Thursday, October 23, 2008

LFF Update: Part 2

My second update from the London Film Festival features a crazy Christmas, a nightmarish wedding, and an American President who is all too real.

A Christmas Tale
In his onstage introduction, director Arnaud Desplechin said his latest film was inspired by the work of Wes Anderson and Ingmar Bergman – how's that for an odd couple? – but such a description doesn't prepare you for the film itself. A Christmas Tale sees a whole dysfunctional family coming together to celebrate Christmas and to see if anyone has the compatible bone marrow that might save the life of matriarch Catherine Deneuve; and from this setup Desplechin subverts every expectation to deliver one of the most dazzling and satisfying pictures of the year. The emotions are complicated but true, the characters are richly drawn, and the director audaciously juggles the tone – slipping comedy into a dark scene, undercutting lighter moments with tragedy – in a way that might make your head spin, if he wasn't so sure-footed in his approach. Desplechin uses every trick at his disposal – split-screen, irises, puppetry, characters talking direct to camera – and it's both impossible and unfair to single out members of the cast for praise, as they are all individually magnificent, and they create a magnificent ensemble. This is staggeringly brilliant filmmaking.

Waltz with BashirAri Folman's animated documentary was a huge hit at Cannes this year, but I got next to nothing out of it. I'm not sure why it left me so cold; the film has a striking opening sequence and much of the animation is imaginative and beautiful. But that animation only really worked for me in the fantasy sequences, or in the recreations of Folman's wartime experiences, and when he used the same technique to depict the straight-to-camera recollections of those involved with this incident, I simply wondered what the point was. The animation doesn't work in these sequences, it gives the people a flat, dead-eyed look and strips them of personality, and their dialogue seems oddly stilted. The whole premise of the film feels contrived (Folman is trying to remember a massacre he wasn't present at), and much of the sequences between the director and the people he visits appear scripted to fit his narrative. Only the insertion of real-life footage – something I could see was real – held any impact for me, and I felt completely detached from everything else. Underneath the vivid aesthetic, Waltz with Bashir is repetitive, vague and disappointingly dull.

Rachel Getting Married
After I got home from this screening I looked up a few reviews for Rachel Getting Married, and I came across Roger Ebert's, which includes in its opening paragraph the question "Wouldn't you love to attend a wedding like that?". Well, no is the answer as far as I'm concerned. Honestly, I thought this film was hellish and it often felt like it would never end. Jonathan Demme tries a little too hard to reinvent himself by adopting a shaky camcorder approach that's supposed to make us feel like we're a guest at Rachel's nuptials, but it worked too well for me, because I felt trapped within the most boring and drawn-out celebrations imaginable. Does every guest have to make a rambling, uninteresting toast? Does every guest have to perform a musical number? What the hell is this, a wedding or an open mic night? This is ridiculously indulgent stuff, but even when the film isn't turning into an amateur revue, it still misses the mark. Screenwriter Jenny Lumet generates conflicts and blowups out of some deeply contrived and unconvincing situations, and the film rarely manages to be either witty or insightful. The performances are uniformly very good (although others impressed me more than the much-praised Anne Hathaway), but in almost every other respect, the film is a dead loss.

Two Lovers
I like James Gray as a director, but I'm glad to see him moving in a new direction after a couple of decent crime pictures. His new film Two Lovers is a romantic drama that showcases the director's strengths while still displaying some of his limitations. He doesn't have a particularly strong visual sense, but he does know the place he's filming in, and Two Lovers benefits from that strong, authentic atmosphere. Once again he teams up with Joaquin Phoenix who gives an impressive (if slightly overplayed) performance as a man torn between the nice Jewish girl his parents have set him up with (Vinessa Shaw), and the sexy, slightly crazy drug addict who lives upstairs (Gwyneth Paltrow). Of course, it's hard to feel too sorry for a guy whose most painful decision is to choose between Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw – either way, he's got a pretty nice consolation prize. Two Lovers is formulaic stuff and the ending is both flat and predictable, but it's very well done for the most part, and the cast is excellent all the way down (Isabella Rossellini and Elias Koteas lend strong support).

Wendy and LucyAfter the superb Old Joy, writer/director Kelly Reichart returns with another low-key film that manages to grip in an understated way. Michelle Williams gives an outstanding performance as the young drifter trying to make her way north, sleeping in her car, and with only her beloved dog for company. Reichart draws great drama from the obstacles that stack up in Wendy's path, and alongside Williams, there are excellent supporting turns from Will Patton and Wally Dalton. The film really makes you care about what happens to Wendy and Lucy, showing us a world where the tiniest act of kindness can mean everything, and the final scenes are deeply affecting. A modest but memorable piece of work, and Reichart is clearly a filmmaker to watch.

Achilles and the Tortoise
It's good to have Takeshi Kitano back. After losing his way slightly with bizarre, self-obsessed works like Takeshis and Glory to the Filmmaker, Kitano is back on track with this very enjoyable film. OK, so it's not really less self-obsessed – Kitano himself takes over the lead role in the second half of the film, and all of the paintings we see are his – but it's a much more straightforward and engaging piece of work. The film follows the life of a painter, starting with his early introduction to art as a child – drawing and painting anything and everything – before tragedy disrupts his development. Later, we revisit him as a student struggling to find his voice and growing increasingly disillusioned with art school, and finally "Beat" appears as the middle-aged painter still obsessively painting but failing to find any success, and gradually losing the support of his family in the process. Achilles and the Tortoise is overlong and it grows more repetitive and narrow as it progresses, but there's a lot of good stuff here. Kitano keeps throwing tragic curveballs into the generally light-hearted mix – sometimes to jarring effect – but his direction is full of typically surreal touches, and some of his character's attempts to break new artistic ground are very funny.

Still WalkingThe third film in this article to start with the same premise – a large family, haunted by a past bereavement, is drawn together for a specific event, and we watch as they interact, with little tensions and secret disappointments appearing in their relationships. Whereas A Christmas Tale is boisterous and hyperactive, Still Walking is a quiet study; calmly yet incisively observing as the story unfolds at a steady pace . Still Walking is the new film from Hirokazu Kore-Eda, who made one of the decade's great films in 2004 with Nobody Knows, and who once again shows an incredible ability to draw perfect, unaffected performances from actors both young and old. The film is utterly captivating from the opening minutes, with Kore-Eda brilliantly developing his characters in authentic and natural ways, and giving his marvellous cast dialogue that is both witty and insightful. There's hardly a false note in the film, and it left me with that rare feeling of elation one feels after watching a near-perfect work of art. Ozu, whose films are a clear influence, would surely approve.

There's a better film to be made about the presidency of George W. Bush than this; but on the other hand, W. is a much better film than you'd expect a rushed Oliver Stone biopic to be. Stone's broad-strokes approach charts the life of Dubya, depicting his aimless days as a drunken youth trying to escape his father's shadow, his rise as the governor of Texas, and his first term in office, up to and including the invasion of Iraq. The film's narrative leans a bit too heavily on the relationship between Bush and his father (an excellent James Cromwell), but Stone generally finds a decent balance between the different time zones his picture exists in, and the picture is consistently enjoyable all the way through. The biggest success lies in the casting, with Josh Brolin working wonders in the central role, and Elizabeth Banks is impressive as Laura. Elsewhere, Bush's administration is superbly brought to life by Richard Dreyfuss (Cheney), Thandie Newton (Rice), Jeffrey Wright (Powell) and Scott Glenn (Rumsfeld); and the film ultimately depicts its subject as a well-meaning but naive character, who is easily pushed and manipulated by his inner circle (Colin Powell is shown as the sole voice of reason). The psychological profile of Bush never goes deeper than that, and there are important gaps in the story (the 2000 election gets a single mention, and the film ends before Katrina), but I suppose that's to be expected in a film that was frantically made to meet a deadline, and which is unable to get a wider perspective on the sitting president. W. is no Nixon, but it's a solid, intriguing piece of work.

Not a bad week then, with at least two of the festival's best films on show, but the highlight for me was the opportunity to meet two directors I have great admiration for. On Monday I interviewed Terence Davies, to talk about his new film Of Time and the City, his Liverpool upbringing, and his painfully long absence from cinema, and that interview will be published in full next week. Then, the following day, I met Atom Egoyan and we spoke at length about Adoration and some of the director's earlier films (that interview will also appear here in due course). How pleasing it is when you meet people you respect and they turn out to be as open, intelligent and thoughtful as these two were.

Coming up this week – Steven Soderbergh's Che, Hunter S Thompson, corruption in Italy, African boxers, The Brothers Bloom, and Steven Soderbergh's eagerly awaited sequel: Che II: Electric Boogaloo.