Around the World. Films reviewed: Memoria, Downton Abbey: A New Era, Confessions of Felix Krull

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Toronto’s spring film festival season is on its way, with ReelAbilities Film Fest starting on Monday through June 10, bringing films by and about people with disabilities and deaf people. There’s a comedy night, workshops, panels and lots of films. This is a hybrid festival, with both digital and in-person events. And Inside-Out is just around the corner , starting on May 26th, featuring world premiers of films with 2SLGBTQ+ themes, actors and filmmakers. And tickets are going fast.

But this week I’m taking you around the world with new movies from the UK, Germany and Thailand There’s an aristocratic family on the Riviera looking at a villa, an ambitious young man in Paris seeking his fortune, and a woman in Colombia looking for an explanation to a strange noise she thinks she heard.

Memoria

Wri/Dir: Apichatpong Weerasathakul 

Jessica Holland (Tilda Swinton) is a middle-aged Scottish professional living in Bogota, Colombia. She’s helping out her married sister, Karen, who is in hospital after being struck by a mysterious ailment. But one night, she is awakened by a loud BOOM!, a noise that no one notices except her. So she decides to investigate. She is referred to a young man named Hernán Bedoya (Juan Pablo Urrego) who is a sound engineer in a recording studio. Hernan says he can locate and synthesize the exact sound she remembers based on her description alone. Sparks fly, and it seems like their professional relationship may turn personal. Jessica knows what the sound she heard was but not what it means, and she needs to learn more. So she leaves Hernan and travels inland toward Medellin. On the way she meets an older man (Elkin Díaz) who lives in an isolated cabin and does nothing all day except scaling fish. He’s not just off the grid, he avoids it like the plague, won’t go near a radio, TV or cellphone — the noise is too much for him. You see, he’s blessed or cursed with a unique ability: he hears every story from the beginning of time just by touching a stone where it took place. And what’s his name? Hernán Bedoya!

Memoria is a hauntingly beautiful art-house film about storytelling,  mysticism and perception. Like all of Apichatpong’s movies (I interviewed him here in 2015) it’s not mainstream, so don’t go expecting a Hollywood fantasy. Scenes are long and pensive, often with no dialogue or camera movement for long stretches, and it’s full of mundane hospital rooms, and institutional hallways. But despite the mundane images and slow pace, it is still fascinating, with exquisite cinematography, amazing soundscapes, and terrific acting — Tilda Swinton, of course but many others you’ve never seen before. With lots of strange unexplained scenes you can just enjoy, even if you don’t understand them all. Apichatpong is a Thai master-director, and this is his first film outside his country with much of the dialogue in Spanish, but it doesn’t matter, it fits so clearly within his work.

What a lovely film Memoria is.

Downton Abbey: A New Era

Dir:  Simon Curtis

It’s 1930 in Yorkshire England, and the aristocratic Crawley family, along with their many relatives, inlays and servants, are celebrating the marriage of a daughter to their former chauffeur., bridging the gap between upstairs and downstairs for the first time. Aside from the wedding, two other big changes occur at Downton Abbey, their manor: the family matriarch Violet (Maggie Smith) discovers she has inherited a villa in the south of France, possibly from the estate of a long-lost lover; and a producer wants to use their home as a location for a film he’s shooting — and even really rich people need money to keep the house in a good state. So half the family travels to the French Riviera to investigate their possible new property, while the other half stays home while a movie is being shot in their hallowed hallways. 

But there are complications. It’s revealed that Violet may have had an affair there and her son, now the patriarch of Downton Abbey, may have been illegitimate! Meanwhile, the film they’re shooting has to turn into a talkie, halfway through. This is fine for the dashing male lead who speaks “Received Pronunciation”, but not for the beautiful female star with her shrill, working class accent. (Exactly like in Singin’ in the Rain). And many of the family and the staff are involved in clandestine love affairs on their own. What new changes are afoot at Downton Abbey?

Downton Abbey: A New Era is an anodyne soap opera that feels like two TV episodes linked loosely together and projected onto the silver screen. While the previous movie version of Downton Abbey (which I liked) was cinematic — with a royal visit, assassins, intrigue and and a passionate love affair — this one seems to exist only for  diehard fans can catch up on all their favourite characters. It’s very predictable with few surprises. At the same time, the acting is great (including Imelda Staunton, Dominic West, Tuppence Middleton, and too  many others to mention) the dialogue is smooth, the stately home setting is fun, and the characters enjoyable. If you’re a fan of the TV series (personally,  I hated it) I’m sure you’ll find lots to enjoy in this latest instalment. Otherwise, it’s just a comfortable, if uneventful, 90 minutes.

Confessions of Felix Krull

Co-Wri/Dir: Detlev Buck

Based on the novel by Thomas Mann 

It’s 1900 at a grande hotel in Paris. Felix Krull (Jannis Niewöhner) is a handsome, charming, and eloquent young man with great ambitions. But he is not a guest in the hotel, he’s the elevator Boy. Though raised in a middle class family in Rhineland, he was left penniless and fatherless when the family wine business went bankrupt. So — after avoiding the draft, with the help of a beautiful woman named Zaza (Liv Lisa Fries), his only true love — he makes his way to Paris to seek his fortune. But though beautiful on the outside, the hotel is a den of corruption and inequity, though and through. Worst of all is Stanko, the Maitre d’with his hand in everyone’s pocket. He’s a combination pimp, extortionist, blackmailer and thug, who arranges trysts for all the young employees, male and female, to meet the rich and powerful guests carnally, keeping a large percentage for himself. And though Felix (now known as Armand the elevator boy) resists at first, he soon recognizes this side work as the only way to rise up in status.

He has secret affairs with a number of people simultaniously, including Madame Houpflé, a lonely woman married to an Alsatian toilet mogul, who pays him with her seemingly endless supply of pearl necklaces. He also meets a French Marquis, a Scottish Lord, an eccentric professor, and various other members of the upper crust.  But though he becomes increasingly rich and well-dressed, can material wealth ever help him rise within the rigid class system? Or is he trapped in his class? Can he hold into his morals? And when Zaza reappears in Paris beside the same Marquis… things get complicated.

Confessions of Felix Krull is a wonderful adaptation of Thomas Mann’s unfinished coming-of-age-novel. When I was a teenager, I carried a hardcover copy of that book as I travelled across Europe, so I’m thrilled to see it on the big screen as a big budget movie. Most of the story is told by Felix to the Marquis, as part confession, and part con job — or so it seems. But Felix is not an immoral criminal;  he is the most just and upright character in the story. All the actors, but especially, David Kross (Krabat, The Reader) as the Marquis, Liv Lisa Fries (Babylon Berlin) as Zaza, and newcomer Jannis Niewöhner, are just so much fun to watch. It’s an historical period piece about a long-gone world, but still feels so fresh, never turgid. I recommend this one.

And it’s playing as part of the Goethe Films series called The Art of the Con.

Memento just opened in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; Confessions of Felix Krull is playing one night only, on May 19th, also at TIFF; and Downton Abbey a New Era, opens next week in Toronto; check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Saturday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

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