Thursday, October 30, 2008

LFF Update: Part 3

Italian politics is rife with corruption! American teenagers are unhappy! These are just two of the startling revelations offered by the following collection of films:




Il Divo
Before Il Divo begins, director Paolo Sorrentino puts a glossary onscreen that is supposed to explain who everyone is in the complex story he's about to unfold for us, that story being of former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti and his alleged ties with the mafia. Frankly, it didn't help me much, and I did struggle to keep up at numerous points during the subsequent two hours. The occasional fog of confusion didn't hurt my viewing experience, though, because I absolutely adored this film. Fans of Sorrentino's earlier pictures The Consequences of Love and The Family Friend will already be aware of the incredible confidence and imagination he can bring to his direction, and he's firing on all cylinders here. He seems to be simply incapable of shooting a dull or ordinary scene, and every single minute of Il Divo is energised by his ceaselessly dynamic camerawork, creative compositions, and startling soundtrack choices. It's not all bravado though, he includes a few beautiful, quiet moments – particularly between Andreotti and his wife – and at the centre of the picture, Toni Servillo gives another mesmerizingly understated performance. Absolutely entrancing.

Che
The first test Che had to pass at its gala this weekend was to survive a frankly disastrous screening in which the projector broke down twice, once in each half. I'm not sure how much we missed as a result (the first breakdown appeared to leave Che with a mysteriously broken arm), but I doubt it would have made that much of a dent in this picture's four-and-a-bit hours running time. For the most part, I was impressed and absorbed by Che, although it lost me somewhere around the three-hour mark and never quite drew me all the way back in. The first half cross-cuts between Che's role in the Cuban revolution, and his 1964 appearance at the United Nations (shot in newsreel style black and white), while the second jumps ahead a few years to focus on his attempt to spread the revolution to Bolivia, a campaign that ultimately ended in failure and his own death. Che is a remarkable accomplishment in many ways. Soderbergh approaches the subject with his customary intelligence and his HD digital cinematography captures the lush, vivid hues of the Cuban and Bolivian jungles in which he fought. Each half has a couple of standout set-pieces which are superbly orchestrated, but the film remains strangely muted throughout, which is perhaps why I felt a sense of fatigue midway through the second section. I'm not entirely sure that Che needed over four hours, and I'm not sure that Soderbergh's film really gets into his character or expands our view of him beyond what we already know, but the film is utterly fascinating, and del Toro's quiet, commanding central performance is superb. You know, I'm still digesting Che and I haven't quite made up my mind about it, but thank God there are still American directors around like Soderbergh who are willing to make such ambitious, uncompromising and stimulating fare.

American Teen
American Teen is a documentary following four stereotypical high school students – the blonde bitch, the basketball star, the unconventional misfit, the lonely über-nerd – in their last year before graduation, but I use the term "documentary" loosely. A lot of this film felt false to me, and it seemed obvious that much of the incidents had been staged (or at least, acted-out by the participants) for the benefit of Burstein's camera. Of course, many documentary filmmakers have incorporated fictional elements into their films – consider Herzog's quest for "ecstatic truth" – but this felt more insidious; an attempt to generate false drama in a story that has precious little of its own. Not only is American Teen a lame, uninteresting piece of work that fails to illuminate its subject, there's also something morally dubious about it.

Before American Teen started, a short documentary called Kids + Money played. This 32-minute film, directed by Lauren Greenfield, is compiled from interviews with dozens of teenagers living in LA, in which they discuss their attitude to money and consumerism. The kids often speak with an amusing lack of self-awareness, but occasionally they'll offer an insightful comment that sheds light on the pressure they feel to conform, and the way material possessions act as a status symbol in their lives. Nothing particularly eye-opening, but it's a frank, tightly edited and funny piece of filmmaking, and it gave me more food for thought than American Teen could offer at three times the length.

The Brothers Bloom
I was one of the naysayers who didn't think Rian Johnson's Brick was quite as successful as many people felt it was, although it undeniably displayed a lot of promise, and I think his follow-up The Brothers Bloom is more of the same. It's clever, occasionally impressive and frequently amusing, but it also seems inordinately pleased with itself, the story doesn't make sense in a lot of places, and the ending is a mess. Johnson has an obvious love of words, with his screenplay containing a number of neat lines, and the bigger budget afforded to him here allows him to display his strong visual sense in a variety of global location. The film is horribly uneven, though, and the nature of the piece – everything is a con, except when it isn't – keeps us at an emotional distance, anticipating being hoodwinked, and just waiting patiently for the next twist to arrive. Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo put in a decent shift as the conmen siblings of the title, but it's the women who are the film's strongest suit, with Rachel Weisz and Rinko Kikuchi both turning in fantastic, surprising performances in the kind of quirky roles that could have gone very wrong in other hands (I think this is the best display of Weisz's career). This is a passable caper movie, and Brick fans will probably find a lot to love in it, but I'm still waiting for proof that Rian Johnson is anything more than a crafty sleight-of-hand artist.

AfterschoolIf late period Gus van Sant and a young Michael Haneke teamed up to make a film on the misery of teenage life, and to show us how today's internet-savvy kids are, like, totally desensitised to violence, then the end result might look a bit like Afterschool. This debut feature from 24 year-old director Antonio Campos takes a coldly detached approach to its story, following lonely student Robert (Ezra Miller) as he grows closer to a pretty classmate (Addison Timlin), before the whole school is devastated by a drugs incident. Campos is careful with his slightly off-kilter compositions, but the manner in which he isolates the teens to signify their alienation is trite, and all of the characters are pitifully underdeveloped (some are barely developed at all). We are always mere observers, never involved. Campos seems to believe his film is rife with meaning and shocking impact, but aside from one or two striking moments, I found it to be almost completely empty and unrewarding.

The Silence of Lorna
After four extraordinary films in a row – including two Palme D'Or winners – perhaps the Dardenne brothers felt it was time to shake up the old formula a bit. Although it explores similar territory to their earlier work, The Silence of Lorna feels like a step in a new direction, with a more plot-heavy narrative, some audacious storytelling decisions, and camerawork that is more restrained than usual. The story centres on Albanian immigrant Lorna (Arta Dobroshi), who has married a junkie called Claudy (a wonderfully sympathetic Jérémie Renier) to get Belgian citizenship as part of an ongoing green card scam. The gangsters she's working for plan to kill this addict and make it look like an overdose, so Lorna will be free to marry a Russian who has paid for the privilege, but she has started to get cold feet as her feelings for Claudy have intensified. Halfway through the picture, the Dardennes throw in a plot development that's so jarring and unexpected it seemed to throw the whole audience into a state of confusion for a short period, and after that The Silence of Lorna develops into a quite different film, and moves into risky, uncharted territory for these siblings. Fortunately, their command of the medium is as formidable as ever, and they draw astonishing, breathless drama from some of the later scenes; and while the ending will divide opinion, I found it to be a brave and haunting climax. At the centre of it all, Lorna is one of the Dardennes' most intriguing characters, and in the luminous Arta Dobroshi, they have discovered a new star.

The day after The Silence of Lorna's premiere at the festival, I was fortunate enough to meet both Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, and then I sat down for a chat with the film's enchanting star Arta Dobroshi. Both of those interviews will be published within the next few weeks, but both discussions did cover some of the major plot points in some detail, so I would recommend avoiding them until you've seen the picture.

Coming up this week – We're into the final stretch, and the last LFF update will include trips into the crazy minds of both Charlie Kaufman and Hunter S Thompson (Be afraid, be very afraid!), before Danny Boyle closes the festival with his Indian fantasy Slumdog Millionaire.