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.