Friday, October 30, 2009

London Film Festival 2009 - Third Round-Up

A packed schedule has taken its toll on my LFF updates, with my own habitual procrastination hardly helping matters either. This is the penultimate roundup, and I'll be writing full reviews for the most notable films in the festival – including A Serious Man, About Elly, The Disappearance of Alice Creed and Mother – closer to the films' respective release dates. For now, here's my two cents on everything else.

The Last Days of Emma Blank (De laatste dagen van Emma Blank)
Emma Blank is dying, but if she's going to die, she's going to do it her way. In a manor house somewhere in the Dutch countryside, this steely matriarch (played by Marlies Heuer) has persuaded her entire family to wait on her hand and foot until she passes, literally behaving like slaves and putting up with every one of Emma's demands no matter how absurd. She has even persuaded one poor sap to behave like the family dog. It quickly emerges that the reason they are putting up with such behaviour is, of course, money, with Emma ready to leave a large amount behind her when she finally shuffles off to the other side. There is plenty of deadpan, surreal humour to be derived from this setup, and some interesting tensions between the various characters, but Alex van Warmerdam doesn't seem entirely sure of where he's taking his story, and the film's joke wears thin after a while. The performances are strong, with Eva van de Wijdeven making a particular impression as Emma's rebellious daughter, while the director himself makes an amusing cameo as Theo, the family dog.

Shirley Adams
Reminiscent of the Dardenne brothers, this South African drama utilises a handheld style, with the camera permanently perched behind the shoulder of the titular character. Played by Denise Newman, Shirley is a single mother of a teenage boy who was left paralysed from the neck down after a shooting incident. Writer/director Mark Hermanus convincingly captures the difficulties of this relationship, with Keenan Arrison impressively portraying the frustrated, embarrassed Donovan, cringing as his mother washes and dressing him. We watch as Shirley struggles to get by alone, her pride preventing her from asking for help, and she even resorts to shoplifting at one desperate point, before finally relenting and allowing care worker Tamsin (Emily Child) to enter their home and assist with Donovan's recuperation. Hermanus' direction is intimate and unflashy, although his habit of peeking around corners and doorframes feels like something of an affectation. There's nothing remotely affected about Newman's central performance, though, whose face alone reveals so much about the hardship her character has endured.

The French Kissers (Les beaux gosses)
Imagine a French version of American Pie – a Tarte Français, perhaps – and you'll have an idea of the tone the makers of The French Kissers are going for. The central characters are two pimply, sullen teenagers desperate to get laid, but it's hard to support them in their quest as Hervé (Vincent Lacoste) and Camel (Anthony Sonigo) are two of the most charmless yokes imaginable. Various scenes of embarrassment and humiliation ensue, as the two teens are constantly thwarted in their romantic endeavours, but very little of it is actually funny. The best performance in the film comes from Noémie Lvovsky as Hervé's interfering mother, who shares a lively, almost incestuous relationship with her son, but the rest of the film is flat and unimaginative, and the storytelling is slapdash. I was briefly cheered by the appearance of Irène Jacob – beautiful as ever – as the mother of Hervé's on-off girlfriend, but alas, it's nothing more than a cameo.

Plan B
I don't make a habit of walking out of films, but I was struggling to care about Plan B pretty much from the start, and after an hour I decided to quit while I was behind. The setup is contrived and a little silly – jilted Bruno (Manuel Vilna) plans to end his ex-girlfriend's new relationship by seducing her new man Pablo (Lucas Ferraro) – but there's surely potential within it for a decent farce. Exploiting that potential would have required a great deal more wit, timing and daring than writer/director Marco Berger seems capable of producing, though. The purpose of Bruno's plot is poorly developed (Laura is still sleeping with him behind Pablo's back anyway, which seems to lower the stakes somewhat) and there isn't enough chemistry between the two male leads to make their awkward scenes together work. Apart from all of that, the film is crippled by Berger's astonishingly sluggish pacing, and by the time Pablo had discovered the true nature of his new friend's intentions, I decided that waiting to see how the next 45 minutes would pan out would not be a productive use of my time when I had so much else to do.

Following that little lapse, let's move on to the only film I fell asleep during in this year's programme. Karaoke begins in a rather bewildering fashion, and while things may have been clarified shortly afterwards, I'm afraid I'm not a reliable enough witness to confirm that. Here's what I managed to get before the weight of my eyelids defeated me: a mother and son are working in a karaoke bar, he has a sideline filming the karaoke music videos, and he likes to take long walks through the woods. And I mean long walks. In the end, I think my hectic schedule got the better of me, and I dozed peacefully for most of Chris Chong Chan Fui's film. I was particularly disappointed to miss so much of Karaoke because it's the first Malaysian film I've ever seen – or half-seen, as it turned out.

J'Accuse (1919)
While the London Film Festival's main focus is on new films from all corners of the globe, one of its most fascinating strands every year is the archive section, in which old films are screened in newly restored prints. I've got three in my schedule this year, two of which are detailed in this roundup, with John M. Stahl's Leave Her to Heaven to come later in the week. On Saturday, I finally saw a film I had been aching to see for years, Abel Gance's 1919 film J'Accuse. Shot in the final year of the first world war, the film's authenticity is unmistakable, with Gance filming on the battlefields of Europe and using real soldiers as extras (80% of these men were dead within days). These scenes provide the backdrop to a romantic melodrama featuring the brutish François (Séverin-Mars) and the poet Jean Diaz (Romuald Joubé), who is in love with François' wife Edith (Maryse Dauvray). The plot is simplistic but the greatness of J'Accuse exists in Gance's stunning orchestration of the action. His direction is ambitious and visually striking; from the opening shot of hundreds of soldiers sitting down to spell out the title, to the recurring motif of skeletons dancing across the screen, and the disturbing sequence in which Edith is raped by German troops, whose elongated shadows loom over her. As brilliant as his filmmaking is throughout, nothing could have prepared me for the stunning climax, where the corpses of the dead rise from their graves to see if the people they have fought for have lived up to their sacrifice. A magnificent film, which has only further whetted my appetite to finally see Gance's epic Napoléon on the big screen. I must finally mention the contribution of Stephen Horne, who performed brilliantly on the piano and flute throughout, his music merging seamlessly with the onscreen action.

Underground (1928)
This year the London Film Festival is holding an archive gala screening for the first time, and the rarely seen Underground was a perfect choice for the slot, with the focus of the festival shifting to the Queen Elizabeth Hall for one night only. A collection of introductory clips detailed the work required to repair and restore the four heavily damaged source prints that have gone into this pristine new version – and pristine is the word, it looks thoroughly amazing. Underground was Anthony Asquith's first sole effort as a director, made when he was just 26 years old, and he directs with the same flair and invention that Orson Welles would later do at the same age. The film is set mostly on the London Underground, with Asquith portraying it as a medium through which travellers of all types and classes rub shoulders on the daily commute. The plot itself is simplistic but compelling. Tube porter Bill (Brian Aherne) and power station worker Bert (Cyril McLaglen) fall for Nell (Elissa Landi) on the same day, and when she makes her choice, the jilted Bert persuades unstable seamstress Kate (Norah Baring) to help him discredit Bill and end the relationship. The film is stylishly and energetically directed by Asquith, displaying the legacy of his European influence through his imaginative camerawork, sharp editing and deeply impressive lighting techniques. Certain set-pieces stand out; notably the pub brawl scene – featuring some brilliant work from the extras – and a tense climactic chase sequence. The whole night was one of my most memorable LFF experiences, with Neil Brand and his Prima Vista Social Club band performing Brand's new score to accompany the screening, and contributing to the electric atmosphere inside the auditorium. I ended the evening by getting an invite to my first (and only) LFF party this year, where I spent some time chatting to both Brand and the great Terence Davies.

Surprise Film
Here's the story. The 2009 LFF Surprise Film was due to screen on Sunday night, and I had a ticket, but I decided to offer it to a friend who really wanted to go because I was also due to attend another surprise screening on Monday, which had been arranged exclusively for BFI members. When I heard that Sunday night's film turned out to be Capitalism: A Love Story, I felt I'd dodged a bullet, but when I got to the NFT the following night, rumours had already begun circulating that it would turn out to be exactly the same film. Sandra Hebron pretty much confirmed this in her introduction, calling it "The surprise film that might not be much of a surprise," and when the movie began, a number of people got up and left, having sat through the picture already one night previously. It certainly seemed like a short-sighted move on the part of the organisers – didn't they imagine some people would like get tickets for both screenings? Mind you, the remarkable demand for tickets on both nights has further bolstered my belief that a film festival consisting entirely of surprise films would be a massive hit; people can't seem to resist the lure of uncertainty.

As for the movie – well, it's Michael Moore, what else do you need to know? His take on capitalism bears all of the worst excesses of the director's previous works. The tone alternates between sarcasm and faux-naïveté, the links between Moore's arguments are clumsy, there's an overreliance on comically voiced stock footage, and there's even the shameless milking of a child's tears to ram his point home. Moore spends much of the film's second half standing outside a building holding a bullhorn, before being turned away by security guards, and if he had simply cut those pointless scenes, this overlong film might have been more bearable. The director never builds a coherent argument out of the scraps of evidence he has come armed with, and his message is woefully inconsistent (he damns the government for fear-mongering, before lining up a bunch of Catholic priests to tell us capitalism is a sin), but ultimately Capitalism just feels a little dated. Although a couple of Moore's anecdotal sequences are interesting, there's nothing revelatory about his film, not after a year of news coverage focusing on the financial collapse. I'm just glad I gave away my Sunday night ticket; I'm not sure I could have endured this twice.