Saturday, 29 October 2011

London Film Festival - Part Three

As a postscript to my previous entry, I can not believe that I omitted mentioning the delightful dog in "The Artist".  This Jack Russell terrier is as important a character as his master Dujardin, a crucial part of his screen persona and his best friend.  His antics are incredibly amusing and ingratiating and he even gets the opportunity to display some Rin Tin Tin bravado when he saves the washed-up actor from his burning apartment.  A more than worthy contender for the annual Cannes Dog (or d'og).

Now to the final four films or as it turns out the final three and a half -- explanation follows below:

First off, nothing but praise for the French film "The Monk" ("Le Moine") from the interesting director Dominik Moll.  While his first two films were effectively modern thrillers, this one is a period piece based on Matthew Lewis' 1796 gothic novel.  A well-cast Vincent Cassell plays the eponymous monk Ambrosio, a foundling raised by the brothers of an isolated Spanish monastery, renowned for his piety and unrelenting sermons.  When a masked youth seeks the order's sanctuary, Ambrosio soon finds himself tempted by illicit love and the devil's growing mischief, until in the end he finds that evil is indeed more potent than godliness.  Beautifully filmed in the stark desert wastes and with more than the occasional surrealistic touch, this film is not only well-cast but also impressively persuasive.

From there we went to the 'half-film' mentioned above.  The Festival always features a so-called 'surprise' film in its programme and I have never been tempted to take my chances with their selection, although there have been some worthy UK premieres in the past.  This year, as a membership reward, they offered a ballot for a free screening and I thought what-the-heck.  After sitting in the auditorium for some thirty-odd minutes, my thoughts were more like 'why am I sitting through this rubbish?'  The film in question probably sounded promising to the programmers, being the first movie for thirteen years from director Whit Stillman, who had a critical hit back in 1990 with "Metropolitan" followed by minor success with his second film "Barcelona".  Thinking back these were both very 'talky' movies rather than plot-laden and his latest, coyly titled "Damsels in Distress" is more of the same with a vengeance.  Set at a small college we are introduced to a group of friends and their rather uninteresting (and very talky) problems.  The lead female is Greta Gerwig -- definitely an acquired taste from her mumbledore movies (or whatever they're called) and the lead male is the Australian actor Adam Brody.  At roughly 28 and 32 respectively, they are both rather too old to play believable students and the balance of the completely unknown cast are only slightly more creditable.  Boring, boring, boring to say the least -- so out we went and we were not the only walk-outs.  Sometimes one feels that one should give a film a chance to see where it is going, but it was pretty obvious that this one wasn't heading anywhere of interest.

Number three was the fascinating Japanese film "Dendera".  If you have seen either version of "The Ballad of Narayama" (and my pick would be the 1983 remake), you know the backstory of the small rural village that sends its old folk once they reach 70 up the mountain to die of exposure, thereby freeing the villagers from feeding and tending the elderly.  Based on a novel by Yuya Sato, this film imagines an alternate scenario where the elderly women (but never 'scheming' men) are saved from death and incorporated into the all-female, self-sustaining settlement of Dendera founded some 30 years previously.  The village's matriarch Mei, now over 100, dreams of the day when she can lead her people down to their old village to attack and kill the men in revenge for their harsh rules.  The story begins for us when the 50th woman is rescued and Mei reckons she has sufficient womanpower for her plans.  However she has not reckoned with the problems of a marauding ravenous bear and her cub which decimates their food supply and also decimates Dendera's numbers nor with a killer avalanche en route down the mountain.  As the women's numbers decrease, each of the remainder attempts to find some solution to their problems and to guarantee Dendera's survival.  All in all this was a fascinating tale, but I must admit some dissatisfaction with the film's rather abrupt and unclear ending.

Finally, number twelve, "Faust" from the director of the amazing "Russian Ark" Aleksandr Sokurov.  This film won the Golden Lion at Venice this year and it was a movie that I really wanted to love -- but regretfully I was unable to do so.  With a German-language screenplay, this is obviously a reworking of the Goethe masterpiece, forever immortalised to us in Murnau's silent film, but we found it nearly impossible to follow the ins and outs of the convoluted scenario as the impoverished and dour Dr. Faustus is seduced by the promises of the devil in the guise of a moneylender -- an interesting portrayal from Russian mime/clown Anton Adasinsky.  The quasi-medieval world is mixed with some very modern CGI effects and the very long and very sinuous telling lost me along the way.  This movie is the fourth in the director's tetralogy about the shortcomings of men in power and we had resolved to watch the first three movies which are coming up in the BFI's Sokurov season.  These are "Moloch" (Hitler), "Taurus" (Lenin), and "The Sun" (Hirohito).  However after the hard-to-watch "Faust", saved only by its majestic music, I'm beginning to wonder if I have the stamina to sit through those movies.  Time will tell...
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