Sunday, November 29, 2009

"I have treated myself as a commodity since day one and I made no bones about it" - An interview with Sasha Grey

Sasha Grey may be making her acting debut in Steven Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience, but the 21 year-old hardly lacks experience in front of the camera. Since breaking into the adult industry at the age of 18, Grey has quickly emerged as one of porn's most popular stars, collecting a number of awards and shooting over 180 films in just three years. Now Grey is taking her first steps into the world of mainstream filmmaking with her impressive turn as a high-class escort in Soderbergh's low-budget experiment, and as I learned when I met her in London recently, she has no intention of stopping there.

One of the first things that's notable and perhaps surprising about The Girlfriend Experience is how little sex there is in the film. Was that a motivating factor for you, to make something that's a complete departure from the work you were doing previously?

I was just elated to have the chance to work with Steven, and when we met and he told me about the film, I just assumed there would be nudity, because it's a film about an escort. I thought, this is Steven Soderbergh, if I'm nude or if there are sex scenes they'll all be done in great taste and be done within the context of the film, so that was never a question for me, and had there been nudity then of course I would have done it. I didn't know even in the first few days of shooting, but as the shoot progressed I gathered that was the case, and I think he told somebody that he kind of decided that in the first few days of shooting as well.

How much of the story was on paper when you first read the script, and how much of it was developed throughout the course of the shoot?

The first time I met Steven was a year and a half before we shot, and all I knew was that this is a high-price escort who provides the girlfriend experience, she has a live-in boyfriend, and we know by the end of the film that she will leave her boyfriend. He compared it to the shooting style of Bubble, which I was a fan of, so it was easy for me to pull a reference from that, but we didn't get an outline until the evening before shooting, so each day was really different. It was really up to me to build a character journal, essentially, and share those notes with Steven, and say; "Do you think this is Chelsea? Does this sound like her?" But each day on set would be completely different, because the outline might say 'Chelsea meets with Client A', but exactly what we would talk about would be decided when we get to the set and look at the daily newspaper, to see what jumps out at you. I would always ask Steven before we shot a scene, "What is my objective here? What do I need to get across? Is there anything I must say in this scene?", and that's how it worked every day.

I have seen a quote from you in the past, when you said you are essentially being yourself during a porn shoot, and you don't distinguish between the person who's on camera and the person you are off screen. Here, you're playing a fictional character, Christine, who has herself created the persona of Chelsea, so what was it like to develop that?

That was exciting for me, because like I say, when I'm performing an adult scene I'm just a version of myself. You're never truly yourself, because I believe if you put a camera on somebody they're always going to act differently no matter what, so it's a version of myself, kind of like a hyper-me. I did theatre from the age of 12 to 18, so being able to step back into a role like this was a lot of fun for me. It was also great because we had so many people to talk to about the film, and a lot of the characters are actually based on real people that these escorts encountered on weekly or monthly basis.

So the escorts you met gave you a lot to feed into your characterisation?

Oh yeah, most definitely. Like you said, Christine has this persona of Chelsea, and both of the women I met said that when you meet these clients, you might not necessarily have the same opinions as these people, so they really have to adapt a new personality for each client. A lot of their clients are Republicans, so they have to find inventive ways to talk about politics or personal feelings and opinions in a safe way, essentially, so they don't offend anyone.

I found this whole idea of Chelsea's 'girlfriend experience' a fascinating one. It seems that buying that sense of intimacy is often more important to these guys than buying sex.

Right, and from interviewing the escorts and the people the writers interviewed, I think it's also the fact that these men are very wealthy and powerful, and they enjoy the fact that they can buy women, essentially. They can buy this time, and the fact that they can afford it and most people can't makes that special. It's really a status symbol.

The girls also have to offer that intimacy while remaining emotionally detached. In the film, we see Chelsea get hurt the one time she lets her guard down.

Exactly. Both of the women I spoke to had experienced cases like that and a lot of the women the writers interviewed had also gone through something like that as well.

I liked the voiceover inserts in which Chelsea talks about her encounters in a very clinical manner, and I saw that as being one of her methods of retaining a kind of distance from her experiences.

Yeah, and one of these women actually did that, she kept a detailed journal about each and every date. It also helps if you're pretending to be someone's girlfriend, because you need to remember what their cat's name is, what their kids' names are, whether they're married or divorced. She keeps details like that so the next time she meets them, there's a natural conversation like she's known them forever.

Could you empathise with some of the things Chelsea goes through, from things you have done in your own career? For instance, you have managed to promote yourself and get to the top of your industry, and we see Chelsea trying to make similar inroads in the film.

Well, I have treated myself as a commodity since day one and I made no bones about it, I told people that as I got into the industry because I planned for it for seven months. That's normal, it's just what you do in any type of entertainment industry, but Chelsea has to be careful because what she does is illegal. She wants to promote herself, but she's conflicted, thinking, how can she go out there and do an article, and still be safe and not get caught by the Feds? It's like the guy who wanted to be her manager, she says "How can I open up a boutique and sell clothing to women and their sixteen year-old daughters?", nobody's going to want to buy those clothes. So I guess it's a lot easier to market and self-promote in the entertainment world than it would be in Chelsea's world.

I loved the way Soderbergh put the film together. When you were shooting, did you have any idea how it was going to appear on screen?

No, not at all. You know, I don't like to watch playbacks. I'd look through the monitor occasionally, and it would look great on the set, but we shot the film chronologically, so I was expecting a chronological film. Going into the rough-cut screening was amazing, because it's really hard to watch yourself on screen when you know what's around each corner and each page, so I was kind of able to watch this with a little bit of mystery.

What did you know about the escorting world before making this film?

Well, I watch a lot of bad gossip shows [laughs]. You know, I knew probably as much as anybody does about that world via the media. It wasn't a subject matter I had been attracted to or interested in that much, unless you're talking about courtesans from Greece or Ancient Rome or something. It's funny, I do remember walking in and thinking "Oh, they're both very well dressed", and even though you know they're very sophisticated, I guess you have this image in the back of your mind about escorts.

How do you think that world compares to the porn industry? Do you think you need a different mentality or attitude to succeed in one rather than the other?

I think it goes back to the whole thing that these women need to adapt a different personality for each client and develop these emotional connections, so I do think that takes a different type of person. Depending on your morals and point of view, I guess it's the same thing, but the components and the work that goes into adult filmmaking and escorting are very different. Morally, are they different? No, depending on what you believe in, but it is something that's food for thought.

And yet prostitution is illegal in most countries and porn is a huge industry that has become a generally accepted part of our culture when, as you say, they're pretty much the same thing at a basic level.

Yeah, and I'm being paid to create a character for a film, so you could even say actors are the same thing as well. In the film, what I find very poignant about it is something Steven said, which is that everything in life is a transaction, you have to give something to get something in return. So if you open up those doors it's an entirely different conversation, which removes any moralistic or idealistic thoughts out of the equation.

Almost every scene in the film is a negotiation of some kind.

That's it, exactly.

After this experience, are you hungry to take on more acting roles?

Yeah, definitely. I'm actually going to New York tomorrow, and I'm doing a stage performance based on the novel Neuromancer, which is called Case. It's a six-hour deadpan reading, with all of the characters on stage with their scripts, so that should be fun, and we'll probably do the same thing in Rural Missouri next summer. In December I'm shooting an independent film in France called Life, and March I'll be shooting another film in California.

There have been a number of films in recent years that have included hardcore sex within a narrative, such as Shortbus, 9 Songs, the Catherine Breillat films, etc. Would you be interested in roles like that, or would you prefer to keep the two worlds separate?

I don't necessarily think they should have to be separate. Of course, if you put penetration in a film it will get an X rating, and that classifies it as pornography, essentially. With the films I'm directing now, I am trying to take a different approach, and I'm starting out with what I have, so while they're not necessarily narratives, they're metaphorically connected through visuals, and then I'll slowly move into narratives. My whole feeling on the matter right now is that I want to make erotic films that are cinematic, that are unexpected, so you can't sit down on the couch and know when to press fast-forward and play. So that's really my aim with directing right now.

You made a very conscious decision to move into porn at the age of 18. Can you believe how far your career has progressed in just three years?

It's definitely inspiring and it just makes me want to work even harder because of the opportunities I've had. I got into the business with a few goals just within the adult industry, and now I've been able to open it up and not look at it as something that's segregated from everything else.

As a porn star who has gained recognition in the mainstream media, do you feel as if you're an ambassador for the industry, that you have a responsibility to challenge people's prejudices or preconceptions about porn?

Yeah, it's nice to be able to disprove negative stereotypes when I'm doing interviews, but I wouldn't necessarily say I'm a voice for the industry. I'd rather be a voice for young independent women, and not just women from one group or one section of our world. I'd rather speak for everybody.

I did notice that a number of articles I've read about you have this kind of condescending tone of, "Wow, an intelligent and articulate porn star!" Is it frustrating to have to overcome that barrier before people take you seriously?

[laughs] Yeah, it is. I guess you can't really let those things bother you at all, because I can understand why that's done, but I know many smart and beautiful and talented women within the adult industry, who are very happy and have made their decisions without the influence of anyone else.

As well as performing in front of the camera, you mentioned that you are now producing and directing your own films, and you are also involved in music. How do you juggle so many different roles?

You know, that's life. I'm a creative person, and I just enjoy being and I enjoy doing. I try to look at life as a big canvas, and my thoughts, my ideas and my body are just the paint for that canvas. It's an age-old quote that youth is wasted on the young, and we make enough mistakes as human beings and we're learning every day, so while I'm still young I'm just going to let the mistakes be mistakes. I'd rather work hard now while I have the energy and vigour to do so, because I won't always get to do those kind of things. A couple of weeks ago I went diving with sharks and learned how to breathe on the regulator, and I might not have a chance to do things like that when I'm older.

Are these other projects part of establishing a long-term career plan? Have you given any thought to how long you would want to continue performing in front of the camera?

Well, I definitely want to retire as an adult performer gracefully [laughs]. Right now, I don't have any set goal in mind, so I'm really just building the foundations for everything else in the time being.

Review - The Girlfriend Experience

The Girlfriend Experience finds Steven Soderbergh in experimental mode once again, and that's a good place for him to be. I always tend to think he's at his most enjoyable when he has the freedom to play around with style and narrative, and this low-budget drama is the perfect way for the director to get back into his groove after the disappointment of his epic Che. The Girlfriend Experience operates on a much smaller scale than that double-bill, focusing on an eventful week in the life of a high-price New York prostitute. For $2,000 an hour, Chelsea (played by porn star Sasha Grey) will offer her clients a "girlfriend experience", which is as much about intimacy as it is about sex. In the film's opening sequence, we see her going to dinner and a movie with a gentleman, before returning to his hotel room, where they share a glass of wine and kiss on the couch. By all appearances, they look like a happy couple, and it's only in the morning that the true nature of their relationship is exposed, when the client hands Chelsea her payment.

Soderbergh has always had a fairly detached and intellectual approach to sex in his films – neither Sex, Lies and Videotape or Full Frontal have the kind of explicit content their titles might suggest – and in The Girlfriend Experience he is again interested in the act only as a means to explore wider ideas. Chief among these is the notion that life is little more than a series of transaction and negotiations, particularly for those who operate in the world Chelsea inhabits. Almost every conversation in the film takes this form, from the interviewer (journalist Marc Jacobson) who wants Chelsea to reveal more about herself than she's comfortable with, to the sleazy internet "erotic connoisseur" (a very funny cameo from film critic Glenn Kenny) who offers her a great review that would raise her profile, if she gives him a free trial of the goods. Even Chelsea's own relationship with her boyfriend (Chris Santos) is based on negotiation, with him having reluctantly accepted her choice of career, as long as she adheres to a number of ground rules.

By the end of the film, Chelsea will have broken one of those rules by allowing herself to get emotionally close to a client, and this trade-off between offering an intimate experience while remaining professionally detached is the film's most intriguing dilemma. After every encounter, Chelsea details the date in her diary, entries we hear in voiceover, with any sexual contact being catalogued in the same flat, clinical style as an account of the shoes she was wearing, or the food they ate. For Chelsea, this is strictly business, but for the men she meets, there's a real hunger for a sense of closeness, so much so that sometimes they won't even have sex, just being with Chelsea appears to be enough. There's an intriguing scene when Chelsea spots a former client out on the town with a new girl, and her expression is hard to read; is she concerned by the new competition, is she curious about their arrangement, or is she hurt by the snub? Her behaviour later, when she foolishly believes the promises of a married screenwriter, suggests she isn't as adept at avoiding the entanglements of intimacy as she thinks she is.

The Girlfriend Experience has been shot by Soderbergh in a stylish manner, and has been edited together in a non-chronological fashion that allows us to experience the film on a moment-by-moment basis rather than as a straightforward narrative arc. In line with his previous experiments Bubble and Full Frontal, much of the dialogue is improvised, and given the backdrop of the financial crisis and forthcoming election (the film was shot in October 2008), much of this dialogue revolves around money, with many of Chelsea's clients offering her investments tips during their dates (is that what counts as pillow talk these days?). To be honest, I grew tired of the endless financial chatter after a while, but I guess that's the currency that makes Chelsea's world go round, and even if the men she meets aren't always particularly engaging, Sasha Grey remains hugely watchable in the lead role. Some might question the limited emotional expressiveness of her performance, but Chelsea needs to be something of a blank canvas, for her clients to project their own fantasies onto, and Grey has an assurance and screen presence that always holds the audience's attention. It remains to be seen whether she can cross over successfully from the world of porn into the mainstream, but right now The Girlfriend Experience is a fine calling card.

Read my interview with Sasha Grey here.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Review - The White Ribbon (Das weiße Band, Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte)

Throughout the past decade, Michael Haneke has been operating at such a high level it almost seems redundant to comment on the flawless direction of his latest film The White Ribbon. However, even by this filmmaker's intimidating standards, this is a stunningly well-made film, perhaps the most brilliantly crafted of the director's career. Shooting in black and white for the first time, Haneke creates a haunting, hypnotic power in almost every sequence, with Christian Berger's pin-sharp cinematography, the impeccable production design, and the utterly convincing cast creating a completely authentic sense of time and place. The film is set in a small German protestant village in 1913, a period pregnant with significance, as the shadow of war gradually darkens the picture's latter stages. When one character goes to ask for his love's hand in marriage, her father puts him off, and asks him to wait a year before deciding if he really wants to go ahead with it. "Don't worry" the father cheerfully tells his daughter's downcast suitor, "the world won't collapse in that time," but we already know it will.

Any thoughts of global conflict are far from the characters' minds at the start of the film, however, as they are preoccupied with a series of unfortunate incidents. The first of these involves the local doctor, who is badly injured when his horse falls over an almost invisible tripwire. Is this a cruel, isolated prank, or the beginning of something more sinister? Later, a woman falls to her death in the sawmill, an incident that encourages her son to wreak his revenge on the local baron. As the film progresses, the acts of violence and vandalism continue: a barn is burned to the ground, children are abducted and abused. Nobody is identified as the culprit, although various villagers find themselves being eyed as suspects, and soon none of the inhabitants are free from the weight of guilt and suspicion.

This is familiar territory for Haneke. As recently as 2005, the director made the insidious, inescapable nature of guilt the theme of his gripping thriller
Hidden, and in The White Ribbon, we see how these emotions spread through the village like a sickness, exposing the corruption that lies under the idyllic surface. There are extra-marital affairs to be discovered, as well as sexual abuse within families, and Haneke charts this progression expertly, although he once again leaves himself open to accusations of misanthropy. The underlying thesis of Haneke's oeuvre is the cruelty man is capable of, and he renders it with his standard detached, clinical watchfulness. This coldness will be an obstacle for many viewers, particularly when Haneke is at his most blunt; such as the exchange between two characters – former lovers – in which one says, "You disgust me, why don't you just die?"

Surprisingly, however, I found this to be one of Haneke's warmest films, and there's a real tenderness present in certain areas of the picture that helps to offset the generally chilly atmosphere. This emotional vein can be found in the relationship between the schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) – an elderly version of whom narrates the tale – and Eva (Leonie Benesch), the shy young woman he loves. Elsewhere, touching moments are provided by the cast's younger members, like the young boy who offers a gift to his grieving father, or the child who asks his sister about death. These scenes are perfectly judged by Haneke and flawlessly acted by an ensemble that doesn't have a false note among it. The director has filled
The White Ribbon with unknown actors whose faces and demeanour feel just right for the era, ensuring the film's authentic evocation of this period never slips, and the performances he draws from the child actors are particularly notable. Among them, Maria-Victoria Dragus and Leonard Proxauf stand out as Klara and Martin, the pastor's children, who may or may not be harbouring malevolent thoughts behind their angelic Aryan features.

What part will these children be playing in Germany's turbulent decades to come? That's one of the ideas Haneke leaves us to toy with at the film's close, although I have to say
The White Ribbon hasn't burrowed into my thoughts in the same way this filmmaker's best work has. Perhaps it's simply the fact that many of these themes have been explored in a much more incisive fashion by Haneke elsewhere, and even though his latest effort is rigorous, intelligent and ambiguous, I'm not sure he finds any new depths in his ideas. Having said that, I found it an utterly captivating film to watch; beautifully designed and executed by an artist in complete command of his craft. On almost every level, The White Ribbon is utterly masterful filmmaking, even if it is telling us things we feel we've heard before.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Review - Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno (L'enfer d'Henri-Georges Clouzot)

So often in cinema, a revered director will be undone by a personal project that spins out of control, a project that becomes an all-consuming and never-ending obsession. For Henri-Georges Clouzot, the great artist behind Quai des Orfèvres, Diabolique and The Wages of Fear, it was a film called Inferno, which went into production in 1964, but never made it to the screen. The story behind the film's collapse is entertainingly told in Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno, a slickly produced documentary comprised of interviews with key collaborators and choice cuts from the 185 cans of footage the director left behind. Co-director Serge Bromberg discovered this footage quite by chance, when he found himself trapped in a broken elevator with an elderly woman for company. She turned out to be Inés, Clouzot's widow, and their discussion eventually turned to her late husband's greatest disappointment, the collapse of his much-cherished project.

The tantalising thing about Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno is that it shows us enough of the extraordinary film to suggest it may have been a lost masterpiece, while simultaneously suggesting that the project was doomed from the start, being directed by a man who had lost control of his vision. Clouzot had been inspired by Fellini's , and with Inferno, he intended to produce something every bit as groundbreaking, although one suspects he never really had the kind of genius for freewheeling invention that Fellini possessed. His story was essentially a simple one; the tale of a man (Serge Reggiani) who is obsessed with the idea that his flirtatious wife (Romy Schneider) is cheating on him. The film was to be shot in black-and-white, but Clouzot's plan was to interrupt the main narrative with fantasy sequences that expressed Reggiani's fears in vivid colour, and it was in these sequences that the director intended to dazzle his audience.

The most astonishing images in Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno emerge from the test footage he shot as he tried to find the perfect visual expression for his hero's jealousy. A number of contemporary artists were hired to lend their expertise as the director fiddled with innovative camera techniques, toyed with his colour palette, and filmed the remarkably game Schneider in scene after scene of psychedelic mania. In one of his most mind-boggling moves, Clouzot decided he wanted the water to be blood-red in a scene set on a lake, but the colour inversion required to achieve this meant the actors needed to be coated in various shades of grey, green and blue. But in all of this experimentation, what was Clouzot searching for? At times, it seemed even he didn't know, and the test shooting went on for months, with little sign of a completed film emerging, and the large budget draining away. Bromberg and his co-director Ruxandra Medrea do try to give us a sense of what the final project may have looked like, with inserts that feature two actors reading Clouzot's script on a bare stage, or edited-together footage with a soundtrack added, but these sequences tend to be the film's weakest. Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno is at its best when the footage is allowed to speak for itself, particularly when it focuses on Schneider, who positively glows in front of the camera.

A number of crew members offer their own perspective, and their candid recollections give us an idea of the mayhem that the Inferno shoot eventually became. Amusing anecdotes abound, from the insomniac Clouzot waking his crew members at 2am to discuss new ideas, or cinematographer Claude Renoir escaping through a bathroom window to avoid another interminable scouting trips. At one point, Clouzot had three different camera crews working separately, with each crew having no idea what the others were doing. It was chaos, frankly, and when an exhausted and frustrated Reggiani left the shoot, the game was almost up; a fact confirmed by the director's subsequent heart attack, which finally drew a line under the whole escapade. Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno ends on a sad, elegiac note, telling us sombrely that the director made one more feature film before his death in 1977; and while he is justifiably remembered as one of the great French filmmakers, he never quite recovered from the experience of so thoroughly losing his way inside his Inferno.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Review - A Serious Man

"But I didn't do anything!" an exasperated Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) cries at numerous points during A Serious Man. The central character in the Coen brothers' latest film is assailed by misfortune at every turn, but his only reaction is to wear a bewildered expression and to cry plaintively "I didn't do anything!" The endless passivity of Larry is one of the more unusual aspects of the Coens' funny, frustrating, brilliant and perplexing new film. A Serious Man follows the professor and family man as his life unravels around him. His wife (Sari Lennick) tells him she is leaving him for another man, the unctuous Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed, giving a beautifully judged performance); one of his students tries to bribe him for a better grade; a series of poison-pen letters are threatening his tenure; and his homeless brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is still sleeping on the couch. And yet, Larry remains a helpless victim as a series of indignities reign down upon him, seemingly unable to find it within himself to retaliate. Forget Ed Crane, Larry is The Man Who Wasn't There.

Perhaps Larry is simply cursed from day one, unable to alter the course of his fate. A Serious Man opens with a kind of Jewish folk tale, somewhere in 19th century Europe, involving a couple being visited by a man who may or may not be a dybbuk, or undead spirit. The brief, amusing intro is spoken entirely in Yiddish, and while it has no literal connection to the events that follow, it does set the tone effectively for the rest of the film. This is unquestionably the brothers' most Jewish film to date, a fact that – along with the late-60's Minnesota setting – has led many people to believe that it is also their most personal. Perhaps it is, although I suspect the Coens are unlikely to be so nakedly autobiographical, and A Serious Man may simply be an excuse for them to find ample humour in some of the more bizarre and obscure corners of Judaism.

As Larry's life collapses around him, he seeks solace in his faith, turning to a number of rabbis, each of whom flummoxes him with obtuse metaphors or parables that fail to illuminate his situation. One of these is the story of "The Goy's Teeth", a fantastical tale of a Jewish dentist who discovers a message engraved in Hebrew on the back of a non-Jew's teeth. This little segment of A Serious Man is a wonderful Coen touch; surreal, funny, and it builds to a great punchline. When the rabbi has spun his tall tale, Larry asks what happened to the Goy in the end; "The Goy?" the rabbi responds, "Who cares?" It's one of the film's highlights, but it also defines the film's problematic tone. It's ultimately a throwaway anecdote that doesn't take Larry – or us – anywhere, and such flippancy seems to undermine the film's assessment of grander themes such as fate and the meaning of life, or the ambiguously apocalyptic finale the Coens build towards.

That finale will cause howls of protest from some quarters, while other will laud the brothers' daring. Personally, I thought the ending felt a little off, failing to his the exact note that previous Coen climaxes – such as Barton Fink (the final shot being one of cinema's most perfect moments) or No Country for Old Men – have achieved. The narrative leading to this point is essentially a collection of loosely connected miseries for Larry to suffer, and the film's momentum is uneven as a result, but the Coens handle each of the picture's individual elements with consummate skill. It's nothing new to praise their filmmaking craft, and once again, there's hardly a moment in A Serious Man that isn't enhanced by their stunningly precise direction, or Roger Deakins' flawless cinematography. Naturally, the performances are pitch-perfect too, with the surprisingly unknown ensemble (Richard Kind, Adam Arkin and Michael Lerner are the sole recognisable names) all stepping up with memorable turns, even if many of them fail to turn their roles into anything more than rather broad caricatures.

"Why does God make us feel the questions is He's not going to give us any answers?" Larry asks one rabbi, and it's easy to see this line as the Coens pre-empting the complaints of baffled audience members. I'm a little torn about passing final judgement on A Serious Man, and so I'm going to hedge my bets slightly, in the knowledge that every Coen brothers film rewards repeated viewings. I found their latest film amusing and fascinating to watch, although it ultimately feels like a bit of a frustrating tease. Maybe in time I'll learn to "accept the mystery", and unlock whatever secret it is that's required to bring this unusual film into focus. Right now, all I know is that A Serious Man depicts life as being meaningless, random and cruel, and God – or possibly the Coens – will always have the last laugh.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Review - Bright Star

A thing of beauty is a joy forever, and Jane Campion's Bright Star is indeed a beautiful piece of filmmaking. With this touching romantic drama about the doomed love between John Keats (played by Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), Campion has found a number of ways to utilise a visual language that is as ravishing as the poet's words. In the opening shot of Fanny's needle being pushed through fabric, the director immediately establishes a mood of intimate sensuality, and some later scenes – such as Fanny's room being filled with butterflies, or a shot of her falling to her knees in a field of blue flowers – are intoxicating. The most gratifying thing about Bright Star, however, is the respect Campion pays to Keats' poetry, making it an essential part of her script. This isn't one of those literary biopics like Iris (from which you wouldn't have a clue that Iris Murdoch was a great novelist), as the director builds much of Bright Star around her subject's romantic verse.

It is Keats' poetry that initially piques the interest of his neighbour Fanny Brawne. She buys a copy of his critically derided Endymion, and tells the author bluntly that the famous opening of the poem was impressive, even if the rest was not. They are a well-matched pair; Keats appreciates Fanny's wit and spirit, and the way she stands up to his rude best friend Mr Brown (Paul Schneider), who makes frequent digs at her flirtatious nature and obsession with finery. The casting is Schneider is this part is a hugely imaginative coup on Campion's part. His teasing and wryly self-amused manner is so stylishly executed by the actor, it's easy to forgive the occasional slippage of his Scottish brogue. Brown proves to be a crucial figure in Campion's film, capable of shaking things up and injecting a note of humour into things when the picture slips into an occasional lull.

As impressive as Campion's direction so often is, Bright Star does feel a little stuffy at times. This is a conventional period romance at heart, with Fanny and John's yearning to be together denied by both the social strictures of the time – his impoverished state stands in the way of their marriage – and by the poet's premature death. The two leads bring enormous heart and vitality to their relationship, however. Whishaw's rendition of Keats is appealing and witty, if a little drab, but he has genuine chemistry with Cornish, who delivers an astonishing performance as Fanny Brawne. As the latest in the long line of Campion's strong female figures, Cornish shines as the intelligent and independent Fanny, capturing the all-consuming passion and ultimate pain of her love for Keats. It's a marvellous performance.

Her performance gets even stronger as the film progresses, and the inevitable fate of the severely ill Keats gradually becomes clear. The sense of impending death weighs heavily on Bright Star's heroine, and eventually it becomes something of a burden for the film itself to bear. There comes a period towards the end where the film falls into a state of stasis, with everyone seemingly standing around waiting for the poet to die. Some of the life drains out of the picture at this point, but Campion rallies magnificently at the climax, depicting the impact of Keats' passing as a hammer blow. Cornish's portrayal of Fanny Brawne's crippling grief is lacerating, and everything in the film from this point onwards – up to and including the superb closing credits – is sublime.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Running Man

A few months ago, I inexplicably signed up for the 2010 London Marathon. Anyone who knows me will understand this was a most uncharacteristic thing to do, and with only 164 days left until the big day, the reality of what I've let myself in for is starting to dawn on me, and making me feel a bit queasy. Nevertheless, I am committed to the task ahead, and the fact that I managed to complete an 8-mile run last month without actually dying has given me renewed hope.

Also, this madness is all for a good cause. The charity I'm running for is called Sense, and they support people who are both deaf and blind, which seems like a very good cause to me. So I'd really appreciate it if you would visit the below page and sponsor me.

The thought of raising a lot of money for charity will obviously lift my spirits when I start wishing for a quick and merciful death somewhere around the 20th mile.

Thanks for your support

"It's a film about good and evil, about what's right and what's wrong" - An interview with Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson

One of the most stirring and moving films from this year's London Film Festival was a British documentary called Mugabe and the White African, which detailed the extraordinary case of Michael Campbell, a white farmer fighting the Zimbabwean dictator's land reform policy. Shot covertly, in a country where filming is illegal, co-directors Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson have created a film which is both a story of remarkable individual courage, as well as an illuminating insight into life under Mugabe's regime. Now they have made the film, the next step is to get it seen by as wide an audience as possible, and I met the filmmakers during the festival to talk about their plans.

How did you get involved in this story?

Lucy Bailey We both worked together over several years, doing lots of stuff in Africa, most recently for Comic Relief, doing a lot of their appeal films. We were very aware of the Zimbabwe situation because we had spent time with refugees, and it was a story we felt needed telling, but we were looking for a way to do it. We read a tiny snippet about this man taking Mugabe to international court, and we looked at each other and thought that could be our story, one man takes on a president and that president is an evil dictator. So we had this intimate story with the family and through that family you get a much bigger picture of what's been happening inside Zimbabwe, so that's how it came about. We didn't have any connection to white farmers or the family at all prior to that point, and of course we knew it was crazy trying to make a film in a country where filming is illegal, but we were determined to try.

Were there points when you felt you might have to pull out, when you feared for your personal safety?

Andrew Thompson I think this film is perhaps the only glimpse the outside world has of what it's like to be living inside Zimbabwe now. We were always appreciative of how difficult it would be to film inside Zimbabwe, and actually half of the film takes place in Namibia where the hearing is, and we also filmed in South Africa and the UK; but inevitably there was going to be a point where we had to smuggle our way into Zimbabwe, and that was inherent with all sorts of risks. We have both worked in hostile environments before in our TV careers, so we took the experience from those shoots and applied it to Zimbabwe. It is obviously illegal to be inside Zimbabwe as British journalists, so we would smuggle ourselves in, we would use different border crossings every time, we would have cover stories, we would do short, sharp trips; it was always a case of being one step ahead of the police, the CIO and the Zanu PF militias. They were never far behind us, and inevitably once we left the country after one of our trips, there was always a knock on the door of Ben's house, Mike's house or the homes of the workers, asking if they'd seen a white cameraman and sound recordist.

But as well as your own safety, your presence was increasing the danger for those who were working with you. Was it hard to gain people's trust?

LB In terms of the family, their heads were already above the parapet because of the court case. We were quite limited in terms of who we could work with, because anyone who spoke out on camera was essentially putting their lives at risk.

AT There were a lot of people who didn't want to appear on camera. It's incredibly dangerous to speak out against someone like Mugabe. This is a man that still abducts and tortures his political opponents, so he wouldn't think twice about doing that to ordinary citizens. Mike and Ben have always courted publicity, and they say at the beginning of the film that if Mugabe wants to come and shoot us he can come and shoot us, but it will have to take place in front of the glare of the world's media. If they can use this case to shine a spotlight on what's going on in Zimbabwe, then that's how they want it to be used. Even if it's a great personal danger to themselves, it's a price worth paying if it tells the story of what's going on so the world wakes up.

LB Ben said very early on to us that he believes publicity is the very soul of justice, and by the fact that we've told their story, now you guys can write about the story, and we can make justice happen. As filmmakers, you have great power, and if you use that power well it can make a difference. We're trying to get some outreach with the film, particularly with the SADC (South African Development Community) nations so they can see what this human rights court is all about. It's critical in terms of developing a human rights culture in southern Africa, and the film can open doors because it lets people see what's going on. It's different to a news report that you read about, and the next piece of news replaces it, because the film stays with you on an emotional level and has an impact that resonates. We don't have the resources but we're hoping to get them, so we can really get the film out there and make a difference.

AT Obviously, it was always our ambition to make a good film, but it was always our promise to Mike and Ben and the farm workers that we would use this film, to the best of our ability, to effect real change in Zimbabwe. If we can get this film in front of the Houses of Parliament here in the UK, at the UN or in Brussels, we can alert the attention of policy makers who are in a position of power to make a real difference to those poor people in Zimbabwe. As filmmakers that's all we ever set out to achieve. Right now, we are really desperate for funds and for a third party partner to come on board and help us do that.

What do you think your chances are of getting a response from the government, given their previous record on Zimbabwe?

AT I think the west is in a tricky situation, and I don't think anyone really knows how to handle Zimbabwe. Other African leaders seem loathe to speak out against one of their own, and the west appear to be sitting on their hands, rather than being labelled racist or neo-colonialist if they attack the regime. Subsequently, nothing happens, and that's part of what drew us to Mike, Ben and their family, because they are the only ones who have drawn a line in the sand and taken Mugabe on, and it has cost them hugely.

That's what I found so inspiring about Ben and Mike, the fact that they are standing there alone with no support.

LB Exactly, and that's why the film is good, because it makes the audience question what would they do, and how far would they go for what they believe in. You don't have to be interested in Zimbabwe or politics for this film to appeal to you, because it's a film about good and evil, about what's right and what's wrong.

The other thing I found remarkable about them is how unflappable they are. No matter what happens to them, they just respond with the same quiet determination and strength.

LB It's just an incredible dignity. They're so proud, dignified and gracious, and they care so much for their country, because they're not doing it for themselves, they're doing it on behalf of everyone.

What is their current situation, both in terms of the court case and their living situation?

AT Mike is living in a safe house in Harare with friends, and Ben, the kids and Laura are also in a safe house with friends. I mean, all the clothes Ben was wearing last night were borrowed, and they have literally lost everything. They briefly managed to re-house the farm workers on one of the farms that was left standing after the fire, but now Mugabe's henchmen have burned that down as well, so these people remain homeless and every time they do go somewhere else, Mugabe catches up with them very quickly. They are all marked men.

And what about their case?

AT It has ground to a halt, legally.

LB It has been referred up to the SADC summit, but at the last summit they didn't discuss it, because everyone is turning a blind eye.

AT It has rather conveniently been swept under the carpet. That is why we are so desperate for support, because we ourselves funded Lucy to go out and do some private screenings in Botswana and South Africa ahead of that summit, to try and raise awareness of this serious issue. Of course, when the summit comes around, under the carpet it goes. No one wants to deal with the Mugabe question, which is why we would love this film have the widest release possible, to get it released across the fourteen nations of southern Africa, to get people insisting on real change.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Review - Mugabe and the White African

How do you take on a dictator? In Mugabe and the White African, we are introduced to a family who have spent years doing just that. In the year 2000, Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe instigated a land reform policy aimed at removing all white farmers from the country, under the guise of handing the land back to the black population. In reality, though, Mugabe's ambitions were nowhere near as altruistic, and the land he claimed back in such an aggressive fashion has instead gone straight into the hands of his cronies – relations, ministers and VIPs. They are not farmers, they are asset-strippers, and under Mugabe's leadership, Zimbabwe has been transformed from the "Breadbasket of Africa" to an economic and agricultural wasteland.

Michael Campbell is one of the men who was targeted by the land reform policy, but he wasn't about to give up his farm without a fight. He bought the Mount Carmel farm in 1974 and spent over twenty years paying back the loan until he owned it free and clear. It was at this point that Mugabe decided land deeds mean nothing, and the farm the Campbells had lived and worked on for decades now belonged to him. Mugabe and the White African, a powerful new documentary directed by Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson, follows Campbell and his son-in-law Ben Freeth as they pursue their case against the government, suffering constant intimidation and threats of violence as they do so. They are remarkable and inspiring figures, who draw upon their faith and their sense of family unity to withstand the incredible pressure their actions have brought upon them. Even when Michael and Ben are abducted and viciously beaten (along with Michael's wife, in one of the film's most shocking passages), they don't respond with anger or thoughts of revenge, just a quiet determination to plough forward in their fight for justice. It's impossible to overstate the courage on display here.

The courage displayed by the filmmakers deserves to be commended too. Filming is illegal in Zimbabwe, punishable by imprisonment or worse, so Thompson and Bailey had to employ covert tactics to shoot the footage they needed, looking over their shoulders throughout to stay one step ahead of the security forces. Despite these restrictions, the standard of their camerawork is extremely impressive, and the focused editing by Tim Lovell ensures the film maintains a compelling dramatic tension. Thankfully, however, the filmmakers seem to recognise the inherent human drama this story carries, and they avoid any temptation to manipulate the film's emotional impact, directing in an admirably clear and direct fashion. What emerges is a rare and eye-opening glimpse of life in Zimbabwe, with the devastating widespread impact of Mugabe's rule becoming horribly clear.

Mugabe and the White African is not simply the story of one white family fighting for what they own; the film shows us how resistance put up by Campbell and Freeth has implications for all of their countrymen, black or white. In one deeply moving scene, we see another white family saying goodbye to their home, but also saying goodbye to the black Zimbabweans who have lived and worked with them for decades, many of whom effectively feel like family. They are also losing their homes, their livelihood and their security, and one wonders what fate lies ahead for them when all of the farmers are driven away, and the land is left to ruin. The human rights of every Zimbabwean are on the line.

That's why this film feels so important. Mugabe and the White African is cry for help from a country without laws and without democracy. Michael Campbell and Ben Freeth have taken this fight as far as they can, suffering horrific pain and losing almost everything in the process, and now they are relying on this astonishing documentary to bring their story to a wider audience; perhaps to people who have the power to offer the assistance they so desperately need. Mugabe and the White African is a film that forces us to confront the Mugabe problem, and to ask ourselves serious questions about what must be done in response. It has the gripping intensity of a thriller, and it's one of the most emotionally overwhelming experiences I've had in a cinema this year. For these reasons and more, it is essential viewing.

Read my interview with Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson here.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Review - Johnny Mad Dog

Johnny Mad Dog doesn't waste any time in plunging the audience right into its world. The opening moments are brutal and intense. An African village is under attack from marauding soldiers, but these attacking forces are just kids, some of whom are brandishing guns almost as big as they are. The leader of the platoon is a teenager who goes by the name of Johnny Mad Dog (Christopher Minie), and along with his right-hand man, the self-aggrandising No Good Advice (Dagbe Tweh), he leads them into ever more violent encounters in the hunt for government sympathisers. This raid ends with a young local boy being forced to shoot his own father, and then the troop launch an attack on a state-controlled TV station, which climaxes with multiple murders and the rape of a female news presenter.

It's hard to watch such horrific acts being perpetrated by children, who seem to have no moral qualms and no sense of remorse about what they are doing. They have been brainwashed by their commanders, who feed them drugs and propaganda, but it's clear that these kids don't understand the war they are fighting (at one point, a speech from Martin Luther King can be heard on a radio. The boys believe it is the President). Director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire compounds this sense of unease by shooting
Johnny Mad Dog in a restless and nervy handheld style, forcing us to get closer to the action than we might be comfortable with. It proves to be a double-edged sword. There's no question about the film's authenticity; Sauvaire shot the film in Liberia, and a number of his cast members experienced events similar to those depicted in the film firsthand, during the country's two recent civil wars. But the director's determination to give us a raw, unflinching account of a conflict waged by teenagers eventually palls. After sitting through scene after scene of kids shouting at and killing each other, the relentless cacophony simply has a numbing effect.

Some respite is offered by the film's parallel narrative, which follows 16 year-old Laokolé (Daisy Victoria Vandy), as she tries to protect her younger brother and disabled father, transporting them to a UN hospital while avoiding the bloodshed in the streets. She has a sense of goodwill and calm that is alien to Johnny Mad Dog and his crew, but her scenes never come to life, partly because Vandy is a limited actress, and as such the ceaseless savagery of one half of the story overwhelms the movie. As impressive as Sauvaire's depiction of events is, and as convincing as many of the young actors are, the film's relentlessness does prove to be a test, and I wondered whether there was anything substantial behind the noise and fury. Fortunately, there are moments in the film's latter stages, when Johnny and his fellow soldiers let their masks slip. For all of the brilliantly realised carnage in
Johnny Mad Dog, it is these moments that are the most vivid, the moments when we see them for what they really are: lost, confused, and nothing more than children.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Review - Love Exposure (Ai no mukidashi)

If you only see one four-hour Japanese love story this year... well, I guess Love Exposure is your only option. There really is nothing else like it out there; an epic blend of low humour, theological inquiry, bloody violence and heartfelt romance. The gargantuan running time might make Sion Sono's film sound like a daunting prospect, but it shouldn't, because there isn't a slack minute to be found here, not a single moment when the director loses grip of his insanely convoluted story. In fact, my only complaint about the film is that the ending, when it finally arrives, felt a little abrupt; I hadn't noticed the hours passing, so engrossed was I in the fate of star-crossed lovers Yu (Takahiro Nishijima) and Yoko (Hikari Mitsushima). Love Exposure may be twice as long as the average movie, but it's also twice as good.
Love Exposure is essentially a story of boy meets girl, although it's not quite as simple as that, and the pair don't actually meet until almost an hour has elapsed, by which point we are already knee-deep in perversions and catholic guilt. Yu is the teenage son of a priest (Atsuro Watabe) who has become an increasingly distant and harsh father since his faith-shaking encounter with the promiscuous Kaori (Makiko Watanabe), and the youngster realises sin may be his salvation, allowing him to get closer to his father in the confessional. Petty crimes follow, but Yu really comes into his own when he discovers the world of tosatsu, or upskirt photography, and – in a series of hilarious sequences – he utilises ninja techniques to obtain his dirty pictures from unsuspecting females. This is just the beginning of his journey, though, and in due course, Yu will become a cross-dresser, a perverts' confessor, a porn industry idol, a killer, and he'll half-lose his mind – all in the name of love.

Two women appear in Yu's world around the same time, the aforementioned Yoko, a brawling schoolgirl to whom he instantly loses his heart, and Koike (Sakura Ando), the mysterious white-clad figure who stalks him with her female posse. Synopsising Love Exposure beyond this point is a near-impossible task, but the miracle of the film is how Sono juggles his multiple characters and storylines, flashbacks and fantasy sequences, and wild tonal shifts, while maintaining such narrative clarity. Even as the story pulls in a variety of directions at once, it never loses its way or causes confusion. This is partly down to the director's absolute control of his picture, but it's largely down to the fact that all of the craziness is built around a pure and emotionally resonant through-line; a love story involving sin and deviancy that somehow manages to retain a beguiling innocence.

The ensemble cast is superb as a whole, but the three young actors who play the central characters are worthy of being singled out for the highest praise. They are asked by Sono to give performances of extraordinary range and depth, to portray characters who each come saddled with their own complex histories, and they respond magnificently. Sakura Ando has perhaps the trickiest task, in a role that exists as little more than an intriguing enigma for much of the film, before her motivations are revealed and the gaps shaded in later on. Likewise, the androgynous and awkward Nishijima is given plenty to do, having to be a sympathetic romantic lead, a convincing woman and an adept comic actor – all tasks he pulls off with great aplomb. He instantly makes the viewer care deeply about the outcome of his arduous romantic odyssey, particularly as Yoko is the sparkling prize at the end of it. Hikari Mitsushima gives perhaps my favourite performance in the film, a radiant presence both as a picture of sweetness – the Blessed Virgin of Yu's dreams – and as a feisty, no-nonsense scrapper who can take on an army of thugs. Who on earth wouldn't fall in love with her?

And who wouldn't fall for this movie? Some people may still balk at the running time, but that's their loss, because it's not the length that matters, it's what Sono does with it that matters. Given four hours of screen time to play with, he makes every second count, with direction that is ceaselessly witty and imaginative, and the result is an exhilarating and unique cinematic experience. Erection jokes, religious cults, schoolgirl fantasies and dismemberment – nothing is off-limits in Sono's world, and nothing is sacred. No other film this year has surprised me or delighted me as consistently as Love Exposure, and no other film has left me feeling as euphoric afterwards as this utterly brilliant Japanese oddity. It is a masterpiece, the best film of the year so far, and a movie that completely rewards anyone willing to invest their time in it. Trust me, the four hours fly by.

Monday, November 02, 2009

London Film Festival 2009 - Final Round-Up

So that's that for another year, and this was my busiest London Film Festival ever. I saw a total of 53 films and conducted four interviews during the festival, and I've spent the last couple of days just recovering from it all. The general quality was pretty good, although it perhaps lacked the quantity of amazing movies that, say, 2007 provided. Still, my top ten from LFF 2009 looks pretty solid, and the top five are extraordinary films by any measure:

1 – Mother
2 – Mugabe and the White African
3 – City of Life and Death
4 – Balibo
5 – Dogtooth
6 – About Elly
7 – Up in the Air
8 – A Prophet
9 – A Serious Man
10 – The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Expect full reviews for those films – as well as other interesting efforts such as Life During Wartime and Blessed – to appear soon, while everything else is covered below:

The Double Hour (La Doppia Ora)

This Italian film is superbly made and, for the first hour at least, it grips like a vice. Kseniya Rappoport is superb as Sonia, a lonely hotel maid who meets ex-cop Guido (Filippo Timi) at a speed-dating night. Their romance develops quickly, before being abruptly shattered by a tragic turn of events, at which point Giuseppe Capotondi's film becomes a mixture of thriller and ghost story. The director handles the simmering tension and the spooky twists with great skill, and I was totally involved in the story – until the rug was pulled out from under me with a "Bobby Ewing steps out of the shower"-style twist. After this bombshell, The Double Hour does just about keep its story on track, but things are never quite as exciting or satisfying as they were before the big reveal.

Woman Without Piano (La mujer sin piano)
Intriguing but ultimately tedious, Woman Without Piano opens like a small-scale Spanish version of Jeanne Dielman, following the mundane daily routine of a middle-aged woman. Rosa (Carmen Machi) cooks, she cleans, she goes to the post office, and she runs her hair-removal business from home. These scenes have a quiet, lyrical quality, and then director Javier Rebollo takes the story in an unexpected direction, with Rosa waiting for her husband to fall asleep before she dons a black wig, packs a bag, and heads out into the night. The film then quickly loses its shape. There is some mildly amusing comedy set inside a bus station, which is where Rosa meets Polish mechanic Radek (Jan Budar), who becomes her companion on her strange odyssey. The central couple work well together, but the Rebollo's habit of letting scenes drag on ensures the picture quickly outstays its welcome, a few clever individual sequences notwithstanding.

One of the most notable things about Ajami is that it has been co-directed by an Israeli (Yaron Shani) and a Palestinian (Scandar Copti), and the pair have produced a vivid and engrossing film. Set in a single neighbourhood populated by Jews, Arabs and Christians, the film consists of a series of tinderbox encounters, with the spiral of violence eventually swallowing up a number of principal characters. This narrative is complicated by the structure the filmmakers have employed, with the five chapters occurring out of chronological order and overlapping, so we see incidents from various points of view and have information gradually filled in at strategic points. It's a daring approach, and the co-directors handle their story with great skill, cranking up the tension and drawing convincing performances from the non-professional cast. My doubts about this kind of non-chronological storytelling won't go away, though. I often suspect such a structure of disguising inconsistencies and plot holes that may have been more blatant in a straightforward narrative, and while Ajami isn't as guilty in this regard as some films, the final twist includes a linking device every bit as implausible and contrived as Babel's rifle.

The Wind Journeys (Los viajes del viento)
A lesson in stunning location work, The Wind Journeys is one of the most visually ravishing features I've seen at this year's festival. Fully exploiting the spectacular Colombian landscape around them, director Ciro Guerra and his cinematographer Paulo Andrés Pérez ensure every single shot is beautifully composed, and the gorgeous visuals occasionally threaten to overwhelm the slight storyline. The Wind Journeys is a familiar road movie, with taciturn musician Ignacio (Marciano Martínez) embarking on a long-distance trip to return his accordion to his former mentor. The instrument is said to be cursed – the mentor apparently won it in a duel with the devil – but that doesn't dissuade teenager Fermin (Yull Núñez) from joining the old man. Their journey unfolds at a steady, sometimes sleepy, pace, but the film is enlivened by a couple of musical interludes (including a great accordion duel), and grounded by the touchingly understated nature of the performances. The Wind Journeys is Colombia's official entry for next year's Oscars, and it's the kind of thing that may go down well with the Academy.

To Ridley and Tony we must now add Jordan. Ridley's daughter makes her directorial debut with this beautifully filmed and impressively acted drama. Set in an all-girls boarding school in the 1930's, Cracks stars Eva Green as maverick teacher Miss G, whose unorthodox approach has earned her the devotion of her girls, particularly Di (Juno Temple), who has positioned herself as Miss G's favourite girl. So there is much jealousy and suspicion when Fiamma (María Valverde) arrives. Miss G sees in her a kindred spirit, and begins showering her with the kind of attention Di was accustomed to receiving. Cracks is built around three excellent central performances and the sensual atmosphere Scott creates, which bears strong echoes of Picnic At Hanging Rock (the director acknowledged the influence in her Q&A). In fact, the film is so engaging, I didn't begin to wonder what the point of it all was until after the credits rolled, which is when it began to look a little less impressive an achievement. Still, it's a decent debut, and it's certainly one of the better films produced by the Scott clan in recent years.

Dear Lemon Lima
This one wasn't on my radar at the start of the festival, and I only ended up watching Suzi Yoonessi's film because it handily filled a gap in my schedule. It turned out to be a bad decision, because Dear lemon Lima is utterly dreadful. I should have seen the warning signs from the start, when the opening credits appeared as written by a 12 year-old girl, complete with cartoon bunny rabbits hopping across the screen. Dear Lemon Lima is a quirk overload, all pastel colours and characters – sorry, caricatures – whose behaviour and dialogue constantly grates. The story follows Vanessa (debutant Savanah Wiltfong) as she tries to win back her boyfriend by taking part in an Eskimo-themed school sports event, recruiting her fellow nerds and outsiders to help her in this aim. Wiltfong is something of a blank as an actress, but Yoonessi doesn't get much out of any of her actors, with even Melissa Leo getting bogged down in the mediocrity. Excruciating.

The Man Who Will Come (L'uomo che verrà)
Like Elem Klimov's great Come and See, this Italian film shows us the atrocities of war as seen through the eyes of a child, but it lacks the intensity of that Russian masterwork. Greta Zucchi Montanari is Martina, an Italian peasant girl living in an occupied village, whose family have tried to carry on with life as best they can. But throughout the film's lyrical first half, director Giorgio Diritti gradually develops a sense of foreboding, with the fighting between soldiers and partisans in the surrounding hills becoming more frequent and intense, and the Germans getting more aggressive in their interactions with the villagers, before the tensions explode in a climactic massacre. The film is based on a true story, but Diritti never quite succeeds in expressing the true horror of these events, with the meandering opening half of the film being largely at fault for that. The picture only tightens its grip in the second hour, but my interest had already started to wane by that point, and as such, the finale didn't hit me as hard as it might have been expected to. It's extremely well made, though, with Roberto Cimatti being particularly praiseworthy, but the musical score is awful.

Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
Another treasure from the archives, although this one didn't have quite the impact on me that J'Accuse or Underground had. It's a lot of fun, in an overheated, ridiculously melodramatic way, and Gene Tierney is unforgettable as the unhinged central character, whose obsessive jealousy and deep-rooted daddy issues cause her to try and destroy anyone who threatens to come between her and the poor sap she chooses as a husband (Cornel Wilde). It's a fascinating film, but much of it seems hilariously dated and hokey now, particularly Wilde's rather colourless turn, which withers against Tierney's radiance. The film looks wonderful, with Leon Shamroy's vibrant Technicolor cinematography deservedly winning an Academy Award. Gene Tierney was also nominated for an Oscar that year, in a role that she never again came close to matching.

The first thing to say about Protektor is that it looks great. The whole film has a striking, retro feel to it, thanks to excellent work from director of photography Miloslav Holman, and the evocative production design. Marek Najbrt's film is a thoroughly engaging drama too, directed with real flair and offering an exciting narrative as well as posing questions about the nature of collaboration and resistance. Set during the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, the film follows the fate of popular newsreader Emil (Marek Daniel), who agrees to broadcast Nazi propaganda in order to protect his Jewish wife, movie star Hana (Jana Plodková). As the suppression of Jews gradually gets worse, however, it proves to be increasingly difficult to protect Hana, particularly when she indulges in some rebellious behaviour. Only in its final section, in the aftermath of Heydrich's assassination, does the story lose steam somewhat. Until then, it's a lively and dramatic piece of filmmaking, beautifully made and very well acted.

FILM IST. a girl & a gun
The latest in Gustav Deutsch's series of 'found footage' films, a girl & a gun opens with a great sequence of Annie Oakley displaying her shooting prowess. After that, the film moves away from the "girl and a gun" idea into images of creation, sex and destruction, with quotes from Greek philosophy tying the material together in some kind of loose way. Most of the footage comes from the earliest days of cinema, and some of it is memorable, especially the scenes from silent porn films which recall the excellent compendium The Good Old Naughty Days. The links between the disparate pieces of footage are often clumsy, though, and Deutsch never builds up the sense of forward narrative momentum that he seems to be going for. Even though I tend to enjoy this sort of thing, I have to concede that a girl & a gun wears out its welcome a little at 97 minutes, and some tighter editing would have been welcome.

Kamui (Kamui gaiden)
I decided to skip the closing night film, Sam Taylor-Wood's Nowhere Boy, in favour of ending my festival with something a little more action-packed. I chose Kamui, which the LFF brochure described as "probably the best ninja movie ever made." How could I resist? Unfortunately, I think Tony Rayns' write-up oversold Yoichi Sai's film somewhat. It begins with a lovely animated prologue, but once the film has got into its stride, it quickly becomes clear that there's not much of a story driving it, and as a result, its two-hour running time feels massively overextended. Kamui (Kenichi Matsuyama) is a "fugitive ninja" looking to break from the ninja code and live his life as a free man, but fate keeps pulling him back into trouble. What story there is concerns a violent lord, a horse's leg, a bunch of ninja pirates, and another fugitive ninja (Koyuki) who Kamui runs into occasionally. Basically, Kamui is little more than a series of set-pieces strung together – some of which are impressively staged, some of which are hampered by poor CGI – and there are often long, dull passages between them. It looks great, but Kamui is thoroughly empty.