The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness
A film about the making of films: this seemed the right way to close out a festival. As I write this, word has just broken that Studio Ghibli is closing possibly closing, and I’m seeing commentary on social media describing the move as a failure to adapt – rather than a successful adaptation, a natural ending, and a much better alternative than slow decay. What comes across clearly in this sharply well titled documentary – primarily a study of the making of Hayao Miyazaki’s final masterpiece The Wind Rises, but also a look at Ghibli’s history and internal culture – is that the studio’s existence as a business entity has always been a side effect of its ability to serve the needs of Miyazaki and his mentor/partner/rival, Isao Takahata. “The future is clear”, comments Miyazaki, speaking of the studio’s fate once he and Takahata are gone. “It’s going to fall apart. What’s the use of worrying? It’s inevitable.”
Miyazaki is soft-spoken and polite, very much the image of a loveable grandfatherly master artist. This is a soft-spoken, polite film, but director Mami Sunada does an efficient job of showing us that Miyazaki is also something of a monster: a vast creative ego adept at co-opting other people’s talents and energy. “If there’s anything in you that you want to protect, you may not want to be around him long,” says one of his animators. The single appearance in the film of Miyazaki’s son Goro, who has directed two films for Ghibli, gives another strong hint that great artists cast long shadows, and are not necessarily easy presences to live with.
No Miyazaki fan should miss this. It’s also true that no one interested in animation, in film generally, or in callaborative art should miss this; but the initial statement is probably sufficient. I’m inclined to think the world divides into Miyazaki fans and people who just don’t know about him yet.
In a sign that the normal rhythms of life are about to reassert themselves, there was a media screening immediately after Wild Tales and immediately before Snowpiercer. It was for Guardians of the Galaxy. Two comments: first, Guardians is awesome-good. (Okay, it’s generic-awesome-good. Interesting debate afterwards with one of my sons: as far as we could establish he enjoyed it almost exactly as much as I did, but was less inclined to forgive it for its absolute lack of original ideas.) But second: one of only a handful of moments in Guardians that really bugged me involved an aircraft (well, starcraft) flying into a building. Because you can’t be a big American summer blockbuster if you’re not going to crash a plane into a building.
Here is the single plot detail I will reveal about Wild Tales, which is not a film you want to know too much about in advance: it also has a moment where a plane flies into a building. At my screening, this moment was greeted with spontaneous audience applause. And there you have the difference between a really good Disney formula film and this one: Disney will throw in a 9/11 echo as an empty intensifier, while Argentine writer-director Damian Szifron rejoices in a species of madness that’s 100% method. When he crashes a plane, it brings the house down.
Wild Tales suffers slightly from the inevitable weakness of a portmanteau film, which is that some of its six stories are less gloriously demented than others. The flip side of this is that while you can often predict where things might be going over the next ten minutes, you never have any idea where the film will be in half an hour, and none of the stories is less than absorbing. The unifying elements are emotional extremity and acts of vengeance and forgiveness, and I’d be hard put to say which side of this binary Szifron makes more exhilarating viewing. For reasons of Feeling Middle Aged – as in, “one more late night may kill me” – I didn’t go to the official closing night screening of this. But what a great closing night film.
Did someone say “demented”? Did someone say “generic-awesome-good”? I have no defense against anyone who wants to argue that Bong Joon-Ho’s first English language film recycles over-used genre tropes, is nothing but a metastasised metaphor, and makes no actual sense. These things are clearly true. I loved it to bits.
Near-future. Earth: trashed. So totally trashed, the opening titles inform us, that “All life on Earth” has perished. So the shortest feature film ever, then. But no: in an early sign that Bong is not going to be troubling too much with consistency, we soon learn that a tiny remnant of humanity lives on. In a train. Which circles the globe endlessly. Why? Don’t ask that question. Don’t ask questions at all. Just get on board. (This film may have been thought up purely as an implicit request for “great ride!” comments.)
The train has a class system. The rulers live in luxury at the front; the rabble live in squalor at the back. The rulers are represented primarily by Tilda Swinton, whose performance is the most purely gleeful indication of the film’s nature: do not look to her for subtlety and nuance, just admire the false teeth and revel in the accent. The rabble is represented by Chris Evans, who delivers a decent enough version of heroic/anguished, and by John Hurt and Octavia Spencer, who are way more fun to watch. The film is about getting from the rear of the train to the front, one car at a time, and you need to be able to enjoy the many unlikely and over-the-top details of the process, because focusing on the logic of the quest or the nature of the goal will not bring you happiness. At one point, two mobs pause on the verge of extreme violence so that someone can gut a fish in a threatening and portentous manner. Why? Because it’s a splendidly strange image. If you need a better answer, watch a different film.
We Are the Best
Forgive me, but for these last few days of the festival, the reviews will likely be brief. (Um… I’m aware some might say that’s an improvement.) I’m at the stage of all-in film festival attendance known colloquially as half-past incoherent.
We Are The Best is the definitive slight-but-substantial feel-good film: it exists outside of formula and cliché, and, unlike some of the original-but-idiotic fare that occasionally turns up in a festival (see White God) it doesn’t do it via blissful ignorance that such things exist. It’s clear from pretty early on that our two just-barely-teenaged punk girl heroes are going to be involved, sooner or later, in some sort of public performance showdown with the annoying all-boy rock band from the local youth center. The big underdogs vs overlords play-off is such a standard trope. Here it gets the best to-hell-with-your-expectations subversion since Little Miss Sunshine.
This is a smart, happy film about girls acting like actual girls. We could use more of them.
A middle-of-the-range Buffy episode, expanded out to feature length. Don’t mistake this for faint praise. I don’t have a great deal to say about It Follows – it’s a contemporary-American fantasy-horror with a gang of good-looking young people and an unstoppable monster; it has an original and nicely skin-crawling premise, it’s efficient and it’s pretty smart. The moral question at its core – if you were under a death sentence you could only evade by passing it to someone else, what would you do? – is underplayed, but not ignored. Its greatest achievement is to rewire your visual centers: as you start to get a feel for where in a crowd the monster might be hiding, the world becomes a more disturbing place. It Follows followed me out into the street afterwards.
Curiously, the following does not turn out to be a criticism: for much of its length, Maidan is pretty boring. For the first time in any film screening ever, I found myself responding to the texting of the guy in front of me not with a quiet, “Please stop that” followed by a less quiet, “Seriously, stop that” and a hopefully-final, “Next time you do that I break your phone in half” – I’ve been angry enough to say that last one precisely once, and while it does relieve one’s feelings, I don’t recommend it – but with gratitude, because I could see the time read-outs on his screen, and it was good to know how much closer to the end we’d got.
A few years ago I spent several afternoons hanging out in Aotea Square with the Occupy Auckland protestors. One of the things I took from the experience was that occupying public spaces for any length of time is a major morale challenge; the currency you’re burning to make your point is your own capacity to endure boredom. Maidan is about the Maidan Square protests in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine; it covers the period from last November through to late this February, when Russian-backed president Yanukovych stepped down (fled) and the current stage of the crisis began. The film depicts these events with what you might term a radical minimalism: a locked-off camera in the square simply observes whatever passes in front of it, in long, long takes. We see people walking to and fro, eyeing the camera warily, we hear people addressing the crowd from the main stage, we… actually, that’s about it. There are intertitles explaining the political context, but only four or five of them throughout the entire film, and the first one turns up thirty minutes in. (Thanks for that timing cue, texting dude.) For those thirty minutes, it’s pure unmediated crowd scenes.
There are three reasons I’m glad I saw this film. The first is that it’s beautiful; the photography is lucid and the sense of place is overwhelming, and the Brownian movement of the crowds captures something ineffably human. The second is that while the boredom factor is very real, it doesn’t represent film-maker failure: this is the boredom of watching people being bored, listening to awful speeches and bad poetry and patriotic songs, on and on endlessly, in the cold, in the open, because being there matters. Similar scenes have played out in a lot of countries around the world over the past few years, though most of them haven’t had Ukraine’s climate to deal with. Boredom can be historically important. Boredom can be interesting.
And finally – you need that sense of things going on and on and nothing happening to appreciate what it means when things do start to happen. Late in the film we reach the days when Yanukovych lost patience and sent in armed police. The camera work here is awe-inspiringly good, and in several instances represents real bravery: a lot of journalists covering the protests were fired on. The film ends with sustained coverage of a public funeral, which has a solemnity and a dignity on a whole different level from the earlier scenes.
By a happy accident of scheduling, I’ve spent so much time describing Maidan that I have almost none left for describing this, which happens to be a film best left largely undescribed.
Mother and young son. Night fears. Haunted house? Unsympathetic relatives. Pressures of single parenthood. Supernatural chills, though not necessarily the ones you see coming. I found the acting initially over the top – bright-but-difficult child and downtrodden-but-worthy parent are both roles that lend themselves to mugging for the camera in different ways – but the actors, and the film, absolutely grabbed me in the final act. The layer of psychodrama just under the surface is not subtle, but in the end it doesn’t need to be.
Final rest day. If I were not running out of stamina at this point, it would mean I hadn’t been to enough films. So things are proceeding right to schedule.
Living Is Easy with Eyes Closed
This is just a sweetheart of a film. Kindness: the quietest, least showy of virtues, and the hardest to portray without seeming preachy or sentimental. There are three main characters here, and before they meet, each of them witnesses a casual act of – brutality is too strong a word. They’re each present when someone is casually cuffed, hard, across the head. We’re in Franco’s Spain, circa 1966, and it isn’t presented as a particularly horrible place. But when someone speaks out of turn, hitting them in the head is a reasonable response.
Antonio is an English teacher – that is, he’s Spanish, but he teaches English – and a Beatles fan. John Lennon is in the country making a film. Antonio sets out on a road trip to meet him. He picks up a couple of young hitchhikers, and easily perceives that each of them is running from something… and he’s kind to them. The film has a cheerful, understated humour, and a lovely sense of time and place, but what it mostly has is Antonio: Javier Camara, an actor who knows how to make an interesting hero out of a really nice guy.
Maps to the Stars
An observation in passing: I have seen only three films at this festival that I’ve actively detested, and only three films from the Legends section of the programme – the section devoted to directors with “names that have been used as adjectives” – and they’re the same three films. (Whereas I’ve seen half or more of the Fresh section and liked or loved nearly all of them.)
I make notes at these screenings. (That inconveniently tall guy next to you whose knees don’t quite fit in the space allowed for them and who keeps scribbling little comments in the darkness? Hi.) I jotted a few things down in the opening scenes of this one: “Handheld camera advances down aisle of long-haul bus… close in on sleeping passenger… Mia Wasikowska!” – but as the film started to show its hand, I stopped having much to say. Final note, from maybe 20 minutes in: “Goddammit, Cronenberg.”
There’s one idea in this tired piece of Hollywood-is-venal pseudo-satire. The idea is “incest as metaphor”. In Hollywood, everyone’s in bed with everyone else. How to give that old truism a bit of bite? Incest, baby. Which, sure, that could work; and a great cast put some creditable efforts into making it work, particularly Julianne Moore and Wasikowska. (It’s a long time since I’ve seen Wasikowska in anything and not been impressed; she’s becoming one of my don’t-miss-anything-she-does people.) But every single other aspect of this film is lazy and under-done, from the score to the editing to, oh dear god, the script. The ruling dictum appears to be “to depict jadedness we must ourselves be jaded”. Put an unknown director’s name on this film, change nothing else at all, and it would vanish without trace.
So bad it’s good? One of the more subjective calls in the subjective game of film reviewing. But it certainly isn’t boring. It also has some moments which simply work; for the first half hour or so it didn’t occur to me that I might be witnessing a train wreck. The opening sequence is in fact something of a slam-dunk: a girl rides her bike through a deserted urban streetscape, passing one car parked in the middle of the road and no other signs of life. Eerie organ music plays quietly. And then! A massive surge of strings! As! Around the corner behind her! A huge dog pack comes running!
It’s a very, very good start. It’s also a case-in-point exemplar of the dangers of the “start with your most powerful scene and then go back to the beginning and work forwards” narrative strategy. The film takes most of its running time to get back to the girl-and-dog-pack moment, and the memory of it has a neutering effect on the first half, making it seem tame by contrast. After that it starts to seem neither tame nor wild, so much as deeply, deeply bizarre. It’s the story of a girl and her dog, separated by unsympathetic adults and miserable without each other. Each has adventures. As we follow the dog into his new life as a stray, and then as a pit-fighting dog-in-training, the continual glimpses we get of the girl’s life as the naughtiest rebel in the local youth orchestra come to seem more and more random and jarring. Meanwhile, the dog’s story starts to feel like a Hammer Horror story as filmed by mid-20th century Disney, except that Disney would never have added the political allegory about the rise of the Hungarian extreme right. By the final scenes of canine vigilante justice I was laughing uncontrollably, which I think may not have been what the film wanted from me. This is not a great work of art, but I had a great time with it. Cave canem.
The second of my three rest days. I was going to use these to write little essays on festival trivia. I overlooked the fine print of my blog-the-festival deal with myself, which states, inconveniently, that I also need to meet my non-blog writing deadlines. Let me acknowledge here, however, that a job which leaves you the freedom to essentially skive off for the better part of two weeks and go to movies is a pretty decent job.
There’s a scene late in Boyhood where the father of our now-near-adult Boy skims a stone over the still surface of a pond. It skims well out into the distance in a beautiful long arc. It reminded me of a line in one of Orson Scott Card’s stories, where a character compares his own unhurried approach to life to that of an upwardly mobile former friend: “While you fly, like stones skipping across the water, touching down here and there and barely getting wet, while you are busy doing that, I shall swim. I like to swim.”
The skimming stone is a nice image in a lovely film, and a pretty typical one: a common activity, the sort of thing people in all walks of life do from time to time, shot beautifully but not with attention-getting flare, and deployed to illustrate a small, very specific shift in one family’s internal dynamics. It’s also a handy metaphor for Richard Linklater’s very attention-getting production method, which involved touching down with his group of actors for one week every year, over a twelve year period, so that we see Mason (Ellar Coltrane, astoundingly good considering he was cast as a six year old) grow up before our eyes, while his parents grow older, and the world changes round them. It’s like a longitudinal documentary series condensed to one film and reconfigured as fiction. There’s never been anything quite like it, and its success deserves enthusiastic applause. At the same time, when you skim over the surface of a life, you don’t get to do much swimming.
I am in the odd position with this film of feeling grinch-like for merely liking it a lot. I’m seeing so many “Best film of my year! Best film of my life!” responses. Linklater has done something quite remarkable here; but the film’s strength is also its weakness, and inevitably, the rapid clicking over of the years means we don’t see any part of Mason’s life in much detail. The story is conveyed in broad strokes, and the strokes are Linklater strokes, meaning they have a charming wry wit, but also a tendency to skirt banality. “I just thought there would be more”, says Mason’s mother sadly, as he prepares to leave for college and she surveys her life, realising abruptly that its central chapter has just ended. It’s such a Linklater line: it strikes hard, but not deep. I really enjoyed this film, but somehow, I thought there’d be more too.
By chance, or possibly by deliberate and astute festival programming, I walked out of Boyhood and turned around and walked right back into the Civic to see a film which answered my nagging question, “Just what was I wanting that Linklater couldn’t give me?” Sophistication, joy, a profound (rather than a glib) simplicity. From its arresting opening sequence – lights moving in darkness, slowly defining themselves as headlamps of vehicles – there’s a level of narrative and visual intelligence here which makes the smallest of moments feel unplanned but perfect: film as found art.
Four girls are growing up on a bee-keeping farm in rural Italy, near the sea. Gelsomina (the wonderful Maria Alexandra Lingu) is the oldest, and the central character – if you made the mistake of trying to define this film in one sentence, you’d probably call it her coming-of-age tale – but the other three are lively presences in the story. Despite the fact that they’re very different people, there’s a sense in which we’re seeing an alternative approach to showing all the stages of childhood within one narrative frame: one family environment experienced by four girls of different ages. The two imperatives driving the film are Gelsomina’s desire to experience a wider world without losing her place in her parents’ affections, and her parents’ desire to save their increasingly marginal way of life from the wider world’s incursions. These are powerful tropes or trite cliches, depending entirely on execution; the real wonder of this film is that writer-director Alice Rohrwacher makes her characters and their cultural-physical landscape feel so fresh. I am not thrilled that Jane Campion’s jury gave Winter Sleep the Cannes Palme d’Or. But they gave this the Grand Prix, and that’s a decision I can whole-heartedly endorse.
Sepideh – Reaching for the Stars
Because my sons are only free for a few of the film festival days and arranging my schedule was already pretty complicated, we agreed that on the days they were doing the festival I’d just book them tickets to whatever I was going to anyway. That meant they didn’t need to know in advance what they’d be seeing, and they asked me not to tell them: the magical mystery film festival tour.
This made it possible for us to have the following conversation, shortly after Sepideh‘s final credits rolled: “I thought the camera presence was doing weird things to some of the conversations… I wish we’d been told more about who was shooting the film and what their deal was with all the people she met.”
“Wait, you mean that was a documentary?”
“…You thought it wasn’t?”
“Well, that would explain why some of the characters seemed underdeveloped”.
When we first meet Sepideh, she’s 12 years old, and wild about astronomy. Her father has recently died. She lives in a small town in Iran, and dreams big dreams. We follow her life over the next six years: an education in the barriers facing a provincial Iranian girl who wants to have a life beyond marriage and obedience to male authority. It’s a chastening but also an inspiring story.
The problem is that it’s told as one, to the point where someone coming to it unprepared could mistake it for fiction. Exactly what the relationship is between the production crew and their subject, we never know; their presence in every scene we’re shown is never discussed or acknowledged. It’s obvious, if you pay attention, that having a camera following her around is changing Sepideh’s life in small ways, and probably also in large ways, but it’s not always obvious how, or with what degree of negotiation. One potentially life-changing phone call comes from a person who clearly knows the call is being recorded and is speaking with an eye to posterity – which is fine, but quietly neglecting to tell us this is a reality TV move. Sepideh is a person I’m glad to have met, but I don’t feel I know nearly as much about her as this film seems to want me to believe.
Home From Home: Chronicle of a Vision
Be not afraid: though it be four hours long, yet is it kindly and gentle of spirit, and it asks only as much of you as you will gladly give. Also, there’s an interval.
I have seen none of the previous films in the Heimat series, telling the story of life in a small German town over the course of the 20th century. This is the 19th century prequel, and it’s a wonder of relaxed large-scale storytelling. It doesn’t feel long so much as well proportioned and substantial. The black and white photography is glorious; I’m in two minds about the occasional intrusions of colour, which are at once striking and a little on the kitschy side. Lots of fascinating historical detail, and a novelistic sense of lives unfolding. For some reason I expected something more formally challenging – an assumption that length implies complexity of method as well as complexity of narrative? – but, colour use aside, this is as traditional a piece of mainstream long-form storytelling as you’ll find in this festival, and very satisfying with it.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
Simple things being the hardest to describe well, I am not going to say a great deal about this. It retells a Japanese fairytale. Its animation style recalls Japanese brush painting, which is to say it does a lot by appearing to do very little; a couple of times in the story the simple drawings get even simpler, collapsing towards some sort of ultimate minimum to express a character’s high emotion. The effect is electric. The characters are great creations, especially the peasant mother and father who adopt the mysterious baby they find in the bamboo grove: they’re stereotypes rendered so vividly and well that they transcend cliché and become people. The story is funny, moving and sweet. Studio Ghibli, ladies and gentlemen.
Everything you’ve heard is true, so long as what you’ve heard is that this is a flaming hot ball of genre brilliance. Watching it at a 9pm screening in a packed-out Civic was the most fun I’ve had at this festival since the Friday night Cabin in the Woods screening two years ago.
The film goes into general release next month, and I’ll be reviewing it in the Listener‘s film column just before it comes out. So only the briefest of remarks now: the festival programme notes include the line, “A beat ahead of the savviest audience…” This is the key quality that makes the film such a great ride. There was one point late in the constantly escalating storyline where a whole series of clues tumbled into place and I saw the twist we were being set up for, fifteen or twenty minutes away. Writer-director Gerard Johnstone saw me seeing it, and delivered it fifteen seconds later instead. Every single cast member is great, the characters are wonderful, the writing is sophisticated… just see this. (Um, bearing in mind that the capacity to enjoy horrible gore-splattered death may possibly be required.)
One of the simplest films I’ve seen so far at this festival, and deeply satisfying: a romantic comedy where reserved and unhappy people do not miraculously turn outgoing and expressive, but instead come out of their shells slowly, and become more and more interesting and complicated. Two dimensional background characters emerge as real people. The surrounding social and physical landscape has texture and presence. The story takes its time, and its time is time worth spending.
Also, there’s food. Such good-looking food. Because it was a four-film day for me, and not at all because I’d had the sense to pay attention to the title, I went into this with a lunchbox of my own. I was very happy I did. You should definitely take something to snack on.
After the delights of Animation for Kids, this programme – the no-holds-barred, anything-goes one for adults – let me down rather. Several of the shorts I liked a lot. My favourite was probably 365, in which we see one second of 365 different animated stories, one of each day of the year. Astonishing how much detail you can absorb in a second, and how much can be implied. Rabbitland is the only Serbian film I’ve seen this year or for many years – or ever? – and it has a splendid dark exuberance.
I wondered for most of its length why the gorgeous Bendito Machine IV wasn’t in the Kids division. (Not a question one would ever ask of Rabbitland.) Then I found out. A willingness to take hard right turns into unpleasant terrain characterises quite a few of these pieces, and there’s nothing wrong with that – though it can feel oddly limiting, as though the freedom to do anything at all has somehow choked off someone’s creativity rather than fed it.
But then one looks at 1000 Plateaus (2004–2014), made in the front seat of a car over a ten year period by scratching and painting film by hand, while hanging around on studio sets waiting for production on other projects to get going. Instantly, my desire to pontificate about the relationship between arbitrary limits and creative genius vanishes: because here is a film made in response to very exacting limits, and I couldn’t have found it more boring. Experimentation for experimentation’s sake seemed to be the guiding spirit behind too much of this programme. Experimentation can be great. But somehow the shorts made for children seemed able to experiment in more fruitful ways.
Fish and Cat
Anyone looking for quick shortcuts on the always-vexing question, “Which of the far-more-than-I-can-get-to films at this festival should I take a punt on?” could do a lot worse than to adopt this rule: if it’s from Iran, just try it. Somehow, one of most oppressive film-maker-harrassment regimes in the world keeps on failing to prevent vibrant and unlikely films from happening.
A shabby cabin. Two hillbilly types wander back and forth outside, cleaning up without making things much cleaner. (Who knew Iran had hillbillies? I suspect it doesn’t, in fact; the precise look of these two characters is an early hint that writer-director Shahram Mokri is well versed in Western cinema.) A car drives up, and the young driver gets out to ask for directions. “Let them go, there’s too many of them…” mutters one hillbilly to the other.
At about this point, something odd begins to register: there are not being any cuts. The camera glides and loops around the characters, pulling back and zooming in. After the car drives off, the hillbillies pick up a can of petrol and a bag of rotting meat, and wander off into the woods, and the camera follows. We meet some more people in the woods, and the camera takes a liking to one of them and follows him, and the hillbillies vanish out of shot. We come to a lake: more people. The camera keeps haring off after new subjects.
What this single-take approach does is alter your perception of cinematic time. It’s fascinating how much it changes the experience of watching a film once you realise that there is no scope for temporal flicking back and forth: no little blinks implying “time just passed”, or “time may or may not have just passed, and the fact that you don’t know whether it did may or may not be important”. Time just keeps rolling on, continuously. If the camera isn’t on someone, we’re not going to see what happens to them: no flashbacks, no “meanwhile…” dual narration. And two highly worrying hillbillies are loose in the woods somewhere.
A smart film-maker could do a lot with this set-up. Mokri is an extremely smart film-maker, and he has more conceptual twists to add. Every time two characters meet, they start to talk, and each conversation seems to assume a different set of genre rules. It’s as though the cuts which aren’t happening in our visual frame of reference are happening at the level of mood continuity instead. And then that constantly unspooling ribbon of time does something very strange, and some of our unconscious assumptions become problematic. This is a low-budget experimental wonder of a film. It will mess with your mind. You should let it.
Goodbye to Language
The only question which interests me regarding Jean-Luc Godard’s puckish little venture into 3D film-making is the one my older son raised with me after we watched it: is there such a thing as a film you need to watch multiple times to appreciate, and if so, is writing a review after one viewing equivalent to reviewing something after walking out halfway?
Okay, yeah, that’s two questions. To the first one: definitely such films exist. Case-in-point: The Tree of Life. I have no time to waste arguing the merits of this with anyone who didn’t give it a second chance; as with The Rite of Spring or Bach’s D Minor Ciaconne, there are great artworks that don’t coalesce in your mind without repetition. And to the second question: sometimes you do see people writing the “I hated this so much I didn’t finish it” review, and for these people I have no sympathy at all. (A review is an informed response, not just a reactive blurt, and the minimum definition of “informed” has to include actually finishing the thing). But as to writing a review of something complex and challenging without watching it twice – “complex and challenging art” is not the same as “great art”. I am quite certain there are patterns buried in the chaos of Goodbye To Language which have so far eluded me, but I’m also quite happy with the reading of it I have now. Which is that it’s the kind of disaster you get when someone is too fond of his reputation for daring to take the risk of simplicity.
Godard fills his scant 70 minutes with stop-start repetition games, fragmenting his narrative and throwing the shards at us, many of them multiple times. He does the same with Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slave, until the much-repeated opening notes acquire a water torture quality. The one novel thing he finds to do with 3D – sending different images to each eye, so that the brain’s attempt to combine them results in a double exposure – is seriously headache inducing. If you think of a film festival as a family gathering of the world’s great directors, then Godard is the belligerent great-uncle who won’t stop talking, treats the baffled expressions he provokes as a way of keeping score, and cherishes the belief that fart jokes add flavour to any conversation.
On the seventh day, I rested.
Under the Skin
One of the best experiences I had at last year’s film festival was watching Shane Curruth’s science fiction thriller Upstream Colour. By conventional standards this is not so much a thriller as a thriller-narrative condensate; its story is conveyed in such efficient, swift strokes that it’s only just conveyed at all, and the fun of watching it comes from the don’t-blink buzz of trying to keep up. I’ve never risked giving it a second viewing, although I’d dearly love to test some of my theories about what was going on, because I’m afraid it could never be as exciting on repetition.
If you stand back far enough, Under The Skin, a science fiction horror fusion from Sexy Beast‘s Jonathan Glazer, looks like this year’s fix for anyone wanting that second Upstream Colour go-around. It has a similar quality of narrative abstraction, presenting its story as a dream-like image stream with no explanatory framework. We observe, we draw inferences, we piece it all together. It’s split its audiences along roughly the same fracture lines as Upstream Colour – “trippy and brilliant” versus “empty style, no content” – and I was bemused to find myself able to see both points of view, without caring much either way. This is a clever film. It’s a good-looking film. You could make a case that it’s also a misogynist film, but that argument depends heavily on an interpretative argument I can’t easily summon the energy to make. While there are scenes that drew a strong response from me – the “abandoned baby on the beach” scene, in particular – I can’t think of another recent film I watched where I was simultaneously this interested and this numb. I’m glad I saw it. It would be no great loss if the memory were erased from my brain tomorrow.
Have you ever come across one of those roadside attractions where someone’s decided to retell the full story of Gilgamesh as a Marxist allegory, by way of a diorama made solely of beer bottles? No? That musky smell of obsession. It billows off the screen all through Consuming Spirits, as unlikely a film as you’ll see this year or any other, and one of the better arguments I’ve encountered lately for the existence of film festivals. I like a smoothly executed blockbuster, I love a grand art-house symphony, but something like this, which exists purely because some madman decided to spend fifteen years of his life beating the odds, and which will get into general distribution three days after aliens land and announce that Elvis was and indeed still is the messiah – a chance to see something like this on the big screen is the great film festival gift.
It is, let’s be frank, something of a mess. Three different stop-motion animation techniques are blended, or rather bunged together, to tell a complex, pitch-black American Gothic story of small town lives colliding. The primary visual mode involves reasonably realistic 2D jointed figures moving jerkily through a colourful 2D world. Every so often this dissolves into free-flowing monochrome animated pencil drawings, and sometimes we cut to action sequences where little model cars and buses drive through a 3D model landscape. The pencil drawings are wonderful, eloquent and strange and haunting. The 3D models convey the sense that writer-director-producer-composer-editor-animator-photographer Chris Sullivan may have briefly collapsed under the weight of all his titles, thus freeing the six-year-old next door to sneak in and play with the stop-motion camera.
But as awful as the models look, and as jarring as these sequences are, they contribute to a patchwork aesthetic which eventually becomes its own raison d’être: in this film bizarre juxtapositions are the warp and weft of meaning. The story accumulates out of what seem to be random incidents, all of them arrestingly odd and many of them darkly hilarious; Sullivan and his excellent cast of voice actors have no trouble holding your attention while the puzzle pieces fall obliquely into place. (Well, truthfully, I could have done with fewer musical numbers.) “Though I ramble”, someone tells a puzzled police officer at one point, “all that I say is vital.” He’s not kidding. Shortly afterwards this individual alarms the officer further by escaping out a window. “He’s fenestrating!” the cop shouts. If this kind of dialogue tickles your fancy, you’ll be doing a lot of laughing here.
Oh my. Look, a review should not parasitise the thing it’s reviewing, so I am not going to do the thing where I tell you all the frankly jaw-dropping facts that come out in this documentary, thus enabling myself to seem a grand raconteur while quietly spoiling the actual film for you. Although I have to admit it’s tempting.
This is the story of a failed film project: a vast, glorious, ridiculous film project: a project which, had it not died in its final stages, would have either changed the history of pop culture beyond recognition, or else created one of the most disastrous flops of all time. The story is well told. There are great characters on display. There are great vanities. There are surprises. There are storyboard recreations of never-filmed sequences which somehow leave you feeling you’ve seen the sequences themselves. And there is one of the best visual renderings of an acid trip I’ve ever seen.
I am not overhyping. Go see for yourself.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with Leviathan. It’s drawn huge international raves, and I knew this, and that was a pity. Had I gone to see it as an obscure Russian political corruption drama, I think I would have enjoyed it a lot. I might still have found it oddly American in construction and mood: swap out the vodka for beer, set it on one of the Great Lakes, and it could be an HBO special. Nothing wrong with that, obviously.
Kolia, a hard-drinking hothead with a business in a down-at-heel town on the shores of the Barents Sea, is struggling to fight the local mayor’s attempts to force him off his land. He enlists the help of a lawyer friend from Moscow. Underhanded manouvers meet underhanded responses. At every point, officials who should be working for the public good let Kolia down brutally: and in Putin’s Russia, this is a powerful point to make. But it’s a point you can make in one sentence, and it’s really all this film has to say.
When your film’s greatest strength is hallucinatory strangeness, how much of it do you really want to devote to exposition? Ari Folman opts for a modest third. The first third. Let’s explain things, people. Talk talk talk talk talk talk talk. Folman is Israeli and his English is near-perfect, which is not the same as perfect. Moreover, the explanatory mechanisms driving his story are clunky in the extreme. By the time his screenplay slips the leash of language and starts speaking through images I was almost too bored to pay attention.
But the images. Folman’s conceit, taken from Stanislaw Lem’s novel The Futurological Congress, is that a near-future technological revolution allows the actors of the live-action opening scenes to perceive the world as an animation of their hopes, fears, dreams. Robin Wright, human among humans, gives way to Robin Wright, avatar among avatars. The animated dream sequences in Folman’s astonishing Waltz With Bashir were among that film’s most powerful moments; The Congress compares very badly with Bashir for rigour and overall dramatic coherence, but by its final act it’s blossomed into the stranger and more beautiful of the two.
Of Horses and Men
Here, now, is ground zero film festival gold. You know that thing where the first novel by the accomplished short story writer turns out to be something very close to a short story collection? Sometimes the stories suffer from being yoked together, sometimes they gain, sometimes you get fusion effects where the terms “collection” and “novel” seem descriptively inadequate. I can’t recall seeing a debut film go this route before. If I could reel off a list of several dozen, I’m pretty sure Benedikt Erlingsson’s Of Horses and Men – the Icelandic title is the delightfully pithy Hross í oss – would still be one of the best.
Six stories, all set in and around the same Icelandic village, each one introduced by the image of a human reflected in the liquid eye of a horse. The landscape is dramatic and spartan, and the spare eloquence of the narration seems perfectly adapted to it. Bleak humour, lots of unexpected turns, and, in the end, a sense of organic wholeness to both the community and the film, all the stronger for being understated. (These are Nordic farming people. Understatement is their language.) One of the shortest films I’ve seen this festival: sometimes less is more.
The Armstrong Lie
What it says on the tin. I have mixed feelings about Alex Gibney’s documentaries – he imposes his interpretive choices on his material in ways that often strike me as underhanded – but here he has a very simple story to tell, a very gripping one, and he tells it pretty much straight. We open with Lance Armstrong’s 2013 Oprah confessional, cut back to his 2009 Tour de France comeback, which Gibney had signed on to cover, and then work through Armstrong’s career in detail, ending with a bravura extended narration of that 2009 race.
Giving so much space to the race story is smart of Gibney, because it’s terrifically entertaining, and the fact that it’s terrifically entertaining is the key datum in answering the question, “Why were so many people willing to believe Armstrong when he said he wasn’t doping?” All the facts, as Gibney makes clear, suggested that Armstrong’s victories from 1999 on had to be drug-assisted, and there were people saying so from early on.
The most interesting person in Armstrong’s story seems to me to be the doping doctor who sets out to help him maximise his sporting potential, rules be damned. I wanted to see a film about him, probing more thoughtfully into the issue of what we really want from sport, and just how much we tacitly agree to avoid the hard questions when someone feeds us a great narrative. Gibney doesn’t go there, and fair enough: Armstrong is the antihero of his story and the public’s willingness to chug beer and cheer him on is just part of how things are.
Hard to be dismissive of such an authoritative piece of film-making. Dishonest to suggest I was less than fully engaged for almost its entire (very substantial) length. And yet as I walked out, the whole thing was already falling apart in my mind. Self-important, self-serious, trivial. Or to sum up more succinctly – meh.
Two reasons why I could spend three hours plus transfixed and then become retrospectively bored by the film before I’d made it out to the street: First, it trades heavily in withheld information. We spend a great deal of time observing a small group of characters interact, without knowing most of what they know about each other. It’s fascinating trying to work them out, because they’re so well acted and written – or at least, Haluk Bilginer is amazing as Aydin, a retired actor who has never learned how to stop performing. Demet Akbag is equally good in the smaller role of his sister Necla, used to his manipulations and immune to them. Aydin’s young wife Nihal (Melisa Sozen) is a thinner role, though for much of the film this isn’t apparent, because for much of the film she’s a blank slate. When she and Aydin finally engage in a drawn-out marital wrangle, it becomes apparent that she speaks in long, pseudo-literary sentences, burdened with triads of adjectives that presumably struck writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan as powerfully expressive. She’s a more interesting character the less we know about her, but Ceylan ultimately wants us to know a lot. And there’s the film for you.
The second reason I had such a good time watching this is simpler: Ceylan’s technique is for the most part masterful. There is not a poorly shot frame in the film’s entire length. Indoors scenes in darkened rooms predominate, with glorious sequences in the Anatolian winter countryside serving as punctuation. For one of these, in particular – a thunderous horse round-up culminating in one roped animal falling into a stream mid-leap and lying on the bank in close-up, flanks heaving – I’d have sat through the rest of the film even had it not been great to look at. There’s a clear symbolic link between this horse and two of the characters, one of whom also falls in a stream, and one of whom feels trapped by Aydin. Ceylan can do things like this – the stunning sequence leading to the image which resonates right through the film – and he can also make the less showy scenes feel like visual poetry. Cinematography is by Gokhan Tiryaki, who also shot the gorgeous Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. We spend quite a bit of time watching Aydin sitting at his desk. I never got tired of it.
So by all means, see this. You won’t be bored. It’s hollow as a drum, though. The opening scenes seem to promise an intense examination of the intersection of social justice with Islamic behavioural norms – A Separation in Anatolia, if you like – but this peters away to an overly pat resolution that somehow still manages to be inconclusive. And, again, there’s the film for you.
Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?
I saw Michel Gondry’s Mood Indigo three times last year. (Once at the film festival in Auckland, once at a media screening of the stripped-down “general audiences” cut, and once at the film festival in Hamilton, having driven there purely in order to wash the memory of the shorter cut out of my mind.) It remains one of my favourite films, but two things need to be said about it. One: it’s not for all tastes. Two: some of its power comes from its overwhelming profusion of visual detail, an effect which inevitably becomes weaker with repetition.
Both these points apply equally to Gondry’s latest, though in nearly every way it’s a very different film. It’s a 90-minute extended conversation with linguist-philosopher-activist Noam Chomsky about the origins and nature of language, the nature of human consciousness and its relationship to external reality, and Chomsky’s own life and career – all of it accompanied by deliberately crude but effervescently energetic pen-sketch animations. The conversation is dizzying. The animations are dazzling. The relationship of the one to the other is complex, constantly shifting, and – Gondry states this explicitly early on – designed to highlight his own power to impose shape on the film, so that we remember to question what we’re watching.
Chomsky is gruff, but generous; he’ll give a considered response to any question. He has the life-long debater’s tendency to state as facts things which simply aren’t – I happened to watch the film with a philosophy academic, meaning that I was able to whisper “Is that true?” every time Chomsky made a pronouncement on the current deplorable state of cognitive science, to which the answer was always a half-amused, half-irritated, “Not even slightly”. Which is why it’s so good that Gondry is constantly prodding us to think sideways. At once point he comments to Chomsky, having just gone off and read some Descartes for the first time in his life, “I notice Descartes gives you the tools to doubt the things he’s telling you”. “That is – that should be – the ideal of education”, Chomsky replies. It’s certainly the principle underlying this film. It’s no sleight to its substantial adult-audience appeal to say that its ideal viewers are intellectually curious teens who haven’t yet encountered Chomsky or met any of these issues. Doors opening in all directions and far horizons beckoning.
Hard to be a God
“His narrative and formal risk-taking are indistinguishable from failure.” The critic Gavin Smith wrote this about Leos Carax’s Pola X; it’s a sentence I’m very fond of. I was less fond of the sentence I inadvertently imposed on myself by getting hold of a ticket to the Russian film-maker Aleksie German’s final opus – this being a sentence to sit for three hours while German beat me about the head with a fragmentary narrative composed almost entirely of bewildering extreme close-ups, many of them involving excrement and human entrails. People were walking out within twenty minutes, and continued to do so in a steady trickle throughout the film. One couple left, murmuring apologies as they pushed past me, only half an hour from the end, meaning they made it through nearly all the worst bits but missed out on the one redeeming moment, a beautiful, unhurried long-shot of people riding and walking through a snowscape.
I know, because I’ve read the programme notes and looked the film up online, that it adapts a Russian science fiction novel about humans posing as gods in a medieval society on some other planet. The medieval society, we see in some detail: in fact, in nothing but detail. I cannot overstate the extent to which German shoves his camera in close and leaves you to extrapolate the whole from the part. In one particular disemboweling, we see only a fraction of the horned helmet being used to pierce a man’s torso, and a tiny bit of the torso. Splatterfest rendered as abstract art. A sex scene goes by in a flurry of blurred glimpses. The narrative such moments add up to is even more broken; I had very little sense at any point what was going on or why.
Leaving aside the fact that most of what we see oscillates between somewhat and very unpleasant, the film takes narrative and visual abstraction to such an extreme that it becomes an exercise in surrealist envelope-pushing: watch three hours of this, and you can say with some honesty that you’ve experienced an artistic maximum. There’s intellectual interest to that, you might think. Having undergone it, I can only reply: if you consider this film successful by any yardstick whatsoever, then please tell me what it would have had to do to fail.
Animation for Kids
To start the festival, a mini-festival: or to put it another way, a one-hour anthology programme to kick off the two-week anthology programme. The animation shorts sessions are one of my favourite film festival features, and one of the many small reasons I love film reviewing. When I lived in America I used to take the train into Manhattan every time there was an animated shorts collection playing at the Angelika Film Center in the Village; it’s one of my happier American memories. We came back here, we had kids, and for years there was hardly ever time for films… and then this job gave me an excuse to dig into the film festival programme, and there the animated shorts were. Every year, some of them feature on my festival highlights, and usually, I’ve noticed, it’s the Kids programme I enjoy the most. So much energy and zest, such a sense of unrestrained play. (Toons For Tots is broadly aimed at pre-schoolers, Animation Now is for adults and in past years has sometimes been rated R13; I’m talking about the middle-range Kids selection). Favourites this year: The Numberlys, the story of how the numbers invented the alphabet. Looks a little like a Shaun Tan film (highest possible praise) and also references Metropolis, which you wouldn’t imagine would be consistent with childish glee and light-hearted fun. The mostly preteen audience applauded. The New Species is at once a lovely visual jazz piece on creativity and a slap in the face to every adult who ever failed to listen to a child (I really wish the woman in front of me hadn’t spent most of it telling her four year old to stop asking questions); Borrowed Light is a heist movie and a hymn to natural beauty somehow rolled into four minutes. I could have done without Sausage (apparent moral: “pigs want you to eat them!”) – but the point of an anthology programme is that you see a lot of interesting things quickly, and you don’t expect all of them to work for you. Much like a festival. The swan-diving giraffes of 5 Metres 80 earned a second round of spontaneous applause. On the way out afterwards my sons and I met a bouncy five-year-old called Emily. “Are those boys teenagers? Did you bring TEENAGERS?” They are, I confessed. I did. “I saw TWELVE FILMS!” Was this her first trip to the Civic? “My FIRST EVER! It was a big treat!” Believe me, those capitals and exclamation marks belong where I put them. Emily was one happy girl.
Love Is Strange
Somehow, and reading the programme description again I have to concede that this is my fault, not its fault, I expected this film to be a nicely dramatised position paper: “homophobia bad, gay relationships good”. It contains those ideas in much the way Middlemarch contains the idea “romantic idealism can foster poor life decisions”. This is a grand novel of a film: funny, sad, wise, full of lightly sketched moments which contain entire chapters of character development. John Lithgow and Alfred Molina are superlative-defeatingly good as the married New York couple forced by circumstance to spend time apart, camping out with friends and relatives; each of the friends and relatives is a fully realised creation who could easily be the centre of their own film. (The scene where Lithgow’s sweet, cantakerous, slightly oblivious elderly artist disrupts Marisa Tomei’s attempt to work on her novel is going to stay in my memory as one of the funniest, most precisely observed human interactions I saw on film this year.) Beautifully shot, in a very understated style, with great use of music. “When a piece is that romantic, it doesn’t need embellishment”, comments Molina’s character disapprovingly, after a gorgeous violin recital. “Some of us like a little embellishment”, replies Lithgow: a comment director Ira Sachs intends us, perhaps, to recall during the film’s unanticipated final scenes. Molina’s character would probably call these scenes unnecessary. Sachs, clearly, is on Lithgow’s side of the argument.
I can’t decide whether this or Love Is Strange is the film I enjoyed most from my first day’s viewing. They could hardly be less alike. If Love is Strange is Chopin – a non-random hypothetical: I forgot to mention that it features a lot of Chopin – then this is Bartok. Jagged edges, unexpected shifts, sudden moments of lyricism suddenly abandoned; I’ve seen none of Ruben Ostlund’s three previous features, but I won’t be missing anything he does from now on. Intensely uncomfortable family comedy-drama in a grand alpine setting, in that very specific Macbeth’s-gatekeeper mode where the comedy feeds rather than dilutes the drama. Shot composition to die for. I never knew where this was going at any point. I never felt able to take my eyes off the screen. A few times I did want to.
Just another anime. The concept sounded so good – a world underground whose citizens have an inverted relationship to gravity, a love story between a girl and boy who literally have to cling to each other to avoid being torn apart by fundamental forces – but the characters are bland stereotypes when they’re not ridiculous pastiches, and the story plods when it should soar.
I was in two minds about Richard Ayoade’s much-praised debut feature, Submarine, when it played this festival three years ago. No such doubts about The Double, which seems to me a huge leap forward: a mordant, fiercely funny vision boiled down to its essentials and delivered with panache. Jesse Eisenberg is Simon James, a tremulous nice-guy clerk in a drab (yet somehow fabulously stylish) quasi-dystopian future. The film’s first line is, “You’re in my place”, delivered with deadpan menace by a stranger on the subway: Simon is the only person seated in an otherwise empty car, yet somehow he can’t find the will to object, and moves away. We never see the stranger’s face. It’s hilarious; it conveys Simon’s entire character, and it also conveys the film: absurd, funny, awful. And about Simon being replaced by someone else. The sequence in which he first glimpses the exact double who is about to slide into his life and take it over is also the first of several in which Ayoade increases his editing tempo to a hallucinatory fast-flicker: this is a film in which you’re not always sure whether or not you’re watching someone’s nightmare. Mia Wasikowska is the most prominent of a range of excellent supporting players, but Eisenberg owns the film. It’s his best role – well, roles – since The Social Network.