Tuesday, October 15, 2013

LFF 2013 - The Great Passage; Kon-Tiki; Of Good Report; Parkland; Teenage; We Are the Best!

The Great Passage

Yûya Ishii has become something of an LFF regular in recent years with his comedies Sawako Decides and Mitsuko Delivers. I've enjoyed his films while simultaneously being slightly frustrated by them – there's always a point where his manic comedic style trips itself up – but it appears that the move to a big studio project has given Ishii the firm foundations that he has so desperately needed. The Great Passage is based on a novel by Shiwon Miura, which has been adapted for the screen by Kensaku Watanabe, and perhaps that's why the film's structure feel so much more solid than Ishii's previous efforts. This is by some distance Ishii's most ambitious film as a director, but being freed up from writing duties has apparently given him the confidence required to make it his most accomplished work too. The Great Passage is the tale of a small team at a publishing firm who spend 15 years researching and compiling a new dictionary, with the film loosely structured in two parts. The first half of the film deals with the tentative romance between cripplingly shy bookworm Majime (Ryuhei Matsuda) and the woman (Aoi Miyazaki) to whom he can't express his feelings without reeling off the various definitions of each word. The second half of the film deals more with the business of putting the dictionary together, with looming deadlines and last-minute hitches allowing Ishii to generate a surprising amount of tension. Both the humorous and dramatic aspects of the film work perfectly because all of the humour and drama has its basis in character. As well as the dedicated introvert Majime, there's his laid-back colleague Nishioka (a hilarious Joe Odagiri) and the elderly head of the programme Matsumoto (Go Kato), whose advancing years make him wonder if he'll be around to see the finished product. The Great Passage is very funny without ever being too broad and it's very moving without ever slipping into sentimentality, and there are a number of fascinating themes under the surface that lend the story additional depth. It is a film about the love of language, pride in a job well done, and about the importance of not letting life pass you by in your determination to reach a goal. There's also the fascinating nuts-and-bolts business of how exactly words are chosen and defined, which is a lot more interesting than it sounds and is often the source of unexpected comedy; although maybe we shouldn't be so surprised given that Ball of Fire – one of the greatest comedies of all time – explored similar territory. Perhaps lexicographers are a lot funnier than we've ever given them credit for.


The story of Thor Heyerdahl seems tailor-made for the big screen. In 1947, this Norwegian ethnographer and a crew of five men built a wooden raft and used it to sail from Peru to the Polynesia, with the aim of proving that South Americans could have discovered the islands centuries earlier. Their subsequent adventure has passed into legend, but little of the drama, danger and excitement of that passages has made it onto the screen in Kon-Tiki. Instead, this film – a long-gestating passion project for British producer Jeremy Thomas – has been streamlined into a drearily formulaic narrative structure with every detail being presented in the most simplistic of ways. Heyerdahl is played with plenty of gusto by by the lanky, grinning Pål Sverre Hagen, but we learn little about him beyond some brief, expository notes, and a couple of rote scenes with his long-suffering wife. We learn even less about his almost interchangeable crewmates – this one is a photographer, this one is a fridge salesman – or their motivation for joining him on this foolhardy mission, and it's hard to feel too involved in their fates. I never felt like their lives were truly in danger despite the stormy conditions, their rickety craft and the constant presence of sharks, because those scenes of peril are handled in the most perfunctory "And then this happened" manner by the co-directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg. There's no sense of life here, there's none of the imagination required to make this story breathe on the screen. All of the dialogue simply serves the purpose of sharing information – what on earth did these men discuss at sea for over 100 days? When the caption "Day 101" appears on screen, announcing the imminent end of their voyage, I felt like the filmmakers had jumped forward simply because they had run out of ideas. Where is the passion to make these men come to life? My suspicion that Rønning and Sandberg were using this project as nothing more than a calling card was confirmed by a ridiculous CGI-assisted shot halfway through the film that served no purpose beyond drawing attention to the flashy direction. It seemed to work – they're now in Hollywood working on the fifth (fifth!) Pirates of the Caribbean film – and a comfortable life of hackwork lies ahead, but they've wasted a fine story here.

Of Good Report

When a film opens with a man screaming in agony as he pulls out broken teeth that have somehow become embedded in his scalp, it's safe to assume that the picture you're about to watch is not going to be an easy one to sit through. That proves to be the case with Of Good Report, a South African film that made international headlines earlier this year when it was temporarily banned in that country for child pornography, despite the underage character in the film being played by a 23 year-old actress. Now that the dust has settled on that controversy, we can see Of Good Report for what it is – an interesting and promising piece of work from a young filmmaker that is nevertheless crippled by some of Jahmil X.T. Qubeka's storytelling choices. His central character is a school teacher in a rural community who is recovering from some kind of war-related trauma in the Congo. Parker (Mothusi Magano) is a quiet, bespectacled introvert who hides secret passions, which he unleashes one night when he meets teenage temptress Nolitha (Petronella Tshuma) in a bar and takes her back to his shack for sex. He is horrified to discover the next morning that she is actually 16 years-old and one of his students, but the pair continue their affair, occasionally even flirting with disaster by having sex on school premises and coming within inches of being discovered in one of the film's standout scenes. Parker's love for Nolitha eventually manifests itself in obsessive jealousy and murderous impulses, but it's hard to take anything this character does seriously because of the absurd choice Qubeka has made to not let his protagonist speak during the entire film. He can speak – we see the other end of a phone conversation, for example – we just don't hear it for ourselves, and the contortions that Qubeka puts himself through to maintain this silence, including numerous scenes in which he is cut off just as he's about to open his mouth, are self-defeating. I can't see the purpose of such a tactic, which achieves nothing more than to distract from the content of each scene, and it leaves a black hole in the centre of the picture where there is supposed to be a complex character. Magano is not a strong enough actor to convey Parker's multitudes with his face alone, and he spends too much of the film gaping gormlessly. With this problem scuppering the picture early on, Of Good Report ultimately feels unnecessarily sadistic as it degenerates into a series of barbaric sequences, which is a terrible shame as Qubeka certainly shows enough flair to suggest he's someone worth keeping an eye on. He uses the black-and-white widescreen frame to craft a number of undeniably vivid images, and he draws some strong performances from the actors surrounding Magano, including the excellent Petronella Tshuma.


John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22nd 1963, and with the 50th anniversary of that date fast approaching I suppose it was inevitable that a film would be made to commemorate/exploit it. The film we have been given – for our sins – is Parkland, an exasperatingly shallow and muddled attempt to recreate the events of that day as seen through the eyes of people tangentially connected to JFK's death. We meet Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), whose 8mm film remains seared in the memory of all who saw it, but there are many lesser-known characters sharing their perspectives here too. Zac Efron and Colin Hanks are the doctors who tried to resuscitate JFK at Parkland Memorial Hospital; Marcia Gay Harden is a nurse; Jackie Earle Haley is a really creep priest; Ron Livingston is an FBI agent; James Badge Dale is Lee Harvey Oswald's brother. Anyone who saw Emilio Estevez's Bobby in 2006 might be feeling an encroaching feeling of dread in the pit of their stomach right now, and sadly Parkland does turn out to be little more than Bobby 2: Electric Boogaloo. Writer/director Peter Landesman seems to have no clear sense of what the story is here, or what point he is trying to make by dropping in on these people, and much of Parkland just consists of obvious reconstructions of what took place, with Barry Ackroyd shaking his camera for all it's worth to suggest some kind of verisimilitude. Unfortunately, any attempt at sustaining a you-are-there realism is doomed by lines like "Nice day for a motorcade" or Landesman's obvious confusion over how exactly to use the most iconic figures in the story (why do we hear Lyndon B. Johnson's inauguration as a scratchy recording? Why have Jackie Kennedy in the scene at all if you're going to try and hide her in the background?), but the film's biggest obstacle is the simple fact that none of the characters are developed enough to make us see past the actors playing them. This is bad news for a couple of them in particular. Zac Efron is left stranded in an awful scene where he tries to beat the dead JFK back into life, Jacki Weaver's pantomime turn as Oswald's mother is excruciating for every minute she's on screen, and Billy Bob Thornton is reduced to shouting at various people in corridors ("This was NOT supposed to happen!"). Parkland is apparently adapted from Vincent Bugliosi's excellent book Four Days in November, but that was a deep and complex work of reportage that compiled all available facts; it deserves better than to be associated with a film so half-baked, inert and tasteless.


The archive material that much of Teenage consists of is so good it makes me despair that the filmmakers didn't put more faith in it. Instead, Matt Wolf's documentary is a weird hybrid of old and new, with clips from films, television, newsreels and other sources being spliced together with recreations artificially scratched to look like found footage, and the two types of film mix like oil and water. This documentary aims to explore the genesis and development of the teenager – a relatively new concept – during the first decades of the 20th century. Beginning with the outlawing of child labour, Wolf and his team have assembled an extraordinary variety of materials that show adolescents embracing their newfound freedom. We are introduced to the 1920s "Bright Young Things" in London, the Swing Kids of Germany and the US Jitterbug craze, before a darker side to the teenage experience emerges with the rise of the Hitler Youth in the 1930s. As we move from one area to another, the voiceover narration changes hands between four narrators (Ben Wishaw, Jena Malone, Julia Hummer and Jessie Usher), whose reading of diary excerpts and other first-hand testimonies attempt to give us a subjective perspective on what it was like to be inside these movements as they happened. It all sounds like a much better idea in theory than it turns out to be in practice, as the filmmakers' approach frequently left me feeling uneasy rather than enlightened. The lack of attribution provided for the text that forms the voiceover makes it too often feel more like a script that has been written than a genuine sentiment taken from the mouths of real teens, and the recreated footage that Wolf uses to highlight these individual tales sticks out like a sore thumb. Teenage feels terminally confused about what point it is trying to make and it ends up failing to examine any aspect of its vast subject in a satisfying way. It feels like a primer on the subject rather than a proper exploration, and one hopes that Jon Savage's book Teenage: The Creation of Youth, on which this film is based, offers much more insight than this frustratingly flimsy effort.

We Are the Best!

We Are the Best! is very much the work of the man who made Show Me Love and Together, and it's good to have him back. After making those two films – and the bleaker, but still brilliant Lilja 4-Ever – Lukas Moodysson swerved into nihilism with the ugly double-bill of A Hole in My Heart and Container. Those pictures were followed by talk of a premature retirement, and although he returned to filmmaking with Mammoth in 2009, this is the first film in over a decade that actually feels like a Lukas Moodysson film. It allows him once more to display his uncanny ability to draw natural, playful and entirely convincing performances out of untried young actors, and to navigate the turbulent emotional territory of life at the cusp of those difficult teenage years. Adapted from his wife's graphic novel, We Are the Best! is the story of 13 year-old best friends Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin), a pair of wannabe punks in 1982 Sweden whose musical ability sadly doesn't match their enthusiasm. Nevertheless, they are inspired to write a political song based on their hatred of their PE teacher (sample lyric: "People in Africa are dying, but you only care about balls flying!"), and they team up with devout Christian wallflower Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) – who, unlike them, can play an instrument – to form a band. That's pretty much all there is to We Are the Best!, which is a lightweight effort in comparison to his previous work, but it's hard to dismiss a film that's so infectiously enjoyable. Moodysson gives his girls the opportunity to create a friendship and an us-against-the-world mentality that feels entirely true, and his nuanced handling of teenage angst is evident in the way he handles the jealousies and insecurities that arise when a group of boys enter the picture. The perfect judgement he shows in the moments makes me wish that he'd go a bit deeper, and take the opportunity to add a little more depth and complexity to the film. For example, the reaction of Hedvig's mother to her daughter's sudden transformation is glided over in a single scene, when such a situation would surely be a source of enormous drama within such a devout household. Nevertheless, such quibbles are greatly outweighed by the pleasures that We Are the Best! provides; pleasures that Lukas Moodysson can deliver in a way that few other directors can. This may not be his best, but it's the closest he has come for many years.