Tuesday, October 20, 2009

London Film Festival 2009 - Second Round-Up

The first week of the 2009 London Film Festival has thrown up some fascinating features, and I'll be writing full reviews for Balibo, The Road, Enter the Void, Up in the Air and Dogtooth in due course. In the meantime, here are a few other movies I've caught in the past few days.


The title refers to the postal code of Sidney, Ohio, and this is where local filmmakers Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross spent 9 months filming everyday goings-on, which they have skilfully edited into this engaging documentary. The footage has been assembled in an impressionistic manner, offering us brief slices of life before cutting away to another, seemingly unconnected incident. Two narrative strands give the documentary a sense of shape – a judge's re-election campaign, and the fortunes of the high school football team, as they prepare for a big game – but the film is actually at its best when it moves away from those stories into more humdrum territory. An amusing scene involves a group of elderly women in a care home discussing men, while a couple of interesting sequences concern a mother's quarrelsome relationship with her wayward son. The camerawork is effective and occasionally alights on something beautiful, while the editing is slick, with one breathtaking cut standing out towards the end. There's also an infrequent David Lynch-style weirdness to 45365, which enlivens a few of the duller segments, and I just wish we got a peek at the 29-inch woman, whose presence is tantalisingly advertised at the country fair.

Adrift (Choi voi)

As soon as Hai (Duy Khoa Nguyen) falls into a drunken stupor on his wedding night, we instantly suspect his marriage to Duyen (Do Thi Hai Yen) will not be a particularly satisfying one, and so it proves, with the marriage remaining unhappy and unconsummated. When she seeks solace with her friend Cam, Duyen finds herself being pushed into the arms of Cam's former lover Tho (Johnny Tri Nguyen), a serial womaniser, who can give her the sexual gratification that her marriage is failing to provide. Although the male characters in this slow-moving drama don't really develop beyond their initial dimensions, the female figures are richly drawn, and superbly played by the lead actresses. Director Bui Thac Chuyen handles Phan Dang Di's screenplay in a subtle and lyrical fashion, and he manages to make his film erotic without indulging in any explicit sexual acts. The drama could do with a little more juice, but this is still a solid, adult piece of work.

No One Knows About Persian Cats (Kasi az gorbehaye irani khabar nadareh)
The current front-runner for my unofficial LFF Best Title award (I also like the Japanese film Ultra-Miracle Love Story, but that loses points for adopting the much blander English name Bare Essence of Life), No One Knows About Persian Cats is a fictional narrative apparently derived from factual incidents. With pop music being banned in Iran, young Iranians who do want to make music have been forced underground and out of the country. Bahman Ghobadi has constructed his film around a group of indie musicians forced to turn to the black market in search of the visas and passports that will allow them to perform in the west. Although the performances from the bootleggers they come into contact with are amusing, the lead characters of Negar and Ashkan are underdeveloped, as is the storyline they are involved in. Occasionally, Ghobadi disrupts the realist aesthetic to portray a band's performance in a music video-style; although I can't say any of these performances were especially memorable.

We Live in Public
Josh Harris is a fascinating individual, and We Live in Public does his deeply weird story justice. Harris was a pioneer who saw the potential of the internet before almost anyone else, making a fortune in the 1980s, and establishing an internet-based TV network called Pseudo.com. He made millions, but the most interesting aspect of Harris's story comes later, when he blew his money on a series of artistic social experiments, including a Big Brother-style bunker, in which the participants' every action was captured on video. That bunker was where Harris and his fellow inmates spent the turn of the millennium, before the police raided the location in the belief that some kind of cult had been established, prompting him to take the same idea in a more personal direction. Harris and his girlfriend moved into a house in which every action was monitored by cameras, and they began interacting with the online community who watched them, until the whole business inevitably soured their relationship and led to an extremely unpleasant on-camera breakup. Director Ondi Timoner has been filming Josh's various ventures on and off for over fifteen years, and he gives us a compelling warts-and-all portrait of a brilliant visionary and a very complex man. We Live in Public is well-paced and full of extraordinary footage, and at a time when people are revealing more of themselves every day on blogs, Facebook, Twitter and the rest, it's remarkable to see just how far ahead of his time Josh Harris was.

Alexander the Last
Here I am giving Joe Swanberg another chance to impress, and here he is turning in another deeply unimpressive piece of filmmaking. To be fair, this is an interesting advancement for the director in a number of ways. He has drawn on the talents of a few familiar faces – including Jess Weixler and Jane Adams – for this feature, and he has the backing of a producer, Noah Baumbach, who is himself an established filmmaker. Those developments are more interesting in theory than in practice, though, as Alexander the Last remains a thoroughly mediocre and directionless effort. Wexler is a young actress whose husband is out of town, and whose acting partner Jamie (Barlow Jacobs) has temporarily moved in to her apartment while they rehearse their play. This is not a very good idea, as their play involves an intimate sex scene, and the sexual tension between them is complicated by his burgeoning relationship with Alex's sister Hellen (Amy Seimetz). In the film's single impressive sequence, Swanberg cuts cleverly between a scene of Alex and Jamie rehearsing coital positions, and Jamie and Hellen doing it for real. It's the first time I've seen Swanberg show any signs of being a real filmmaker, but that's all Alexander the Last had to spark my interest. I admire what directors like Swanberg are trying to do, with their intimate style, improvised performances and sexual frankness, but more and more I'm finding I like the idea of Joe Swanberg more than the real thing.

Don't Worry About Me
David Morrissey makes his directorial debut with this low-key film. Don't Worry About Me is an adaptation of James Brough and Helen Elizabeth's stage play The Pool, with the two writers taking on the central roles of David and Tina. He's an enthusiastic dolt who finds himself penniless in Liverpool after making an ill-advised attempt to track down a one-night stand. She's the girl who takes pity on him, and ends up escorting him around the city. The film has echoes of similar romantic two-handers such as Before Sunrise/Sunset and In Search of a Midnight Kiss, but this film is a little rougher around the edges. Morrissey's direction is unfussy and workmanlike but effective, and he makes the most of his surroundings, allowing his characters plenty of room to wander around seeing the sights of the city. Brough and Elizabeth's banter is mostly natural and occasionally witty, even if the picture runs the risk of unbalancing itself with some contrived conflict halfway through. The performances carry it across the odd rocky patch intact, though. Brough is convincing in a surprisingly unsympathetic role, and Elizabeth is marvellous, imbuing Tina with a warmth and sensitivity, and bringing the goods when asked to deliver an emotionally charged monologue late on.
Rumle Hammerich's corporate conspiracy thriller looks and sounds like every other corporate conspiracy thriller of the past twenty years. Lars Mikkelsen is Martin Ving, the go-to guy for companies who need a top employee at short notice, so there's no surprise when he is contacted by the head of the huge Sieger Co., but there is a surprise in store when he finds out exactly what role he is being asked to fill. Mr Sieger (Henning Moritzen) wants someone to replace himself, and he is choosing to go outside the family, skipping over his son Daniel (Flemming Enevold), who was the presumed successor. Soon, Martin finds himself being played by both Stieger and Stieger Jr., with the fate of his own ill son being used to manipulate him. Twists and turns ensue, of course, but the film never manages to get the pulse racing as it plods through various clich├ęd scenes. It doesn't help matters that so many of the plot developments are pretty hard to swallow – notably the identification of one character from a casual glance at a 35 year-old school photo – and much of Hammerich's writing is clumsy. I was particularly disheartened by the way former journalist Martin's implausible past as a Navy SEAL was tossed into one conversation, purely so he could immediately turn into Jason Bourne when the role required it.