Films not to miss from Venice

Frederick Wiseman’s Ex Libris: New York Public Library

Wiseman’s three-hour plus Ex Libris is not what you’d expect. It’s an eloquent summation of one of the greatest libraries in America, and possibly the world, where talks, discussions, concerts, instructive courses and even telephone enquiries necessitating copious research are combined with the act of reading. A triumphant corrective to the era of Trump, admittedly from a firmly Democrat state.

Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country

This Australian epic is long and slow but a fascinating example of the continuing guilt about the long-standing mistreatment of the country’s aborigine population. Made by the director of Samson and Delilah, which won the Certain Regard prize at Cannes, the film is set near Alice Springs in 1929 where an Aborigine family start working for a brutal white rancher. Sam Neill and Bryan Brown are among the cast, and the native actors are equally sure. A horror story told with proper humanity.

Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete

As an ex-jockey, I appreciated Haigh’s first American film more than most since it is about a young boy who steals the broken-down racehorse he looks after when he’s told it will be sold as meat in Mexico. He leads the animal in a long trek towards his mother’s home in the South and finally finds the woman who left the family years ago. The film is beautifully acted (Steve Buscemi is Lean on Pete’s trainer) and the boy (Charlie Plummer) is a real find. But it is also a stunning portrait of Trump’s America, worthy of 45 Years, Haigh’s garlanded last British film.

Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson’s Under the Tree

Icelandic films often have a special blend of humour and seriousness, and this one about two warring families is no exception. “Two families. One tree. A bloody mess” says the publicity for Sigurdsson’s saga, a tagline that for once seems truly appropriate. Fine acting and an approach that sees society’s ills reflected in individual lives distinguish this appropriately quirky film.

Susanna Nicchiarelli’s Nico 1988

Nico 1988 is about the last year in the life of the Velvet Underground superstar who branched out on her own with much less success. It tells of her fight with heroin and alcohol, how her deserted son comes back to her as an adult and how her music became more and more angry and original. She is beautifully played by the Danish actress Trine Dyrholm who sings the songs herself almost better than Nico did. A small- scale triumph, in fact, for the Italian director Nicchiarelli.

Posted in Film Festivals, Film Reviews Tagged with:

Venice Festival 2017

Not long ago the head of the Cannes Festival was invited to Venice’s equivalent and was heard to say: “There is no danger to us here”. If it is still true that Cannes is the foremost film jamboree in the world, Venice looks to be coming up on the rails. On the first day last week, it was possible to see new films from Alexander Payne, who made Sideways, Paul Schrader, who wrote Taxi Driver, and William Friedkin of The Exorcist fame. And the last three opening attractions (Gravity, Spotlight and La La Land) won a bevy of Oscar nominations between them. Clearly, Alberto Barbera – the Festival’s boss – has recruited Hollywood to his side in a big way while still remaining firmly on the Italian Left.

It’s a pretty good achievement in his ninth year as head of the world’s oldest Festival, started by Mussolini as a way of publicising Italian movies. And with the films come the stars, a whole bevy of them day after day.

This year’s opener, Payne’s Downsizing, attracted Matt Damon to the Lido but didn’t go down that well. While some regarded the film as a minor classic, plenty of others decided it was overlong and rather dull.

Damon appears as the male part of a couple who agree to be shrunk after a scientist found a way to do it, thus cutting the huge costs of humans to a ravaged earth. Kristen Wigg, his lover, is more doubtful and the story unfolds as a for and against decision made by the world’s inhabitants. Part satire and part serious in tone, the film was received respectfully but not enthusiastically by a full house.

There was considerably more applause for Schader’s First Reformed, which was again about the world’s present ills as its leading character, very well played by Ethan Hawke, is a priest of an historic early American Church who counsels a war veteran against suicide but in the end decides to blow himself up to point the way against consumerism and big company perfidys. The film, which ends melodramatically but is otherwise beautifully made, was given extended applause by its first press audience.

Friedkin, who made The Exorcist some forty years ago decided in The Devil and Father Amorth to shoot a real exorcism, conducted by the present Pope’s official exorcism who tries to banish the Devil from an Italian woman troubled by visions and strange voices. It is a process which Friedkin evidently treats very seriously though there were irreverent giggles from some of the audience. But, alas, the Devil in the poor woman is not defeated and Father Amorth is the one who dies after his failure. Clearly Satan has some of the best tunes, especially nowadays.

The next major attraction was Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water, which recalls the imagination he put into Pan’s Labyrinth, the film which made the Mexican director’s name all over the world. This has British actress Sally Hawkins as a cleaner in a secretly laboratory who falls in love with an aquatic sea monster who has been captured by the Americans and is also much sired by the Russians. Half fantasy, half thriller, Del Toro makes us believe in his strange tale, and Hawkins is certainly superb as the working class girl who tries to save the beast from both his friends and his enemies. The era is the early Cold War and the period is beautifully put together without a false note throughout. Plenty of Oscar nominations beckon.

Whether Robert Redford (81) or Jane Fonda (79) together many years ago in The Electric Horseman, and Barefoot in the Park, get any Oscar nods for Our Souls At Night, made by Ritesh Batra, the Indian who directed The Lunchbox, is more problematical, largely because it is a Netflix movie. It has the pair as lonely ex-marrieds, who come together when she asks him to share her bed, not for sex but for companionship in the dark moments of the night. He does so, and eventually sex is managed (very tactfully) as they sort out each other’s problems. Some called this sentimental tale ‘marshmallow cinema’ but at least it was good to see these two old troopers goes through their paces again. And joshing each other through their press conference, the starry pair were popular guests and surely deserved the Golden Lion for their careers given them by the Festival.

The next day it was George Clooney’s turn for adulation, supported by Matt Damon in his second appearance at the Festival. Clooney’s directorial work in Suburbicon was generally admired, as was the work of screenplay writers Joel and Ethan Coen. But this scathing attack on Middle America’s suburban values was either liked or hated. Damon plays a small- time man who is prepared to murder his crippled wife (Julian Moore) for a large insurance payout but finds the suspicious insurance agent after a cut on the proceeds and proceeds to murder him too. Mayhem follows in a township where the sudden presence of a black couple promotes riots and even more bloodshed. It is all rather like a horror movie dressed up as a social document. Which is why some felt it betrayed the point of the film. But if the film sometimes seems like Blood Simple II, it is certainly entertaining. And Damon gives a fine performance as the little man trying to make it big but failing in a blood-soaked finale.

The Brits have come out of the Festival smelling of roses rather than weeds. First, there was Lean on Pete, the American debut of Andrew Haigh, who made Weekend and the highly praised 45 Years where Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling won award after award. This is a road movie about a young boy who gets a job with a second-rate horse trainer and falls for the horse he has to look after. When the broken down nag fails to win, he steals him and makes his way hopefully across country towards the mother who left his family years ago. Eventually he finds her but not before Lean on Pete, the horse he steals is killed In a road accident. It’s a story that illustrates the underbelly of Trump’s America very well and the boy, played by Charlie Plummer, is exceptional, with Steve Buscemi and Chloë Sevigny excellent in support. Much applause from press and public alike for a young British director of some consequence.

Then came the film many had been waiting for — Stephen Frears’ Victoria and Abdul, in which the ever-popular Judy Dench reprises her role of the old queen, besotted by men whom her advisers detest. This time it is Abdul, an Indian servant who worms his way into her favour and stays there.

It is almost superfluous to say that Dench plays the elderly queen of Shrabani’s book on which the film is based with virtuoso skill, making her not just an imperial figure of British history but also a lonely woman surrounded by either sycophants or power brokers. And her performance is almost matched by that of Ali Fazal, last seen in Fast and Furious 7. He plays with dignity and resource, making the interloper at court a gently honest rather than sinister figure. It also goes without saying that Frears has directed an impeccably designed film with bit parts played by such experts as Michael Gambon, Simon Callow and a host of other familiar faces.

The criticism some historians had with the telling of what is a substantially true story was that it was played almost tongue in cheek at times, as if the times were comically absurd rather than totally unaware of social cruelty. The shocking treatment of Abdul is there alright but it often inspires giggles rather than shock. Perhaps Frears felt that cynical times deserve cynical films.

Finally, there was another British success when Helen Mirren who played the present queen so well in another Frears slice of history, partners Donald Sutherland in The Leisure Seeker as an ageing husband and wife who take off in an old motorised caravan for a holiday, Unknown to their anxious family. He is on the verge of dementia, she we discover is dying of cancer. It’s a journey where the pair discovers things they didn’t know about each other, and Mirren in particular plays with great aplomb, avoiding too much mushy sentiment. the film, made in America by the Italian director Paolo Virzi is as much about love and affection as comedy or drama and received an ovation for its stars and director at both the press and public showings.

Posted in Film Festivals, Film Reviews Tagged with:

Cannes Prizes

The weather was fine throughout, the security as tight as expected, the films were okay but not much more than that, and there were a record number of women directors and actors among the prize-winners. Thus the 70th Cannes Festival ended without too much controversy about screening versus streaming or Netflix and Amazon versus the rest. Everyone had their own views about this, including jury members, lead by Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, who thought films were made for the cinema not for computers or iPhones.

The winner of the coveted Palme D’Or was from Sweden, and the sort of movie whose originality struck the jury as exceptional. Rubén Ostlund’s The Square has a very middle-class museum boss tangling not very successfully with the working classes who never go near his exhibitions. Trying to save a man from a robbery, he is himself robbed blind and, like any good liberal tries to persuade the thieves to reform. It is partly a satire and partly a comedy-drama which the jury found exceptionally apt for today.

The awards to women were headed by a special Anniversary prize for Nicole Kidman, who appeared in two films in competition and two outside as well. But the chief glory belonged to Diane Kruger, who won the best actress for her performance in Fatih Akin’s In The Fade. It was her first starring role in her own German language, as a woman who loses both her husband and son after a terrorist outrage. Another triumph for femininity was Sophia Coppola’s Best Director award for The Beguiled, an adaptation of the old Don Siegel movie of the fifties which had Clint Eastwood as a Union soldier who arrives at a female college in the Deep South to hide from the Confederate Army. No Eastwood this time, and it’s the women who are the leading characters. They include Nicole Kidman, Elle Fanning and Kirsten Dunst. Colin Farrell takes the Eastwood part.

The one British entrant, Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, was deliberately shown on the last day at the director’s request. Editing problems were the reason but since Joaquín Phoenix won the Best Actor gong and Ramsay won a share of the best Screenplay prize, it didn’t count against her that most of the critical fraternity had gone home. It is an excellent film, part thriller, part psychological drama in which a rough and ready hitman is engaged to save the daughter of a well-known attorney.

Finally, the Grand Prix du Cannes, the official second prize, was won by Robin Campillo’s BPM–Beats per Minute, a well-acted and moving account set during the early years of the AIDS epidemic when a group of gay men and women mounted a successful campaign to force a major company to increase their research money for a cure.

The minor jury prize was given to Loveless, Andrei Zvyagintsev’s brilliant successor to Leviathan, which is equally critical of the state of Russia today as a couple who are about to be divorced allow their 12-year-old son little hope of comfort. So he disappears and father and mother finally begin to learn the meaning of love. Many thought the film should have been given a bigger prize. But on the whole, the jury did a decent job spreading their accolades far and wide geographically and giving good reasons for their decisions. It has not always been like that in recent years.

Cannes 2017: full list of winners

Caméra d’Or (best first feature)

Jeune Femme (Montparnasse-Bienvenüe) (dir: Léonor Serraille)

Best short film

A Gentle Night (dir: Qiu Yang)

Best screenplay

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (dir: Yorgos Lanthimos); You Were Never Really Here (dir: Lynne Ramsay)

Jury prize

Loveless (dir: Andrei Zvyagintsev)

Best actress

Diane Kruger, In the Fade (dir: Fatih Akin)

Best actor

Joaquin Phoenix, You Were Never Really Here (dir: Lynne Ramsay)

Best director

Sofia Coppola, The Beguiled

Grand Prix

120 Beats per Minute (dir: Robin Campillo)

70th Anniversary prize

Nicole Kidman

Palme d’Or

The Square (dir: Ruben Östlund)

Posted in Film Festivals Tagged with:

Cannes 2017: How to Talk to Girls at Parties, Jeannette: the Childhood of Joan of Arc, The Venerable W, Faces Places

I’ve no idea how to speak to girls at parties. But after seeing John Cameron Mitchell’s film How to Talk to Girls at Parties, I’m no less confused. The film, the first Mitchell has made in seven years, is set in Croydon during the 1977 celebrations of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and tells the story of a full-on punk who is really just a nice kid at heart (Alex Sharp) who falls for Elle Fanning’s not so nice girl belonging to some strange alien cult. They do indeed go to a party which appears to be full of weirdos where they meet Nicole Kidman’s manager of the Dyschords, a local band. And the film seems to say that aliens are actually about conformity and punks about freedom and originality. But hey, the film works about as well as a very poor party where the booze runs out too soon.

French director Bruno Dumont scares some people stiff with his radical, and often experimental, way with plot, dialogue and character development. At his best, he’s one of Europe’s most original talents. But his latest effort, Jeannette: the Childhood of Joan of Arc, brings her to life with songs and a cast of kids singing them. If only the music was better and Jeannette was a less precious figure, all might have been well. But it isn’t. The film looks like a Christmas play put on by a school without too much rehearsal.

Barbet Schroeder’s The Venerable W is the third part of his ‘trilogy of evil’ which started off years ago with a study of Idi Amin, infuriating the African dictator. One hopes it does the same for this Buddhist monk from Burma who helps to persecute the wretched Muslims of his country. Despite the peace loving tenets of the Buddhist philosophy, this racist thug recommends burning some of them alive and not allowing the rest to have children.

The film was made in secret as Schroeder toured Burma, sometimes with only a phone camera in hand, and it shows that evil is on the rampage almost everywhere, and especially in Mandalay where a third of the inhabitants are monks, supposedly dedicated to peace and goodwill. Schroeder is now 75 and clearly still up for a fight against injustice.

Agnes Varda is now 88 and if Faces Places is anything to go by she still has a lot to contribute. This charming and skillfully engineered film has two artists travelling around the French countryside as a fond relationship grows between them. A marvellous and touching film from an old master of the New Wave and one of the best films of the Festival so far. Faces Places may be just a documentary but it observes life in a way which makes you feel good about it again, Trump, Le Pen and other evils notwithstanding.

Posted in Film Festivals, Film Reviews Tagged with: , , , ,

Cannes 2017: 120 Beats Per Minute, The Meyerowitz Stories & Redoubtable

What with a bomb scare at the Debussy Theatre where the most important press shows are held and a sudden electrical failure on the railways which cut many festival-goers off from their cheap hotels outside Cannes, the 70th Festival was not without incident over a crowded weekend.

But somehow we all survived and began to see some better movies. If none reached the standard set early on by the coruscating Russian Loveless, several were very likely to compete for the jury’s prizes.

There has to be a film about AIDS in the programme and Robin Campillo’s 120 Beats Per Minute was an excellent example. Set in the early nineties, when an action group called Act-Up Paris lobbied a multi-national company to bring out a cure far quicker than they wanted, it has some fine realist acting from members of the group as they sought to bring irresistible pressure on the company. No stars in the film but Campillo’s sincerity and anger shine through what could have been a depressing story, and there is a death scene at the end that moved many of its audience to tears. Campillo is a fine director and only the length of the film is against it.

Many of the film-makers here seem to think two hours plus is the right length, forgetting that the Luis Buñuel once said that if you can’t tell a story in 90 minutes, don’t tell it at all. Where have all the good editors gone?

Not many movies presented at the Festival are actually fun. But Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories proved to be a comedy which had gusts of laughter from its hard-bitten critical audience throughout. About two brothers attempting to look after their often curmudgeonly father, it is cynical, spiteful and truthfully sharp at the same time. Dustin Hoffman gives one of his best performances of recent years as the old man, an artist without much talent, while Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler are equally good as his sons. When you include Emma Thompson and Elizabeth Marvel among the cast, you really can’t complain of the acting. But it is Baumbach’s sense of the awful perils of family life that makes the film. A bit over the top, perhaps, but not by very much.

Finally there was Redoubtable, the sad story of Jean-Luc Godard’s marriage and break-up with Anna Wiazemsky, twenty years his junior. The film was apparently well-researched by Michel Hazanavicius, its director, though it enlightens us more about Godard than his beautiful young actress wife (Stacy Martin). It suggests that he lost his art to Maoist radicalism but found himself in so doing. It’s a theory that seems pretty probable. And Louis Garrel, the son of French director Philipe Garrel, gives a very decent performance as Godard. We all thought the film was going to be full of cliches. Some were there alright. But by no means as many as expected.

Posted in Film Festivals, Film Reviews Tagged with:

Cannes 2017: Loveless, Wonderstruck, Sea Sorrow, & Barbara

They say this will be the best Cannes Festival for years, and it does look good on paper, what with a bevy of Hollywood stars due to turn up (Nicole Kidman, for instance, is in no less than five different movies) and for once more women than men among them.

But so far there has been a lack of outstanding movies and some fairly dire fare from directors we were all looking forward to cheering. Todd Haynes, maker of the much admired Carol, produced a weird film in Wonderstruck, taken from Brian Selznick’s critically acclaimed novel about two children from different eras who secretly wish their lives were better. It looks fine, but is hardly as mesmerising as the book. The children each set out on quests to discover what is missing from their existences.

Haynes goes backwards and forwards in time in some puzzling ways and veers between heavy sentiment and abstruse imaginings so that audiences may be puzzled as to what sort of film he is actually making. Is it partly a children’s tale, or an art movie for adults? Maybe both, but neither strikes home with anything like maximum effect.

The best film so far has been from Russia. Loveless, directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev, who made the wonderful The Return and the even better Leviathan, is the sad tale of divorcing couple in the process of selling their apartment who neglect their 12-year-old son and quarrel continuously. They are brought up very short when he suddenly disappears. The acting from Maryana Spivak and Alexey Rozin is superb and the film is unlikely to infuriate the Russian government as much as Leviathan. But, though a powerful film, Loveless is not as outstanding as most of the director’s other work and a little too long for comfort at over two hours.

It’s impossible not to admire Vanessa Redgrave’s directorial debut Sea Sorrow, which comes a full 51 years after her Cannes best actress award for Morgan– a suitable case for treatment. She is now 80, and says she doesn’t think she has much time left after a heart attack two years ago. If so, Sea Sorrow may prove a fine epitaph for a woman who is not only a great actress but also a powerful political activist. The film is no masterpiece but its feeling for the refugees who are its subject matter is often very moving. Filmed mostly in Europe, the film is only a few minutes over an hour long. But, as it intends, is a personal and completely sincere statement about one of the worst features of our present-day world. A modest Redgrave was cheered to the echo each time she appeared.

Barbara, the film by Mathieu Amalric which opened the section Un Certain Regard (which means not quite good enough for competition but still worth seeing) is about an actress and singer who inhabits her new part so thoroughly that the character grows inside her until even her lover doesn’t know who she really is. A neat idea, but Jeanne Balibar’s performance doesn’t let you care much whether she is Brigitte the actress or Barbara, the character she is playing. So the film lacks punch and real interest.

The chief controversy at Cannes this year has little to do with the films on display but the worry that powerful new players like Netflix do not intend often to premiere their product in movie theatres. Pedro Almodovar, president of the main jury, is clearly worried about this and read out a lengthy statement whose main point was that the size of the screen should never be smaller than the chair on which we are sitting. But Will Smith, also on the jury, disagreed. He said that his three children go to the movies and watch films at home as well. “There’s very little cross between going to the cinema and watching Netflix at home”. It’s an argument that will pursue across the Festival until the final day, and beyond. But the future of the cinema is bound up with it, and the fact that Cannes is showing Netflix movies is all part of the controversy.

Posted in Film Festivals, Film Reviews Tagged with:

Venice Awards 2016: A big prize for a long film

Do Film festival awards mean anything anymore? Some doubt it if the successful film is American and full of stars. That sort of movie will find its way with or without prizes at Berlin, Cannes and Venice, the three major competitive jamborees. But the non-English speaking nations would disagree. To win a major festival can make a director’s reputation and send his or her film round the world.

So the Venice jury might just have known what they were doing when, despite the presence of several hot new American films, accompanied by their stars, the 73rd Venice Festival’s international jury, presided over by British director Sam Mendes, gave its Golden Lion to A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, a 226-minute Pilipino film by Dav Diaz. The film, about a woman incarcerated wrongly for 30 years after her best friend gave evidence against her, is based on a Tolstoy short story and is one of the shortest of the 59-year-old independent director’s recent works. He won the Silver Bear at Berlin earlier this year for a four-hour drama and a few years ago made a movie is that lasted 593 minutes and is reckoned to be the longest feature ever made. Clearly, the jury had infinite patience since many critics avoided the new film because of its length within a crowded programme.

America, however, came into the reckoning with Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, a psychological thriller about a woman, sent a new novel by her ex-husband which describes in gory detail her rape and death by marauding low-lives. This rightly won the main Jury Prize, effectively the second best award of the Festival. Another American winner was Emma Stone who won the Best actress Lion for her performance in The popular La La Land, a musical romance that has already been called a masterpiece by The Guardian and might well have a leading role in next year’s Academy Awards. A further Hollywood triumph was Jackie, the story of Jackie Kennedy’s life after the assassination of JFK before she married Onassis. This excellent film, for which Natalie Portman might well have won an award as Jackie, got the Best Screenplay nod for Noah Oppenheimer.

Strangely, the film most critics judged one of the worst in the competition, Ana Lily Amirpour’s impenetrable existential Western The Bad Batch won the minor jury prize. One of the best, however, was Russian veteran Andrei Konchalovsky’s Paradise, an original and moving take on the Holocaust. This won him a Best Director Lion, shared with Amat Escalante for La región salvaje.

So the oldest film festival, programmed by Alberto Barbera, but with several other sections which were often just as good, or as bad, as the main competition, wound its way past ten days in wonderful weather, leaving the hundreds of press a bit sad to see it go but much gladder to avoid the prices on the Lido which comfortably beat those of Cannes.

Posted in Film Festivals Tagged with: , , , , ,

Fact as fiction or fiction as fact?

How do you dramatise history on film without adding a large dollop of fiction to the mix? Many have tried and most have failed. But Pablo Larraín succeeds better than many with Jackie, the story of Jackie Kennedy, giving an interview to her ghost writer some time after the assassination of her husband Jack. His film leaves a bit out (there’s little or no reference to the President’s serial sexual unfaithfulness) and the hagiographical nature of the film is a little obvious at times. But thanks largely to an intelligent screenplay, clever directorial control and, above all, to a superb performance from Natalie Portman as the troubled Jackie, the film takes wing as a slice of history and a piece of drama too. If Jackie Kennedy will always remain a mystery, possibly to herself as well as others, Portman makes her vulnerability very real and her extraordinary ability to seem in command of herself utterly believable. It is the kind of rounded portrait that must surely attract the Venice jury, headed by British director Sam Mendes, who knows a bit about acting.

The film is less certain in its other parts, though John Hurt is as convincing as ever as the priest who tries to comfort her. But some of those impersonating the President himself, and others of the Kennedy clan, strive a bit too hard to convince. Even so what comes out of this intelligent movie seems more than likely probable, with Larraín, whose last film was the fine Neruda, refusing to rely on too much actual footage to support his storyline. We get the efforts Jackie made to smarten up the old White House, and the fact that the word Camelot, used to describe a short-lived but remarkable period in American political history, was in fact taken straight from the old Hollywood film which Jack loved.

Was Jackie really so impenetrable — an elegant and sophisticated woman of the world who knew exactly what she was doing until the killing of her husband? Perhaps so, but some of the historical footage Larraín uses suggests someone caught in the headlights and never quite able to accommodate herself to the light. Portman is good enough to suggest this as well as the almost stately elegance, and this is the main treat of the film.

Everyone was looking forward, some in trepidation, to the latest film by Terrence Malick who, since Tree of Life, seems to have sunk into a parody of himself. Unfortunately Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey betrays all the faults of his latter-day work and few of the virtues of his earlier oeuvre. It looks good, of course (when did a Malick film not seem beautiful to watch?). But the poetic commentary, written by the director himself, is tiresomely repetitive and the enigma of life as put on the screen in what is frequently a portentous manner does not resonate in the mind as long or as often as it should. Even the underwater passages, gloriously shot among the strange creatures who live there, seem more like a good BBC documentary than anything more philosophical, and the sketchy footage of human beings, mostly the impoverished masses in India, make little or no sense. What we get from the 90-minute film is the struggle of a filmmaker who may think he is a visionary but seems stuck in a rut of his own making. You seldom make statements of importance with headlines but with much smaller efforts, like the best bits of Tree of Life. Maybe Malick has less and less to say and shouts louder and louder in attempting to disprove that fact.

Another piece of history as fiction is supplied by Irelands Nick Hamm with The Journey, which details the burgeoning friendship between Ian Paisley, the fiery leader of Ulsters Protestants, and Martin McGuinness, the deputy leader of the IRA. The time is on the cusp of the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement, brokered by Tony Blair and the British Government. It looks likely to fail once again until a wily diplomat hits on the idea of sending the two men on a car journey towards Edinburgh airport, where Paisley will fly off to his 50th wedding anniversary. He is now 81 and still breathing holy fire until he slowly but surely unwinds towards his mortal enemy as the car winds its way passed the sodden countryside. Everything depends on the performances of the two men who see each other as monsters. And Tim Spall as Paisley and Colm Meaney as McGuinness are more than up to it. The mistake Hamm makes is to suggest that the car is bugged so that Blair and co can listen to what is happening from start to finish.

In the end, of course, the two rivals became friends as Chief Minister and Deputy when the Peace Agreement is at long last signed. They were, in fact, so close that they were known as the Chuckle Brothers by a surprised media — testimony to the fact that, just sometimes, if enemies get to know each other their attitudes can change. The Journey is an entertaining movie if more like fiction as fact than fact as fiction. Hamm insists there is a basis of truth in the story and it is relatively easy to believe him.

Posted in Film Festivals, Film Reviews Tagged with: , , ,

The Young Pope, Hacksaw Ridge & Nocturnal Animals

Jude Law as the first American Pope? Diane Keaton as the faithful nun who looks after him? It strains the credulity more than a bit. But maverick Italian Paolo Sorrentino is the director, so we must always expect the unexpected. The Young Pope, a ten-part television series, of which the first two parts were shown out of competition at the Venice Festival, seems far from a masterpiece so far. But despite its unorthodox casting, at least it isn’t the disaster some expected. This new Pope, selected largely because the Vatican thinks it can almost certainly control him, has colourful dreams of both despair and hope, but solidly ploughs through his self-imposed task of reforming those who are determined to keep things as they are. This is clearly only the start of a long TV journey, so we don’t know whether he wins out or not. But both Law and Keaton give performances which justify the casting, at least since the object of the exercise is to attract as many watchers as possible to stay the course by using stars.

Sorrentino and his regular cameramen could make anything look beautiful and do so again here. What’s more, the director of the Oscar-winning The Great Beauty clearly hasn’t lost his touch as a man with radical ideas. His Catholic Church is conspiratorial and conservative minded, and his new Pope, beginning his battles against them despite being hardly a revolutionary himself, clearly has a hard battle ahead. If there is a problem with the first two episodes it lies in a screenplay which is serviceable but less than inspired. You always feel that The Young Pope is covering its options carefully and that Sorrentino, in accepting the job knew precisely how far he could go without offending too many. Only in the dream sequences does he pull out the virtuosity we know he possesses. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be sure who has directed the film, except that it certainly couldn’t be any old Hollywood hack.

We all know Mel Gibson, recently dubbed the richest actor in America, can direct as well. The Passion of Christ, whatever you thought of it, proved that. And so does Hacksaw Ridge, his latest essay in film-making after a gap of over a decade. This the true story of the conscientious objector who volunteered for the US Army Medical Corps at the start of the Second World War and was almost court-martialled for refusing either to carry or fire a weapon of any sort. In the end, he became a war hero for saving dozens of badly wounded men during the battle of Hacksaw Ridge, where the infantry has to scale the ridge and face a hail of Japanese bullets when they reached the top. Carnage on a giant scale followed and our hero’s bravery and his determination to go back into the battle area to rescue just one more made that phrase famous for years afterwards.

Gibson tells a fairly conventional story about the young man and secures good performances not only from Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss but the whole cast, which includes Vince Vaughn, Hugo Weaving and Sam Worthington. Above all, the extended final battle scenes are horrendously naturalistic, which puts a distinction on the film it might otherwise not have had. The horror of war, at least for the boots on the ground, has seldom been more apparent. You leave the theatre more than a trifle stunned. But the problem is that Gibson’s central idea that religious faith triumphs over almost everything also applies to the so-called Islamic State and most other wasteful and murderous religious wars. Doss was a hero who just happened to be on the right side.

The best film at the festival so far, or at least in the star-studded competition, was undoubtedly Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, in which the director of A Simple Man proved he is potentially one of the finest in America. In the film, Jake Gyllenhaal’s clean living middle-class man goes after the goons who rape and kill his wife and daughter, aided by Michael Shannon’s chain smoking and almost impossibly cynical detective. But this isn’t reality but the plot of a book divorcee Amy Adams is sent by her novelist ex-husband. Not only is it extremely violent but the characters in it have more than a passing resemblance to people she knows, including herself. Totally different from A Single Man, the film bows to Blue Velvet as much as any other movie, with bloody fiction bleeding into uncomfortable reality. It is elegant, acted with real power and has a strong feeling for its an ordinary man faced with circumstances Liam Neeson might attempt to circumnavigate. Maybe La La Land will attract the jury’s attention ahead of Ford’s film, but it must be a candidate for the Golden Lion with British director Sam Mendes, who knows something about such American obsessions, in the chair.

Posted in Film Festivals, Film Reviews Tagged with: , , ,

Venice Film Festival: Film Reviews

You have to take the rough with the smooth at film festivals. Sometimes the films are so impenetrable that boos break out among those left by the end. Sometimes the applause lasts for a full two minutes and nobody leaves early. One of the most popular films so far has been Canadian Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival which has Amy Adams as a young lecturer who saves the world from an alien invasion and from the stupidity of mankind facing it. It is one of those sci-fi movies which attempts a thoroughly human face rather than heaps and heaps of dynamic special effects. Adams is about to give a lecture on a scientific subject when she looks up and sees a much smaller than usual audience. What’s more, they are all looking anxiously at their computer news screens. Anyway, it is clear that most nations of the world face some sort of threat and, in Montana where Adams lectures, the National Guard has already been called out. Fighter planes buzz overhead and a general panic has manifested itself. Then we see a giant half globe descending on earth and, for some reason never quite explained, Adams has to don anti-radioactive clothes and is driven out to meet whoever or whatever is controlling the machine.

It would be a pity to divulge how she does it. But suffice to say she is not painted as a heroine but as an anxious mother with a baby who simply has to do what she has to do. In the end, even General Chang of the Peoples Liberation Army congratulates her and so does everyone else. But Villeneuve, whose last film was the violent thriller Sicario, has here adopted a more philosophical approach to a film which has already been dubbed Blade Runner 2. He clearly wants to tell us that love triumphs over hate, with both alien forces and humans. And that the important thing to remember is that the future generation (ie babies) are what is vital in the world. The film is not a colourful one, with suitably muted cinematography and a sense of realism many such stories eschew. Maybe that’s not the best news for the box-office but it makes for a more intelligent movie of the genre all the same.

The Light Between Oceans, adapted from M L Stedman’s best-selling novel and made in a far off part of Australia that fair takes the breath away, has Michael Fassbender has a young lighthouseman who marries his lover (Alicia Vikander) and tries for a child. But twice his wife is unsuccessful and she gets more and more desperate to conceive. Then something happens that will almost ruin the loving couples lives. A boat arrives at the windy seashore and in it is a dead man and a live baby. The temptation is too great. They bury the man and adopt the baby, hoping no one else will know or care. But their secret is exposed when a local woman (Rachel Weisz) on the island appeals for her missing husband and baby, apparently lost at sea. This the stuff of melodrama (who will eventually get the child and what effect will the little girls two mothers have on her tender psyche). As the film slowly progresses, its final plot twists seem more and more unlikely. It is also far too long at 137 minutes. But the acting is good enough to assuage most doubts and the cinematography lovingly details the extraordinary scenery it inhabits. This is what used to be called a woman’s picture. But if you say that now all hell might break loose. So I won’t!

One of the scandals of latter-day filmgoing is the way they make you pay extra for 3D productions. One hopes they don’t do it for Wim Wenders new film, made in French with Italian subtitles for the festival. Quite why it is in 3D is a puzzle many are trying to work out since it simply has two actors (Sophie Semin and Rada Keteb) talking to each other in a garden about love and death and such things. The scenery is nice and Peter Handke’s screenplay could be called poetic. But I can’t see it in the cinema nor adding much to Wenders already uneven reputation. The film is called Les beaux jours d’Aranjuez and there were not many left in the theatre by the end of its 90 minutes or so.

Posted in Film Festivals, Film Reviews Tagged with: , , , ,