NZ International Film Festival: Shut Up And Play Planet Amour

by David Larsen / 03 August, 2012
Is it possible to see too many films in one fortnight? Your punch-drunk correspondents persist in their belief that it's not.

Shut Up and Play the Hits/Neil Young Journeys (Hugh Lilly) For the longest time, the prevailing wisdom was that Jonathan Demme’s terrific Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, shot over three nights at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood in December 1983, was the best rock ‘n’ roll movie of all time. Now, nearly 30 years later, there’s a challenger to that throne: Shut Up and Play the Hits, Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace’s hybrid documentary/concert-film about the final performance by the dance-punk band LCD Soundsystem. Demme, certainly no stranger to the mechanics and grammar of the concert film, has also recently chronicled yet another show by the aging rocker Neil Young; comparing the two films reveals the latter’s flaws. Though Southern and Lovelace have relatively little filmmaking experience—their only previous work is 2010’s No Distance Left to Run, a film about the Britpop band Blur—Hits adds up to an exciting, engrossing movie-going experience.

Demme has, since the earliest days of his career, proved to be a versatile, continually intriguing director of both fiction features and documentaries: films on subjects as varied as Spalding Gray (Swimming to Cambodia) and Jimmy Carter (Man from Plains) sit happily alongside great work at the other end of the spectrum, from 1986’s Something Wild to 2008’s Rachel Getting Married—not to mention his best-known (i.e., most commercially viable) movies, Philadelphia and Silence of the Lambs. Neil Young Journeys—Demme’s third Neil Young concert film after the wonderful, truly intimate-feeling Heart of Gold in 2006, and 2010’s The Neil Young Trunk Show—is, like Southern and Lovelace’s film, a hybrid documentary/concert-film: Demme interleaves performances from a show at Toronto’s Massey Hall (in support of Young’s arguably pretty damn terrible 2010 album Le Noise) with footage of the Canadian-born musician driving around his hometown in one of his beloved classic cars, rambling about how things used to be and occasionally recounting stories from his childhood adolescence (the most coherent of which go nowhere).

Demme’s one trick, which quickly becomes exasperating, was to mount a tiny low-resolution camera on Young’s mic stand. For entire verses, we see Young from this ungainly angle. The idea is that we get really, really close to the performance: we can see up Young’s nose (ew), and Demme even keeps in a few minutes’ footage wherein the camera’s lens was half-covered in spittle, obscuring part of the image. Aside from a few iPhone-like shots—possibly shot on actual iPhones—there’s very little audience contact here; sure, it feels like we’re watching an intimate show, but in an airless, lifeless environment. As Shut Up and Play the Hits ably proves, including crowd-reaction shots is the easiest way to make it seem like you’re really there, in the moment—and it does this spectacularly. The other thing it does, unlike Journeys, is include a genuinely insightful, interesting documentary component that catalogues the staged end of a band in its prime. Imagine if someone had thought to archive the Beatles’ rooftop concert with this much forethought!

On April 2nd last year, concluding a sold-out five-night run at Madison Square Garden, LCD Soundsystem played their last ever show, a calculated frenzy that lasted more than three hours and comprised two lengthy setlists, involved a plethora of special guests (including Reggie “Where my gerunds at?” Watts), and ended, after one of the band’s best songs—the plaintive “New York, I Love You,”—in a deluge of big white balloons. Tied to an interview recorded in the week prior with frontman James Murphy by the sportswriter and pop-culture critic Chuck Klosterman, the film combines footage from the show with Murphy’s morning-after reflections on breaking up the band and, in response to Klosterman’s probing questions, some well-expressed musings on fame in the early part of 21st century. Working with what must have been at least a dozen cameras, Shut Up and Play the Hits—the film is titled for an admonition Win Butler impatiently yells at Murphy as he and fellow Arcade Fire member Régine Chassagne are about to provide backing vocals on “North American Scum”—electrifyingly captures the energy given off by the vibrant interactions between the 18,000-strong capacity crowd and the dozen or so musicians, as well as some fleeting, tense exchanges backstage. If you end up watching this at home, it’ll need to be played on the biggest, loudest speakers you have.

Amour (David Larsen) "Don't die young. Grow old and die old. It's a better arc". Thus Josh Radnor, delivering middle age wisdom to a half-heartedly suicidal college student in his charming romcom Liberal Arts. It's a nice moment in a nice film, unless you happen to have done what I did, and gone straight into it from Amour, in which we get to see what dying old looks like. Or rather, what it can look like. There's a point worth stressing in this distinction, and I'll get to it in a moment, but first I need to find a way of expressing how much I want you to see this film. It's a trickier task than you'd think, because the end point has got to be "See Amour at all costs", but on the way to this point I have to stop off at "It will break your heart", "It is inexpressibly painful", "I have no idea how much harder or easier to watch it might be if you're decades older than I am, and it's therefore possible that if my mother reads this review and goes to the film she will subsequently hunt me down and kill me, thus rendering my opening quote too ironic for words", and also "I have spoken to a couple of people in their early 20s who failed at every fence the film asked them to jump and walked away bored and uncomprehending". Having said which: see Amour at all costs.

Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva play Georges and Anne, a Parisian couple in their 80s. We glimpse them briefly in hale old age, enjoying a piano recital by one of Anne's former students. The next morning, an odd health glitch sends Anne to the doctor, and we find ourselves following her and Georges over the edge of the abyss. It's clear very quickly that her decline will be final, and mercilessly slow. She begs Georges not to hospitalise her. He gives his word. Quietly, respectfully, the film shows us the protracted end of their life together.

"Respectfully" is the right word there, but also the wrong one. There is nothing tame or mealy-mouthed about Michael Haneke's screenplay or direction. There's a scene in which Georges hears a crash from the far end of the apartment: has Anne fallen? He walks as quickly as he can to help her, and the camera follows him. His speed is very, very slightly greater than his normal walking pace, and the corridor feels very, very long as we make our way down it in his wake. He's old. If he pushes himself too hard and falls there's no one to come and help him. The disciplined urgency of this moment typifies the film. It never rushes. It never feels slow. There's a passionate restraint to every move it makes.

I want to say that Trintignant and Riva are beyond praise, because I have difficulty thinking of the right words to praise them. It's tempting to talk about Amour as a study of a universal human experience, and certainly the reality of old age and mortality is laid bare here to a degree I've rarely seen achieved (only the best King Lears come close); but this is only possible through telling a specific story about specific people. And, as it happens, rather well to do, highly educated people. A scene in which Georges is forced to fire a casually cruel nurse has an appalling starkness to it, but it also has a tincture of schadenfreude: we've seen how awful this woman is, and now we get to hear Georges voicing our disapproval. Because he's someone who can. If you mistook the film for a universal statement about the nature of old age, you'd have to read this scene as a rather cheap contrivance. It doesn't represent any universal reality that Georges has the wealth to hire a nurse and the fortitude to face down a younger, fiercely angry person when it needs to be done. It just represents Georges. The point being that Trintignant and Riva bring an intensity and depth of feeling to their characters which makes you feel you know them. You feel their lives streaming back behind them through time, decades deep. This is not just a study of a death, it's a study of the private world the death is going to end: that's why it has weight, and also why it has the right title. (It could, after all, have been called Mort). It's a masterpiece built around two capital-G Great performances. See it at all costs, and - seriously - make sure you take someone to hug afterwards.

A Monster In Paris (David Larsen) I initially took this for just another CGI children's adventure, a reminder of how rare films like Le Tableau and From Up On Poppy Hill are, those being the other two animated features I've seen at this festival. There's nothing so wrong about doing generic if you do it well. But after two doses of originality, going back to template entertainment felt like having a shower and then putting on yesterday's sweaty shirt. Which is perhaps why it took me 20 or 30 minutes to notice that this isn't just another anything.

A notable feature of today's international cinema landscape is the extent to which French films keep getting remade as (usually awful) Hollywood would-be blockbusters. It happens to all nationalities, but it's happening more right now to the French than to anybody else, and the reason is that the French are doing a lot of smart mainstream movies, for an American value of "mainstream" and a value of "smart" that Hollywood films are currently attaining less often than one could wish. If you see a good French action film, the English language remake is already in production. If it doesn't star Russell Crowe, then it stars Liam Neeson.

Un Monstre à Paris will not be remade; or if you like, it already has been. It's been dubbed into English. This nicely demonstrates the point Hugh Lilly made in this blog earlier in the week about the decoupling of voice and inflection from environment when films are overdubbed; the characters' new American or French-American accents don't fit their surroundings at all, and it's a distraction. It's also the reason you can take your preliterate kids to this, and they're going to love it. So are you. This is the French doing Pixar, and doing it better: better than Pixar's last two films, at least, and for my money better than any but the best of their others. Director Bibo Bergeron also helmed Shark Tale and The Road to El Dorado for DreamWorks, but this is the first feature he's written, and it makes all the difference. There's a freshness and a sweetness to the writing that redeems the seen-each-of-them-so-often characters and the conventional story (our two heroes, one shy, one dashing, don't know how to tell our two heroines, one demure, one fiery, that they like them; our monster may be a misunderstood kindly genius; our police chief is an arrogant blowhard determined to make a name for himself, preferably via animation-friendly semi-comic chase scenes). Also, there are songs, and - did anyone see Brave? - these ones all work. They're integrated into the story, for one thing (one character is a nightclub singer), and for another, they're just good songs. As our possible-villain, possible-hero giant flea-monster sproingged his way across the City of Lights in an early scene, the preschooler sitting in front of me piped up loudly: "Mum, I like that monster!" It was almost her only interjection, though she did notice the stars in the Civic ceiling at one point and shout, "WOW, LOOK AT THAT, MUM!" I think this may have been her first-ever film, and these moments aside, she sat through it spell-bound. Good choice, that Mum.

The Loneliest Planet (David Larsen) This was one of my festival punts. I haven't seen Julia Loktev's previous film, Day Night Day Night, which she both wrote and directed, as here; pre-festival days are a bit blurred in my memory right now, but I think I picked this one because I needed something to bridge the gap between my screenings of A Monster In Paris and No, and it happened to be the could-be-good thing screening at the Civic. ("Go to whatever's on at the Civic" is my tie-breaker strategy for schedule conflicts). There's some irony to this, since its stunning cinematography is part of the reason I was unable to enjoy the vastly less well shot No very much, despite its strong script; the contrast was just too punishing. On the other hand, No's wonderful lead actor, Gael Garcia Bernal, also plays one of the three central characters here. Seeing him twice in a row certainly left me with a strong impression of his abilities.

Much of the acting in The Loneliest Planet is wordless, and Loktev depends heavily on her core cast - Bernal, Hani Furstenberg (new to me) and Bidzina Gujabidze (new to acting) - being able to show complex emotions and the evolution of a complex group dynamic without a lot of dialogue. She also depends heavily on cinematographer Into Briones, whose work here demands to be seen on the very largest screen you can find. Bernal and Furstenberg play young tourists, Alex and Nica, exploring the wilds of back-country Georgia with Gujabidze's guide. Vast empty spaces, sheer hillsides, tiny figures, beautifully framed, shot after shot: you could spend the length of the film just gazing. Being, in fact, a visual tourist. But tourism is under deconstruction here. In an early scene, we see Nica and Alex walking merrily along a village street. A ball bounces over a high nearby wall. They toss it back. It bounces over again. They volley it back half a dozen times before the game peters out, with no idea who's on the other side: the world is their playground and they're happy to be at play. The film is going to throw a brief, awful moment at them when they're forced to see that knowing who's on the other side of the cultural wall matters. After which, not to give too much away, the excellence of the acting is going to become fully apparent. Loktev takes things slowly, but her editing choices are canny; her way of cutting a scene off in mid-flight feels mannered at times, but it produces some striking effects and it ensures the story never lacks a sense of momentum. Get to this if you possibly can.
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