London Film Festival 2010 – Chapter 6

One of the problems with the British film industry (apart from the fact there probably won’t be one in a couple of years if the Tories and their Lib Dem bitches have their way) is the lack of movies that actually speak to a young audience.

Don’t misunderstand me, I enjoy a good costume drama when it has something to say, but the dearth of British films that dare to challenge the viewer or aren’t pigeonholed at the 45-65 age bracket is actually pretty depressing.

So when one comes along it feels like a breath of fresh air. The LFF, bless it, tries its best to showcase the best that Britain has to serve up, and it most certainly got it right with its decision to screen Submarine.

Submarine

Submarine certainly caught my attention – I’m sure I wasn’t the only one – as it marks the directorial debut of Richard Ayoade, best known as uber-geek Moss in Channel 4’s The IT Crowd, as well as Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace and Chris Morris’ Nathan Barley.

Based on Joe Dunthorne’s novel, Submarine‘s central character is Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), a 15-year-old Swansea schoolboy who can best be described as a square box living in a world with only round windows.

Oliver has a soft spot for classmate Jordana (Yasmin Paige), who finally notices him when he inadvertently pushes a fellow pupil into a puddle in a pathetic attempt at bullying.

Still hugely confused with where he fits into the world, Oliver constantly divorces himself from reality. For instance, he imagines his awkward relationship with the fragile Jordana as a movie in which he sits in the director’s chair and can’t understand why someone else (namely Jordana) wouldn’t want to read Nietzsche or turn up to a cinema an hour before 1928’s The Passion Of Joan Of Arc “to make sure to get a good seat”. You can imagine how he handles going about losing his virginity to Jordana when the¬† situation presents itself.

Meanwhile, Oliver starts having suspicions his unhappy mum Jill (Shirley Hawkins) is having an affair with old flame and new-age evangelist Graham (Paddy Considine) and decides to intervene on behalf of his sad, quiet dad Lloyd (Noah Taylor).

Remembering this is a first-time effort, Ayoade has a supremely confident touch with the camera, reminiscent of Wes Anderson and Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), and has crafted a film that will speak to every teenager and everyone who can still recall their formative years.

He’s served by a fantastic cast, with Hawkins and Taylor brilliant as a couple uncertain of how to rediscover a spark that may no longer be there, and Considine proving that comedy comes just as easily to him as drama.

However, these pale in comparison to Ayoade’s teen cast. Both products of children’s television, Paige and Roberts are natural leads, with Roberts especially able to bring the truth to a complex role that lesser actors would have turned into kooky or weird.

There really is so much to recommend about Submarine, but this being Ayoade’s baby the plaudits must ultimately fall at his feet. This is one of the finest, most astute debuts from a British director for many years and its existence reassures you that the future of our film industry may not be quite so bleak.

While Richard Ayoade is taking his first bold steps as a director, Japan’s Takashi Miike is something of a veteran, with scores of features under his belt.

13 Assassins

Many of these features have to be seen to be believed. Miike has made something of a career out of shocking his audience – or at least surprising the hell out of them. Audition (1999) became notorious for its graphic moments of torture (most notably a scene in which a drugged and paralyzed man watches his foot being sawn off by an unhinged girlfriend), while the ultra-violent Ichi The Killer (2001) has to be seen to be believed (or not as the case may be!).

So it’s unusual that his latest, 13 Assassins, is so conventional in comparison. Although based on a true story and a remake of a 1963 black and white Japanese film of the same name, 13 Assassins owes a big debt to Akira Kurosawa’s seminal Seven Samurai (1954).

Set in 1840s Feudal Japan, the sadistic Lord Naritsugu is destined by his lineage to ascend to a high political office. Already untouchable due to his being the Shogun’s brother, his depraved actions have reached such a point, the decision is made at the highest level to assassinate him to stop him from destroying the whole country.

Retired samurai Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) is tasked with recruiting a posse of warriors before Naritsugu completes his journey home. Shinzaemon gathers together 12 assassins (and one bandit) and they travel through the mountains to cut Naritsugu off at the village of Ochiai, where they will make their stand.

Ochiai is converted into a giant mousetrap designed to ensnare Naritsugu and make sure he never leaves. But Shinzaemon and his samurai seriously underestimate the forces at Naritsugu’s disposal and they are soon forced to make their almost suicidal stand facing odds of more than 15 to one.

The comparisons to Seven Samurai really are difficult to ignore. Yakusho’s wise, embattled Shinzaemon can’t help but remind you of Shimada (played by veteran Japanese actor Takashi Shimura) in Kurosawa’s classic, while the larger than life bandit is a virtual carbon copy of the character played by Toshiro Mifune. Mind you, there’s worse things than being compared to one of the greatest films of all time.

After a deliberately slow build up, the pace quickens in the second half as the assassins work to convert the village and then explodes into action for the epic battle between the samurai and Naritsugu’s soldiers.

Brilliantly framed and choreographed, this third act is totally gripping throughout and a tour-de-force by Miike. Although you can guess what’s coming, it doesn’t stop 13 Assassins from punching you in the guts and reminding you that you needn’t look west to find action on a grandiose scale.

London Film Festival 2010 – Chapter 5

While many decry the general state of Movieland these days, these criticisms tend to evaporate when the conversation turns to the documentary format.

We really are living in a golden age of documentaries. Whether you love him, hate him or just think he needs to lose weight, Michael Moore has, through Bowling For Columbine (2002) and Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), helped to give the documentary a profile it hasn’t enjoyed for decades.

This higher profile has led to movie studios taking chances on documentary films they wouldn’t have given a second thought to 10 years ago. As a result films such as Touching The Void (2003), Capturing The Friedmans (2003) and Man On Wire (2008) have been allowed to flourish.

And far more than features, documentaries are the place to go to get a more effective dissection of what’s happening in Iraq, Afghanistan and the wider War on Terror (if that phrase even means anything these days).

No End In Sight (2007), Iraq In Fragments (2006), the Oscar-winning Taxi To The Dark Side (2007) and Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure (2008) (not to mention numerous foreign language films, such as the brilliant Control Room (2004)) – these serve as pretty much the only western investigative journalism coming out of this corner of the Middle East at the moment, which shames a mainstream media that’s kowtowed to what the US – and UK – governments and militaries have been peddling since day one.

The Tillman Story, although secondary to the films I’ve just mentioned, is an honourable addition to this cannon of work nonetheless.

The Tillman Story

Remember Private Jessica Lynch? Supposedly, she was taken hostage after her unit was ambushed by ‘terrorists’ and tortured. Her subsequent rescue became world news and was dubbed ‘Saving Private Lynch’ by the news media. However, it emerged later that Lynch had in fact been receiving hospital care by Iraqi medical staff at the time of her rescue and hadn’t been tortured, after all. For all intents and purposes Lynch’s experiences had been warped by the Bush government and draped in the American flag for purposes of propaganda. Surely it wouldn’t be allowed to happen again, right?

Corporal Pat Tillman was a successful NFL star when he decided to enlist with the US military along with his brother Kevin in 2002. A naturally gifted athlete, it turned out that he was also a naturally gifted leader and Tillman was soon given command of his own unit.

On April 22, 2004, it was reported by the military that Tillman and his men had been ambushed and Tillman had died heroically in the line of duty. His body was flown back to the States and he was quickly eulogised by George Bush et al for being a True American before his memorial service was broadcast on national television.

However, the truth has a funny habit of seeping out and it emerged several weeks later that Tillman had in fact been killed by friendly fire.

To make matters worse, it then leaked out some time later that a confidential memo had been sent to senior generals and the Bush administration several days before the memorial service making them aware Tillman had almost certainly been killed by friendly fire.

In other words, there had been more than enough time to correct the ‘official’ version of events before Tillman’s memorial service. However, this would have rained on the propaganda parade that was already in full effect and, well, friendly fire just doesn’t sound as patriotic a death as going out in a blaze of glory does it?

Without the tireless work of Pat Tillman’s family, most notably his devoted mother Dannie, it is likely that little or none of this shameless episode would have seen the light of day.

It is this fight that director Amir Bar-Lev manages to convey so well in The Tillman Story. Very reminiscent of Errol Morris, Bar-Lev paints a clear picture on the broadest of canvasses, patiently following each key strand through to its natural conclusion, but never forgetting the human story of a family refusing to lie down and let their son be used as a poster boy for a war none of them, most of all Pat, believed in any longer.

The Tillman Story falls down due to the dearth of comment from the military. Whatever side you’re on, a story only becomes fair and balanced when you hear from both sides. In the post-film Q&A I asked Bar-Lev if he had approached senior military and/or government figures to ask them to explain themselves. He replied in the affirmative, but none had been forthcoming (with the exception of a retired general who was effectively used as a scapegoat for the military’s failings and so was presumably open to giving his side of the story) and the omission of this information at the end of the film leads you to assume otherwise.

Nevertheless, this is a story that needed telling and the fact it is presented so lucidly is to Bar-Lev’s credit.

London Film Festival 2010 – Chapter 4

It was all going so well. Too well as it happens. I’d managed to sit through several films at this festival with the Prick-o-Meter barely registering an amber alert.

Just as night follows day, though, and I got my first genuine knobhead while sitting patiently for the start of Mike Leigh’s latest Another Year.

Another Year

I’ve had an irritating cold over the past week or so and am still needing to blow my nose from time to time. I made sure to clear the nasal pipes before the film started, only for the gentleman, whom it would be fair to describe as grossly rotund, sitting next to me to ask: “Are you going to be doing that throughout the film?”

Now, because I’ve been brought up properly, I bit my tongue, smiled and reassuringly replied: “Fear not, I think that’s the worst of it.” He nodded and the film began.

You’d think that a person who raises the principle of noise reduction wouldn’t then breathe throughout the entire film as if he wasn’t a fish that had been lobbed on a bank and left to suffocate. Alas, he did. In a hushed environment, someone who is officially The Noisiest Breather in the World tends to stand out and his gasps for air got so ridiculously loud that tutting could be heard throughout the cinema.

But even this hypocrite couldn’t spoil yet another first-rate effort from one of the UK’s most treasured possessions.

The world really would be a worse place without Mike Leigh. Naked (1993), Secrets & Lies (1996), Vera Drake (2004), Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) – these are just a handful of titles from a director who has pretty much made the kitchen sink drama his own.

Another Year continues this fine tradition. Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) are a happy, contented couple living a happy, contented life, whether that’s on their allotment or in their warmly inviting London home.

The only problem is that everyone around them is in tatters. There’s Gerri’s friend Mary and Tom’s old pal Ken (Peter Wight), who comes to visit for the weekend from Hull. Both of them are desperately lonely, wounded people who see in Tom and Gerri what they think they need to fulfill their lives.

As the seasons come and go (hats off to Dick Pope’s beautiful cinematography), things grow (in the case of Tom and Gerri’s son Joe, it’s a new relationship), while others die, most notably Tom’s sister-in-law, but the one constant is the love felt by Tom and Gerri. They both understand they are closer to the end of their lives than the beginning, but as long as they are together that’s all that matters.

The structure of Another Year is such that each season feels like its own episode. Appropriately, winter brings the film’s bleakest moments, specifically the funeral in which we are introduced to Tom’s brother Ronnie (an understated turn by David Bradley), another lost soul, and Ronnie’s angry, agressive son Carl (Martin Savage).

As you’d expect in any Leigh film, the ensemble is excellent. Sheen exudes a patient calm as Gerri, while Broadbent makes this whole acting lark look effortless.

However, it’s Lesley Manville who shines the brightest as Mary. Her cheery front masks a self-loathing and desperation that can only be supressed by copious amounts of wine. Like Ken, Mary is clinging on by her fingernails and the final shot of Mary looking utterly lost as she sits at Tom and Gerri’s dinner table surrounded by happy friends is both heart-breaking and devastating at the same time.

Leigh in the post-film Q&A said that what he wanted to do with Another Year was to show the lives of people “my own age”. When it’s done this gracefully, I’d happily spend many more years with these characters.

Leigh’s films have often been categorised as ‘social-realist’, a term that has also been applied to the work of co-writers/directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden.

Their Oscar-nominated debut feature Half Nelson (2006) and its follow-up Sugar (2008) both dealt with individuals struggling to cope with what’s expected of them (in Half Nelson it was an inner-city teacher, in Sugar a teenager who immigrates¬† from the Dominican Republic to play minor league baseball). This theme is explored again in It’s Kind Of A Funny Story.

It’s Kind Of A Funny Story

Based on Ned Vizzini’s novel, It’s Kind Of A Funny Story follows 16-year-old Craig (Keir Gilchrist), who convinces an ER doctor to admit him to a New York psych ward after insisting he is on the brink of committing suicide.

Thinking he’s just going to be prescribed some pills and sent on his way, Craig is shocked when he’s told he must serve a minimum of five days in the ward. Worse still he’s going to have to share it with adults as the youth facility is being renovated.

Craig is convinced he’s a no-hoper and a disappointment to his parents. In an amusing scene we see how he equates possible failure to get into an esteemed summer school with failure in later life, a sentiment shared by most teenagers at that age, myself included.

Craig is taken under the wing of kindly, damaged Bobby (The Hangover‘s Zach Galifianakis), who introduces him to the colourful array of patients, all of whom are messed up in some way or another.

So far, so mwehh. But what lifts It’s Kind Of A Funny Story out of the Feel Good Hit Of The Year! blandness is the astute way Fleck and Boden avoid falling into many of the pitfalls a film of this type is loaded with.

I say many, but not all, as the film follows a trajectory you can see coming from a mile away and some of the scenes, especially towards the end, slide inexorably into schmaltz.

That being said, the interplay between Gilchrist and a never-better Galifianakis is great, while the way the film depicts the lives of teenagers is about as believable as you’re going to see on screen. Emma Roberts also has a likeable turn as Noelle, a fellow patient who forms a connection with the unhappy, but naturally gifted Craig.

It feels like a step back after the excellent Sugar, but by the film’s feel-good conclusion you can’t help but be swept along, schmaltz and all.

London Film Festival 2010 – Chapter 3

One of the joys of attending a film festival is the sheer diversity of the product on offer.

Short of snuff or hardcore porn, pretty much any genre is catered for at these things. Want to see a film about giraffes taking over the world? Chances are there’s a movie you can catch where that’s the main plot point. Probably.

That’s why a trip to the local multiplex is such a soul-crushing experience. I remember when Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler (an Oscar-nominated film, so hardly arthouse fodder) came out a couple of years back and I asked at my local cinema whether they would be getting it. I received a shake of the head from the staff member I spoke to, the kind of vacant head movement that basically transcribes as “What the f*ck are you talking about?”.

Now if I’d asked how many screens Transformers would be playing on I’m pretty certain I would have been given a forensically detailed response. I guess the moral of the story is if you like films, suck it up and be prepared to clock up the miles as I don’t see the attitudes of cinema chains changing any time soon, especially now that 3D’s here. But that’s another rant altogether.

Variety’s the name of the game at festivals, though, and I was looking forward earlier today to what would probably be the most varied day of the festival for me.

The day would start off with a screening of Constantin Popescu’s debut feature Portrait Of The Fighter As A Young Man, a challenging account of a group of Romanian freedom fighters slowly being ground down as the Soviet invasion of 1944 takes hold.

Portrait Of The Fighter As A Young Man – not on, unfortunately

After some rather grating problems with the trains, I made it to Leicester Square just in the nick of time only to discover the film had been pulled due to a dodgy print.

Although momentarily frustrating I quickly got over it which is more than can be said for one mouthy gentleman who walked around the cinema foyer waving his ticket around shouting overly-loudly “I want to speak to a manager!” as if he’d just found out his house had accidentally been sold to a family of Polish farm workers.

London’s a big city, though, and there’s always something you can do to soak up a couple of hours. For me that involved drinking a couple of cups of tea and keeping out of the rain. I know, bananas.

Anyway, at least the second half of my film-going day didn’t suffer the same fate and I was able to enjoy Geoff Marslett’s Mars in all its slacker glory.

Mars

It’s probably fair to say there hasn’t been anything like Mars before, so as a piece of film-making it’s certainly one of the most original I’ve ever seen.

The most visually arresting thing about Mars is its use of rotoscoping, the technique of animating over live action film movement that was made famous by Ralph Bakshi in his stab at The Lord Of The Rings in 1978 and most recently by the godfather of mumblecore Richard Linklater in Waking Life (2001) and his take on Philip K Dick’s A Scanner Darkly (2006).

The benefit of rotoscoping is you can pretty much create any background you want and make it look like real people are interacting with it. In the case of Mars, Mark Duplass, Zoe Simpson and Paul Gordon play the crew of the first manned mission to the Red Planet.

This is the kind of slacker misfit crew we saw back in John Carpenter’s debut feature Dark Star (1974). Apart from the regular TV updates to a disinterested Earth, Charlie (Duplass) can barely see the point of him being there, while mission commander Hank (Gordon) grows more bored about the prospect of setting foot on Mars the closer they get.

But instead of most films of this ilk, which tend to show the crew getting more fraught with each other and the tension build as things go horribly wrong, the crew form a tightening bond and, when calamity strikes, pretty much take it in their stride as if they’re making a cup of tea.

It’s this refusal to adhere to the confines of the genre where Mars really clicks, that and the constantly witty script, delivered in an arid, deadpan fashion by all three.

The fact that life is discovered on Mars is hardly surprising, but the source of that life is irreverent, stupid and kind of makes sense all at the same time. Let’s just say that Britain’s failed Beagle II probe to the Red Planet serves its purpose after all.

A great soundtrack by Howe Gelb adds to the underground cool of Mars, as does the casting of cult singer songwriter Kinky Friedman as the most unlikely US President you’ll ever see. Mars probably won’t ever escape the festival circuit, but if you get the chance check it out on DVD. It sure as hell beats Mission To Mars.

London Film Festival 2010 – Chapter 2

One of the benefits of attending the London Film Festival is the occasional appearance by an actor or film-maker whose work I have found pleasing.

By ‘appearance’, I don’t mean those occasions when a red carpet is called for. The people who stand on the wrong side of metal fencing for hours hoping to catch a glimpse of Kia-Ora Knightley looking skeletal, or wishing that Tom Cruise might have an inane conversation using their mobile phone should be locked up in a concentration camp.

No, the kinds of appearances I mean are such things as Q & A sessions by people whose opinion you actually care about (as an aside, I stood in the same queue yesterday as Stephen Frears (The Queen, Tamara Drewe) and Jim Broadbent which I’m ashamed to say provided a nice moment, but I digress).

One of these took place today with the great John Sayles, whose film Amigo we had just watched.

Amigo

John Sayles is a bit of a legend. Like John Cassavetes before him, Sayles doesn’t do compromise; instead he does that thing so few Hollywood film-makers even bother with – he treats his audience with a modicum of intelligence.

Sayles is probably best known for his fantastic baseball drama Eight Men Out and Lone Star, his dark, dark murder mystery. Because he doesn’t serve up schlock, Sayles naturally struggles to find the funding he needs to get his projects off the ground. So it was with a sense of genuine anticipation that I sat down to watch Amigo.

The film is set in and around Luzon in the Philippines at the turn of the 20th Century. The Spanish colonialists have been defeated by an America which is starting to stretch its superpower muscles.

For the ordinary villagers, the only thing that has changed is that one colonial power has been swapped for another. For some, the prospect of having their country stamped on by another invading force is too much and they take to the hills to become insurgents.

For the American soldiers on the ground, they see themselves as liberators who must win “hearts and minds” and impose democracy on the Filipinos … whether they want it or not.

Sound familiar? Well, it must be said that Sayles trowels it on pretty heavy-handedly when it comes to the Iraq symbolism.

His use of irony is also rather thick. In one scene, Lt Compton (Gareth Dillahunt), when asked why elections are being held in the village they are occupying says “we in America believe the beliefs of the people are sacred”, missing the point that precisely none of the villagers would want to be sharing their personal space with Yanks given half a chance.

But it’s in the character conflict where Amigo really shines. With the exception of Chris Cooper’s racist Col Hardacre, the characters are given enough depth to make them rich and believable figures, most especially Joel Torre’s village ‘head man’ who finds himself in an impossible position, caught between maintaining his people’s safety by working with the Americans and being seen as a collaborator by the guerillas.

This is a period of history which has almost totally been overlooked by western film-makers – indeed, the US-Philippines war is a virtual footnote, I sure as hell had no knowledge of it – so Sayles must be congratulated for shining a light on an episode which is sadly all too pertinent today.

John Sayles is somewhat of an indie darling, an adjective that might soon apply to Aaron Katz if Cold Weather is anything to go by.

Cold Weather

Katz has made a name for himself by being included in that crop of film-makers (Lynn Shelton, Mark Duplass) responsible for the mumblecore movement in the US. The staples of mumblecore tend to be the following: twenty-something characters, largely improvised dialogue and plots that are about as paper-thin as Tony Blair’s conscience.

With Cold Weather, Katz has taken something of a departure from his previous two films Dance Party USA and Quiet City by employing genre film-making, namely the mystery thriller.

Doug is a college drop-out who has left Chicago and moved back in with his sister Gail in Portland. He gets a job at an ice-packing plant and befriends Carlos, a co-worker and part-time DJ. Doug introduces Carlos to The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and soon the pair are investigating the mysterious disappearance of Doug’s ex-girlfriend Rachel, who has recently arrived in town.

A dollop of Hitchock here and a serving of the Coens there help to make Cold Weather an intriguing mystery with a couple of genuinely nail-biting sequences towards the end. However, you can take man out of mumblecore, but you can’t take the mumblecore out of the man and Katz never strays for very long away from the film’s heart, specifically the relationship between Doug and Gail.

This is probably the best portrayal of siblings I’ve seen on screen since 2000’s You Can Count On Me. Everything, be it a shared memory over an old mixtape or a pointless whale-watching trip, gives the impression these two characters have been in each other’s lives for ever and full credit must go to Cris Lankenau and Trieste Kelly Dunn for totally selling it to us.

If wham-bam explosions gets you off then don’t bother with Cold Weather, but if you appreciate a film that lets dialogue set the mood and isn’t afraid to let characters be genuine human beings then this is for you.