London Film Festival 2011: part 3

Rebellion

55th BFI London Film Festival

12-27 October 2011, various venues, London

LFF website

Last part of our coverage of the 2011 London Film Festival by Mark Stafford, Sarah Cronin, Lisa Williams, Frances Morgan and Virginie Sélavy.

Rebellion

On April 22, 1988, three gendarmes were killed and 30 others taken hostage in a botched operation by independence fighters on the French colony of New Caledonia. In this fictionalised account, Mathieu Kassovitz plays Captain Philippe Legorjus, the leader of a special operations unit who is sent to the island to negotiate a peaceful settlement, only to find himself outmanoeuvred and sidelined by his own colleagues. The latest from the actor-director mixes docu-drama and action thriller elements to create a wrenching, powerful and intelligent film that exposes the arrogance and brutality of the French elite during the 10-day hostage crisis. Kassovitz opens the film with a tableau depicting the final moments of the stand-off, before piecing together a day-by-day reconstruction of how events went tragically wrong; tension builds quickly, immediately immersing the audience in the politically charged story. It’s impossible not to sympathise with the islanders’ struggle to take back their country from the French; the scenes of the Kanak people performing their endangered rituals are extremely moving, while the unfolding actions of the French army are increasingly sickening (the film ends on a particularly grim note). The hostage crisis took place against the backdrop of the closely fought presidential election between Mitterrand and Chirac, with political allegiances and ambition outweighing any real desire for a negotiated end to the conflict. The politicians back in Paris wanted it over before the elections, and the French army, invading a colony for the first time since Algeria, had enough incentives to ensure the rebels – horribly dehumanised in the French media – were violently suppressed. In Rebellion, Kassovitz has created an impressive and gripping piece of genre filmmaking that is also an indictment of France’s colonial legacy. SC

Dreams of a Life

Joyce Carol Vincent’s body was discovered in her Wood Green flat three years after she had died. Documentary maker Carol Morley has attempted to piece the life of this mystery woman together and has built a portrait, not of the ageing shut-in that most people might have imagined from the tabloid reports, but a pretty would-be singer and bubbly social girl who seemed to hang around in other people’s lives and never quite become herself. Fascinating stuff, with brilliantly assembled material that makes you ponder what effect you have on those around you and what impression you will leave behind. It’s a pity that the long, stagey reconstructions just don’t work and seem to strain for an effect that they don’t achieve, because the talking heads quietly reduced me to tears. MS

Dreams of a Life is released in the UK on 16 December 2011 by Dogwoof.

We Need To Talk about Kevin

We Need To Talk about Kevin is a chillingly apt title as Lynne Ramsay’s latest film contains precious little dialogue. Quite a feat given that it is based on the much-lauded novel by Lionel Shriver in which Eva, the narrator, describes the events leading up to her son committing a dreadful crime and reflects upon its consequences. This format would easily lend itself to a verbatim expositional voice-over in a film adaptation but, as was obvious from her 2002 film Morvern Callar, Ramsay knows the power of silence.

That’s not to say the film is noiseless. In fact, it is charged with sounds which, to Eva, evoke that fateful night when she discovered the full extent of Kevin’s crimes. But, rather than rely on dialogue to tell the story, Ramsay brings out Tilda Swinton’s extraordinary abilities as an actress to communicate Eva’s living hell. We see her close her eyes in almost orgasmic relief when a roadside drill drowns the wails of her crying baby, for example, and – when a doctor tells her that toddler Kevin’s reluctance to talk is not down to autism – what you see register on Eva’s face looks suspiciously like a faint flicker of disappointment.

Combined with arresting cinematography by Seamus McGarvey, and disturbing performances from the three actors who play Kevin from infant to teenager, Ramsay’s restraint elevates into poetry what could have, in the wrong hands, been turned into a gruesome misery memoir. LW

We Need To Talk about Kevin was released in UK cinemas on 21 October 2011 by Artificial Eye.

The Kid with a Bike

Another fine film from the Dardenne brothers, who seem to have a way of making low-budget films about people from the wrong side of the tracks that just don’t run along the same rails as others. Nothing here harangues us about ‘issues’ in society. It’s just the story of Cyril, the hell-on-wheels 11-year-old of the title. Living in a children’s home, but escaping to pursue the dad who put him there at every given opportunity, Cyril’s single-minded, resourceful zeal blinds him to the fact, evident to all others, that his father is a bit of a shitbag. Still, somebody up there must like him, because one of his misadventures throws him into the arms of Samantha (Cécile de France), who agrees to take on the little terror on weekends. Is it possible that she can help Cyril to save himself from the world of pain he’s so energetically chasing? There are no ostentatious camera set-ups or performances here, just lean, intelligent filmmaking that finds the best way to get to the heart of scene after scene. For my money, it’s not up there with L’enfant (which just seemed to have more going on), and I kind of wonder how long the Dardennes can repeat a winning formula. But hell, this is great stuff. MS

The Monk

The Monk

Matthew Lewis’s sulphurous Gothic novel adapted by Dominik Moll, director of the wickedly brilliant Harry, He’s Here to Help, with Vincent Cassel in the role of evil monk Ambrosio: it sounded terrific on paper, but the film did not quite live up to expectations. To be fair to Moll, it is a very difficult novel to adapt: narratively labyrinthine, it relies on the intricate echoes and contrasts between its different strands to create depth and resonance; forced to concentrate on one story, the film feels strangely bare. In keeping with the nightmarish quality of Gothic novels, Moll has gone for a dreamlike, artificial world, which sometimes works (the addition of the mask for the character of Valerio is eerie and chilling; Ambrosio’s recurring dream, which is not in the novel but perfectly fits with its spirit, is strikingly evocative), but too often descends into cartoony Gothic clichés (night outings to the cemetery, gargoyles, thunderstorms, etc.). Vincent Cassel is great as the conflicted monk battling repressed desires, and both he and Moll clearly give their all, but the result of their efforts is oddly paced, narratively meagre and stylistically overwrought. VS

Natural Selection

Amiably filthy road trip, as a childless Christian wife (Rachael Harris) tracks down the junkie fugitive fruit (Matt O’Leary) of her husband’s sperm bank habit, after hubby has a stroke while, well, having a stroke. It’s pretty familiar American indie comedy stuff as the odd couple learn from each other, and you can kinda predict where it’s going most of the time, but the central performances are fine, it makes you care, and the dialogue is foul-mouthed and funny. (‘Maybe we can go see a unicorn take a shit made of lullabies.’) I liked it a lot. MS

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

Last year, Takashi Miike remade a little-seen 1963 samurai film by Eiichi Kudo, 13 Assassins, which was undeniably a lot of fun, but uncharacteristically conventional for the director, both in its filmmaking style and its attitude to the traditional values of the samurai. Puzzlingly, this year Miike has directed a 3D version of Masaki Kobayashi’s acclaimed 1962 Harakiri (Seppuku), a virulent, powerful indictment of the hypocrisy of Japan’s feudal system and the samurai’s code of honour. Miike is clearly going through a chanbara phase, although he seems a bit unsure of where he stands in relation to the samurai tradition. This may explain why Kobayashi’s searing condemnation of the samurai’s rules of conduct as empty, rigid and inhuman is blunted in the dialogue and weakened by lethargic direction and melodramatic excesses in Miike’s version.

When Miike doesn’t water down the original film, he simply reiterates it. The story of a poor ronin, whose request to commit ritual suicide in the courtyard of a prestigious family’s house conceals a desperate act of revenge, is told through exactly the same series of flashbacks as in Kobayashi’s film. The striking image of the ronin kneeling down in the courtyard surrounded by the almost geometrically positioned samurai simply repeats the exquisite compositions of the earlier film.

Visually, Miike adds 3D, which has the effect of making the colours dull and dark while being completely superfluous, given that there is little action. The most striking 3D scenes are those that show beautiful autumn leaves in the foreground against stony walls in the background, snow falling in the feudal house’s courtyard, and the credits rolling in front of the house’s symbolic samurai statue. Nice, but hardly indispensable. Which is a fairly accurate description of this pointless remake. VS

Shock Head Soul

It’s beautifully shot, and I love the typewriter jellyfish manifestations, but Shock Head Soul renders what seems to be a fascinating psychological case study into an achingly serious, ponderous trudge. It offers no compelling characters or observations of note and I found myself, after half an hour, wanting the whole thing to just shut up, which is possibly not the compassionate reaction to mental illness that the filmmakers were aiming for. Maybe I’m too stupid, too stupid to understand. MS

Mosori Monika

Intimate Visions: Films by Chick Strand

While the LFF closing gala screenings took place on the other side of the river, there was a tiny audience for the NFT’s programme of six films made between the 1960s and 1980s by Chick Strand, the Californian experimental and ethnographic filmmaker who died in 2009. It was a rare chance to see Strand’s work, and we got to sample a few different facets of it, from found-footage pieces that make use of archival material to her poetic, intimate approach to ethnographic filmmaking. The witty and, in the case of Loose Ends(1979), sometimes disturbing montages of old film and audio – in which sound and vision are juxtaposed in a way that recalls the darkly funny audio-visual collages of People Like Us – have dated less well than Mosori Monika (1970), a dreamlike, compelling portrait of a missionary settlement in Venezuela with conflicting voice-overs from a Catholic nun and an indigenous woman. Meanwhile, Artificial Paradise (1986), shot in Mexico, is both a gorgeously tactile, hypnotic piece about human and animal bodies in motion and in close-up – dancing, running, riding – and a comment on the exoticisation of those bodies: an example of having one’s cake and eating it, perhaps, but it’s spellbinding stuff. Strand’s feel for physicality and use of found footage are combined in Angel Blue Sweet Wings (1966), in which a male dancer whirls in the sunshine to the sound of Aretha Franklin’s ‘Doctor Feelgood’, while lights and sequins pulse in joyful sympathy, articulating a feminist vision that’s as sensual and playful as it is critical. FM

360

It’s always nice when the bad guys in an ensemble film neatly take themselves out of the picture, isn’t it? Saves you having to, ooh, I don’t know, write something that might actually happen in the real world. Fernando Meirelles’s latest features a host of fine acting talent (Hopkins! Weisz! Debbouze! That bloke out of The Baader-Meinhof Complex! ummm… Jude Law!) and puts them to work in a series of interlocking scenarios based around travellers from Vienna, London, Paris, Denver and Phoenix. I’d be lying if I said it had nothing going on, with this many characters and stories something was bound to click, and the dissolves and transitions are inventive, but really, this is tossycock of the first order. Tossycock, I tell you! MS

Target

Mentions of the Strugatsky brothers and Tarkovsky in the LFF write-up on this futuristic Russian tale were enticing, but Target turned out to be a pompous sci-fi soufflé, philosophically fluffy, insipid and indigestible. The story follows members of the Russian media and political elite as they seek to obtain eternal youth by travelling to a remote, abandoned astrophysics base and exposing themselves to the cosmic rays channelled into its central well. But the experience is so intense that its consequences are extreme, in a manner both positive and destructive. Unlike its illustrious predecessors, the self-important and portentous Target offers strictly no insights into the human condition, and no ideas of any interest about the future or the universe over its sprawling two-and-a-half-hour running time. The wide screen attempts to convey an epic feel, the sun’s rays over the ‘target’ in the barren landscape are meant to be humbling, the urban settings are as slick and modern as in Hollywood science fiction, and the whole is entirely empty and soulless. And then there’s the sex. Laughably bad sex, made worse by startling outbursts of bombastic music, in case the audience did not quite get how passionate it all is. And in a couple of instances, even dodgy sex, in which the women are barely consenting. This is one Target that is way off the mark. VS

Asshole

With its punkety rockety /sex ‘n’ drugs/ monochrome on the scuzzy streets milieu, Gandu/Asshole kind of put me in mind of the Cinema of Transgression flicks of the 80s and 90s. Most of those films, however, ran for 20 minutes tops. Gandu runs for 89, which is a long time to spend in the company of an unbearable, un-pretty solipsistic douchebag, who smokes smack, nicks money from his hooker mom’s clients, and bemoans his fate as a would-be hip hop star in an Indian backwater that has no need of one. It all looks like photo spreads from Vice magazine, or Dazed and Confused, there’s some of yer actual unsimulated sex, and a datura trip and all kinds of Daily Mail baiting whatnot, but it was only while reading the notes in the programme that I realised that the mother character was supposed to be his mother, which pretty much sums it up. Has its moments, visually and musically, and it has energy to burn, but at the end of the day, it’s bollocks. MS

Raindance 2011: Hits and Misses

The Enemy

Raindance Film Festival

28 Sept – 9 Oct 2011

Apollo + Cineworld Haymarket, London

Raindance website

Mark Stafford, Thomas Grimshaw and Virginie Sélavy report on the hits and misses at this year’s Raindance Film Festival.

Dick Night

Months after being jilted at the altar, Rachel (Jennifer June Ross) has become a reclusive slob, surrounded by mounds of takeaway pizza boxes and unopened wedding gifts in her isolated home. An intervention by her mother shakes her up, but she decides that the only way to truly get over this hump is to get laid, pronto. She invites a likely candidate to come over but nothing runs to plan, the wrong people keep turning up at her door, a pizza delivery guy, an over-protective friend, her ex, a weird girl and, eventually, a horde of would-be vampires…

Andy Viner’s debut is an object lesson in making the most of limited resources (a house in the desert, a committed cast, a vehicle or two). It’s oddly constructed, being about 80% sex farce to 20% horror movie, pretty rough around the edges, and Viner doesn’t seem especially committed to having everything wrap up and make sense, but for the most part it works. It’s pretty funny and breezes along on ramshackle charm, as Rachel’s would-be seductions continually turn into discussions of her marital woes, and the vampires are motivated by a desire to join Team Edward in the Twilight franchise. What can I say? It’s fun! MS

War Games

War Games is the latest addition to the sub-genre of the survival horror film. Whereas films such as the classic Deliverance or the recent Eden Lake utilised the genre to throw up politically charged issues, War Games can make no such claim and exists purely as an exercise in cheap thrills. However, there is also a lot of fun to be had in this tale of young paintballers entering into a deadly game of cat and mouse with a trio of deranged military types. With little justification for their actions, except that shooting dogs just ain’t no fun anymore, the antagonists are painted in very broad strokes, delivering portentous monologues in a mixture of disparate European accents. The heightened display of tropes and stereotypes actually plays to the film’s advantage and creates a slightly innocent 1980s feel, eons away from the torture porn of Eli Roth and co. That’s not to say that the film doesn’t offer up its fair share of blood and guts, but it tastefully opts out of any sadistic voyeurism. The weakest links are undoubtedly the film’s young, peppy protagonists, who blur into one singular unit with slight gender variation. Despite the flaws in the plot and characterisation, War Games has a sly cheekiness that paradoxically wins you over to its way of thinking. Directed thick and fast by Italian music video director Cosimo Alem&#224, it makes great use of limited locations; the forest is a wonderfully labyrinthine nest that helps to compound the palpable sense of danger. War Games is by no means a defining horror film, but it does exude a perverse frivolity and has a lot of fun with its genre stylings. TG

The Box

The Box approaches the Yugoslav conflict from a seemingly quirky, tangential angle that makes the film all the more powerful. Serbian director Andrijana Stojkovic observes the beginning of the Bosnian war in 1992 through the lives of three young men who work in removals, packing the possessions of one ambassador after another as all diplomatic staff leave Belgrade. Billy is a football fan, Cvrle a musician with ambitions to be an international rock star, Vladan a gifted student trying to leave the city to study in the Netherlands. Shot in beautifully stark black and white with austerely composed images, the film cuts between their lives and documentary-style interviews with them and the various diplomats they work for. This device helps build a part humorous, part-poignant picture of the different, sometimes highly contrasting ways in which the conflict affects the lives of the young men and their foreign clients, shaping a subtle critique of Western powers. Strikingly original, intelligently written and visually accomplished, it was a definite highlight of the festival. VS

The Enemy

Serbia offered another interesting take on the conflict with The Enemy, a horror-tinged thriller set a week after the end of the Bosnian war. The film opens with a brilliant credits sequence that starts in total darkness; sounds are heard, then light shines through, revealing that a wall is being broken down, and a man appears, smoking calmly, inside the dark cavity. He is rescued and taken back to the Bosnian soldiers’ isolated headquarters in an abandoned house. Naming himself only as Daba (a nickname connected to the fact that he limps), he is an odd character who smiles enigmatically at everything, smokes and never seems to eat, unnerving some of the most unstable soldiers, who start to believe he may be a malign, supernatural being. As the soldiers wait impatiently for the order to go home, paranoia, distrust and superstition fuel a dangerously rising tension. Filming in muted, almost monochrome colours, director Dejan Zečevi&#263 creates a convincingly claustrophobic atmosphere, although the unnecessary, overly verbose literary and religious references weaken the narrative. The film is most successful in the way it uses horror elements to comment on the absurdity of war; the narrow perspective of the soldier, who only sees his corner of the war and not the bigger picture; and the idea that the enemy is inside, which is particularly powerful in the context of the Bosnian war. Remaining ambiguous to the end, The Enemy offers a great take on the figure of the interloper, whose mere presence reveals hidden feelings in the other characters and changes the dynamics of the group. VS

X

Cameramurderer

An isolated Bauhaus-style home deep within a maze of lakes and grasslands somewhere in Hungary: some local children have gone missing, and a creepy video has been posted on the web that appears to show their pursuit and sadistic murder. This is probably not the best time for two couples to enjoy a few days of wine and socialising, a short walk away from the possible crime scene. As the police helicopters circle, tensions within the house mount and suspicions form. Could one of them be responsible for the horrendous crime? Robert A. Pejo’s film is essentially a four-hander play, albeit one with a well-used location. While the shifting allegiances and antagonisms within the group are well handled and performed, I was never especially surprised by any developments in the story. None of the characters are particularly engaging. And anybody expecting a film with this title to do much with the camera, or play with point of view, will be disappointed. Meh. MS

Kingdom of Survival

In his latest documentary, director M.A. Littler sets out to uncover the multiple strands of dissidence still alive in the United States today, seeking out interviewees as diverse as Professor Noam Chomsky, outlaw historian Dr Mark Mirabello and gonzo journalist Joe Bageant. While the individual interviews are genuinely compelling, presenting a roster of passionate and articulate speakers, with Chomsky and Mirabello offering the most insightful critique of the United States entrenched capitalist system, the lack of narrative provides few key links between its commentators, and as a result the film feels episodic and unfocused. Littler himself supplies the only bond between these disparate elements. Driving from subject to subject, Littler, in regular interludes, mythologises and eulogises those who live outside the system and laments the scarcity of people keeping the outlaw ideology alive. However righteous his attempts might be though, his beat-poet, cowboy persona often threatens to derail the admirable attempts of his subjects, making him appear self-conscious and smug. That said, the film does offer a genuine attempt to present a complex subject matter in layman’s terms without losing the potency and complexity of its inherent ideology. TG

State of Emergency

There’s been an explosion somewhere outside a small town in Middle America, and something is in the air that’s turning normal people into crazed killers. We follow Jim as he loses his fiancée and tries to survive, first on his own, and then after hooking up with three other survivors as they hole up in a warehouse and try and stay sane, uninfected and breathing.

The early sequences of State of Emergency where Jim, in some abandoned stables, tries to make sense of what has happened, attempts to summon help and deals with an unwelcome intruder, clearly show that Turner Clay can assemble a suspenseful scene and create an atmosphere of eerie desperation. His creeps are pretty creepy, standing like scarecrows until they burst into snarling life, and, in an intriguing moment, one of them even talks (‘I’m looking for my daughter…’) But, for Christ’s sake, Mr Clay, you simply cannot make a zombie movie this straightforward and simplistic this late in the day, in this saturated sub-genre. Surely any filmmaker paying attention and raising money should realise that they have to ring a few changes, twist a few clichés, do something strange or difficult or alarming to lift themselves out of the shambling horde. State of Emergency‘s characters are dull, the dialogue is flat and perfunctory, and there is none of the subversive socio-political business that makes the key living dead films interesting. What’s the point? MS

X

Best seen as a piece of shameless exploitation, X is an Australian thriller set in the seedy, dangerous world of sex workers, corrupt cops and junkies in King’s Cross, Sydney. We have Holly, a high-class whore, pulling off one last job before she flees to Paris. We have Shay, a teenage runaway trying to survive her first night as a hooker on the mean streets. And we have a suitcase full of something that various nasty bastards are willing to kill for. Go!

X is gritty, glossy and grim, there’s plentiful use of split-screen, constant ambient noise and a general feeling of audio-visual overload, as Jon Hewitt takes us up and down the social scales of prostitution from a sex show for Chardonnay-sipping suburbanites to smack-addled wretches cowering in love motels, waiting to be raped by the owners. There’s an ever present sense of the vulnerability of tough women. It’s exhilarating and shocking in places, moves like a freight train, and has nothing especially original to say about its sordid little world. Still, the old ‘torn-from-today’s-headlines’ sensation-seeking aesthetic means that you’re unlikely to be bored. It fits a lot into 85 minutes, and ends on an ambiguous note that doesn’t leave you feeling cheated. MS

London Film Festival 2011: preview

This Must Be the Place

55th BFI London Film Festival

12-27 October 2011, various venues, London

LFF website

The 55th London Film Festival starts tomorrow and Mark Stafford guides us through the programme.

This Must Be the Place
Proof that you can have too much of a good thing comes in the form of this Paolo Sorrentino work. After the assured, note-perfect Consequences of Love and Il Divo comes this bloated English-language co-production. Cheyenne (Sean Penn) is a Goth rock star living in Ireland, whose music has made him money enough that he doesn’t need to work again. He drifts through his mansion and through his life, a vision in bird’s nest hair and lipstick, until a phone call informs him that his estranged Jewish father is on his deathbed. After the funeral, back in the US he finds himself energised, to a point, by a mission to track down the concentration camp guard his dad had spent much of his life unsuccessfully seeking. Driving a pick-up through Utah and New Mexico he encounters a series of characters on the way towards a final confrontation, and perhaps some kind of reconciliation with his demons.

This bare-bones synopsis will give you no idea how rich, funny, beautiful, wayward, twee and overloaded This Must Be the Place is. It’s like three or more films in one. There’s the True Stories-style wallow in scorched Americana road movie, the Burtonesque Goth detective movie, the sweet, sad character comedy of the first half hour. There’s Frances McDormand as Cheyenne’s wife doing Tai Chi, there’s Harry Dean Stanton talking about wheeled luggage, there’s a teenage romance subplot, there’s the business with the loaned 4×4, the business with the local Irish band, there’s Judd Hirsch’s Nazi hunter. It’s the kind of film where every conversation with a stranger at a bar or café will yield a little philosophical nugget. Every shot is a precise, louma-craned marvel of widescreen photography. A lot of it is terrific stuff, but there’s just too much here to be digestible, too much to be resolved satisfactorily.

Penn is wonderful as Cheyenne, and he is given great things to do and say. The soundtrack is by David Byrne (with lyrics by Will Oldham) and Byrne cameos in a magnificent one-shot live rendering of the old Talking Heads number that gives the film its title, a sequence that’s a reason to see the film in itself. I doubt any other single moment of cinema will give me as much pleasure this year. But it’s another cherry in an overcooked cake.

Martha Marcy May Marlene
Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) flees from a commune in the Catskills one morning and phones her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), whom she hasn’t seen in two years. Lucy drives her out to the lake house that she and high-achieving husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) are vacationing in. But any hope of reconciliation, or explanation of what the hell Martha was up to in the years she went missing, are frustrated by her clipped, evasive replies to any questions. Worse, something has changed in her, it’s like she has unlearned normal human behaviour somewhere along the way. And while tensions grow in the uptight lake house we see flashbacks to the life Martha has fled, a cultish, coercive, sexualised world of disturbing mind games, which may not be willing to let her go…

Sean Durkin’s debut is a creepy, tense and ambiguous piece of work. Camera sound and editing combine to admirable effect, and Olson is a bit of a revelation as Martha, in a nuanced study of fear and concealment. The slowly emerging details of the Mansonesque commune convince. The acoustic guitars, encounter group smiles and counterintuitive psychobabble (‘death is pure love’) spouted by indie favourite John Hawkes as the charismatic, controlling leader never trip over the line into the lurid clichés they could be in clumsier hands. Durkin makes smart choices about what to leave out of his story; the flashbacks detail the emotional and personal moments of life in the Catskills, but we don’t know what the cult’s religious or political aims (if any) were, and have to fill in the gaps. We wonder whether Lucy and Ted are in real danger, to what extent Martha has ‘drunk the Kool Aid’, and what she is capable of. But whether all this impressively sustained threatening atmosphere pays off to anyone’s satisfaction will, I suspect, be the cause of much argument.

Bernie
This light, sun-dappled Richard Linklater film, based on a true story, tells the tale of Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), assistant funeral director and much loved pillar of the community in Carthage, East Texas, who, amid all the church fund-raising, junior league coaching and amateur dramatics theatre work, might just have committed a heinous crime. Black is terrific as Bernie, a mile away from his usual schtick, fey, fastidious, half-channelling the ghost of Liberace and surrounded by a coterie of blue-rinsed admirers, and Matthew McConaughey gives good asshole as a glory hound D.A. But the film’s real ace cards are the people of Carthage. In face-to-face interviews with a mix of actors and real townsfolk we learn the whole sad story through a rich array of Texan colloquialisms. It’s overlong, and not especially profound, but it’s fun.

Junkhearts
Post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by military service, crack addiction, alcoholism, homelessness and crime-ridden tower blocks in a world bereft of glamour or romance. Hooray for British Film! Frank (Eddie Marsan) takes in Lynette (Candese Reid) off of the mean streets of, um, Brick Lane, and a frosty, combative relationship slowly develops into something sweeter, until Lynette’s nasty piece of work boyfriend (Tom Sturridge) turns up and humiliation and abuse follow. Tinge Krishnan’s first feature is occasionally affecting and benefits from committed performances, but, despite all the grit and grime, Junkhearts doesn’t wholly convince. There are odd gaps in the narrative, characters and situations disappear or resolve themselves, and it all feels too much like hard work, way longer than its 90 minutes.

Junkhearts is released in the UK on 4 November 2011 by Soda Pictures.

Curling King
Once a curling champion, Truls Paulsen (Atle Antonsen) was institutionalised 10 years ago when his obsessive compulsion about the sport tipped him over the edge. Now released, medicated into docility, he is supposed to stay well away from the ice rink lest his mania recur, but then his old mentor is revealed to be on his deathbed, and only the championship prize money can save him. Can he re-assemble his ageing team of misfits, and kick his medication without once again losing his mind? Uh, maybe. Essentially, a Norwegian riff on the likes of Kingpin, Dodgeball and the bowling segments of The Big Lebowski. Curling King isn’t anything new, says little of worth about the human condition and is unlikely to win any major awards. It is, however, really really funny, in a broad, riding-a-steamroller-through-your-objections kind of way. A feast of well-shot physical and verbal shenanigans performed to the hilt by a cast I can only assume are comedy gods in Norway.

Take Shelter
Michael Shannon plays Curtis Laforce, a blue-collar worker for a sand-mining company, father of a deaf daughter, husband to a loving wife. He’s a dependable, practical man, quietly self-reliant in the Western mode, used to solving his own problems, which is why it shakes him to the core when he starts to be plagued by apocalyptic visions – fierce dreams where a thick oil-like rain falls from the mother of all dark clouds, and people turn violent and crazy. The dreams warn him against his dog and his best friend, and fill him with a nameless anxiety that he has to do something to prepare for the coming storm.

Jeff Nichols’s sure-footed film is a psychological study bordering on horror film, with an admirably true-to-life scenario and a well-maintained sense of unease. Curtis knows that his own mother was diagnosed schizophrenic when she was younger than he is, and his taciturn agony as he begins to doubt his own perceptions is horribly moving. We begin to fear for his wife and child as he goes off the rails, starts becoming obsessed with the tornado shelter out back of the house, spending money they don’t have and risking everything they do have. Shannon is terrific, as is Jessica Chastain as his mortified and horrified wife. Recommended.

Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975

Black Power Mixtape 1967-75
A chronological compilation of clips culled from Swedish television archives, detailing their coverage of the Black Power movement in the US. So we get from Stokely Carmichael to Louis Farrakhan via Panthers aplenty. There’s a real star turn by Angela Davis in bright orange against a turquoise prison backdrop, fierce and eloquent with an impressive Afro. And an amusing segment where Swedish television is accused of anti-Americanism by TV Guide magazine. It is, by its nature, a mixed bag, some parts more vital than others, and that 1975 cut-off date seems arbitrary, leaving us in the middle of a heroin epidemic with the Nation of Islam on the rise. Still, plenty to chew on.

Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 is released in UK cinemas on October 21 by Soda Pictures.

Nobody Else but You
Fun noir-ish mystery wherein writer of thrillers David (Jean-Paul Rouve) finds himself investigating the death of model, weather girl and local celebrity Candice (Sophie Quinton) in the snowbound town of Mouthe in eastern France. The French title is Poupoupidou, as sung by Marilyn Monroe, and the central conceit of the film is that Candice’s life had odd parallels to the Monroe story. David is an engaging character, the script is witty and playful, and it all looks gorgeous. I enjoyed Nobody Else but You a lot, but ultimately it’s all too fluffy. There’s no real sense of threat, or darkness to make it matter. Disappointing.

Dark Horse
Abe (Jordan Gelber) is an overweight, balding man in his 30s, still living with his parents (Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow) and fitting in some work at his dad’s firm around buying Thundercats dolls on eBay. His life seems to be about to turn around when he proposes marriage to semi-suicidal Miranda (Selma Blair), a girl he has barely met, but this is a Todd Solondz film, so the odds aren’t in his favour.

This is Solondz’s most contained and controlled film since Welcome to the Dollhouse, focusing on one story about a particular type of American idiot. Abe is an overgrown adolescent, blasting out positive pop in his canary yellow Humvee, a fantasist full of self-motivation seminar bravado that collapses into resentful bitterness at the slightest setback. The first half of the film sets up his character and situation, the second half pretty much demolishes what has gone before in a series of hallucinatory revelations. There are, as you would expect from this director, a lot of painful truths and squirm-inducing situations set against a bright suburban backdrop. The performances are spot on, like a series of vicious Dan Clowes pen portraits filmed with Kubrick concentration. But where previous efforts were broadsides aimed at the hypocrisies and delusions of modern America, Dark Horse pretty much goes for one man’s jugular with no mercy. The result is a feeling of overkill.

Oslo, August 31st
Anders (Anders Danielson Lie) is a 10-month clean ex-junkie who is given a day off from his rehabilitation centre, ostensibly to attend a job interview in Oslo. We know from a failed attempt at the outset of the film that he is suicidal, but as he visits friends, tries to hook up with his sister, and attempts repeatedly to contact an old girlfriend it’s difficult to discern what his intentions are. Have the years on the needle cauterised his emotions, or was he always this way? It’s clear he once had better options than most, and it’s difficult to feel sympathy for a guy who has this many gorgeous women throw themselves at him to so little effect, but that’s partly the point of Joachim Trier’s film, which, while clearly not a barrel of laughs, is made compelling by note-perfect performances and superior, imaginative filmmaking. A sequence where Anders eavesdrops on the conversations around him in a cafe and knows, for a short while, lives which he can never have is particularly inspired. A class act.

Oslo, August 31st is released in the UK on 4 November 2011 by Soda Pictures.

The Future
Another idiosyncratic turn from Miranda July (Me & You and Everyone We Know). Sophie and Jason (July and Hamish Linklater) are the kind of couple you find in films like this. They wear a lot of thrift shop wool, somehow pay the rent on a thrift shop-furnished apartment with jobs (children’s dance teacher, tech support) that they don’t seem to do much, and have kooky conversations about, y’know, life and time and stuff. Their decision to adopt an ailing cat gives them a month to adjust to having some kind of responsibility for the first time in their lives. They react to this in differing ways; he becomes a door-to-door worker for an environmental campaign, she takes on an internet dance project, and later, infidelity. Chance, coincidence and random social connections take hold of their lives and the film shifts slowly into increasingly metaphorical territory. Some of it is narrated by the cat while we see close-ups of his puppet paws. How you get on with The Future pretty much depends upon your tolerance for the cutesy, the quirky and all variations thereof (the quirksy?). My patience bone started getting itchy around the time the crawling T-shirt showed up, but I’d be lying if I denied the film’s moments of singular beauty and invention. It’s up to you.

The Future is released in the UK on 4 November 2011 by Picturehouse Entertainment.

Let the Bullets Fly
1920s China. A bandit hijacks the train of a conman, and, finding no money, takes over the conman’s scheme to pass himself off as the new governor of Goose Town, where he hopes that the bribes and taxes will roll in. However, Goose Town is run by the warlord Huang, who has long had its myriad complicated corruptions sewn up in his favour, and a three-way battle of wills, and guns, begins.

For a film called Let the Bullets Fly, this is pretty low on action; there are a couple of well-staged standoffs, but that’s your lot. What we mainly get instead is a theatrical, broadly comic political farce, with lots of zippy back-and-forth dialogue, and a dizzying succession of twists and turns, bluffs and double bluffs. Everybody seems to be wearing a literal or metaphorical mask at one time or another. Chow Yun Fat chews the scenery in a villainous turn as Huang, Jiang Wen looks cool in shades as the bandit, and Ge You’s turn as the conman heralds the alarming return of the long-lost ‘wily oriental’ stereotype. It’s well over length at 132 minutes, but has an engaging late Spaghetti Western style, with an irreverent attitude to power and money, and a revolutionary pay-off. I enjoyed it, but be warned that the critical chatter after the screening showed that I was in the minority on this one.

The Awakening
A well-mounted, good-looking and solidly performed (by Dominic West and Imelda Staunton) ghost story from BBC films, in which sceptical rationalist Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) investigates spooky goings on in a gloomy boys’ boarding school in a very post-Great War 1921. I’m a sucker for this kind of thing, and if they slapped this on TV over Christmas I’d be happy, but, a couple of fine sequences aside (there’s a wonderfully creepy bit of business involving a dollhouse) this is all too familiar in story, look and tone to the likes of The Others and The Orphanage. It’s perfectly fine for what it is, I jumped out of my seat a couple of times, so it works, but a bit more ambiguity and madness would have worked wonders.

The Awakening is released in the UK on 11 November 2011 by Studiocanal.

Mark Stafford

Three Little Raindancers

Black Pond

Raindance Film Festival

28 Sept – 9 Oct 2011

Apollo + Cineworld Haymarket, London

Raindance website

Mark Stafford previews three films showing at the Raindance Film Festival.

Black Pond

This Will Sharpe/Tom Kingsley film is an odd little piece of work, mixing faux-documentary and drama, in which a rich and estranged couple’s encounter with a quietly damaged, mentally troubled man leads to tabloid notoriety, amid a tangle of miscommunication, unrequited love and poetry. Chiefly of interest for the welcome presence of Chris Langham, best known for TV’s The Thick of It and his spell in prison, as the well-meaning, clueless husband and father who takes the stranger in. Simon Amstell gives a disarming turn as an ethically dubious ‘psychiatrist’. Feels more like an over-extended short than a fully satisfying feature, and strays too far into shapeless whimsy, but there are nice flourishes, and it definitely has character.

Black Pond is released on 11 November by Black Pond Films.

The Most Important Thing in Life Is Not Being Dead

Very pretty, largely monochrome Swiss work set in Spain about an ageing piano tuner whose relatively frictionless life and marriage under the Franco regime turn out to be a whole lot more complicated than he thinks. As he loses sleep and his sub-conscious tries to tell him something, we get moments of animation and a fair few dream sequences in this contemplative, affectless film. It has a certain charm, but I could have used a lot more grit in the oyster.

Music from the Big House

Bruce McDonald’s b/w US documentary about blues singer Rita Chiarelli organising a concert at the Louisiana State Maximum Security Prison, where a group of lifers get to perform R&B and soul numbers for a largely captive audience, plus invited family members. The filmmaking is nothing new, though it’s well framed and looks fine. Its main appeal lies in the characters of Rita and the prisoners, and their interaction as they pull the various performances together. For a brief while they become musicians and singers, in a short respite from a harsh existence. These aren’t young men, for the most part, but old lags with decades of time under their belts, after they’ve found Jesus or lost hope of parole. We get to know them as people with favourite drummers and unexpected previous lives, only learning about their crimes at the close of the film.

Raindance opens on Wednesday 28 October. More information on the Raindance website.

Cannibal Holocaust: Interview with Ruggero Deodato

Ruggero Deodato at Cine-Excess in May 2011 (Photo by Adrian Smith)

Cine-Excess V

26-28 May 2010

Odeon Covent Garden, London

Cine-Excess website

Mark Stafford talked to legendary Italian director Ruggero Deodato at the fifth edition of Cine-Excess in May 2011, where Deodato was a guest of honour.

Mark Stafford: When I first saw Cannibal Holocaust it depressed me, it’s such a nihilistic view of humanity. Where did it come from?

Ruggero Deodato: Cannibal Holocaust was made 30 years after the concentration camps, when I saw those photos it took me several months to recover. It’s 60 years ago now, but those are the things that should be of real concern to us, that’s where the real evil is. The thing that gets me is, say, there’s 1000 people and 100 people with guns, and the ones with guns say ‘Dig your own graves’. Even if they had no weapons, 1000 against 100, why didn’t they just attack? I’ll tell you why, it was terror. And that really got me thinking of what terror does to people. It’s the same in my film, these four individuals terrorise the Indios, and their terror keeps them from mobilising.

My film is fiction. Why do people react to CH, but don’t react to an American soldier being beheaded? Forget my film for a second, do people have no recollection of what happened in history? Public executions with people being torn apart by horses, and even the guillotine! There would be an audience, people clapping and cheering. I’m not that terrible! I’m annoyed that there is a reaction to violence in my films but no reaction to the terrifying violence happening out there every day. Why do people only wake up when they see a piece of fiction, and say ‘Oh, that’s horrible’? There are horrible things that are far more serious because they’re real. Everybody wearing rose-tinted spectacles. That makes me angry.

The worst film that I’ve seen is that French film about an execution and the worst thing in that is that they don’t tell you when. You’re there and they come to grab you and that’s it. You’re gone. That’s the film that creates the worst anxiety for me.

Cannibal Holocaust is released on DVD and Blu-ray on 26 September by Shameless Screen Entertainment. Read the review.

Cannibal Holocaust presents a pretty hateful view of documentary makers, as opposed to fiction filmmakers. Is that just the logic of the film, or did you genuinely feel angry with TV journalists at the time?

It’s the media. For example, the children of a family have been horribly killed, the journalist asks the mother, ‘What do you feel?’ I think, what do you think she feels? She’s lost her kids! What do you want from her? You want sensation, you want something to increase your audience, that’s what I’m against. To get back to your question, when I wrote it I was very angry about these filmmakers. With fiction, if I do something in one of my films, everybody says that I’m an evil criminal bastard. If the press show the same thing, they are praised to the skies. I’m guilty of that as well, I understand it because if you were to throw me out of a plane with a film camera I would carry on filming. Why do we have so many views of the planes and the buildings on 9/11? If people see someone being stabbed and they have a camera, they’re going to film it.

You pioneered the faux-documentary techniques, and the ‘found footage’ idea that ages later got used on The Blair Witch Project. How do you feel about its success?

Everyone went to see Blair Witch because of what happened on the internet, which was very clever, and there are parts of how it’s shot that are very interesting. But when people leaving the cinema were interviewed they said, ‘an Italian guy made this film 20 years ago’. So everybody wanted to interview me, from Japan and everywhere, and from this Cannibal Holocaust was reborn!

Do you regret the animal cruelty scenes, if only for the effect they’ve had on the success of the film?

The same rose-tinted guys. They don’t make the connection between the food on the table that mummy has cooked from the supermarket, and the fact the animal has actually been killed. When you go to a Third World country people kill animals. I saw pigs and rabbits being killed growing up on a country farm when I was young. My son has not seen this because times have changed, he hasn’t had the experiences I have, for him it all comes pre-packed.

I’ve always been curious about Michael Berryman, he’s turned up in a couple of your films…

He’s nice. He lives with 14 wolves. He was born at five months. I love him. He’s a quiet man, a sweet man. But he has no issue with doing terrible things on screen, because he lives in the countryside.

 

*****

 

Thanks to Ruggero Deodato, Paul Smith for setting up the interview and Shameless Entertainment for their translation duties and bearing the brunt of
Deodato’s annoyance at being asked the same damn questions over and over.

During an interview with Xavier Mendik later during Cine-Excess, Deodato went into the stuff he wanted to talk about: his father-son relationship with Rossellini (both Taurus, both realists), his debt to Cartier-Bresson, his politics (‘I am an anarchist. I am a liberal. I am a democrat. I vote.’), the nature of Italian cinema. ‘Italian film has always been dominated by formula, neo-realism dominates, dies, comedy dominates, dies, Spaghetti Westerns, comedy westerns, police films, the same. At the moment group comedy is king. Now and then a great idea for a film comes along, we wait for them to come along so we can all follow them.’

Interview by Mark Stafford

Film4 FrightFest 2011 part 1

Kill List

Film4 FrightFest

25-29 August 2011, Empire, London

FrightFest website

Two FrightFest hits are released in early September – full FrightFest round-up coming soon!

Kill List

Ben Wheatley’s second feature was one of the most eagerly awaited offerings at Film4 FrightFest on the August bank holiday weekend. Wheatley’s debut, Down Terrace, was a festival hit two years ago, and deservedly so. Tightly written, finely observed and darkly humorous, it mixed dysfunctional family drama with criminal elements in a refreshing take on the tired British gangster genre.

Kill List similarly combines gritty realism and crime film, but adds a sinister cult to the mix, not entirely wisely. It begins like a kitchen sink drama about the life of a work-shy hitman, Jay, who has blazing rows with his worried wife Shel and a son to provide for. Over a dinner party, his friend and partner Gal manages to convince him to go back to work. But as they go through their client’s kill list, Jay is shaken by what they discover about their targets and becomes increasingly psychotic, his violent behaviour fuelled by self-righteous moral indignation.

Kill List is released in UK cinemas on September 2 by Studio Canal.

As in Down Terrace, the character study, the observation of family dynamics and male friendship, and the excellent dialogue are utterly compelling. But the introduction of the cult element seems unnecessary and unoriginal and does not quite blend with the rest of the story. It is never explained fully, and although mystery and ambiguity are entirely desirable in a film, it is not evocative enough to fire up the imagination. Despite this and an ending that feels tacked on, Kill List is thoroughly engaging for most of its running time and Ben Wheatley is clearly a talent to watch. Virginie Sélavy

A Lonely Place To Die

A Lonely Place To Die

FrightFest closed with another gripping British thriller, directed by Julian Gilbey. A party of would-be mountaineers on a climbing holiday in the Scottish Highlands make a shocking discovery in the woods, uncovering a Serbian girl buried in a box. They deduce that she is part of a kidnapping plot and resolve to get her back to civilisation. But the kidnappers are out there somewhere, and the girl may be part of something far more dangerous… Gilbey’s film works pretty well as a peril-in-the-wilderness thrill ride, with the small cast members being picked off one by one against spectacular scenery in a variety of unpleasant ways. But it’s more ambitious than it at first seems, throws in a surprise or three, and gets more paranoid and political in the final act. I’m not sure how well this all sits together, though; the dialogue is clunky at times, with characters telling each other things they’d already know. And the kidnappers’ avowed professionalism is undermined by bouts of incompetence and suicidal stupidity. But it rattles along nicely, Sean Harris adds another great turn to his portfolio of horrible bastards, it’s not dull, and the script has its moments – ‘He’s gonna go like Christian fucking Bale in there!’ Mark Stafford

A Lonely Place To Die is released in UK cinemas on September 7 by Kaleidoscope Entertainment.

Interview with Jan Švankmajer

Alice

Format: Cinema

Date: 16 June 2010

Venue: Barbican

Director:Jan Švankmajer

Writer: Jan Švankmajer

Based on Alice in Wonderland by: Lewis Carroll

Original title: Nĕco z Alenky

Cast: Kristýna Kohoutová

Czechoslovakia 1988

86 mins

As part of Watch Me Move – On the Big Screen, a special animation season that runs throughout July and August and complements Watch Me Move – The Animation Show in Barbican Art Gallery, the Barbican explores the work of some of the most influential filmmakers in animation, starting with Jan Švankmajer from Thursday 16 to Saturday 25 June. The screening of Alice, a wonderfully sinister interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s story, on Thursday 16 will be followed by a Q&A with Jan Švankmajer and Peter Hames. The director’s latest film, Surviving Life (Theory and Practice) (2010), a comic, surreal take on psychoanalysis, screens on Sunday 19.

Mark Stafford and Virginie Sélavy interviewed Jan Švankmajer by email.

Q; You have said you were ‘steeped’ in Prague and yet the city rarely features in your films. In what way has Prague, and being Czech, influenced your work?

Being Czech definitely didn’t have any influence on my work. What did influence it was that I spent my childhood in Czechoslovakia, particularly in Prague. A personality is formed by its mental morphology. For artistic work this is absolutely fundamental. Prague appears in my films quite often. You will find it in Alice and in Surviving Life (Theory and Practice), but this is not the Prague of the tourist guide books, but the Prague of my childhood. You won’t find ‘the sights’ but chipped walls, the dirty staircases of blocks of flats, mysterious cellars, hidden courtyards, the suburbs.

Q: Is it true that you had a little puppet theatre at home as a child and that this was common in all Czech families? How important has this been for your work?

Yes, it was quite a common toy. For an introverted child it was an amazing gift. I could use puppets to play out all life’s injustices, correcting them, taking revenge. Puppets have accompanied me throughout my life. It may be that everything I do is just a puppet play.

Q: Alice was your first feature film, why did you choose to start with Lewis Carroll? How important is he as an influence on your work in general?

Alice belongs to my mental morphology. Before I made up my mind to do a feature-length film I was circling around the subject. I made Jabberwocky and Down to the Cellar and only then dared to shoot the whole of Alice. Personally I think that Lewis Carroll’s Alice is one of the most important and amazing books produced by this civilisation.

Q: Although it is not an adaptation, your Alice feels very close to the book, and in particular brings out the sense of menace and aggression that is present in it but is often overlooked in insipid versions such as Disney’s. Was that an important aspect of Carroll’s work for you?

So far all adaptations of Alice (including the latest by Tim Burton) present it as a fairy tale, but Carroll wrote it as a dream. And between a dream and a fairy tale there is a fundamental difference. While a fairy tale has got an educational aspect – it works with the moral of the lifted forefinger (good overcomes evil), dream, as an expression of our unconscious, uncompromisingly pursues the realisation of our most secret wishes without considering rational and moral inhibitions, because it is driven by the principle of pleasure. My Alice is a realised dream.

Q: Around the time of Alice, you said you were interested in a dialogue with your childhood. Do you still feel this way?

Yes. Of course I wouldn’t cut myself off from the most important source of my work.

Q: Do you feel animation can best represent the world of childhood, dream and imagination?

Animation is, so far, the only way of breathing life into inanimate things. Children’s games work with the same magic. This kind of magic is the point where childhood and animation intersect with each other.

Q: You have a clear interest in the materiality of the objects, in textures, shapes and surfaces and it is always wonderful to see how you bring to life very ordinary and often old, broken or discarded objects, which can become unfamiliar, menacing or amusing. Why are you particularly interested in that type of objects?

I like things that have passed through human hands. Things that have been touched. Such things are charged with emotions that are capable of revealing themselves under certain, extremely sensitive circumstances. I collect such objects, surround myself with them and in the end I cast such ‘fetishes’ in my films. That’s also the reason why I don’t like computer animation. Virtual reality doesn’t have a tactile dimension. Objects and figures created on a computer have no past.

Q: Did you feel there was a political aspect to Alice because of her rebellion against authority?

An absurd court hearing with Alice (‘off with her head,’ shouted the Queen) obviously recalls the political trials of the 50s. Of course Alice, compared with the accused from that time, doesn’t respect the official script. It was just a minor analogy, I didn’t shoot the film because of that. But each imaginative work has got within itself, from its very essence, a subversive charge, because it knocks down the notion of lived-through reality as the only one possible.

Q: In your latest film, Surviving Life, you tackle Freud, who has been a big influence on your work. The film makes a lot of play about the battle between Freud and Jung, and is not particularly respectful of either. How do you see Freud now and what is attitude to psychotherapy?

I read a quote somewhere that a person can only really make fun of things he truly loves. It is the same with my psychoanalytical comedy Surviving Life. Psychoanalysis is for me in particular an amazing system of interpretation. I am not that much interested in practical therapy.

Q: How much of the film’s imagery came from your own dreams?

The whole film in fact originated on the basis of my dream. The beginning of the film (the first dream) is my authentic dream and then the dream about soldiers is a dream from my childhood.

Q: How much of the film’s mischievous opening section (where you confess that Surviving Life is only an animation because you couldn’t afford live action) is true?

It is true, although it didn’t turn out that way. My producer claims that we didn’t save anything; on the contrary, by using animation the shooting period became longer. But animation brought a new symbolic level into the film and thus enriched it imaginatively.

Q: You have said that Surviving Life would be your last film but we have read that you are currently working on a project called Insects, is that true?

I have pulled out of the drawer the film story of Insects, which I wrote in 1970, and which couldn’t have been made at that time – that’s why it finished in the drawer together with many other projects rejected by the censors. Some of which I have since completed: Food, Conspirators of Pleasures, Lunacy. Now we are going to try to do Insects. The story: amateur actors in a small town are rehearsing the play by the Capek brothers The Life of Insects and their destinies mingle with characters from the play.

Q: You created work over 45 years under an oppressive regime. How does working under a capitalist system compare with working under a politically repressive system?

That stupid censorship had, after all, one advantage: at least now I have a supply of stories and screenplays, although even nowadays it is not easy to make them. This utilitarian, profit-chasing civilisation, doesn’t need authentic work. The new iconographic art is now advertising and mass culture, because if advertising were to fail, civilisation would collapse, and mass culture is supposed to entertain the masses in their free time so that they don’t think about their poor lot and take to the streets. I don’t intend to do either.

Q: There is a quote from you that we love: ‘Unless we again begin to tell fairy stories and ghost stories at night before going to sleep and recounting our dreams upon waking, nothing more is to be expected of our Western civilisation.’ This was written in 1987, what is your view on this now?

I don’t have anything to change on this. Only the possibility that it might happen seems to me even more distant.

Interview by Mark Stafford and Virginie Sélavy

Leap Year: Interview with Michael Rowe

Leap Year

Format: Cinema

Release date: 26 November 2010

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Axiom Films

Director: Michael Rowe

Writer: Lucia Carreras, Michael Rowe

Original title: Año bisiesto

Cast: Monica del Carmen, Gustavo Sáchez Parra, Armando Hernández

Mexico 2010

94 mins

Australian Michael Rowe’s Leap Year is a claustrophobic, disturbing little gem, set almost entirely within a small apartment, with a tiny cast of characters. A freelance journalist working from home in Mexico City, Laura (Monica del Carmen) is lonely and isolated. She watches any couples with hungry eyes, deals with her distant mother by phone, indulges in a series of unsatisfying one-night stands, and crosses off the days on the calendar. But then the sadomasochistic Arturo (Gustavo Sáchez Parra) turns up. Alternately brutal and caring, he awakens something in her, and a weird relationship starts. He returns again and again, subjecting the willing Laura to ever more degrading sex acts, as spanking leads to choking leads to whipping, and the film takes a dark, strange turn… The film has a clever, ambiguous script, and del Carmen’s fantastic performance makes Laura a wholly believable, complicated and troubled woman that you can truly care, and fear for.

Mark Stafford interviewed Michael Rowe during the London Film Festival, where they discussed directing his first film and his minimal aesthetic.

MS: It’s an amazing, brave and intimate performance by Monica del Carmen. How the hell did you get her to trust you considering that it’s your debut film?

MR: Good question, it wasn’t easy, actually. In the casting, she did the same two scenes as the other 37 actresses, but when she did them I had to leave the room. She made me cry, it was just really upsetting. So it was quite clear that I wanted her, but she only knew those two scenes, one where she blew bubbles, one where she got fired. The question was, when she read the whole script, how would she react? So she read it and I met up with her the next week. I asked her what she thought and she said, ‘Um… It’s a very strong script…’ (laughter) And I said, ‘What would you say if I told you that you had the part?’ She said, ‘I honestly don’t know…’. So she went home, she talked to her boyfriend, to her mum and to a couple of female feminist theorists and then she came back to me and said, ‘I’m in, let’s do it’. I think it was a complete leap of faith for her to trust me because she’d never seen anything I’d done, nobody had ever seen me direct. I think the sensibility in the script perhaps led her to trust me. Her mum told her, ‘Do whatever you think is right, but whatever you do, don’t do it with fear’. She was the most amazingly committed actress I’ve ever seen in my life.

Was the whole film on the page, or did she come up with bits and pieces?

We worked together on the script for two months beforehand. And we didn’t rehearse at all. We went through the script with a fine tooth comb before we got to the set. She would say, ‘Why is she looking up here, not down?’ ‘Why is she cooking this and not that?’ ‘Why is there a comma here and not a full stop?’

There are little things she does, waggling the pencil in front of her eyes…

That I actually came up with on set. That’s one of the few things that wasn’t scripted. She was doing something else, just looking out the window or something and I suggested it.

It’s odd what works. After the press screening I attended, chatting with other journalists, that gesture got mentioned a few times. It’s just such a human thing. Did the actors improvise anything?

Bits. When her little brother puts his feet up on the bed, I wasn’t expecting that, they cooked that up between the two of them. I think they didn’t tell me because I’m a screenwriter originally, so I’m a bit strict about following the script because I sweated over it, the format, and every full stop that’s in it, for weeks. So they didn’t ask, they just did it and thought, ‘We’ll see what he says’. And it worked. There were a few things that Monica was very clear about, where she knew the script almost better than I did. For example when she shaves her pubic hair, I’d scripted the first part of the process, not the end, I just had her starting out. She said, ‘It would be way more effective if we had the bare skin’. I was unsure, but I thought let’s do it, and when I saw it I thought, ‘of course!‘ You need to see the finished project.

Was it always going to be set entirely within her apartment? Not, I hope, a decision made for entirely budgetary reasons…

Yes it was, but in the sense that I conceived this script because I was 37 years old, I was a screenwriter who hadn’t had a feature credit, I’d been trying to get somebody to produce and direct my first feature film for 10 years without success and I thought, ‘OK! It can’t be that complicated!’ and read two books on how to direct movies, quit my day job and bought a small HDV camera, biggest and best I could afford, five grand’s worth or something, and tried to round up the equipment I needed to make a decent film. I sat down and wrote a script designed for my budget, which was nothing. Two people in a room. I spent about six months chewing it over. What I was looking for was a story that would actually gain in power from the fact that it had a reduced number of characters, rather than one that would be weakened by that, so it was conceived out of necessity.

Your budget is your aesthetic, as they say. We just saw Blue Valentine, which apparently has been given an NC-17 rating in the States. What are the chances of your film being released over there considering the subject matter?

It’s been picked up by Strand Releasing, and it’ll be released in April.

I can’t see it being advertised in local papers or stocked in Wal-Mart, because it’s pretty strong meat.

It’s not that bad!

No, no it isn’t, but considering a film like Blue Valentine gets an NC-17, and we were all going ‘What?!!’

The Americans are a bit nutty. We’ll see, I haven’t had contact with that whole conservative element yet.

What’s the reaction to the film been like so far, any feminist reactions?

There’s been one reaction like that, unfortunately from a critic who saw it in Toronto, writing for the New York Times. She dedicated about four lines to it and said ‘it’s been said that this film has a lot to say about solitude and the human condition, but frankly I find it difficult to take any interest in a film which portrays the brutalisation of a woman’, and that was it, full stop, that was the end of it. I just thought that wasn’t very professional. She’s not doing her job. Her job’s to talk about the film, not about her prejudices. And another review talked very badly about the film, ignoring that everything they mentioned was justified within it. Saying that movies that are shot a certain way with fixed cameras are wrong, it was all just their taste and prejudices.

It’s your first film, and in many sequences it’s oddly framed. Did you develop your own visual aesthetic as you went along? Have you always, when you were writing, pictured things a certain way?

I write the shots into the screenplay, I mean I don’t write a technical script, a shooting script, but the shots are implicit in the way the sentences progress. Every time I set up a new shot I change a paragraph for example. This is just my personal discipline as a screenwriter, I know not everyone does it. I always have a clear view of what’s going on. Funnily enough, in the pre-production process I changed the aesthetic. I originally had about six or seven camera movements, but about a week before shooting I took them out. I actually left one in and shot it, a dolly back, but it looked silly because it jumped out so much.

Because the camera is locked in static compositions all the way through?

I strongly believe that what you need is a good story and good actors and that’s it, just with some kind of machine that tapes the images. So I wanted to reduce the other elements as much as possible. Let the audience concentrate on the actors and give the actors the greatest possible chance to perform their art without the hindrance of manipulation in terms of music, or camera movements…

The reaction to the film seems to be good. Are you going to be a director now?

I am now, yes. I love directing. It’s funny, I resisted for so many years. I thought directing was something else. I thought directors had to yell a lot, that they needed to know a lot about cameras and light meters and lenses, that it was all technical. Anything with a lot of buttons scares me away. What I found was that, after 20 minutes of directing the first scene I was imbued with a deep, deep sense of peace. I felt (relaxed sigh), ‘My God! For the first time in my life I’ve got a job where I know all the answers. This is what I do’.

It wasn’t what you feared.

No! All you have to do is sit there and they come up and say, ‘Sir, um… Red or blue?’ and I say, ‘Blue’. I’ve seen it here (taps temple). And they say, ‘Sir, this view on the camera, or lower?’ and I look and say, ‘Up and to the left’. Because I’ve already seen it, all I have to do is tell everyone what’s in my head. It’s the best job in the world. Once you’ve written a screenplay you know how to direct a film. I think 80% of directing is casting. If you get the right actors and let them work, don’t interfere with them and give them all the tools they need, trust them. And get a cameraman who knows what he’s doing… what else is there? I really think that 90 or 95% of camera movements and indeed cuts within a standard movie are the result of accepted convention or attempts at emotional manipulation of the audience, rather than a result of genuine attempts to tell the story in a better way. I think it’s an enormous boon for me not to have gone to film school, in that sense. If I’d been to film school I would have had a whole heap of shit in my head that wouldn’t have helped.

Interview by Mark Stafford

London Film Festival Reviews 4

End of Animal

54th BFI London Film Festival

13-28 October 2010, various venues, London

LFF website

Final round-up of London Film Festival reviews from Mark Stafford, Pamela Jahn, Sarah Cronin and Virginie Sélavy.

End of Animal (Jimseung ui kkut)

2010 wasn’t a particularly strong year for Korean Cinema, at least on the basis of the selection of films in European festivals (although the London Korean Film Festival somewhat changed that perception), but End of Animal surely stands out as one of the most stupefying and uniquely different Asian titles this year. This debut feature by Jo Sung-Hee has a gripping and suspenseful story line that follows a pregnant woman as she wanders through a desolate countryside after a strangely uneventful apocalypse caused by no major (visible) incidents brought all electricity and phone networks down and left no cars on the road and almost no soul in sight. Despite being guided over a radio by a mysterious character who pretends he wants to help her, the few survivors crossing Soon-Young’s way are mostly mean, selfish and greedy characters, so that a new horror starts for the fragile woman at every new encounter.

A well-acted, intensely shot film, End of Animal is structured into more or less discrete episodes, but it adds up to much more than the sum of its parts. Jo Sung-Hee builds a humane but critical picture of lives with no trust and no prospect in sight. Although arguably not ‘one of the most striking debuts in Korean film history’ as claimed in the festival brochure, it’s an impressive piece of work that raises hopes for more great films to come from young Korean directors in the near future. PJ

Never Let Me Go

Alex Garland writes a screenplay based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, Mark Romanek directs. A slow-burning nightmare, as a strange boarding school in a timeless limbo England raises children for a sinister purpose. It’s a film about the evils that can be concealed behind politeness and bureaucracy, and the horrors society is prepared to tolerate if it suits our purposes.

If I was the ridiculous smart arse that I clearly am I’d try to draw parallels between the film’s theme, where official euphemisms (‘donors’, ‘completion’ etc) are used to make all manner of nastiness acceptable, and the film itself, where a quality cast, a string quartet soundtrack and a little cinematic restraint can be seen to be covering up the fact that this is essentially The Clonus Horror/The Island with a university degree.

But I won’t, because it’s actually pretty bloody good, the tastefulness and restraint making the nasty stuff all the more horrible and moving. Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley and Charlotte Rampling all do good work, Carey Mulligan is great. I think the film loses something and becomes more clearly an adaptation of a novel after it leaves the weird bubble of Hailsham House. But it still weaves a disconcerting spell. MS

Attenberg

Two women stand against a white wall, their tongues intertwined, but their bodies are stiff as they stand as far apart from each other as possible. It’s perhaps one of the least erotic kisses seen on screen. Twenty-three-year-old Marina (Arian Labed) has never kissed a man before; she lives in a modernist, failed workers’ utopia that still houses a factory but few inhabitants. Living alone with her father, a disillusioned architect who is terminally ill, she sees life through the prism of Sir David Attenborough’s documentaries, the human species as animal; her relationship with her only friend, the much more experienced Bella, is primitive, physical.

Athina Rachel Tsangari’s film is a beautifully observed, often playful, study of one woman’s alienation; Marina, awkward, naïve, contemptuous, slowly learns that she needs more than just her father and Bella. It’s a refreshing, unsentimental film about sex, relationships and death. Aesthetically, the film mixes elements of the nouvelle vague with touches of performance art, plus a terrific soundtrack (Suicide is Marina’s favourite band); there’s also a brilliant scene sung to Françoise Hardy’s ‘Tous les garçons et les filles de mon âge’. There’s real beauty in the shots of the empty town and factory, and the clean, crisp modernist spaces inhabited by the actors.

Tsangari also produced last year’s Dogtooth, (director Yorgos Lanthimos appears in the film as The Engineer), and while Attenberg is a very different film, it’s exciting to see such original filmmaking emerge from their collaborations. SC

Essential Killing

The legendary Czech director Jerzy Skolimowski gave us one of the best films of this year’s festival with Essential Killing. Starring Vincent Gallo as an unnamed Afghan (or maybe Iraqi) fighter, the film opens as he is captured by American soldiers among barren mountains. After a brief, politically charged depiction of an American-run prison, Gallo’s character is flown to an unknown northern location. He manages to escape, but barefoot and dressed only in his flimsy orange suit, running in an unfamiliar snow-covered forest in the dark, he seems to have little chance of remaining free. Sparse and economical, Essential Killing is a stripped-down, existential tale of pure survival in which Gallo, finding himself in an alien country, confronted with well-equipped pursuers and a spectacular, but hostile nature, becomes increasingly animal-like. Virtually dialogue-free and stunningly expressive visually, this universal tale is an exceptionally rich and powerful cinematographic experience. VS

Mammuth

Last year Delepine and Kervern’s Louise-Michel was a taboo-buggering, capitalist-killing delight, and now with Mammuth I think they’ve become my favourite French filmmakers. Coming across like Aki Kaurismäki without the instruction manual, Delepine and Kervern’s films are unabashed hymns to the losers and freaks, the detritus washed high and dry by politics, economics and society, the unpretty and unskinny hordes who wouldn’t fit in an Eric fucking Rohmer film. Bless them.

A vanity-free Gérard Depardieu gets in touch with his inner lunk as Serge, a lardy, hairy retiring abattoir worker who finds he has to track down affidavits from his former employers to qualify for a pension, and sets about doing so on the motorbike he rode in his youth. Shot in glorious high-contrast colour, Mammuth is full of sick humour, outrageous sight gags and impeccably timed bits of silent comedy. And amid all this oddball pull-back-and-reveal business it finds time to get a bit soulful and contemplative with Isabelle Adjani as a ghost from Serge’s past. I loved it. MS

Womb

It might be clichéd to say that the landscape is the star of the film, but it is undeniably true of Womb, an ambitious, genre-blending drama set in one of the bleakest, windiest and most harrowingly beautiful parts of Germany – the North Sea coast. Amid the impressive scenery, Hungarian director Benedek Fliegauf imagines the love story between Rebecca (Eva Green) and Thomas (Matt Smith), who secretly loved and sadly lost each other when they were kids, only to meet again as adults and live happily ever after. But soon destiny takes another cruel turn, and loss and grief lead Rebecca to give birth to a cloned copy of her dead lover. Aesthetically and conceptually Fliegauf aims high, but while he impresses on the former level, he is not quite as successful on the latter. Edited with tranquil precision, the film takes its time exploring the parameters of the new family life and falters only when Thomas (who turns out to be the spitting image of his predecessor not only in looks, but, rather annoyingly, also in habits and behaviour) falls for a girl who joins and ultimately destroys the intimate togetherness of mother and son. Superbly photographed as it is, Womb, like Fliegauf’s previous films, is a piece of dark cinematic poetry that requires a certain amount of patience from the viewer, although this time, his grasp of emotional dynamics seems much more skilful, making for a strangely moving film. PJ

NEDS

There are dozens of rites of passage films about good teenage boys going off the rails and joining gangs, but none that I can bring to mind go quite as far or get as intense as Peter Mullan’s tale of ‘Non Educated Delinquents’. Normally the youths at the centre of such things only take part in enough anti-social activity for them to learn a ‘valuable life lesson’ and walk away. Here John McGill turns into a seriously nasty bastard, a proper head case, and his story doesn’t follow any conventional arc.

Mullan as writer/director does impressive work here, creating a convincing 70s Glasgow world of ineffectual teachers, aggressive police and the thousand tiny tests of machismo, loyalty and class by which McGill is judged. Mullan has time for everybody, the leads are well observed, and even minor characters are vividly realised, in the Loach/Clark tradition, but he also has an eye for the grotesque and absurd, and NEDS is full of arresting images and moments of startlingly odd behaviour. Great stuff. MS

Cold Fish (Tsumetai nettaigyo)

Sion Sono’s follow-up to the extraordinary Love Exposure is another long and convoluted tale, but without the scope and exuberance of the preceding film; rather, it seems to be a return to the pessimistic spirit of Suicide Club, with its provocative, inventive gore and an enigmatic, oblique approach to meaning. Cold Fish charts the descent of the meek Shamoto, owner of a small exotic fish shop, into violence and madness after an unfortunate encounter with the brash and ruthless Murata, owner of a much bigger rival fish shop. The mechanics of Murata’s manipulation and Shamoto’s gradual breakdown are brilliantly observed, the direction is controlled and well-paced, and there are great touches of macabre and strangeness. With not one sympathetic character, the film offers a downbeat view of mankind, with no chance of the redemption glimpsed in Love Exposure, but it is not devoid of black humour. Just as Suicide Club, Cold Fish initially may leave audiences befuddled, but this a sign of its complexity and reluctance to propose obvious meanings, and on reflection it has become one of the highlights of the festival for me. VS

William S. Burroughs: A Man Within

Documentary attempting to get under the Poe of Dope’s skin, as various talking heads pontificate away about the man under various animated chapter headings (sex, junk, guns, and so on). It positions Burroughs very well as a punk/countercultural totem, but seems less interested in his status as a literary figure. All perfectly fine, mainly notable for the insane quality roll call of the heads (John Giorno, John Waters, Laurie Anderson, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Genesis P. Orridge, Jello Biafra, etc etc etc. ) and some great stories, and great footage… Music by Sonic Youth, of course. MS

Strange Powers

As someone who’s listened to the band for years, it’s a little hard to be objective about Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields. For anyone who became a fan after the band’s 1999 album 69 Love Songs (and that’s probably most people), the film is a much-needed and affectionate introduction to their earlier years, from their first shows in Boston to their eventual move to New York; more importantly, it’s a revealing look at the creative and personal relationship between Merritt and Claudia Gonson – chanteuse, piano-player, manager and mother figure. Mixing live footage, old photographs and interviews with band members Sam Davol and John Woo, and contributors like accordion-player Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket), the directors Gail O’Hara and Kerthy Fix have given the audience a terrific sense of Merritt’s almost perversely charismatic personality and his enormous talent as a singer-songwriter. Perhaps the film’s biggest flaw is that at 82 minutes it feels somehow incomplete, as if a film devoted solely to their live performances should be just around the corner. SC

Film Socialisme

There’s a cruise ship. There’s a garage. There’s a llama. There’s some people. Everybody speaks. In ‘Navajo’ English. A bit like this. Oh look. There goes Patti Smith. Something about Africa. Something about elections. That llama again. We go to. The new Godard. To say that that we’ve seen. The new Godard. How long. Does this one last? Oh, it’s over. Can someone tell JLG that if he doesn’t want to make films anymore, he doesn’t have to? MS

Ruhr

You’ve got to be prepared: there are only seven shots in 121 minutes in James Benning’s haunting homage to the German Ruhr area which, even though it was selected to be European Capital of Culture in 2010, retains the heavily industrial feel and look of the past, flecked with coal mines, factories and steel works with noisy, steaming furnaces and smoke-pouring chimneys. But of course there is more to explore in each of the fixed-frame takes Jennings has chosen for his first foray into high-definition video. The focus of interest shifts from a car tunnel with almost no cars driving through, but sporting an eye-catching zigzag lighting tube on the ceiling to a self-regulated production line in a steel-rolling plant and the constant praying in a mosque filmed from an awkward perspective that is alternately blacked out by the backs of the worshippers. Some of the images and the soundtrack have been digitally manipulated to increase the fascination and bizarre attraction of the images – and it works. By the time Ruhr enters into the final view, a tower belching out an impressive cloud of steam every 10 minutes for the remaining hour of the film, you are so taken by the power of the plain imagery and soundscape Jennings creates that you leave the cinema feeling slightly dizzy, yet again marvelling at the way things slowly reveal their own beauty and meaning if only you take the time to look at them for long enough. PJ

Le quattro volte

Le Quattro Volte

Life. What’s it all about? Um… charcoal, apparently. Michaelangelo Frammartino’s mesmerising, dialogue-free film follows the rhythms and patterns of life lived in a small Italian village, witnessing the life and death of an ageing shepherd, a new-born kid in his herd (a reincarnation?) and the fate of a tree in a series of long takes. While this sounds like it could be arse-numbing torture, Frammartino has come to the praiseworthy realisation that if you’re going to have long long takes, then it’s best to have something of interest happen in them. Thus we have human actors who look like live-action Chomet animations, unfamiliar rural rituals to puzzle over, and a feast of different textures and sights and sounds. Best of all we have goats, a whole herd of boisterous and amusing and inscrutable goats, in the best goat performances I’ve ever seen. Love them goats. That dog deserves an Oscar, too. MS

13 Assassins

Solid genre entertainment, but a curiously straightforward offering for Takashi Miike. After his wacky homage to the Italian Western in Sukiyaki Western Django, Miike gives us a classic samurai tale heavily influenced by Kurosawa. A remake of an obscure 1963 film, 13 Assassins follows the efforts of retired samurai Shinzaemon as he assembles a team of assassins to kill the cruel and degenerate Lord Naritsugu, half-brother of the Shogun, before he rises to power. It is epic in scope and lavishly produced, with impressive large-scale battle scenes, beautiful candle-lit interiors and atmospheric landscapes shrouded in mist. But given Miike’s anarchic and iconoclastic tendencies, it is rather surprising to see him go for the traditional end-of-an-era nostalgia and to see him unquestioningly let the characters accept the samurai’s rigid code of honour. A few grotesque touches remind us of the director’s presence, mostly in the opening scenes depicting Lord Naritsugu’s evil deeds – in particular the piteous display of one of his victims, the horrifically mutilated daughter of a rebellious peasant. But all in all, the violence is fairly restrained and conventional for Miike and it is further blunted by a strong impression of déjà vu. Fun, but not exactly memorable. VS

Southern District

Drifting and dreamlike, Juan Carlos Valdivia’s film consists of a series of lazy, tightly choreographed 360-degree pans and dollies circling Ms Carola and her family and servants in a gorgeous house and garden located in the moneyed area of La Paz, Bolivia, of the title. At first, as they dine, shag and shop, Carola’s spoilt clan seem to be as appalling and eminently mockable as the family of Altman’s A Wedding, or Buñuel’s bourgeoisie, but soon enough the cracks begin to show in the carefully maintained façade and they increasingly come to resemble inmates in an asylum, a bubble sealed off from the brutal world outside. Sun-bleached, funny and visually enchanting, it’s a strange and wondrous thing. MS

Self Made

Together with Clio Barnard’s The Abor, Self Made, by Turner Prize-winning artist Gillian Wearing, sounded like one of the most interesting films in this year’s British Cinema strand, but it turned out to be a less cathartic cinematic experience than expected. The documentary records a theatre project that Wearing initiated together with a Method acting teacher, Sam Rumbelow. After placing an ad in the newspaper that simply said, ‘Would you like to be in a film? You can play yourself or a fictional character’, the duo selected seven non-actors to become participants in a 10-day Method workshop. On an empty warehouse set, Rumbelow pushes the group to explore their inner selves and to act out their suppressed feelings and experiences largely through psychological performance exercises that are, at times, as disturbing to watch they must have been to enact. The film sometimes diverts from the austere, straightforward recording style Wearing has adopted. Interwoven with the acting masterclass set-pieces are five short films, each developed and performed by one of the participants as they learn to let go. Some of these mini-episodes are better than others with regards to performance, set-up and narrative, but compared to the intense emotions played out in the skeletal workshop theatre scenes, they seem rather like a waste of energy. Ultimately, this mismatch makes Self Made feel like a work-in-progress itself, yet with the potential to grow towards the art of unobtrusive, fine-tuned characterisation. PJ

The Parking Lot Movie

What happens when you give an undemanding service sector job working in the booth of a pay parking lot in Charlottesville, Virginia, to a group of overeducated, underfunded philosophers, anthropologists and theologians? You get a lot of bitter, acerbic commentary on class, capitalism, human nature, America, and the behaviour of rich drunken douchebags. Apart from an ill-advised hip hop interlude, Meghan Eckman’s documentary is a very watchable piece of kit, full of interesting characters and smart observations. Ex-booth attendees include members of Happy Flowers and Yo La Tengo, and the Parking Lot Movie could make slacker heroes of the rest. MS

The Temptation of St Tony (Püha T&#245nu kiusamine)

Veiko &#213unpuu’s The Temptation of St Tony had been brought to our attention last year and it was great to see it selected for LFF. The film is worth watching for its opening scene alone: a funeral procession moving towards the sea, filmed in a beautifully austere black and white that makes it seem more like a mental landscape or dream than reality. This unreal-ness infuses the grim, grey Estonian setting as the main character Tony journeys through a series of puzzling events that follow his father’s funeral. Although the latter part of the film, set in a decadent, hellish nightclub called ‘The Golden Age’, feels too contrived and self-conscious, the sense of the absurd that imbues the film feels entirely genuine. St Tony may be flawed but it has a strong visual identity and atmospheric quality, convincing menace and paranoia, and a warped sense of humour. It conjures up a striking image of Estonia as a hopeless wasteland where promises of a better life haven’t been fulfilled. VS

Miral

For those who have been hoping that celebrity-hugging dollar-magnet artist Julian Schnabel would come a cropper with his film career (and had to admit through gritted teeth that The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was a damn fine piece of work), Miral will come as blessed relief. It’s an ill-disciplined, uninvolving trudge of a film, filled with dull exposition, humourless on-the-nose dialogue and baffling creative decisions. In Diving Bell, the various camera techniques were brilliantly used to represent the effects of a specific medical condition. Here the patented Squiffy-Camé seems to be wheeled out at random, and any time is right for a hand-held freakout. What’s Willem Defoe doing here? Why that Tom Waits song there? Why don’t I care?

Based on Rula Jebreal’s autobiographical account, the film traces the lineage of Palestinian girl Miral, and the story of the orphanage where she was raised. We skip from 1991 to 1947 to 1973 in a fragmentary mosaic of lives lived under Israeli rule. There’s abuse and war and radicalism and police oppression and terrorism in there, as encountered or committed by various women, and it should be a welcome change to hear from this unfamiliar viewpoint, but Miral doesn’t really have much to say that I couldn’t have guessed. It has its moments, and isn’t truly awful, it’s just a bit of a dud. MS

Read more LFF reviews: LFF reviews 2 and LFF reviews 3.

London Film Festival Reviews 3

The Taqwacores

54th BFI London Film Festival

13-28 October 2010, various venues, London

LFF website

More London Film Festival reviews from Mark Stafford and Pamela Jahn.

The Taqwacores

A bracing stroll through an emergent American Muslim punk sub-culture, The Taqwacores follows newcomer and straight A student Yusef as he moves into a shared house in Buffalo, New York, to get his head thoroughly rattled by its inhabitants. There’s a dope smoker, a feminist riot grrl, a flamboyant gay dude, various drinkers and promiscuous party people, all of whom claim to be devout in their own way. Thus we have skateboard sequences jostling with moments of unconventional worship (‘You gotta come to Friday prayers!’ ‘Totally, I’m there!’). We have a call to prayer played on an electric guitar and we have bands called Osama’s Tunnel Diggers and The Guantanamo Bay Packers. Tensions build within the house as the contradictory belief systems clash, and it all comes to a head at an ill-starred all-star punk blow-out.

The film The Taqwacores brings most readily to mind was Penelope Spheeris’s cult gem Suburbia, which detailed the LA squatter punk scene of the early 80s. Like Suburbia, it’s a bit gauche and earnest and embarrassing in places, with lots of on-the-nose dialogue as the ‘cores thrash out their conflicting ideologies. Like in Suburbia, the story has a tragic arc we can sense in the offing, and we have to endure a central character who’s mainly there to ask dumb questions and get opinions thrust at him. Unlike Suburbia though, The Taqwacores has pretty good performances, especially Noureen DeWulf as Rabeya, who manages to convey a forceful personality through a customised full burqa, and Dominic Rains as the mohawked poster boy Jehangir (‘I’m too wrapped up in my mismatching of disenfranchised subcultures!’). It has energy and humour and a nice bleached out look. And it throws a startling image or off-the-wall piece of dialogue at you every few minutes of its lean 83-minute running time.

Apparently the Taqwacore scene didn’t exist until Michael Muhammad Knight’s novel, on which the film is based, inspired a number of bands to spring into being. If so, more power to their various elbows, at least if they’re anything like the mess portrayed here, a welcome vision of Islam as something not set in stone by humourless pricks, but something fluid and playful. Mark Stafford

Amigo

Another rock solid effort from writer/director John Sayles, Amigo is set during the US invasion of the Philippines in 1900, where a garrison of troops is stationed in a small farming village, surrounded by guerrilla fighters. Sayles, of course, has time for everybody – the Yanquis, villagers, guerrillas, and Chinese coolies all get their sides of the story shown – but he especially has time for Rafael, the poor bastard stuck in the middle: as head man of the village, brother to the local insurrectionary leader, and now servant of the Yanqui occupiers he is, as he rightly surmises, ‘fucked from both ends’. There are clear allusions to the current US Middle Eastern misadventures, of course, including a spot of low-tech waterboarding, and the film as a whole is a demonstration of why invading a country and then expecting to win hearts and minds is doomed. The film’s true ire is reserved for the military high ups (here personified in Chris Cooper’s Col. Hardacre) and the church, in -‘s devious and self-serving friar. It’s an entertaining, old-school, well-constructed piece of liberal drama. But as often happens with Sayles’s films, the visual aspects feel a little bit meat and potatoes, and a little more cinematic exuberance wouldn’t go amiss. Mark Stafford

Kaboom

Finally arriving on the big screen in the UK after it was withdrawn from this year’s FrightFest by the filmmaker and its producers, Kaboom is not as stunning and exceptional as you might expect from the American enfant terrible Gregg Araki, especially as a follow-up to his wonderful Mysterious Skin. A campus B-movie sci-fi comedy romp totally out of this world, the film spins an insane narrative of teen sex of all kinds, drugs, dreams, cuckoo conspiracies and animal mask-wearing cultists. At the centre of this maelstrom is handsome but shy college student Smith, who secretly lusts for his chav surfer roommate Thor, but prefers hanging out 24/7 with his sarcastic lesbian best friend Stella. It’s a candy-coloured, bizarre, chaotic, silly joyride that wins you over instantly once you abandon yourself to its wackiness. A mature continuation of Araki’s confrontational earlier work in terms of directorial style, it is suffused with the same dazzling blend of antic spirit, questionable taste and truly anarchic fervour. Twin Peaks and Donny Darko might obviously have been influences for Araki here, but Kaboom is way too soft and outright ridiculous to ever draw you in in the same way. Nevertheless, it’s sexy to look at and a fun piece of cinema for short-term pleasure. Pamela Jahn

Tabloid

The question of how the hell Errol Morris alights upon his subjects seems less of a mystery in this case, as Joyce McKinney has a habit of thrusting herself into the public eye, though she would deny this was ever her intention. In 1977, she was behind the ‘manacled Mormon’ case that obsessed the British tabloids, and more recently she bubbled up clutching a litter of cloned puppies, in another media sensation. Morris’s entertaining documentary has Joyce, her collaborators and a brace of journalists all telling their parts in a jaw-droppingly screwy tale of bondage, kidnapping and high religious weirdness – it’s a cavalcade of WTF!? moments. Tabloid touches on themes of truth and madness and media complicity, but it’s pretty bubbly stuff, and the style used here is bouncier than in, say, The Fog of War: John Kusiak’s music is suited to a caper comedy, and there are little bits of animation amid the usually artfully picked illustrative clips. But Joyce is a fascinating, mercurial subject, a hyper-intelligent stalker, an ‘aw shucks’ down home gal, a bondage queen and master of disguise. Her relationship with any objective reality is clearly pretty strained, and working out how much of this tall tale you’re prepared to believe is a large part of the fun. Mark Stafford

Meek’s Cutoff

Decidedly non-yeeha Western tale from Kelly Reichardt, the director of Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy. We’re in Oregon in 1845, following a tiny wagon train as shaggy guide Stephen Meek leads it astray while attempting to cross the Cascade Mountains. Bruce Greenwood is Meek, and indie stalwarts Shirley Henderson, Paul Dano, Will Patton and Michelle Williams are among the increasingly paranoid and disgruntled travellers, as water runs low and notional Indians lurk in the shadows. It feels absolutely authentic: Reichart does an impressive job of creating the sounds, sights and textures of life on the trail, the feeling of isolation and peril, and slowly builds real and involving characters out of the figures in this vast landscape. But I’m not sure she guides us to a satisfactory destination. Mark Stafford

The Arbor

An extraordinary film, The Arbor is an exploration of the short life of the Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar and her three children, in which extensive interviews with all concerned have been given to actors to lip-synch direct to camera in various settings. These are intercut with a staging of one of her plays in the middle of the Buttershaw estate where it was set, and occasionally spliced with some of Dunbar’s rare appearances on TV. The result is mesmerising and artful where the bare facts of the lives detailed would have just been unbearably bleak served up straight, especially the life of Dunbar’s daughter Lorraine, a slow motion car crash of child abuse, domestic violence, drug addiction, prostitution, and worse. The lip-synched, cleverly staged sequences give all this squalor and neglect a dreamy, not-quite-right intensity as various parties tell their side of the tale, and we skip around in time and space, from memory to theatre to street and back.

It’s an odd technique, curiously distancing and involving at the same time, and seems to have been inspired by the ‘verbatim play’ An Estate Affair, which the Royal Court staged following up Dunbar’s Rita, Sue and Bob Too, (which was filmed by Alan Clarke). Curiously, Dunbar’s The Arbor, her most extensively represented work, doesn’t come across very well, almost seeming like a parody of gritty northern drama. But the film overall is an original audio-visual one-off, a highly choreographed waltz through memory and truth and time. Mark Stafford

Carancho

Arguably one of the strongest films in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes this year, Carancho is the latest work of Argentine filmmaker Pablo Trapero, whose Lion’s Den impressed us last year as a brutal and morally ambiguous portrayal of a young mother’s life in prison. Carancho is an equally well-crafted, tough-as-nails thriller built around the world of ambulance chasers, corrupt hospitals and unscrupulous lawyers who make their money out of late-night traffic accidents and other calamities. Echoing the style and moral decay of 1930s and 1940s Hollywood film noir, it feels at times like Trapero is a little too caught up in his own ambitions to push social realism on screen beyond its usual thematic and emotional boundaries, and to get the right balance in the web of corruption, murder and love that connects Sosa (Ricardo Darín), a legal vulture who is tired of his job, to young ER doctor Luján (Martina Gusman). But as predictable as the narrative is, the procedural set-pieces in which the culmination of car crashes and the couple’s dangerous liaison play out are shot in a handheld style with great old-school skill and energy, and the intense performances by the two leads make for a gripping film that aptly rings alarm bells for the state of the nation. Pamela Jahn

It’s kind of a Funny Story

A teen movie about Depression Lite, call it Absence of Glee. Craig (Keir Gilchrist), a would-be suicide, checks into a mental health ward instead of chucking himself off Brooklyn Bridge, and over the next five days, surrounded by various shut-ins, schizophrenics and self-harmers, learns to gain a sense of perspective on his life and problems. The previous two films by writing/directing team Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, Half Nelson and Sugar, were both low-key observational indie art-house affairs, but their third film seems to have unleashed a whole world of wacky that they had previously kept hidden. Thus we have freeze frame flashbacks, fantasy sequences, cut-away gags, animation and all manner of quirky bits of business thrown into the mix. It’s warm-hearted and funny if you’re in the mood for that sort of caper. But I found the cutesifying of mental illness a little hard to take. Craig’s problems are reduced to John Hughes movie dilemmas, where his suicidal urges can be shelved if he just picks the right girl, says no to his dad’s career pressure and develops that recently discovered lucky artistic streak. Only Zach Galifianakis’s striking and believable turn as Bobby seems to come from a world where depression is an intractable problem with no easy answers, and he remains gratifyingly awkward throughout. Nice soundtrack by Broken Social Scene though. Mark Stafford

Everything Must Go

Fair tilt at Raymond Carver’s short story ‘Why don’t you dance?’ in which alcoholic Will Ferrel loses his job and arrives home to find his wife gone, the locks changed, and all his possessions out on the front lawn. Already half-blitzed on Pabst Blue Ribbon, he elects to stay out there, surrounded by the remains of his world, until life, the law and his neighbours intervene. I suspect Carver fans will be unhappy that one of his best oblique little vignettes has been fitted with character arcs and social conscience and structure and all that Hollywood stuff, and Will Ferrel fans will just be wondering where the hell the funny got to. Everything Must Go is alright, as it happens. And it’s nice to see Ferrel playing someone difficult, and occasionally unpleasant. Mark Stafford

Archipelago

It’s remarkable that in only two films Joanna Hogg should already have developed such a distinct style and world that I suspect most critics would recognise a piece of her work in 30 seconds or less. I wish it was a style and a world I was more enthusiastic about watching, but there you go. After her debut Unrelated, here we are again with a frosty rich family in a remote location discovering untapped oceans of anger and social tension as a mother, her son (Tom Hiddleston) and daughter ( Kate Fahy) go to Tresco in the Scilly Isles for a family holiday. To await the arrival of the patriarch, who remains stubbornly absent, they picnic, and stroll, and paint, and eat, and fall apart over tiny social fault lines. Hogg’s style, with its off-kilter framing, where her actors are dwarfed by architecture and landscape, and a habit of entering scenes before and after they have started, creates a weird, tense form of naturalism, like a nature documentary observing strange creatures in one of their natural habitats. It’s smart and well crafted and Hogg’s clearly got something. But I hate these people. Mark Stafford

Waste Land

Lucy Walker’s documentary follows artist Vik Muniz back to his homeland of Brazil, where he hopes to spend a couple of years producing pieces about Rio’s Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest rubbish dump. He settles on producing a series of huge portraits of some of the ‘pickers’ who scour the trash for resellable recyclables. The portraits are to be constructed from Jardim junk, and sold to raise money the pickers desperately need to improve their lot. What could have been a simplistic doc about the transformative power of ART, is made more complicated, and touching, by the lives of the pickers themselves, who take centre stage for much of the film. The last 20 minutes or so had me crying like Niagara goddamn Falls, which I guess is a recommendation. Moby does the soundtrack, if that does anything for you. Mark Stafford

Blue Valentine

American Indie dream couple Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams play a couple, married with a cute child, and heading for the rocks. Over a few days we see them bicker, fail to communicate, pick fights out of thin air, and make a disastrous visit to a love hotel in an attempt to fix the problem, unable to alter the character traits that are driving them apart. And this, heartbreakingly, is intercut with scenes of their initial meetings, when they were funny and fumbling, the story of their road to marriage. Romantic expectation is weighed against harsh reality, and we detect the DNA of their split within their budding relationship. Gosling and Williams are extraordinarily convincing as the cute couple going to hell, and the whole thing is almost too painful and intimate to bear. It’s picked up an NC-17 rating in the states, and doesn’t stint on the tougher details of life and love. Upsetting, recommended, fine Grizzly Bear soundtrack too. Mark Stafford

The Tillman Story

Pat Tillman seemed almost tailor-made for pro-war propaganda when he joined the fight in Afghanistan, a hunky football star and all-American boy, married to his high school sweetheart, who’d set aside a lucrative NFL career to join the frontline. You can see what the Bush administration was doing when they used the example of his heroic 2004 death in speeches and press releases. The only problem was that the story the military first put out was bullshit. Pat hadn’t been battling terrorists to save the lives of his brothers in arms, Pat had been killed by his fellow troops in a ‘friendly fire’ incident. This documentary follows the story of his family’s battle to get to the truth through a fog of military and political manoeuvring. It’s overlong and nothing new, technically, but the story’s worth hearing. Mark Stafford

Upside Down: The Creation Records Story

Competent and entertaining documentary detailing the rise and fall of Alan McGee’s label, home to Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, Primal Scream and others, from indie roots signing The Loft in the mid-80s to their collapse after the cocaine blizzard/Sony buyout/Oasis at Knebworth years of the late 90s. Full of great stories, but could have done with a bit of context to explain why this music meant so much at the time, and the later years have been pretty well covered elsewhere. Mark Stafford

Mark Stafford and Pamela Jahn

For more information and to book tickets go to the LFF website.

A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews