Tuesday, October 25, 2011

LFF: Dendera

Still from DenderaIf you only see one film about elderly Japanese women bent on a bloody revenge mission, make it this one! Yes, Dendera ploughs its own furrow, turning an intriguing concept into a gory struggle.... against a bear.

Let me start again. Somewhere in a Japan where it is always snowing, village protocol dictates that residents who turn 70 are dumped on a mountainside and left to die. One woman, Mei, refuses to die and slowly builds up a women-only community--Dendera--out of those deemed expendable.

But, Mei's survival instinct is stoked by the burning injustice of being so callously discarded and she wants revenge on her former neighbours, especially the men who dictate policy. This may be an extended metaphor for modern society. Or it may be a needlessly explicit gorefest, as the women become distracted from their desire for vengeance by a bear that wanders into the camp and wreaks terror on it. Not out of any malign intent. But, rather because it's a bear and is hungry.

While it was great to see these women kicking ass, I just couldn't get into the bear hunt and was rooting for the poor creature to escape or join forces with the women. But, no. Lots of blood. Lots of chases. One character asks, "And who won?" Indeed.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

LFF: Difficult Second Feature

Three eagerly awaited films playing at this year's London Film Festival are from second-time feature directors.

Marjane Satrapi, having left Iran in her teens, lives in France and her new film Chicken with Plums follows Persepolis, an adaptation of her comic strip. The first surprise is that it is live action, not animation, although it features a similarly starry cast in small roles: Isabella Rossellini, Maria de Medeiros, Chiara Mastroianni and Golshifteh Farahani (another Iranian exile) among them. However, the lead role is the family patriarch, played by Mathieu Amalric, and his is an unsympathetic character, a self-obsessed musician detached from his children and resentful of his wife, whom he married without loving her. Although there are comic moments, I found myself growing restless before the end.

Still from Where Do We Go Now?Nadine Labaki's Where Do We Go Now? follows the enormously enjoyable Caramel and doesn't disappoint, expanding the cast of characters from the workers in a Beirut hair salon to a village in a remote area. The main conflict is the interference of the outside world on this small village where Christians and Muslims have lived side by side for generations but where violence is always threatening to break out and news coverage is viewed as a threat to peace. Labaki takes a back seat, allowing her ensemble to shine and shine they do, especially the women who take centre-stage pretty quickly. While the comedy is broad, there were plenty of belly laughs and the subject is oh-so-topical.

If Labaki is broadening her horizons, Miranda July seems to be shrinking hers, retreating from the ensemble that held sway in her debut, Me and You and Everyone We Know, to focus on two people, a floundering couple inhabiting a flat in the Los Angeles suburbs, in The Future. July plays two roles, one half of the couple and a cat that provides a voiceover. Yes, indeed. But, you can do that when you're the writer-director. It's a bold move and I didn't mind the cat's narration. It was more confusing when it all went a bit Donnie Darko three quarters of the way through. Most curious.

Friday, October 21, 2011

LFF: Hackney Lullabies

Still from Hackney LullabiesA quick word about a lovely short showing at the festival. Any film with Hackney in the title takes my notice, but I was not expecting a film from Germany to choose the LBH as its subject.

And what a lovely film Kiyoko Miyake's Hackney Lullabies is. The subjects are mothers with immigrant backgrounds raising their children in the People's Republic. They want their kids to be integrated, while at the same time maintaining their roots.

And they do this by calling on their own childhoods to sing them lullabies and nursery rhymes. The mothers are delightful, sharing bits and pieces of why they live there and their aspirations for their kids. And then they sing the lullabies, in a range of languages that are not English, with the subtitles dancing across the screen. Never has Hackney looked so beautiful. Diane Abbott would approve.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

LFF: Journeys

Still from Bernadette: Notes on a Political JourneysAnother day at the festival and another sighting of Diane Abbott. This time the MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington turned up at a screening of Bernadette: Notes on a Political Journey, Lelia Doolan's precis of the life of Bernadette Devlin McAliskey. I say precis, because as Doolan herself acknowledged, her 88-minute documentary is cut down from three hours.

As it stands, this version covers Devlin's entry into Parliament at 21, her arrest for inciting violence in the Bogside riots and her subsequent involvement in the hunger strikes of 1980-81. It all goes quiet after an attempt on her life in 1981, and her disillusionment with the peace process that led to the Good Friday Agreement was a curiosity to me. I asked Doolan if McAliskey chose not to be involved or if she were excluded and her answer was contradictory. So, let's have that three-hour version to fill in the gaps! Abbott might agree, as she called the doc amazing. One might speculate as to why the MP (who was sitting front and centre, not to the left) might find common ground with an outsider who professed to not want to be part of any club. But, that would be speculation.

Closer to home, I was less impressed with Strawberry Fields, which has its world premiere tonight. Frances Lea's melodrama, a Microwave project, is set on a strawberry farm in Kent and centres on the group of fruit pickers, introduced as being a motley band of immigrants and rogues. That might have been interesting but the focus is actually on a newcomer to the group, the flighty Gillian, who goes incognito as Tammy. The performance by Anna Madeley is twitchy and irritating and when her even more dizzy sister Emily arrives, the irritation levels go through the roof. Emily is meant to be troubled, possibly mentally ill, but as played by Christine Bottomley (excellent in last year's The Arbor), she seems to be channeling Marilyn Monroe, breathy-voiced and flirty. It gets worse, much worse. Nice fruit, though.

Monday, October 17, 2011

LFF: Deep South Drama

Still from Hard LaborTwo dramas from South America were among my recent viewing. Hard Labor (dirs Juliana Rojas / Marco Dutra) is a Brazilian dramedy which is part social critique and part horror film, as a bourgeois couple face the dual challenges of starting a business (her) and finding a new job following redundancy (him). Their financial pinch doesn't stop them from hiring a maid, and the three characters orbit each other, illustrating class conflict and thwarted aspirations. The horror aspect is downplayed, serving more as a metaphor for oppressive working conditions than anything else. An intriguing oddity.

Ostende (dir Laura Citarella), from Argentina, is a slow-burning character study of a woman on holiday whose propensity for observation fires her imagination to wild proportions, as she conjures up all manner of explanations for the older man who appears to be squiring two young women. What could he be up to? And has she really thwarted a kidnapping? This is the only film I've yet viewed whose closing credit sequence changes how one views the rest of the film. Still not sure whether I liked it or not, though.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

LFF: A Troubled Life

Still from Dreams of a LifeCarol Morley's doc Dreams of a Life receives its world premiere tonight at the LFF. Morley is known for her flights of fancy with the documentary form, but here she reins herself in for a gripping and troubling consideration of the life of Joyce Carol Vincent. Who? Who, exactly, for Ms. Vincent was the unfortunate soul whose dead body lay undetected in her London flat for more than two years.

How did a woman described by acquaintances as beautiful, vibrant, intelligent, ambitious and so forth come to such a grim end, surrounded by unopened Christmas presents? Why did nobody look for her? In search of answers, Morley (unseen and largely unheard behind the camera) placed adverts asking for those who knew (or thought they did) Vincent to come forward, and their on-camera interviews form the narrative of Dreams of a Life, as they offer sometimes contradictory assessments of a woman who seemed to hold herself apart and may have chosen to die alone.

Also mixing the dramatic and the documentary is Shock Head Soul, Simon Pummell's inventive telling of the story of Daniel Paul Schreber, a self-styled mystic who was committed to an asylum in Germany in the early twentieth century. Schreber resisted his diagnosis, explaining that he received messages from God, and he wrote up his ideas in an document that was praised by Jung and Freud, among others.

While Pummell allows the eloquent Schreber his space and displays the brutal treatments he was subject to, the mix of genres doesn't always work. In particular, the use of modern psychoanalysts (in period dress, no less) offering testimony and sometimes addressing characters directly is incredibly awkward. The animation sequences, as well, illustrating Schreber's visions also become intrusive after awhile. Ambitious, but flawed.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

London Film Festival: Teenage Kicks

Still from Pariah
Having done my LFF preview for The Quietus via preview DVDs and press screenings, it was a relief to get to the festival proper and lo! Friday turned up not one but two girl-girl dramas in the shape of Pariah and She-Monkeys.

Pariah, a debut feature from Dee Rees, started life as a feature-length screenplay, reached the screen as a short and has now been realised in its original form. 17-year-old African-American Alike, aka Lee, is taking the first steps into baby dykedom, trying out a street butch style and pondering whether strap-ons are her thing. It's all a bit hypothetical, as she's a virgin and looking to her butch pal Laura for advice. But, she's still in the closet around her family, including her strict and religious Mom, and her always-at-work police officer Dad.

Having drawn on her own life, Rees has crafted the film with honesty and artistry in abundance. The early club scenes in which the characters riff and bluff in street speak may be difficult for outsiders, but the emotions felt by Lee, which she can only really express in her writing, are easily relatable. At the screening, one audience member asked how black American audiences had responded to the film, and my head turned, as I thought I recognised the voice of the questioner. Blow me down! It was only Diane Abbott MP, taking a day off from her political duties to take in some cinema. She told me she thought the film was lovely and only wished more people had turned out.

Later that evening, I returned to the VUE to see the hotly tipped She-Monkeys, nominated for the Sutherland Award for most notable debut feature. To my eyes this film was less than the sum of its parts, with an excellent premise--the rivalry and power struggle between two young equestrian acrobats--let down by too much internalising.

I really had no idea at the end of the film whether the central relationship between Emma and Cassandra was one of love, hate, lust, manipulation or other. In fact, the most expressive character in the film was the six-year-old sister of Emma. She had the best lines. The post-film Q&A with director Lisa Aschan also rates as one of the least informative I've seen. I don't know whether she was nervous, tired or tired and emotional, but her answers were largely monosyllabic and punctuated by giggles.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Liane Lang: House Guests

The titular guests are inhabiting a house in Hackney Downs. But, their origin is apparently a house lived in by Rudyard Kipling in Vermont, of all places. Lang's mixed media installation is set in two rooms, one darkened with brown walls, and one brightly lit with white walls.

The darkened room looks like a study and one wall is taken up with her looped video, also called House Guests. It is projected onto what looks like stacks of papers and is an animation of a visit to Kipling's house, populated by moving furniture and unseen ghosts. The soundtrack is understated and sometimes overshadowed by the clock on the wall of the room. I found it intriguing.

The white room is more stark, with photos that seem to come from the video. Why two rooms? For more guests?

House Guests runs through 22 October at WW Gallery.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Pipilotti Rist: Eyeball Massage

Long overdue, Pipilotti Rist's retrospective at the Hayward Gallery is a bit of a tonic for the stressed Londoner. Approaching the gallery from Waterloo Bridge, one's first glimpse is of pants rustling in the wind. A bit of typical whimsy from Rist, this piece, Enlighted Hips, introduces the viewer to the artist's preoccupation with the body, as well as her sense of humour.

Once inside, one can feel immediately overwhelmed: to one side, huge, overlapping installations, to the other, a darkened room crammed full of videos, searching spotlights and diaphanous enclosures. What's it all about? Unless one can read the small guide in the dark (I couldn't) or memorise the map on the wall (ditto), one might be a bit clueless as to the titles.

But, in the end it didn't much matter. I wandered, crouched, poked my head through a hole, lay on some cushions shaped like clothing-covered body parts and slowly, slowly relaxed into the vibe. It's the most artistic chill-out space ever.

The three-screen installation, Lobe of the Lung, in particular, found a host of visitors reclining on cushions (not especially comfortable, it must be said), their forms doubled by the mirrors behind them. I leant against the mirror and then found my view blocked by an arriving mother with child and pram in tow. It's the first time I've ever been obstructed at a gallery by a pram. "Ooh, piggies," cooed the child. Not sure how Mummy explained the vaginas.

Ah, yes, the vaginas. Rist is especially attracted to the female form, zooming her mini-cameras around her own body, to depict menstrual blood and close-up views of the pudenda. But, her take on it is less biological than the body-centred art of 1970s feminism. Rist views the body as landscape, and she intersperses her internal visuals with plants, flowers, all spewed out in such bright colours as to appear psychedelic, with equally far out titles: one video is called Pimple Porn.

Interestingly, for all the explicit female bodies on display, the only advisory comes upstairs in the Project Space, where a sign warns of male nudity on show. Hypocrisy in art? Surely not. Cool videos, though, especially her early work, Ever Is Over All. The glee with which she smashes those car windows. It's infectious.

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