallace Shawn with a substantial and very funny role as Simon’s increasingly irritable manager, who is completely blind to the machinations of the double. I was disappointed to find that the wonderful Mia Wasikowska was given a nothing role –while she brings a lot of charm to the role, she exists primarily to be the object of the lead’s affection, and Wasikowska is a much better actress than that role allows her to be.
But as entertaining as the film is, the problem is, when I think of The Double, I immediately start thinking of Brazil. And Brazil is a great movie, and so this movie can’t help but be diminished by the inevitable comparison. I was still entertained by the film, it’s definitely worth watching, and I’m still looking forward to see Ayoade’s next film. But it was a minor disappointment.
In 1929, a German doctor and his lover left civilisation for an uninhabited island in the Galapagos, looking for peace and solitude and somewhere to develop their philosophical opinions. Shortly after, another family also turned up to the island. And then a French Baroness of all people moved to the island, with her two lovers in tow, taking possession of everything on the island, and discussing her plans to build an exotic hotel resort. Meanwhile, a research vessel regularly visited the island, and the captain wanted to make a movie starring the Baroness as a piratess. Within the space of about five years this island that was once intended to be a haven and escape from society winds up being consumed by jealousy, anger, resentment, sex, murder – but all between the dozen or so people on the island.
It’s a fascinating story, and a great example of the opportunity that the documentary form offers to find interesting stories that may have been forgotten, and then present it to the audience in (what is hopefully) as truthful a form as possible. One of the key elements of this story is that there are certain vital plotpoints (particularly whenever anyone dies) where there is serious ambiguity over what did or did not happen, and the documentary format offers an ideal means for presenting the varying views of the characters. Unless you take the Rashomon approach, a narrative film would need to take a firm position, for instance, on whether such and such a person’s death was murder, and that position would inevitably reflect the viewpoint of the filmmaker; but by presenting this story through the words of the various participants, the filmmakers are better able to separate their viewpoint from the film and more easily reflect the ambiguities and mysteries that surround the story.
One of the challenges with making a documentary that takes place in an earlier era is that there’s usually little visual material (other than photographs) to put on screen, and the key players are seldom alive to tell their story. However, the filmmakers, Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller, were extremely fortunate in making the film, because there’s a surprising amount of home movies from the time, and a massive amount of written material from the participants about the events (including multiple books), as well as the children of many of the key players who are also able to offer their own memories and the stories as they were passed down to them.
Ultimately, a film of this type comes down to the quality of the story. This is a fascinating and exciting story, with unexpected twists and turns; it’s filled with a cast of weird eccentric characters, since those are the type of people who would leave society to live on a rock; and the filmmakers do a fine job in telling the story, capturing a sense of this calm and peaceful world slowly being invaded, communicating how this situation spiralled out of control. A thoroughly entertaining film.
Earlier this year, I saw The Wind Rises, the final film from Hayao Miyazaki, and I found that film to be good but flawed; a film that has gained greater weight than it perhaps deserves because of Miyazaki’s announced retirement than because of the merits of the film. Princess Kaguya is the new film from Studio Ghibli’s co-founder Isao Takahata, and while he hasn’t announced his retirement, it’s impossible to not speculate that this could be his final film, given Takahata’s age and the fact that this is his first film in 15 years and. And if this is Takahata’s final movie, he’s going out on a stronger note than Miyazaki.
The film is based on a traditional Japanese legend. A bamboo cutter finds a miraculously growing bamboo shoot; inside that shoot he finds a tiny child, who he and his wife raise as their daughter, albeit a daughter who grows up at a supernatural rate. Finding other bamboo trees containing a wealth of gold and fine clothes, the cutter takes this as a signal to move his family to the capital and introduce the girl to society as a princess. But she rebels against the expectations placed upon her, and in her rebellion may be drawn back to the place that she came from.
The film is very sweet and charming, with wonderful characters. Being a Ghibli film, it’s unsurprising that it contains a noticeable environmental element, but its primary focus is in exploring the place of women in Japanese society. A significant amount of time is spent on training Kaguya to be a princess and to comply with the cultural view of beauty (including blackened teeth); and it looks at the way that women were often treated as a status symbol (there’s a great scene involving a long line of suitors coming to take her hand for no reason than because they’ve heard of her beauty). Even her father, who on the whole is a sympathetic and loving figure, is clearly overjoyed when he realises his daughter could be his way out of the forest and into high society, and doesn’t seem to understand or recognise his daughter’s reluctance.
But the main reason for seeing this film is because of the animation. Studio Ghibli has gained a reputation over the years for producing some of the most beautiful and striking examples of animation ever made. Princess Kaguya stands as another fine example of this, but at the same time it’s entirely different to anything I’ve ever seen. Most of Ghibli’s success comes because they really focus on fine and precisely-observed details, giving the animation an air of reality even in fantasy settings. Kaguya goes the other way, looking as though it’s a lightly-painted charcoal sketch on a scroll, a thousand-year old artwork come to life. It looks utterly striking – primitive, to be sure, but deliberately primitive. Takahata’s experience in animation has given him the ability to know what details and elements to strip out of the artwork without losing what works about the art. And the style also shifts with the content of the film – there are several scenes where Kaguya finds herself in emotional turmoil where the artwork style becomes possibly turbulent, a mess of lines frantically scrawled across the screen, as though the animator were trying desperately to keep up with a racing Kaguya. The result is a basic, impressionistic piece of animation, but one that in the hands of a talented director has a powerful impact.
The writer/director of the film, Gerard Johnstone, completely won me over when he introduced his film by apologising for making a New Zealand film that wasn’t about his childhood or about our cultural identity. Johnstone’s film is, instead, a wonderfully entertaining comedy-horror about a young woman sentenced to spend eight months on house arrest at her mother’s house. The problem is, the mother is convinced that the house is haunted, and when the daughter begins to hear weird creaking noises and electronic games that activate on their own accord, she discovers that the house has a much more shocking history than she was aware of.
I really enjoyed this film. It was fun, I was constantly laughing, and there are some nice suspense moments. I would note, however (and this is a minor quibble about a film I loved a lot), it wasn’t all that scary. I don’t often watch horror films, I certainly would not consider myself to be especially jaded or unresponsive to scary movies, but I can’t think of any moments where I was genuinely scared. The reason, I think, is the comedy. Humour is an important element of horror, certainly – it acts as a release valve to let go of some of the emotional tension that may have built up. But if you have too much comedy, it’s as though there’s no opportunity for the tension to build to a point where you’re genuinely scared. Which is not to say I wasn’t engaged by the film. There are many, many genuinely suspenseful sequences, where I was thrilled and excited by what was going on onscreen. What I didn’t have was that moment of utter terror. After all, the director himself, in the post-film Q&A, described the film as “Scooby-Doo for adults”; Scooby-Doo may be many things, but it’s not scary.
In the same Q&A, Johnstone talked about how they shot the entire film, decided that most of the film didn’t work, but that they had a great final confrontation scene and a very good early dinner scene, so decided to rework and reshoot almost the entire scene to connect the two scenes they did have. I don’t know if that’s true, or just exaggeration, but if it’s the former then it must have been an impressive effort to get all the pieces together. While there are a couple of plot contrivances covering some minor plot points, for the most part the film is well-plotted, with a number of significant plot twists and revelations that make sense, or at the very least don’t defy the logic of the film world.
The director may have been joking when he made his opening comment, but there’s a lot of truth behind it. I have a tendency to often avoid New Zealand films, unless there’s such a popular groundswell that you feel compelled to see them, simply because New Zealand films often feel weighed down with the burden of Making A Statement About Society. It was therefore wonderful to just see a film that had a sole focus on being an effective piece of entertainment. And it achieves that brilliantly.
One of the most impressive achievements in filmmaking I think you’ll ever see, used to tell a simple and universal story. When the film begins, we meet a 6-year-old boy named Mason. He has an annoying sister who’s a year older than him, he lives with his mother, and spends the occasional weekend with his father. And over the course of the film we watch Mason grow up, discover the person he will become, work his way through the awkward teenage years, until finally he’s ready to move to college. The thing that’s remarkable about the film is that there are no tricks here – they started making the film in 2001 with a six-year-old boy, and then shot every year for twelve years, calling back cast members as required, until you’re left with a powerful and beautiful whole that really tells the story of a life.
People have commented that there’s not really anything unusual about the idea of making films that capture the way people change both physically and emotionally over time. Many people have pointed to the Harry Potter films, where we see an entire cast of children grow up, or Truffaut’s films about Antoine Doinel (of which, admittedly, I’ve only seen the first film, The 400 Blows), or the Up documentary series. Even Linklater’s Before films have become an unexpected contemplation of the way adults do and don’t change as they grow older. And it’s something that is inherent in ongoing television series – just look at how we’ve watched Kiernan Shipka grow up and change on Mad Men. But to me those are very different instances. Those other examples gain their power through looking at those projects as a collected whole; a single Harry Potter or Before film doesn’t have the same impact as they all do together. (And indeed, some of these examples seem to have happened accidentally). Whereas this is a single film that exists for the express purpose of exploring how a child grows to be an adult. So you get the child at 6, and he’s basically a blank slate. You get to watch as he discovers and develops his passions, as he learns how he will react to this situation or that, as he basically figures out what type of person he wants to be, until you reach the end of the film, and you can see how that young child has turned into this man in front of us. (And those of us who are older can look at this man, and think “he’s so young, he’s got so much more to learn”).
But what’s great about the film is that it’s not just about him. It’s about his sister, figuring out how to become a woman. It’s about the mother, who’s always aiming for the perfect life with a house and a husband, but who keeps falling into the same problems over and over again. It’s about the father, who realises how much he messed up as a young man, and who is trying to become the father to his kids that he never was when he was with their mother. This isn’t the story of one life journey. It’s the story of four interconnected journeys.
Linklater assembles a very good cast. Eller Coltrane, who has the lead role of Mason, does as good a job as could be expected. He doesn’t seem to have acted that much outside of this film, and his acting ability undergoes an interesting arc – as a child, he’s utterly natural, but as he becomes a teenager he seems less comfortable and becomes more awkward on screen (which actually works well, since it correlates with the point where all teens become uncomfortable in their skin), before he matures, eases back into the role, and gains the confidence to carry the film to its emotional conclusion. For the sister, Linklater cast his daughter Lorelai, and while she apparently did not enjoy the experience (supposedly she would try to quit the film every year), I’m glad that he was able to keep her in the film, because her performance and her relationship with Mason is so fun and filled with sibling conflict that the film would be lessened without her. As the adults, we have Patricia Arquette, who is given the bulk of the emotional weight and pain and bears it so well, as well as occasional appearance by Linklater regular Ethan Hawke, who the director knows how to use in a way that no one else seems to.
One thing I loved about the film was the way it played with the sense of memory. It’s never explicitly stated, or even implied, but the film has the sense of being the memories of 18-year-old Mason reflecting back on his life. This means that it’s not about the key landmark moments in his life (although some of those are certainly in it); it’s more about the small moments – the time he went camping with his father and they talked about Star Wars, for instance – that made an impact emotionally on the person and that can feel more important than the big moments. And it also does well in capturing the way you can have people who can be such an important part of your life, and then they leave and you never see them again. At times, that’s a frustrating thing for the audience – there were two young children in the film who are a big part of the kids’ lives early on, and then in an instant they’re gone, and as a viewer I wanted closure, I wanted to know what happened to those children. And we never got it, because Mason would never have a chance to have closure with them.
But the most impressive thing about this film is that, as incredible a filmmaking feat as this film is, it feels effortless. After you adjust to the time jumps, they’re often barely noticeable. It doesn’t want to draw attention to them; it just wants you to feel like time passing by unnoticed. The film is nearly three hours long, and it earns that length. At the start of a film, three hours can seem to stretch on forever, but time flies by, and at the end of the film your natural reaction is surprise – it seems like it was only a few minutes ago that he was a young kid. Boyhood certainly has its harrowing moments, particularly early on, but it ultimately is a genuinely uplifting and joyful film.
I found myself at this screening sitting between two people who knew each other, and so they spoke across me while waiting for the film to start. When the film finished, the woman turned and asked the man, “Did you understand that?” The man responded, “No idea.” And I completely understood where they were coming from. Now, that’s not to say that The Wonders is an utterly incomprehensible film – it has a logical and linear story, with reasonably clear characters, so it’s not a David Lynch-type of confusion. Instead, it’s a more uncertain, “what was the point of that?” level of confusion.
The (somehow) winner of the Grand Prix award at Cannes, The Wonders tells the story of a beekeeping family in some isolated area of Italy. One day they learn that a television crew is making a weird Etruscan-themed TV show (complete with contestants wearing togas and a host wearing an absurd headdress) to find the most authentic food producers in the area. The father is resistant to entering the contest, but one of the children enters the family in the show anyway.
The problem with the film was that I couldn’t work out why I should care about the film, since I didn’t get the sense that anyone else cared about anything. The film just felt aimless. It constantly set up potential points of conflict or tension, and then does nothing with any of it. The film opens with hunters driving onto a neighbouring property in the middle of the night and shooting, causing the father to run and yell at the hunters. And that’s it for that plot. There’s a scene where they discuss all the new standards being imposed on honey production, and how the family’s facilities are below standard, but the father just says that the region is too far out and inspectors will never come out here; other than a brief question by the TV show’s producer on the matter, the issue doesn’t appear again. The father says he’s going to buy the kids a camel, the kids point out that owning camels is illegal, the father says no-one’s going to enforce that rule out here; he buys a camel, and that’s the end of that plotline. Even the TV show, which could bring a bit of structure and suspense, fails to bring any focus to the film – instead, the show is occasionally mentioned, but then seems to be forgotten about for long stretches, so that you’re surprised to be reminded that it’s a part of the film; when the characters do find themselves appearing on the show, there’s no tension to the outcome of that show because it was absurdly clear who will win the contest from long before the main characters even enter.
There’s one moment where the film seems to actually be aiming for some tension – the kids have to go to the hospital unexpectedly after someone cuts their hand, and when they return they find the bucket that collected the honey had overflowed, covering almost the entire floor of the of the production room. Since we’ve seen the father get angry over a tiny bit of spilled honey, imagine how much trouble they’ll be in if he learns about this mess. And what’s this? The representative of the TV show is here to have a look at the production room? What will happen? ... So what happens is that they manage to stall the TV person while they clean up, he doesn’t notice the slightly-sticky floor, and the father never notices the lowered honey production for the day. That’s it. Once the scene is over, it never gets mentioned again. Nothing of any consequence ever happens in the film.
The film even looks bored, with a camera that often just aimlessly drifts away from the scene, almost as though it’s looking for something more interesting to look at; when it fails to do that, it either comes back to the events it was previously looking at, or else it just cuts to the next scene. The film even looked dull, with a soft and cold look that completely failed to capture what was probably a beautiful area of the world. It’s not that I need every film to look bright, bold, and beautiful, but if you’re going to make a film that lacks anything dramatically, the least you could do is make a film that looks pretty so I don’t feel like I’ve wasted my entire time watching it. Instead, I walked away feeling like I’d just watched a nothing film. I’d almost have preferred it if I had hated the film; that at least would have been a response. To spend nearly two hours watching a film and have no response at all is a real disappointment.
Orson Welles directed several of the greatest movies ever made. The Lady From Shanghai is not one of them. It’s a film that I watched with utter bafflement, unable to work out what Welles was actually going for.
Welles stars as Michael O’Hara, an unemployed seaman who rescues a beautiful woman from a gang of thugs, and flirts with her until he discovers she’s married. She offers him a job on her husband’s boat; he declines. The next day the husband, a crippled criminal lawyer, visits the employment office and offers O’Hara a job on the wife’s recommendation; he declines, then he accepts. They sail on the boat; the wife openly flirts with O’Hara in front of the husband; the husband doesn’t notice; O’Hara constantly talks about quitting but never does. The husband’s business partner wants O’Hara to help the partner fake his own death; all he needs is for O’Hara to confess to murdering the business partner; he won’t be convicted because you need a body to be convicted of murder, even where there is a confession; but the confession will be enough for the insurance to pay out and for the partner to escape into a life of anonymity. Oh, and the husband keeps reminding O’Hara “if you ever need a good criminal lawyer...”.
The festival programme suggested that the film was stylish and beautiful, but that it was also the victim of studio interference, rendering the plot “borderline incomprehensible”. I don’t have a problem with that; many of the great film noir movies revolve around plots that are utterly incoherent. But they at least tend to have the characters behave in ways that feel like they make sense. But with this film, the actual plotting made sense, I followed everything that was happening; I just didn’t understand why any person would ever do what O’Hara does in this film. Seriously, if a person who you don’t like or trust asks you to help him fake a murder, up to and including signing a confession to having committed a murder that you didn’t commit, surely no-one would ever agree to that, no matter how much money they offered you. It’s just too obvious that something else is going on, and that something else will certainly end with you having confessed to a murder. And since O’Hara is stupid enough to fall for that plot, I automatically lose any respect for the character, and any investment in their outcome.
If the absurd behaviour of the lead character wasn’t enough, the performances are bizarre, as though he’s trying to populate the film with a collection of grotesqueries. As the crippled husband, Everett Sloane has this tone in his voice that hit a nerve; I swear, I will be haunted until the day I die by his incessant use of the word “Lover”. As the husband’s partner and victim of the alleged murder, Glenn Anders constantly seems like he’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown, making O’Hara’s trust of the man even more absurd. Even Orson Welles, usually such a reliable actor, doesn’t work; there are points in the film where he’s fine, but that’s usually because at those points he’s forgotten that he’s supposed to be putting on the worst Irish accent ever heard. Rita Hayworth is the only person giving anything approaching a normal performance, although I didn’t feel the push-pull tension that many of the great femme fatale figures have.
The finale takes place in an abandoned fun park, in a hall of mirrors, and while it’s a commonly-seen scene today, at the time this would have been an exciting place to stage the climax. And on the whole, it’s a very effective scene. But even here, the film fails itself. There’s no earlier setup for the amusement park, no suggestion that that’s a location that exists in the world of the film. We just get a voiceover by Welles saying “And then we went to an abandoned amusement park, because one of the bad guys had access to it.” It couldn’t be more blatant in trying to justify as quickly as possible being at that location if Welles had just said “And then we went to the amusement park, because the script said a hall of mirrors would be a fun location for a final confrontation.”
Perhaps the festival programme was right; perhaps the film would work better had it not been for the studio interference. Perhaps the amusement park was set up earlier, and the scene was cut by the studio; maybe O’Hara’s actions make more sense in the context of the film that Welles originally made. Who knows? We can only judge based on the film that we have. The problem is, the film that we do have has two of the most annoying performances by major characters that I’ve ever seen, plus the most misjudged Irish accent I may have ever heard in a lead character. And I simply don’t trust the judgement of the person behind those awful performances. I was eagerly looking forward to this film – it is Welles, after all – but all that anticipation just made the experience worse. I’d be shocked if this doesn’t prove to be my biggest disappointment of the festival.
I like Nicholas Cage. When he’s actually trying to do interesting work, he’s a talented and compelling actor, (albeit one with a somewhat goofy tendency). Unfortunately recently he seems to have been caught up in a cycle of just making any film that comes across his desk, which has meant that we’ve had a long line of terrible movies with terrible Nicholas Cage performances. Cage seems to have realised the rut he was in, and to pull himself out, he teamed up with David Gordon Green, who himself had established himself as an interesting director of low-budget character-driven films before his career was sidetracked into a run of dope comedies (the lowpoint of which was Your Highness) before pulling out the well-receive Prince Avalanche (which I need to see) last year. I can only assume Nicholas Cage was hoping for a project like Joe to give his career a renewed spark of credibility, and I can only hope that it worked.
The titular Joe is a complicated man. He’s someone who is friendly and likable, always willing to help those in need, fiercely loyal to those who deserve it; everyone talks about what a good man he is. And yet there’s always barely-contained violence and rage in him – he’s in an increasingly violent feud with a local thug, he’s constantly antagonising the police as though begging to be arrested or worse, and he might decide to get his dog to tear your dog apart. One day, he’s approached by Gary, a 15-year-old kid looking for a job; Joe reluctantly agrees and sets him to work with his team of guys poisoning a forest of trees in preparation for new plantings. It turns out Gary is basically the sole income source for his family, including his violent alcoholic father, and Gary gravitates to Joe as the father figure that he needs.
Cage plays Joe with a level of pain and regret, devoid of the note of swagger that we’ve seen him hit for the last few years. The performance clearly sketches out the character’s painful history long before we get the scene spelling it all out. It’s a difficult performance to balance – Joe needs to be someone we have ongoing sympathy for and believe to be a fundamentally “good man” despite the (at times) terrible things he does – but Cage manages to wring pathos and sympathy out of scenes where none should exist. Tye Sheridan, who plays the young kid Gary, is similarly great. I remembered Sheridan from the excellent Mud (which starred Matthew McConaughey early in his own career resurgence after years of being a Hollywood joke), and Sheridan’s ability to hold the screen while working with actors like Cage or McConaughey at the height of their powers suggests that Sheridan could have a successful career ahead of him.
The rest of the cast, it seems, is entirely populated by non-actors – usually a bad sign – but their performances are almost to a person so strong so I had no idea of that fact until I looked up the cast. I really have to single out Gary Poulter, as Gary’s father, whose utterly terrifying performance is probably the thing that will remain with me from the film. Barely coherent, but with a wiry cunning, surprising physicality, and completely amoral, willing to do the most horrific deeds if that’s what it takes to get a drink; he’s central to two of the most horrifying moments in the film. Sadly, it seems Poulter was a homeless alcoholic when he was cast in the film, and he died shortly before the film came out. The close connection between the character and the man that Poulter no doubt was lent realism to the performance, but regardless he was captivating in the role, and I was saddened to learn of his passing.
One thing I was impressed by was how the film achieves a tone that’s inconsistent, but in a way that makes complete sense. It has a deliberate messiness that feels very much like life. The film was would have these very nice, sweet scenes of Joe and Gary bonding, and then we’d see a scene of some horrific moment of violence, before returning to the sweetness of that friendship, and it never felt awkward. You could watch those scenes in isolation from the rest of the film and think they came from two completely different films, but the way the movie establishes the world of the film makes that contrasting tone feel natural, even necessary. It’s as though the film’s tones are at war in exactly the same way that Joe’s different impulses are in conflict with each other. There was a clear vision for why the disparate tones would need to exist in the film, and as a result the film works in a way that other tonally-inconsistent films don’t.
I was interested in this film due to the programme’s comparisons to Let The Right One In, the remarkable and disturbing Swedish film about a 12-year-old vampire. While I can understand the comparison – both are Scandinavian horror films centred on teenagers (or near-teens) who are monsters, and both maintain a chilly aloof tone – it’s not a comparison that favours When Animals Dream.
The film focuses on a 16-year-old girl, Marie, with an over-protective father and a non-responsible wheelchair-bound mother, who discovers a rash on her body that seems to be growing hair; the first clue that leads her to discover that both she and her mother are werewolves. And that’s an interesting premise. My main problem was that Marie’s process of discovering her identity as a werewolf was obviously intended as a (oh so clunky) metaphor for her discovering her sexual identity; there’s a recurring element of threatened sexual assault throughout the movie that bring out elements the wolf in response, and there are figures in the film who try to control her werewolf identity (almost all of whom are men) who are clearly supposed to be the authority figures trying to repress female sexuality. (Let’s leave aside the fact that it makes sense to try to control someone who is a literal monster capable of ripping out peoples’ throats.)
The other problem is that, even with an interesting premise and a short running time (it’s less than 90 minutes long), director Jonas Alexander Arnby seems to struggle with maintaining a sense of tension throughout the film. There were entire stretches of the film where I would forget that I was supposed to be filled with suspense or dread; instead I was just watching a girl in Denmark living her life, to the point where I would occasionally be surprised when the werewolf element would appear again. Admittedly the last half of the film, once the transformation had fully set in, was generally very effective. There were some genuinely creepy scenes – one scene, involving Marie pouring cups of coffee, was unbearably uncomfortable, even sickening, while the climax, where the werewolf is let loose in a confined area, was genuinely startling and suspenseful. But for the most part, I just found the film forgettable.
When the film begins, we meet a perfect family on holiday at a beautiful ski resort. One morning, the family are at breakfast outdoors when they see a controlled avalanche quickly get out of control and threaten to consume the restaurant. The mother tries to get the kids to safety but, unable to do so, uses her body to shield them; the husband grabs his gloves and his phone and runs away, even pushing people to get past them. Fortunately, everyone is fine; the restaurant was just consumed by a cloud of snow that quickly died down. But the fact that the husband’s initial impulse was to abandon his family does not go unnoticed. This then leads predictably to tensions in the marriage, as the couple consider what their instinctive response says about who they are and who their spouse really is, and how these compare to the people they imagine themselves to be. These doubts even spread, as the story is told to others who begin to ponder how they or their partners would respond.
The surprising thing about the film, given how much of it is centred around people arguing, is how consistently laugh-out-loud funny it is. It’s not that there’s necessarily anything comedic in what’s being said, but the film is performed and edited with a sense of comic timing. It’s as though the audience finds it so uncomfortable to watch this couple arguing that we need the release of laughter to ease the tension; the director knows we’ll have that tension, and manages to elicit the laughter without ever undercutting the drama, using the absurd justifications that are put forward to try to explain behaviour, or the perfectly timed side comment that sparks up an argument that seemed to have died down, or the perfect cut from a brief unthinking comment to a moment of uncomfortable silence. There’s a sharp line of black character-based humour running through the film that I found incredibly appealing.
I also loved the way the film was shot, with many of the key sequences playing out in long static takes. The camera is planted in a single spot, usually with the characters visible in long shot, and then we just watch the interactions. (It’s reminiscent of the way Michael Haneke works, although it doesn’t quite have the perfect shot composition or the patience of Haneke’s work.) These days, most films are edited to the bare limits of comprehensibility – an average shot length of two seconds is not uncommon, is perhaps even the norm. And while that intensified approach is often effective and brings the audience into the action, there’s something wonderful about just sitting and watching the events play out as though a dispassionate observer. It allows our responses to be elicited, not because the film is forcing us to see things a certain way, but because the way each audience member responds is inherent to who that person is, what their worldview is, and how that affects the way you see the events of the film. It also shows a refreshing faith in the quality of the material; the director knows that the audience attention will be gripped by the drama, and so doesn’t need to rely on cute camera tricks or heightened editing to make the film work.
In fact that static shot approach can even heighten the tension – for instance, the inciting avalanche itself is presented in one such locked-off shot; watching from several metres away, we hear the family conversing, we see the avalanche in the distance, we hear the family discussing the avalanche, it seems to be getting out of control, it’s getting nearer, CHAOS PANIC, then the restaurant and the screen is consumed in white, and we sit and wait, straining to see anything, until it slowly clears, people start to collect themselves again, and the family come together and discuss the experience they’ve just been through. It’s an intense and suspenseful scene that works because it relies on the audience to observe the world and notice the threat, rather than just throwing in cutaway ominous shots to the avalanche to signal to the audience what they should be thinking.
Finally, it's worth noting that it’s also a strikingly-looking film. It’s not just that it was shot in the French Alps, an inherently beautiful area; it’s shot with a slightly unreal tone, as though this world was somehow off from reality. There’s one shot in particular, from the top of the mountain peak, looking down at the low-level cloud covering the mountain below, with foggy flashes of light from the explosions setting off the controlled avalanches below, that I think may be the best single shot I’ve seen all year.
The second of the two doppelganger films in this festival is a weird and eerie low-budget affair. Jake Gyllenhall stars as Adam, a depressed history lecturer whose seems to do nothing with his life except lecture about totalitarian states (we hear him deliver the exact same lecture twice) and have weird creepy sex that satisfies neither him nor his girlfriend. One day, he learns of the existence of an actor who look and sounds exactly like him. Intrigued by the discovery, he seeks out the actor, a man named Anthony. And bad stuff happens.
There seemed to be quite a high level of dissatisfaction in the audience with the film, at least judging by the way every few minutes someone would rather loudly walk down the stairs behind me and out of the cinema. Which I could understand – there’s not a lot of forward-momentum on the plot – but I found that disappointing. While there’s not a narrative urgency, there’s a powerful focus on tone that fully engaged and enthralled me. There’s an oppressive, almost fatalistic gloom that infects the film. The comparison to the festival’s other doppelganger film – Richard Ayoade’s The Double – is interesting. Ayoade’s film is a comedy that took place in a nightmare world; by contrast, Enemy simply was a nightmare.
And in that nightmare context, there is some weird spider imagery sprinkled through the film that I don’t know that I quite get. (I’m not even certain whether any of these moments are supposed to be taken as literally true in the world of the film, or whether they are simply symbolic nightmares within the film’s nightmare world.) The film began with Anthony attending a weird sex show where naked women wearing high heels would stand on tarantulas; there’s one single cityscape shot that appeared to show a giant spider crawling over the buildings (although we never see that giant spider in any other cityscape shots); and the final moment of the movie involves a character looking at a spider. I don’t know what it’s all supposed to mean, which I find frustrating because that final shot in particular say to me that understanding that spider imagery is key to the entire film. I’m decidedly curious about seeing the film again, if only to see whether knowledge of that final moment illuminates anything else about the film and helps me to better grasp what’s going on in the film. Until I work that out, I don’t know that I have a lot else to say about the film.
A supremely creepy Australian horror film focused on a widow trying to raise a hyperactive son obsessed with protecting her from “the monsters”. One night she starts to read a bedtime story called Mister Babadook; within a few pages she decides the story (which just describes a monster that will haunt you and make you wish you were dead) is too scary for her child and stops reading, but that’s enough. Rather predictably, it quickly becomes clear that the Babadook may be real, and is coming for her and her child.
The film is really about exploring the emotional difficulties of being a parent, those moments where your kids are causing problems, are hassling you, won’t leave you alone, and you just feel like having kids was the biggest mistake that you ever made, and about someone trying to come to terms with the fact that they do have that response in them, and that that doesn’t make you a bad parent. It’s a theme with which I don’t really connect (I don’t have kids, so while I’ve had plenty of times where kids have been annoying me and have wished their parents had never had them, I realise that’s not the same thing), but it’s wrapped up in such a genuinely entertaining and intense horror film that my lack of connection to what the film was saying really didn’t matter.
In the lead role of Amelia, Essie Davis is extraordinary. A bundle of frayed nerves and tension, unresolved grief, frustration, love and barely-suppressed anger, Davis gives the mother an extremely sympathetic performance that feels natural, while at the same time effectively positioning her as someone who could easily be going insane, which allows the heightened tone of the climax to flow and work. During that climax she’s called on to give a very physical performance, with subtle shifts in stature, in look, in tone, and her performance feels like someone who is at war with her own impulses. The film is deliberately set up to have an uncertainty over whether there really is a monster, or whether the mother is just going insane; either would have been an entirely satisfying outcome, and that’s entirely due to the strength of this central performance.
I have to mention the brilliance of the Mister Babadook book itself. The book’s design by Alex Juhasz is simply beautiful, simple, hand-crafted, painted in a stunning black-and-white style; at first glance it looks like it could pass for a children’s book, but it never has the safety or comfort of a children’s book. It’s an impressive piece of design work, made even better by the smart decision to make it a pop-up book. That interaction between the reader and the book brings a hint of playfulness that makes the threat of the creature even more scary, as though it’s not just saying, “I’m coming to kill you”, but also “I’m going to have fun killing you.” Apparently the book was one of the first elements of the film to be created, and you can tell that the film’s entire production design and cinematography was inspired by the book. Writer-director Jennifer Kent is clearly inspired by German expressionism, with Kent and cinematographer Radek Ladczuk playing with different angles and various shadow effects to create a darkly atmospheric world. They also almost completely wash out the colour in the image, so that we’re left with a film that is as near to black-and-white as you can get.
I’m going to try to be vague about this, but I do have to acknowledge the very smart choice made around the film’s ending. One of the problems with making a film where the villain is symbolic of something emotional in the lead characters is that it can often make it seem too easy to resolve those inherent issues – as though since the hero has fought off the attacking evil, they’ll never again have to deal with, say, depression. What I loved about the way this film ended was that it was a definitive ending, it was completely satisfying, and yet it never turned the resolution of the story into some magic way to fix the mother’s problems; she still has these problems and emotions to grapple with, but now she has the tools and the ability to deal with them.
A very smart and funny film. I would have overlooked the movie were it not for hearing festival director Bill Gosden praising the film on Radio New Zealand, and I’m so glad I listened to that show.
I’ve only ever seen one film from the Dardenne brothers, the fine Lorna’s Silence. But I enjoyed that, and the brothers do have a great reputation for making brilliant films, so I decided to see their new film. The movie begins on Friday afternoon, when Sandra learns that she has been fired. She manages to convince her boss to hold a ballot at her workplace on Monday morning – if her co-workers agree to sacrifice their bonuses for the year, the boss will agree to let Sandra stay on. Which means that Sandra has the weekend to meet with her co-workers, one by one, to try to convince them to agree to sacrifice significant amounts of money in order for her to continue with her job.
It’s a potentially interesting setup, and Marion Cotillard plays the role very well. Playing someone who has only just come out of a period of severe depression and who must now literally beg for her job, Cotillard rides the mix of desperation and humiliation well; her need to protect her livelihood for her family contrasted with her awareness that she is asking her co-workers to sacrifice their own provision for their families to help her. There’s also the awareness and guilt that she is doing all of this to her co-workers during the weekend, during their time where they want to not think about work and instead spend with their families. And lingering through this is just a general depressive impulse to just step back, go to bed, and sleep until all of this is over. And Cotillard does a great job in playing all of these tones.
But the problem with the film was that it very quickly became repetitive. Usually the people she wants to see aren’t in, so she needs to be given directions to the soccer field or the café or wherever they are. Once they meet, Sandra’s lines never change; she’s always making the same points. And there’s generally very little variation in the way the co-workers respond; either they say “I feel bad for you and will vote for you to stay”, or they say “I’m sorry, we need the money to pay bills, pay for our child’s education, build a patio…” And the scenes where they did try to create ways for the scenes to play out differently feel contrived (one scene in particular, where two co-workers come to blows over whether or not to vote for her, just felt like it came out of nowhere and was completely absurd. And it also lacked the conviction to follow through on some particularly significant developments; the third act begins with a highly-dramatic scene that ended with Sandra in the hospital, but after one scene she’s discharged and off back on her mission, the incident never referenced in the remaining movie.
And the problem is that this lack of follow-through undercuts what little drama there is in the film. The end result is that, even though I found Cotillard’s performance appealing, I wasn’t engaged in her plight. I was surprised how little I cared whether she would get to keep her job or not. When the climactic scene presented a moral quandary for Sandra herself to grapple with, I wasn’t responding to the emotional gutpunch that had just been delivered; I was thinking “That’s a logical way for this situation and these elements to resolve themselves.” And that’s certainly not the reaction the Dardenne brothers were going for. It looks like the film has been generally fairly well received, and I’m glad if people are able to find things to connect to, but sadly, the film was a definite failure for me.
This was easily the film I was most anticipating about the festival. I’m a huge fan of Bong Joon-Ho, one of the most interesting Korean filmmakers currently working. So I have been looking forward to Snowpiercer, his first English-language film, for a couple of years (although I have had some trepidation, since the list of great foreign directors who failed when making English languages movies is rather long). Thankfully, the film was close to a complete success.
In the near future, after an attempt to fix global warming goes disastrously wrong, the entire world is completely frozen and incapable of supporting human life. The few remnants of the human population survive on a unique train running on a loop that circumnavigates the globe once every year. Up the front of the train, those who were able to buy a first class ticket live in absolute luxury; down the back it’s all drab and dull, with the dregs of humanity travelling like cattle and the only food source being a gelatinous protein substance. Seventeen years after the train started, Chris Evans becomes the reluctant leader of a rebellion from the back section to take over the train.
So let’s leave aside the obvious absurdity about the actual plot, the daftly impractical construction of the train, and so on, because this is patently not a film intended to be taken literally. It is clear that this film is supposed to be allegory. And as allegory, it is thin and handy-handed, and really not that convincing in its arguments. But I did not care in the slightest. Because this film is flat out bonkers, in a brilliant way. There are massive and inventive action showpieces; there are scenes of absurd comedy; there are moments where you find yourself sitting in the audience amazed that something as completely crazy as this movie exists. And the problem is, I can’t really explain why any of the sequences are so great because it would spoil the surprise of the film. Suffice it to say, the action was fast, it was intense, it was much more violent than I was expecting, and it was frequently surprisingly witty. And the scene where two people in different carriages look at each other from across a bend in the track will be one of my favourite scenes of the year.
And the cast! Chris Evans spends much of the film being the calm rock at the centre of an insane storm; it’s a performance that could easily be overshadowed by some of the more flamboyant roles, but once we discover his backstory (in a moment that is, admittedly, somewhat overblown in the writing), it becomes clear just how solid his character work has been. I’m unsure whether the character named Gilliam is a deliberate reference to Terry Gilliam (there are certainly elements of the film that I could easily see in one of his films), but John Hurt delivers a pained performance as the wise man advising the uprising. Song Kang-Ho (on his third film working with Bong Joon-Ho) is appropriately spacey as the drug-addled security expert helping the uprising get into each of the carriages. Alison Pill gives a deranged performance as a pregnant schoolteacher whose lessons about the architect who created the train feel like exercises in North Korean propaganda. Everyone has been talking about Tilda Swinton, and rightly so; Swinton has never been a restrained actor, but her performance as the Minister and lead representative of the front of the train is a thing to behold – completely unrecognisable, with an air of arrogance and complete certainty in her own superiority. The climax of the film also features a nice surprise appearance from a significant actor; that person is given the task of delivering a great deal of explanation through one massive infodump, but it’s a scene that works and that grips the audience due to the air of loneliness and pained regret that the actor infuses into the moment.
I also loved how much effort went into the design of the train. The first half seem very drab and uninteresting, atypical post-apocalyptic setting. But then comes the moment where they first enter the first class part of the train, and my gosh! the world that was visualised was bright and shining . Every time the characters would reach a door to enter a new carriage I found myself eagerly anticipating the next scene, wondering what new wonders would be behind the door (and what major action setpiece our heroes would be entering into). As I said, the train makes no sense if you try to view it as something that could exist in our world. But as a feat of production design and sheer spectacle, the train is an artistic achievement on its own level.
For a long time there was a real risk that this film might not be released at all, or only released in an edited form thanks to The Weinstein Company, which (as is its wont) wanted to have twenty minutes cut from an already tight film. Many directors have caved in under that pressure (just last year, Wong Kar Wai reedited his brilliant biopic The Grandmaster for the US release; the end result was by all accounts a travesty), so I was glad that Bong Joon-Ho took that fight on and won. Because I love this film. I love every insane minute of it. I love that it presents has the gall to present a bleak and depressing ending as joyous and heartwarming. But primarily I love that, five years after his last film, Mother, it means that Bong Joon-Ho is back. And more people will have the chance to be exposed to his goofy sensibilities and his sheer joy in filmmaking.
T.S. Spivet is a genius inventor. T.S. Spivet has just invented a perpetual motion machine. T.S. Spivet has won an award from the Smithsonian Institute. T.S. Spivet therefore has to run away from his home in Montana, riding a freight train to Washington DC to accept his award, because T.S. Spivet is 10 years old
I used to really love the work of Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Watching his first film Delicatessen felt like an awesome discovery; The City of Lost Children was a marvel of invention; and even the otherwise-awful Alien Resurrection was at least a visual delight. That said, I haven’t felt any pressing need to go back and revisit his films for years. But when I saw his new film listed, and noticed that the film was in 3D, I felt that this film would be an essential part of my festival programme. For me the main delight in Jeunet’s work is in the way his films look, and I was excited to see how he would play with the toy of 3D. It did not disappoint. Every shot seems composed in a way that heightens the 3D effect, not in a standard coming-out-of-the-screen way, but in a real-world way – even landscape shots seem composed with something in the foreground to ensure that the 3D can communicate the sense of this expanse of country being travelled. Sketches and drawings are overlaid over the image, but distanced from the main image. Threatening characters appear to loom in an impactful way. Even the title cards that delineate chapters in the story are presented through amusing pop-up-book images, replicating what is for most of us our first non-reality experience of 3D. There’s a playfulness to the way 3D is used in the film that is an utter delight.
I also loved the story. It is, admittedly, very episodic – once T.S. is on the train, the film is basically a collection of individual incidents and character moments until we finally reach Washington and the story can begin again. But Jeunet makes great use of that time to develop the character. The thing is, T.S. could easily be an annoying character to put at the centre of the film, but his early inventiveness and cunning, coupled with the careful way Jeunet builds sympathy for the character during the middle of the film, gives the character real appeal. Indeed, his young age is central to the character working – there’s a sad incident in his backstory that informs his every action; it leads to T.S. having an understandable sense of isolation from his family, that informs his need to try to prove himself, and I can’t help feeling that an older character, even an older youth, might very well have responded differently to the situation.
One of the best things about the film was how much work clearly went making each scene spark. This was really driven when the end credits started, and we saw the names of the cast paired with the image of their character. Obviously the key actors playing the Spivet family or the head of the Smithsonian had a lot to do, but I was surprised how the images of even all the one-scene characters who appeared – the woman who sold hot dogs, the cop who chased T.S. along the river, the professor who inspired T.S. to invent the machine – sparked a degree of affection in me. There are so many wonderful characters in the film that were a delight to spend time with.
I have one disappointment with the film. This is a hugely entertaining film, and one that would be a great family film, were it not for the fact that at its climax, one character says “Fuck” twice, as well as a “Mother-Fucker”, within the space of about two minutes. Now, as someone who has no issues with profanity in movies, I personally had no issues with that language appearing in the film. The language used was believable given the context, and created some genuinely funny moments. That said, I was thinking that I would recommend the film to my brothers as a good and inventive film for them to show to my nieces and nephews – a bit dark at moments, but nothing they shouldn’t be able to handle. But I would be seriously uncomfortable recommending this given the use of this particular language. It’s not that I believe films should be censored – if the filmmaker felt that the story needed that language, so be it; I don’t want a toned-down version of this film – but every decision the filmmaker makes affects the audience that might see this film, and in this case this one decision did, I think, reduce the audience for this movie. That said, I really did enjoy this film.
I unreservedly love the Disney Beauty and the Beast – I’m a complete sucker for great animation, and I think that film may be some of the best work Disney ever made. But rewatching Jean Cocteau’s adaptation of the same tale reminded me just how child-friendly and safe Disney films are, and how much that contrasts with the frequently-much-darker original stories. So in the case of the animated Beauty and the Beast, the design of the Beast doesn’t really look all that scary, he’s almost comforting instead, and it’s easy to forget that he is supposed to be a beast; whereas the Cocteau Beast looks utterly terrifying (or at least as terrifying as they could realistically have made someone appear in 1946), and never becomes something the audience is entirely comfortable with, even while Jean Marais is giving an incredibly sympathetic performance. The Disney version very quickly makes the castle look bright and comforting, while Cocteau seemed aware that the castle is in effect a prison for Belle, and ensures it never loses its chilly, oppressive, and expressive gloom (admittedly, this is one area where Cocteau may have been helped by the fact that he was never able to shoot in colour as he had wanted; I’m sure the sets were beautiful and would have looked great in colour, but the black-and-white photography really creates the perfect atmosphere). And singing candlesticks and teapots are fun, but nowhere near as ominous or creepy as the figures trapped as statues or the faces trapped by the fireplace (who rather brilliantly actually breathe smoke), their eyes following you wherever you go. (It’s a touch of genius that we never get an explanation for these eerie faces, or the disembodied arms that hold the candlesticks.) But biggest of all, the Disney version is a G-rated love story, and that’s really about it; Cocteau’s film is wild and filled with passion, and an honest exploration of the idea that compassion and forgiveness can bring genuine change to the world.
Watching the film again, I was reminded of just how remarkable the effects are. Candles spontaneously bursting into light; a chain of burnt flowers that instantly turns to pearls; an incredible moment where Belle is magically transported to her father and arrives through the wall; or the stunning climax where Belle and the Beast take off and start flying, her dress swirling around them. Sure, with modern eyes we can often see how the shots were achieved (although there were one or two shots that did still leave me perplexed), but regardless, these are effect sequences that are just breathtaking and remarkably effective.
The only point where I have any issues with the film come right at the end, where Cocteau makes a number of choices at the same instant that I dislike. Avenant, the would-be suitor of Belle, is climbing into the Beast’s garden pavilion, believing this to be filled with wealth, when he’s shot with an arrow. He instantly turns into a beast and falls to his death. At that instant the Beast (who had just died in Belle’s arms) springs up, and he’s a handsome prince. I wasn’t convinced by Avenant’s transformation into a beast – while I get that it’s thematically significant (making the physical appearance look like the greedy grasping inner person), I don’t believe that the explanation we’re given for why the Prince was turned into the Beast (which is, admittedly, barely an explanation at all) explains why Avenant turns into a beast. I also felt like the transformation scene was lacking; it’s literally done in one second (in fact I had a prolonged-blink-of-the-tired at that moment, and really did think I’d briefly fallen asleep and missed it; I had to go back and watch the scene on YouTube to confirm that it really was as fast as it seemed). I was also bewildered by the decision to make the Prince look like Avenant, which doesn’t really make any sense, although they try to give it a cursory thematic explanation – that decision feels less like a creative choice, and more like Jean Marais just objected to only being recognisable in the last minute, so they contrived a justification for Marais to play Avenant as well.
But that’s a minor quibble with an otherwise striking film. I think my feeling about the film is best summarised by the fact that, when I arrived home, I immediately started researching options for buying this film on Blu-Ray. I feel like I need to have this film, and I need to have it in the best quality possible so that I can really bask in every detail of this gorgeous film.
One of the highlights of the final day of the festival is the regular Live Cinema event, a screening of a silent movie with live accompaniment, this year by a four piece group. The film was a show business satire starring Marion Davies, who is an actress I’ve never seen, but have been curious about for yours because of her (inadvertent) place in cinema history. (She was famously the mistress of William Randolph Hearst, who was the inspiration for Citizen Kane; according to legend, Hearst’s pet name for part of her anatomy was the original source of the mysterious word “Rosebud”.) And having seen the film, I have to say that I think Welles was unfair on Davies in Kane. The untalented second wife whose career is advanced because of her relationship with Kane was reportedly inspired by Davies, but (at least based on the evidence of one film) it seemed to me that she was absolutely talented enough to sustain her career all by herself.
Davies stars as Peggy Pepper, a girl driven up from Georgia to Hollywood by her father, who is convinced that she’ll got the talent to be a big star. A chance meeting with an actor gets her an unwitting role in a slapstick comedy, getting water sprayed at her and pies in the face. This leads to her becoming a big star, with all the negative trappings that that entails, up to and including a new pretentious screen name, a phony Hollywood marriage and a conviction that she should be doing proper important drama rather than these silly comedies.
Marion Davies gives a great comedic performance here - sharp, perfectly timed, and delightfully funny. It’s not subtle (but that's not unusual for silent films), but that lack of subtlety works, since much of the humour seemed to be based on the lack of subtlety of silent film acting – there’s a brilliant early scene where she demonstrates her ability to act by pulling a collection of increasingly absurd faces according to the mood she’s portraying; there’s a hysterical scene where Peggy tries everything to cry on cue (up to and including having a musician play Hearts and Flowers, a song you’d recognise as the cliché of melodramatic “sad music”); there’s the over-the-top slapstick comedy performances which include characters literally slapping their knees in laughter.
It should be noted that (as always happens in show business satires) there is a wealth of cameos by celebrities of the era, usually playing themselves. One of the most interesting appearances was by Charlie Chaplin playing himself, in an amusing little scene that plays with the fact that Chaplin is near-unrecognisable outside of the Little Tramp costume. In fact, the film recognises that it needs to start the scene with someone referring to him as Mr Chaplin, just to ensure the audience can understand the joke. (Rather bizarrely, some 20 seconds after the film told you who this person was, I heard the man behind me tell the person next to him “That’s Charlie Chaplin.” Because it’s not like the film didn’t literally stop the action to have a card appear on screen identifying this person.)
The film screened on a 35mm print, and it was a reminder of everything we’ve lost, and everything we’ve gained, with the move to digital projection. The problem that I have with digital projection, as good as it looks, is that there is something noticeably artificial about the way it looks, whereas film projection, where an actual light shines through a physical piece of film to show the image printed on that film, has warmth and a substantial feel to it. And for the most part, the film looked utterly beautiful, and I found myself thinking how much I missed this. The problem was that there were some reels of the film that showed occasional but substantial damage – the first time it happened, I honestly thought the film was about to catch on fire - that meant every now and then we’d find ourselves looking at ten seconds of unintelligible mess until the image resolved itself. And that’s one advantages of digital projection; it does protect the audience from beaten and damaged film prints. At the same time, 98 percent of this film print was still pristine and able to be watched, decades and decades after the print was made; digital storage of films does increase the risk of films being lost, not due to physical damage, but due to shifting file formats over time rendering films unable to be played. I really am of two minds on the issue of digital projection, but I was amused that this one screening demonstrated both the highs and the lows of classic film presentation.
Hollywood is very fond of making movies about show business, and while some are genuinely good films, they have a tendency to be terribly self-satisfied and smug in a “oh look, I’m making fun of myself” way. There are points in Show People where the film skated close to that line (one moment where Peggy sees Marion Davies and doesn’t like what she sees felt far too self-aware), but it tended to stay on the right side of that line, and as a result remained an enjoyable experience. Plus it’s just fun to see a film with live music. It’s not a film I was particularly anticipating – I’d never even heard of Show People until the festival programme – but it was a smart crowd-pleasing selection by the festival programmers and I’m glad I saw it.
A group of passengers on a flight slowly come to realise that they have all, at some point in their lives, insulted, hurt, or wronged one particular person. A waitress at a diner is pressured by a co-worker to put rat poison in the food of the man who destroyed her family. One man driving his car in the middle of nowhere yells abuse at the man who tried to block him from overtaking; the other man does not respond well. A workaholic gets annoyed at constantly having his car unjustly towed. A wealthy man trying to cover up for his son’s hit-and-run decides to pay someone else to take the fall for the crime. A bride on her wedding day discovers her new husband has been cheating on her with a work colleague.
My final movie of the festival, Wild Tales is less a film; more of a collection of unconnected short films exploring a unified theme. In each story, we find people tempted to indulge in their worst animal instincts and take revenge for perceived or actual wrongs. For the most part, they indulge in these temptations. It never works out well. The film is clearly rooted in the “dig two graves” view of revenge – sometimes those graves are literal, sometimes figurative, and something just desirable.
The problem with the film is that it’s difficult to really talk about. I can’t talk about each of the individual tales for fear of revealing spoilers about how each story develops. Nor is it easy to discuss the film as a whole entity, since the only thing that ties the film together is a consistency of theme and tone. Suffice it to say, this is the blackest of black comedies, a dark and cynical view of the world and humanity’s natural impulses. It’s also utterly absurd; while each of these situations may be sparked by an incident that is entirely believable, the way each situation escalates to an (often bloody) climax is just insane. (A friend of mine, who seemed one of the few who didn’t enjoy the film, described the film as being about idiots behaving like morons; it’s an understandable description for how each of these situations spirals out of control, but I think it’s more accurate to just say that these people simply allow their emotions to govern over their intellect.) And writer/director Damian Szifron brings an impressive amount of variety to the stories – despite the fact that all six films are saying very similar things, there’s never a sense of familiarity that develops, because each story is wholly surprising and unique in its approach to the theme.
One thing I was impressed with is that Szifron clearly has a strong understanding of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the stories in his film, and has structured his film very carefully around the varying merits of the stories. The first story, which appears pre-credits, could only have gone at the front, as it perfectly points to the core theme of the film, but also relies on a punchline that only works because we’re approaching that scene fresh (the audience would reach the punchline a lot sooner if we’d already seen several of the other stories). Post-credits, we get what is, admittedly, the most forgettable story in the film, followed by the story that was to me the most distasteful (although even that story was slightly redeemed by a killer ending). After that, the film gets better and better with each story, until it ends with far and away the best and funniest story in the film. The story of the wedding is a thing of comic genius, with the wronged bride taking a sadistic joy in her revenge that is truly terrifying, to the point where the audience’s sympathies are with the cheating husband. Again, while the middle stories could in theory be presented in an interchangeable order, the wedding story could only the final story – not only is it the natural highpoint of the film, the tale’s ending is the film’s clearest expression of its central thesis about the destructive effects of being governed by your wild nature.
Last year, I decided I wasn’t interested in seeing The Great Beauty, the official closing night film, because it didn’t appeal to me. When I did eventually see that film, I instantly regretted missing the chance to see it at the Embassy, and decided not to make that mistake again this year, and to pay closer attention to the officially-designated "big night" films. Were it not for that experience I probably would have skipped Wild Tales – the write-up in the programme does not do the film justice – so I really am glad that I made that decision. An audience filled with people laughing hysterically was the perfect way to end the festival on a high note.