Saturday, October 20, 2012

London Film Festival: the end

Still from Free Angela and All Political Prisoners
My festival ended on Thursday, but I shall round up the last stragglers of films seen this week, which includes some crackers.

Probably the best is My German Friend, Jeanine Meerapfel's consideration of a woman's German-Jewish-Argentine identity over three decades. Combining a bit of history, soul-searching and some romance, it works on all levels. I had hoped to speak to the director, but just missed her.

Moving into the realms of black comedy, the Basque film Happy New Year, Grandma had me covering my eyes in horror, as a family seeking to remove its troublesome elder stateswoman unravelled in fine style. I found it difficult to get past the premise that adult children could be quite so selfish, and so laughs were hard to come by, but it's well-crafted. The lead male actor also starred in Ander.

Documentaries were a bit disappointing this year. Canned Dreams I found overly stylised and way too slow. Les Invisibles focused on individuals from the French LGBT community in a way that seemed about  20 years behind the times, although some of the interviewees were impressive.

The standout doc for me was Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, although the title is misleading. Really it's an explanation of Angela Davis's time underground and the ensuing court case that resulted in her release. Not so much is heard about other political prisoners. And in fact it's a bit of a hagiography. Once Davis is released, there follows a triumphant montage of her visiting lands far and wide to receive acclaim as a revolutionary saved from martyrdom. Not mentioned is the fate of her co-accused, whom she cut loose. legally speaking. Nor is there any explanation of how a gun registered in her name fell into the hands of the man who used it in the botched courtroom raid that led to her arrest. Perhaps director Shola Lynch was so in awe of her subject, she didn't press the awkward points. Still, it remains a fascinating tale well-told.

Still from Breaking the Frame
Breaking the Frame features the intriguing life and work of Carolee Schneemann, but is less well-told. Now if the director had just let the artist tell her own story, it would have been fine. But instead there is an insistent, breathless "dramatic" voiceover inserted to read from Schneemann's works that just had me cringing in embarrassment and frustration. The artistic cutting, perhaps echoing Schneemann's collages, is a bit tricksy, but acceptable.

My review of the comedy Celeste and Jesse Forever is up on The Quietus.

And to end with, I didn't see many shorts, but did catch two shorts programmes. Mati Diop, whose work I didn't know, has a programme showing (today, actually) of three shorts. I caught two, both very different in tone and content. Big in Vietnam features two Vietnamese expats wandering the streets of Marseille and experiencing some kind of connection far from home. I found it a bit abstract, but it does capture the dislocation one can feel when uprooted. And then there's Snow Canon. Well, this is a bit of a cryptic psychological narrative featuring a teenaged girl and a baby sitter spending the weekend in a chalet, with a bit of role-playing and sexual tension thrown in.

Lastly, I saw more family drama on show in Blood Is Thicker Than Water, which amassed a range of ideas of family and drama. A family of dogs roaming Cairo starred in the very impressive A Resident of the City, but human beings had their day, too. I was moved to tears by Curfew, in which a recovering drug addict tries to re-connect with his estranged sister via her daughter. And Get Lucky, featuring Ralf Little as the world's unluckiest man, raised a few laughs, too.

To end with, two moments I forgot to mention from the filmmaker tea. One, as I stood waiting to meet my interviewees, a door opened and an older man with piercing blue eyes crossed my path. "That looks like Terence Stamp", I thought, but nobody else blinked an eyelid, so I thought no more of it. But, now I see he does have a film at the festival, and so it probably was the very same actor.

And, lastly, as I consider it my civic duty to spread feminist notions of film far and wide, I am pleased to say that I introduced Kate Hardie to the Bechdel-Wallace test, and very pleased she was to make its acquaintance, too.

Best of the second week:
Free Angela and All Political Prisoners
My German Friend

Friday, October 19, 2012

London Film Festival: how soon is now?

Still from Tomorrow
Right. So, where was I? The festival closes on Sunday, and I have barely mentioned it. Yesterday was an interesting day as I attended a Filmmakers Afternoon Tea, kind of a speed-dating scenario for "talent" to meet press. My dates for the afternoon were shorts maker Kate Hardie and doc maker Andrei Gryazev, two very different encounters.

Hardie's film Shoot Me! is her riposte to the fashion and acting industries, as experienced by her heroine Claire (Claire Skinner) who nervously turns up for a charity fashion shoot and finds her worst dreams coming true as the photographer, renowned for his "sexy" pictures of young women, has no idea how to shoot her and only makes her feel more uncomfortable with his whacky patter and intrusive entourage. It's very funny, and Kate was quite chatty about the backstory to the film and her own experiences in the show biz and fashion worlds.

Then it was on to Andrei, director of Tomorrow. Never have I approached such a full table! I had expected Andrei's translator to be there, but there were also two representatives of Roskino, which is promoting the film in the UK, plus their laptops. I really don't like people sitting in on interviews. It ruins the intimacy for me, and thankfully, they moved to another table. As it was, it was a difficult enough interview, inasmuch as while I directed my questions to Andrei, he addressed his answers to Vitali the translator, who relayed them to me in English. With limited time, it was difficult to get a conversational flow going, and just as he really warmed to the thread, our time was up.  A pity, as I really would have liked to ask more about his approach to the film, which is a doc on Voina, the political art group, or "actionists", as Gryazev called them. I had expected a film showing serious, committed people protesting Putin's regime. What the film showed was three or four rather comically inept people shoplifting and practising flipping police cars, while carting around a toddler in a rucksack. More Stoke Newington than Moscow. Given the opening disclaimer that what is shown may not be reality, it's difficult to say how much was staged, but it was a bit disappointing for me. Even the title was a puzzle, until Gryazev explained at the post-film Q&A that it sprang from the question on everyone's lips ahead of the election: what will happen tomorrow?

I thought that was my festival done, but I was in time for an afternoon screening of Museum Hours. As I had left my festival guide at home, I had no idea why I had chosen the film, until about three quarters of the way through. This has to be the strangest film I have seen at the festival, in form if not in content. Jem Cohen is known as a doc maker, and while the film opens with a woman explaining to someone on the phone that she has to fly to Austria, the subsequent shots seem to set up a documentary. The characters speak in broken, unfinished sentences mimicking normal--not cinematic--speech, and I actually changed my mind a couple of times as to whether it was a drama or a doc. "Can't wait for the credits," I thought. I was puzzled as to why the lead character, a Canadian called Anne, kept breaking into song. And then suddenly it hit me: it's Mary Margaret O'Hara! That's why I wanted to see this film, to see the lost songstress as an actress. So, yes, it is a drama, but performed so naturalistically and shot so documentally, that many will be confused and annoyed. As a meditation on art and set in beautiful Vienna, it has its appeal, but it is definitely a Marmite film.

It is also quite slow-paced, which has been a feature of this festival. Perhaps it's a reaction to the MTV-style cutting and pacing that many decried in the '90s, but I feel this has gone way too far in the other direction. Many, many of the films I watched were glacially-paced and really tested my patience. A case in point: Punk, in which angry young French man seeks his long-lost father while wandering the streets of Paris. And wandering. And going to parties. And brooding. And yelling at his girlfriend. Until one despairs: why is he so angry, and why does it drag on so long?

Or House with a Turret, in which a very young Ukrainian boy takes a train ride that goes on so long, I wanted to throw myself under the train. Yes, he is on a journey and needs to reach his destination, but when half the film seems to be cut-aways of snowy buildings and people sitting outside, one wonders what the filmmaker's point actually was.

Keep the Lights On is a relationship drama in which an annoyingly whispery-voiced filmmaker tries to keep his whiny boyfriend off drugs. "Break up with him already!", I thought, after the fourth or fifth conversation-descending-to-argument. Tedious.

And then there's Tall As the Baobab Tree, which I anticipated with eagerness and was left grinding my teeth in frustration. Two sisters in Senegal fight to go to school rather than be married off in keeping with custom. Should be plenty of room for drama in that, and the filmmaker seems sympathetic to their plight, but again the pacing drags really badly, and the film ends up being a well-intentioned community project rather than a drama.
Still from Like Someone in Love

To end this dispatch on a note of confusion, let's try on Like Someone in Love for size. Abbas Kiarostami's first Japanese-language film, it features a bar hostess meeting a mysterious older man for an assignation outside Tokyo. Ignoring her visiting grandmother's pleading phone messages, she whisks off to meet him in his cluttered flat. An academic, he is more interested in talking than getting jiggy. The next morning he drives her back and witnesses her being accosted by her thuggish boyfriend, who mistakes him for her father and asks his advice. There is comedy in this, but it ends up going nowhere really, because the director is more interested in other things. And the ending is.... I don't know what.

Will give my final thoughts tomorrow.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

56th BFI London Film Festival: the story so far

Cast and director of Sister at the LFF
This year's festival has been unusual for me, in that I haven't attended it! Everything I've seen thus far has been on DVD or at a press screening, so for buzz and who wore what, please look elsewhere. Four of my reviews are now on The Quietus site, with at least one more to come. But here are my first thoughts: family drama, animal cruelty and blandness.

To the first, my goodness there is a plethora of family drama, from the fraught "siblings" of Sister, to the squabbling brothers of My Brother the Devil, to the son vs. father conflict of My German Friend, blood is not necessarily thicker than water.

And now to our furry friends: mutilated cats, stabbed dogs, and shot deer--it's quite the gorefest.

Lastly, I have yet to be truly knocked out by any of the films viewed so far. Have I become jaded, or is independent filmmaking seeing a bit of a lull this year? So many of them seem to meander nowhere or lose their impetus. Quite disappointing. But, I remain optimistic. Perhaps I have just not picked the best films. But there is a week to go.

Top films seen so far:
The Wall (Die Wand)
The Central Park Five
My Brother the Devil