Friday, October 15, 2010

LFF 2010 - The Fourth Round-Up

Le quattro volte

Set in a rural Italian village, Le quattro volte is a film of quiet contemplation. Director Michelangelo Frammartino has made a film that has the look and feel of a documentary, but you can sense the filmmaker's hand behind the camera, carefully guiding events in front of it. The film opens on elderly shepherd as he slowly ambles and coughs towards death. After he has passed away, life goes on, and Frammartino's camera casually follows it, with his film seemingly attempting to capture something about the passing of time and the inevitable cycle of life. It is a pleasure to watch, for a while. The director stages a couple of deceptively simple sequences that are carried off with some aplomb, and the film is often dryly amusing. However, it does grow slightly tedious and the slow, quiet nature of the film is absurdly soporific. I confess that I nodded off about half way through. I don't think I missed anything particularly significant.


The first thing to say about Carlos is that, over the course of five and a half hours, it held my attention almost constantly. Olivier Assayas' epic account of two decades in the life of notorious terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, who became famous throughout the world under his nom de guerre Carlos, is an astonishing feat of filmmaking, with the director's intimate yet dynamic camerawork and sharp editing keeping us on our toes. Although Carlos can feel very episodic, Assayas handles the complexities of the narrative with confidence, trusting that his audience can follow the drama as it moves swiftly from one country to another, introducing a cluster of new characters every couple of minutes and identifying them with onscreen captions. In truth, I did find it hard at times to keep up with the myriad characters, factions and loyalties, but such a sense of helplessness was only fleeting, and more often than not, Carlos pulls you along on its energetic forward momentum. The central performance also keeps you riveted, with the perfectly cast Édgar Ramírez delivering a truly momentous performance as the Jackal. His magnetic, multilingual and physically transformative display is wholly convincing, and the supporting cast matches his efforts, notably the excellent Alexander Scheer and Nora von Waldstätten. Dividing his film into three parts, Assayas gives each segment its own mood, the propulsive, youthful thrust of the first being balanced by the sombre tone of the final section, which deals with Carlos' wilderness years and slow decline. Part 2, the most gripping segment, deals almost completely with the daring OPEC raid of 1975, and Assayas' direction of this long sequence is breathtakingly impressive, sustaining the excitement and tension with consummate skill. Having said all of that, I can't help feeling that there was something missing from Carlos, and I'm not sure if its detailed reconstruction of its subject's world and its undeniable cinematic flair finally goes as deep as it should do. The film is an exhilarating rush – only sagging slightly in the last half hour – but once that sensation has passed, is there enough thematic weight and context here to leave the audience with something to chew over? I'm not sure yet, but in any case, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Carlos, as it is a truly remarkable filmmaking achievement. See it in its full 325-minute version, if you can.

The American

The American is all style. Anton Corbijn's film, an adaptation of the novel A Very Private Gentleman, is beautifully shot, with the director making a spectacular use of both the snowy expanses of Sweden in the opening scene and the small town of Castel del Monte, where world-weary assassin 'Jack' (George Clooney) spends the rest of the movie. In particular, there are a couple of gorgeously lit chase sequences through the narrow Italian backstreets, and the scenes by a secluded lake, where Jack takes improbably stunning prostitute Clara (Violante Placido) have a lovely, idyllic quality. Otherwise, the film is a hollow flop, stuffed full of clichés and painfully obvious symbolism (check out that butterfly!). Clooney works hard to invest his character with some suggestion of depth, but there's nothing there for him to play in this ultra-professional but emotionally closed-off figure. There's also a local priest who has a habit of spewing out words of wisdom that seem suspiciously appropriate to Jack's situation, and a storyline in which the climax is signposted so far in advance I could have taken a stab at it before the opening credits rolled. It's a ponderous and disappointing bore.

Blessed Events (Glückliche Fügung)

Playing out like an obtuse and austere version of Knocked Up, this is certainly one of the most confounding films at this year's festival. Isabelle Stever's Blessed Events stars Annika Kuhl as Simone, a woman who falls pregnant after a random one-night stand and subsequently forms a relationship with the father Hannes (Stefan Rudolf), whom she unexpectedly bumps into when she visits the hospital for tests. Apparently unconcerned by Hannes' habit of staring and grinning idiotically all the time, Simone makes plans to buy a house with her new man, but she seems unsettled, distracted and paranoid, the effects of her pregnancy apparently having an adverse effect on her psychological state. Stever's film could have emerged as an interesting study of natal depression, but it's just bewilderingly awful. Full of inexplicable actions and weird non-sequiturs, the film frequently left me scratching my head as I tried to work out what purpose a number of sequences served, and the one-note nature of the performances (Kuhl is emotionally flat, Rudolf is tiresomely passive) prevents us from gaining any insight into the characters. The director focuses an inordinate amount of attention on trivial side issues, like Simone's desire for a new lawnmower, and she constantly seems to be building towards scenes of tension-releasing anger, before cutting away prematurely. A bearded Arno Frisch wanders in and out of the movie at random intervals, I think Hannes rapes the pregnant Simone at one point (although maybe he doesn't), and the screenplay also contains the line, "If all the fish in the sea die, is the sea dead?" – raising this pertinent question not once, but twice! The director's pacing is glacial, her visual style is ugly and her movie is senseless.

Never Let Me Go

My favourite scenes in Never Let Me Go all occur at the start of the film. The story takes place at Hailsham, an exclusive and isolated school in which children have been created and raised specifically to have their organs harvested. Director Mark Romanek establishes an eerie tone in this initial segment, while efficiently setting up the relationships between Kathy, Tommy and Ruth, the central characters. The performances by these young actors are outstanding, full of subtlety and sensitivity, and Izzy Meikle-Small, who plays young Kathy, bears an uncanny resemblance to Carey Mulligan, who takes the role on when the film jumps forward a few years. After this point, Never Let Me Go never quite gripped me as it did in its early stages, although I found plenty to like and admire in the film. Alex Garland's adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's novels is one of his most balanced screenplays (no third-act collapse, thankfully), but the vagueness that works for the film's sense of mystery also works against the picture at times, leaving frustrating questions about the characters' situations unanswered. On the plus side, Carey Mulligan is exceptional, giving the most moving and natural performance in the film and making her co-stars Andrew Garfield and (especially) Keira Knightly looked rather strained in comparison, with Garfield's anguished howl into the darkness just coming off as embarrassing for everyone. Aside from such missteps, Never Let Me Go admittedly doesn't do a great deal wrong, but there's just nothing here to get excited about. It's beautiful but empty, and too timid to be anywhere near as emotionally wrenching as it should be.

Let Me In

Of course, this is something of a pointless exercise. The acclaimed 2008 Swedish film Let the Right One In has already achieved cult status, and this English-language remake doesn't do anything fresh enough with the same material to justify its existence. However, there's still a lot to enjoy in Matt Reeves' version, and if you can forget the first film then this works perfectly well as a sinister and effective horror. The director's best decision in this film is to focus more on the central relationship between the children at the centre of the story, who are here named Abbey and Owen and played by Chloe Moretz and Kodi Smit-Mcphee. The acting from these two is exceptional, and the emotional connection they establish is the film's driving force. Elsewhere, Reeves plays it pretty safe, and many sequences in Let Me In are almost shot-for-shot retreads of those that Tomas Alfredson staged in the original. He does make a few effective alterations, though, wisely ditching both the cat sequence and the weird non-genital flash that marred Let the Right One In, while adding a fine scene shot entirely from the back seat of a car. There are negatives too – like the constant 80's pop references and the shoddy CGI that turns Abby into a crazed creature when she attacks – but in general, I feel that this film sustains a sinister atmosphere more successfully than the uneven original did, even if it is similarly hobbled by an abrupt and implausible climax. The Swedish picture, however, can still claim the superior title.

LFF notes

One of the oddest and most frustrating things about the festival so far has been the lack of press screenings for some rather high-profile movies. To date, the following films have not been previewed ahead of their public showings: Film socialisme, Route Irish, 13 Assassins, Aurora, Kaboom, Inside Job, Biutiful, Submarine, Catfish, Essential Killing and Surviving Life. The most surprising omission is Biutiful, which is the only one of the gala screenings that is not being shown to the press, although I'm also very surprised that Submarine hasn't been screened yet. Richard Ayoade is doing interviews for the film on the afternoon of the 23rd, but the only screening scheduled is for the night of the 22nd. However, the film I'm most worried about is Film socialisme. It only has one (already sold-out) public screening scheduled during the festival, which every critic will be trying to get into. With so many other films getting at least two (sometimes three or four) screenings, I can't help feeling the organisers have severely underestimated the pull of Godard...

This week, I'm also working on arranging a few interviews, and so far I've got chats lined up with Lucy Walker and Vik Muniz, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Joanna Hogg and Cristi Puiu. Unfortunately, Errol Morris, who I was very excited about interviewing this weekend, has had to cancel his appearance at the festival at the last minute.