Wednesday, September 19, 2012

London Film Festival 2012 - Part 1

The London Film Festival starts on October 10th, but over the coming weeks I'll be sharing my views on the films in the programme that I've already seen. Here's the first of this year's capsule review collections.

After Lucia (Después de Lucía)

In cities across the world it seems that the troubles faced by teenagers every day are largely the same, and one particularly difficult hurdle is the task of fitting in at a new school. Alejandra (Tessa Ia) has moved with her father (Hernán Mendoza) to Mexico City, where they hope to rebuild their lives after the death of her mother in a car crash. She is initially popular at her new school, but one stupid drunken mistake at a party quickly tarnishes her reputation and makes her an outcast. From this point onwards, After Lucia observes Alejandra's ongoing silent despair as she is subjected to the most horrific bullying from her classmates, with Michael Franco's long takes and fixed camera angles refusing to spare us any details of her ordeal. Unable to open up to her grief-stricken father, Alejandra withdraws and simply accepts her place at the bottom of the food chain, becoming almost catatonic as abuse upon abuse is heaped on her. The cruelty of Alejandra's fellow teenagers sometimes feels a little overplayed, both in the disgusting extremity of their attacks and the complete lack of adult supervision or dissenting voices as the entire classroom gangs up on her, but the power of Franco's film is impossible to deny. It may be unbearable to watch in places, but the tender performances at its centre from both Ia and Mendoza make it equally hard to look away, and the film becomes particularly riveting during its extraordinarily tense final stretch, which builds to a shocking climax. Franco's ultimate point, that violence begets violence, has been very forcefully made.

Boy Eating the Bird's Food (To agori troi to fagito tou pouliou)

While most of the films coming out of Greece in the past few years have been marked by their absurdist, deadpan sense of humour, Boy Eating the Bird's Food is a picture far more in tune with the harsh realities facing Greeks today. Yorgos is a young man who appears to have suffered more than most from the country's economic crisis, as we see him nibbling on his pet canary's birdseed, rummaging for scraps in dustbins, stealing from his elderly neighbour and resorting to extreme measures in one explicit scene that may be hard to stomach (excuse the pun) for many viewers. Throughout all of this, Yannis Papadopoulos delivers an intense and entirely committed performance as a desperate man who is slowly falling apart. Director Ektoras Lygizos keeps the camera inches away from him, creating an uncomfortable sense of claustrophobia and refusing to flinch in the protagonist's most despairing moments. Boy Eating the Bird's Food can be a little obvious in its allegorical intent, and even at 80 minutes it sometimes feels slight. If some more effort had been put into fleshing out Yorgos' situation and relationships – particularly with the girl he watches from afar – it could have added even greater resonance to his sad inability or refusal to ask for help. Nevertheless, this troubling character study certainly marks another impressive debut from a Greek filmmaker.
The Capsule [a short film screening with Boy Eating the Bird's Food]

This 35-minute short from Attenberg director Athina Rachel Tsangari had my attention from its arresting opening shot, and from that point onwards it just kept topping itself with ever more bizarre and imaginative imagery. Set in a remote convent-like building, we observe six young women as they crawl out of their hiding places, get dressed, and participate in a series of rituals seemingly designed by their impassive leader to groom them for tasks ahead. Tsangari's interest in physical movement and the female form is again evident, and the film's mostly silent sequences are hypnotic to watch while also managing to spring consistent surprises. It's a cryptic piece of work but also a beautiful and haunting one, and a lovely rendition of America's A Horse With no Name is just one of its many pleasures.

Clip (Klip)

Although it closes with a disclaimer that no underage performers were involved in sexually explicit scenes, the knowledge that its star was 14 years old at the time of shooting often makes Clip a very uncomfortable viewing experience. First-time director Maja Miloš frequently risks falling into the trap of making a cautionary tale about teenage sex that's also guilty of prurience, with some of the lingering shots of lead actress Isidora Simijonović in her underwear being reminiscent of Larry Clarke's excesses. She plays Jasna, a frustrated Serbian teenager who indulges in sex, drugs and partying in an attempt to escape the complications of her family life and the bleak future prospects that she envisions for herself. She falls for older teen Djole and begins partaking in a submissive sexual relationship with him, acceding to all of his demands in the hope of winning his heart. Watching this pretty girl debase herself for a boy who couldn't really give a damn about her is troubling and upsetting, particularly as Simijonović's turn as the teen protagonist is so convincing. Although she is sullen around the house and puts up a confident front for her friends, Jasna has a couple of nicely played scenes in which this mask slips to reveal the naïve and unsure girl underneath, which is often very affecting to witness. In fact, I'd like to have seen a little more of that, as Clip's frequent scenes of Jasna playing the role of sex doll for the brutish Djole become too repetitive to retain their impact. Miloš directs with vigour and frankness and displays a good eye for locations, but beyond using the prevalence of phone cameras to make its story feel current, what exactly is Clip telling us that we haven't been told many times already? It's ultimately a rather depressing experience, even if it provides a fine showcase for a exceptional young performer.

Death of a Man in the Balkans (Smrt čoveka na Balkanu)

Death of a Man in the Balkans begins with the sight of a man in tears facing the camera and then shooting himself in the head. At this point you may be inclined to double-check your programme to make sure that this film really is listed in the LFF's "Laugh" section, but Miroslav Momčilović’s picture does reveal its comic side as more characters join in. The deceased man's neighbours, alerted by the gunshot, turn up and wait in his apartment for the police to arrive, and we watch their idle chatter as they pass the time. Some of this dialogue is pretty funny ("I saw him carrying a watermelon just was like he knew..."), and as they talk the characters gradually reveal deeper prejudices and resentments: speculating on the dead man's sexuality, complaining about the effect this will have on house prices, coveting his possessions. As a comedy of manners and satire of the Balkan mentality, Death of a Man in the Balkans is often sharp and observant, and as more characters bundle through the door – from a venal undertaker to a couple of lazy cops – it sometimes looks like Momčilović may have the ingredients for a pitch-black farce. But Death of a Man in the Balkans never quite takes off, and the reason for that has a lot to do with the storytelling device the director has opted for. When the suicidal man commits his act in the opening scene, he does so in front of his computer webcam, and everything that follows is viewed from that vantage point in one long, unbroken take. The director's blocking and staging of his single location is impressive, but Death of a Man in the Balkans could have been elevated by some tight editing and variety in its shooting. As it is, the film feels flat, restricted and underpowered; the victim of a gimmicky and unnecessary approach that cripples its potential.

Room 237

The Shining is film littered with inexplicable continuity errors, which are surely the mark of a sloppy filmmaker – but wait! The director in question is renowned perfectionist Stanley Kubrick, so surely these random discrepancies aren't so random. As every single choice that Kubrick made in his films was a deliberate one, surely we can therefore divine some deeper meaning from exploring those choices. That's the starting point for Room 237, an endearingly eccentric documentary that allows a group of Shining devotees to share the theories they have developed about the film in the three decades since its release. Some of these are quite persuasive – there's no doubt that The Shining is more than the mere horror film it was first taken as – but this picture is at its most entertaining when it explores the more crackpot theories. Is The Shining a tacit admission by Kubrick of his involvement in faking the moon landings? Is it all really about minotaurs? No matter how far-fetched these notions may be, the interviewees make their case with utter conviction, and it is fascinating to see just how deeply into the picture they have delved. Some have constructing detailed maps of the Overlook Hotel or examined every item in the background of each shot, and one even projected the film backwards on top of itself (some of the images this experiment conjures are very striking). Room 237 doesn't seek to explain The Shining because director Rodney Ascher presumably realises just how futile a task that is; instead, his film is a lighthearted tribute to a masterpiece that remains as eerily ambiguous as ever. The structure is a little iffy in places, and I wish Ascher had used better recording equipment for his participants, but the playful editing and judicious use of footage makes it an enjoyable, occasionally very funny journey. No matter how many times you've seen The Shining, Room 237 is guaranteed to ignite your desire to watch it once again, this time with more attentive eyes than ever.