Thursday, October 29, 2009

LFF: week two

Shirin Neshat; photo by Val PhoenixWhile not what I would call a vintage festival, the 53rd LFF ended on a high note for me, as I made it to the last filmmakers tea, a series of which had been held throughout the festival.

An opportunity for press to meet one-to-one (or, as happened, in clusters) with filmmakers, they are a form of journalistic speed dating, one parking oneself awkwardly at a table with a keen or jaded filmmaker and hoping to come away five minutes later with some insights or at least good quotes.

Well, one of my dates stood me up, one was jetlagged and the other had such a full dance card, she conducted group interviews and then legged it to a screening. But, it was certainly an eye opener. Good scones, too, even if I was not as impressed by them as a colleague who piled her plate high and praised the quality of English food! One certainly doesn't hear that compliment paid often.

Anyway, I was very pleased to get an audience with Shirin Neshat, whose debut feature, Women Without Men, played at LFF. Given events in Iran over the summer, the film, which is set in 1953 as the elected Iranian government was replaced by that of the Shah, is timely and, in some quarters, controversial. Originally several installations, the film draws together the stories of four women, as the country is on the brink of the coup that brings the Shah to power. Despite their varying social positions, they all gravitate to a magical orchard, attempting to find a place for themselves in the face of oppression. An allegory for the state of Iran itself, Neshat's vision is confidently realised.

Wearing the green wrist bands of the opposition movement, Neshat confidently handled questions from six or seven journalists, explaining her position as both artist and activist. At some point, I will elaborate on her comments. But, it was an impressive appearance.

I also spoke to Ana Kokkinos, who had just flown in from Australia as a last-minute addition to the festival. Sadly, I was not able to catch her new film, Blessed, but I well remember her debut, Only the Brave, a tough-minded depiction of Greek-Australian teens. She admitted she was something of a teenaged tearaway and is drawn to these kinds of stories, and the new film returns to this terrain, as it follows teenagers and their parents throughout one eventful evening.

Of the films I saw in the second week, standouts are Precious and Ander, two depictions of home life in very different circumstances.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

LFF: French Fancies

When it comes to whimsy and visual imagery, Jean-Pierre Jeunet pretty much has it wrapped up, after Delicatessen, Amelie and, um, Alien Resurrection. Now, in Micmacs à tire-larigot, he's tackling the very real-world subject of arms manufacturers. After naive video store worker Bazil is shot in the head by an errant bullet during a shootout, he finds himself homeless, friendless and jobless wandering the streets of Paris.

But, this is no ordinary quotidien Paris, but a sepia-tinted city of Jeunet's imagining, populated by circus performers and lovable rogues who adopt the down-on-his luck Bazil and assist him in his quest to bring down the two munitions companies responsible for his injuries, his father's death and untold miseries in foreign conflicts. This is a man with a dream, and the means to realise it. There follow ridiculous plot twists and implausible set pieces, executed with Jeunet's attention to detail and cinematic references. There is even a bit of romance between Bazil and a contortionist. And, save for some rather creepy voyeurism involving a security guard, it works.

Still from Father of My ChildrenMia Hansen-Løve's family drama The Father of My Children is also steeped in cinema but of the business kind, as workaholic film producer Gregoire finds his production company under financial pressures, despite his best efforts. Neglecting his family in Paris, he spends all of his time on the phone, attempting to cut deals all over the globe in pursuit of his vision of the purity of arthouse cinema. The film references feel a bit in-joke, with Gregoire locked in a battle with a Swedish auteur over rising production costs. When it all crumbles, the focus shifts to his wife and three daughters, who find themselves stepping into the breach.

In truth, Gregoire is not a very sympathetic character and the film spends far too much time on his endless phone calls and not enough time developing the female characters who, rather belatedly, emerge. It is only revealed toward the end of the film, for instance, that the wife is Italian, hence her desire to move the family to Italy, against the eldest daughter's wishes. The division into two halves feels a bit awkward, negating the emotional power of the film.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Bettina Köster: Queen of Noise

Bettina Köster; photo by Val PhoenixAsinella Records
23 October release

I had an advance copy of this album a year ago and thought it would just be a matter of whacking it on CD and adding some album art. Well, more fool me, because it's obviously had a lot of mixing done since and is now in a totally different order, with changed titles and an additional song.

So, back to the beginning. Köster first started this record back in 2006 when she upped sticks from Berlin to rural Italy and has been working on it ever since, shifting to Vienna and Berlin for various stages.

The one track I hadn't heard proves to be the absolute standout: the cracked piano ballad "Pity Me", which is melodramatic as the title suggests. I am put in mind of a tux-clad Marlene Dietrich swanning around a candlelit cabaret regaling all and sundry with tales of her broken life. Cinematic doesn't begin to cover it.

Elsewhere the record is thoroughly modern, with an underpinning of electronica and squalling guitars. The sax she employed so prominently on her last project, Autonervous, is downplayed to a few atmospheric stabs.

The way she uses her voice is intriguing. I haven't heard such a dramatic shift since Marianne Faithfull returned from her heroin addiction with Broken English in 1979. Having dropped in pitch and tone from the swooping histrionics of Malaria!, Köster's voice now fits menacingly between Faithfull and Grace Jones. When she growls "Welcome to Regina's Diner" on "Regina" it is very much as the spider to the fly.

But the bold listener who enters this web is in for some very pleasant surprises. A Devo-esque tongue-in-cheek cover of "Helter Skelter" finds her dryly intoning rather than shouting. And the album closer "Thar She Blows" is a tender love song.

The bulk of the record is a shake-your-rump and get jiggy sexy workout. I have some quibbles with the running order, as I would have sequenced the bassy "Grab Me" and "Confession" at the start. The latter includes the teasing lyrics "I have been playing in the trash and I kissed a lot of frogs", which beg questions.

I met Bettina Köster in Vienna in summer 2008 for an interview, but as she was still mixing the album, we didn't discuss it much. Subsequently, I emailed her to ask about the record.

KB: The songs I have heard are all in English. Even as recently as the Autonervous record you were still writing in a mixture of English and German. So, why this change now?

BK: When I was recording Autonervous I was in Berlin, [but] now that I live in Italy, I speak much more English. Plus, English is my favorite language, as it is, in my opinion, much more concise.

What influence do your surroundings have on your writing, as far as language, subject, etc.?

Having recorded in the isolation that comes with being a foreigner in a population 500 town [and] not really being proficient in the local language, which is not even Italian but Neapolitan, gave me the oportunity to go deep into myself and deal with nothing but writing songs and recording.

Lyrically, there seem to be recurring words: water, confessions. What would you say are the themes of the record?

I love the water--maybe you remember my song "Kaltes Klares Wasser" [by Malaria!]. I do not care too much about swimming. I like it on the water but not in the water [and] I have grown up with boats. They mostly sink, but nevertheless. When I first came to the area in 1998, I sat on the beach of Positano, one of the Siren Islands right in front of me and I had the strong feeling of feeling familiar, having come from the water there.

Re: confession, I was very open with my lyrics and they are also most personal. And then, I'll have to admit, I kissed a lot of frogs. I confess that I was attracted to the red umbrella (something that is not good for you but that has an intense attraction) and also I kissed the devil's daughter at least once. Which really shattered my world for a moment... [Another lyric] "This procession is ending and leading right up to you" is the visualisation of the new person to enter my life.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

LFF: Week One

Still from Mic-MacsSeeing as how I am sort of cheating on myself by contributing LFF reviews to other parties (see Sound on Sight), I thought I really ought to make it up to myself by delivering something substantial to Kunstblog. So, fresh from tonight's Screen Talk with Jane Campion, I can report on the inner workings of an auteur.

Actually, Campion wasn't that illuminating, and, as I haven't seen Bright Star, her latest (the clips I have seen of wan young things quoting poetry to each other didn't really pique my interest), I can't do justice to her comments on that work. Suffice to say, a lot of thought went into the sound and the palette.

Interviewed by festival artistic director Sandra Hebron, Campion seemed a bit nervous and giggled a lot, which was surprising for one of such gravitas. She revealed she still gets anxious in the run up to a shoot--"terror" was the word used, and that her break from feature directing was something of a mid-life reassessment. Once back on set, she couldn't remember what to do! Warming to the evening's task, she told some great on-set anecdotes, including how she handled sniping by junior crew.

She also graciously accepted a DVD from a cheeky actress in the audience touting her wares. Amazing the woman got close, given the burly security men seen guarding the door earlier. The LFF has bouncers now! In fact, I was tapped on the shoulder and informed gruffly that "she doesn't want to be filmed" when I tested out the sound capability on my new compact camera. Funny profession to go into then, isn't it?

Generally, I have found the festival a bit user-unfriendly this year. Not just the bouncers (guarding what?), but the reams of uninformative information, scanners used at the Delegates Centre, rooms closed off for private functions and the refrain of "availability permitting". It feels a bit repressed. Loosen up, film people!

Of course, there are loads of cinematic delights to counter the lapses in presentation. My favourites of the first week are the US indie charmer Dear Lemon Lima, (seen on preview) and Jeunet's Mic-Macs, wildly imaginative, if lacking in logic.

Biggest flop is The Exploding Girl Never has a title seemed so inappropriate, for this treacly slow, monosyllabic slackerfest. Him: Hey. Her: Hey. Him: Hi. Her: Hi. I seriously considered getting up and walking out, I was so bored.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

London Film Festival

14-29 October, London

Today sees the opening of the London Film Festival, aka Clooney Fest, as dear George has THREE films on display, including tonight's premiere of Fantastic Mr. Fox. Apparently, the queues have been building all day.

George aside, the attractions of the festival include Sam Taylor-Wood's depiction of the youth of John Lennon, Nowhere Boy, which closes the festival, as well as Jane Campion's latest, Bright Star, a biopic of John Keats and Fanny Brawne.

As usual, though, I am more drawn to the small, obscure films and so am looking forward to the dramas Cracks, Tales from the Golden Age, and Leaving. Blank City was announced, but this doc on CBGBs has now been replaced by another, Burning Down the House. Not sure why.

Jane Campion and Julianne Moore are featured speakers, but I am especially keen to see what transpires at the panel on female directors called Snipping Away at the Celluloid Ceiling, the panellists for which have yet to be announced.

I hope to try out some new methods of coverage, so may be popping up in unexpected places.
Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Scarce: Days Like These

Nottingham, England is not known as one of the great cinematic capitals of the world, but it is where the doc Scarce: Days Like These is premiering on the 13th. There is a reason, as this is where Scarce's UK tour starts and, as the film is about them, it makes sense.

As a great follower of obscure bands myself, I was intrigued as to why the London-based photographer and filmmaker Sally Irvine would undertake to document a band that released one album before breaking up in the 1990s. Mind you, Scarce had a dramatic story: singer/guitarist Chick Graning nearly died from an aneurysm and was only saved by the timely intervention of his bandmates, who broke down his door when he didn't turn up for practice one day.

Having seen the film, I noticed how little Graning says, his more voluble bandmates Joyce Raskin and Joe Propatier doing most of the talking. He seems a rather fragile presence, even 14 years after the event. It was Raskin, committing her thoughts to paper for the book Aching to Be, who contacted Graning and got the re-formation going. She seems to have been most affected by the dissolution of the band, but the emotional fallout is not really covered in the film.

What is clear is the durability of bonds within a band and between band and audience, and the fact that Scarce can break up and re-form a decade later and still find an audience is heartening.

Scarce: Days Like These premieres in Nottingham on 13 October. Scarce tours the UK 13-17 October.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Film Series in London

Poster for FallenWhile the London Film Festival is still some days away, there is plenty for cinephiles in the capital to enjoy this week.

The BFI is marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall with a film series looking at "how Europe arrived at its present state and stimulating reflection on its future". Oh, yes.

This first strand, The Writing on the Wall, focusses on German films, and there are some intriguing ones on show, including the double bill Germany, Year Zero + Germany Nine Zero and No Place to Go.

Next week sees a retrospective of Coop 99, the Vienna film cooperative responsible for such titles as Esma's Secret and The Edukators. A few years ago I was blown away by Barbara Albert's Fallen at the LFF and I am pleased to see this film get a screening, with the director in attendance.

The Writing on the Wall runs 4-14 October in London.
The Coop 99 retrospective runs 8-13 October in London.
Reblog this post [with Zemanta]