Monday, November 10, 2008

As I Live and Breathe

Autumn has come around, after a brief respite from the abject failure of the British summer. Some warm, sunny days, unknown in Octobers past, have given way to the crisp chill and smell of leaves on the ground.

For me, the onset of autumn brings with it the London Film Festival and the chance for a taste of things that I might otherwise never see.
A lot of people are excited by the premieres and galas and star-studded extravaganzas that have been talked up for months beforehand, but with limited time and resources I much prefer to try and catch the little gems which may never get an official release in these green lands.
Anyone who has read one of the LFF programmes before will know that they, out of necessity, try and make every entry into the festival seem like a good bet for your time, regardless of the actual worth of the film. This makes picking a list of what to see a little more difficult, although realistically in these days of the ubiquitous internet it shouldn’t be too hard to dig up some opinion on a film, unless it is a world-wide premiere. At time of writing, however, I am without the net, with little prospect of getting it set up by November, if then.
So I have to use other means of narrowing the choices; known directors or actors are a start, meaning that I will be seeing Takeshi Kitano’s Achilles and the Tortoise this year, just as I would see anything by Takashi Miike (even though it meant I was once stuck watching the awful Izu). Another method of narrowing the field is to go for genre – a thriller or mad, revisionist western or cop film is more likely to be enjoyable, even if only average.
The most helpful part of the programme is the information on distributor – looking at any of the big names in the festival shows you who will be bringing them to our screens, large and small, once the festival is over. Frost/Nixon will be released by Universal Pictures International; W is brought to us by Lionsgate; Waltz with Bashir has been picked up by Artificial Eye; Che has been picked up by Optimum; Hunger by Pathe; Johnny Mad Dog by Momentum and Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist by Sony Pictures. Ideally, I’d like to see all of these, but rather than rush to fit them into the space of a few weeks sitting in a bad seat and packed into a sold-out screening, they will all come out at some point, a lot of them hopefully to Cineworld where I hold my handy pass.

The festival itself started on Wednesday 15th October with Frost/Nixon, but I was due to start on the Friday with a screening of The Secret, an Indonesian thriller which is meant to traverse genres in a way that the best of recent Korean cinema has managed to do.
Unfortunately I had mis-timed my screenings, and had gone to see Gomorra (on general release), which I expected to end at 8 and give me half an hour to walk to the South Bank from Haymarket. When I left the cinema it was 8:20 and I had no chance, a non-refundable ticket and nothing to do but go home and finish watching season five of The Wire. Not the end of the world, then.
Gomorra was an odd film, all crumbling, damp housing estates full of preening Italian gangsters as if this was the ruin of the second Roman empire. The setting is Naples, however, and there are no sharp suits to be found with this version of the mafia; rather the universal uniform of the hoodlum – sports clothing. Guns and drugs are the mainstay for crime, and these are found in abundance as we follow the day-to-day existence of the bottom rung of the Neopolitan mafia. As a gang war brings the world down around them, we follow a money-man, Don Ciro, who is the mafia equivalent of the social services, handing out a dole to families who are recognised as having helped the Family, usually by having a relative killed of imprisoned; two teens get up to no good after we first see them attempting to emulate Scarface in an abandoned mansion, we watch as they dig themselves deeper into trouble, ripping of dealers, stealing guns and all the while acting independently of any faction; a property developer seeks to get rich by taking on the waste disposal responsibilities of a number of Italian industries by dumping them into a quarry; a tailor gets into hot water after teaching Chinese clothes makers the techniques to produce haute couture; a young boy attempts to get himself into the gang and finds the downside to the relative glamour.
Gomorra is as blistering as La Haine but with no narrative to speak of it doesn’t attempt to hold the audience’s hand with signposts or other explanations. This helps to cement the realism of the film and at times it takes on a documentary feel. It certainly stands as a stark contrast to the experiences of British youths in their so-called ghettoes. The idea of stabbings over postcodes and being in the wrong manor seems even more ridiculous when compared to the Napoli estate, rife with crime and corruption to claustrophobic levels.

On Saturday I went to see Eagle Eye, also on general release. I had seen the trailer a number of times and had an idea of what to expect, specifically a paranoid techno-thriller along the lines of Enemy of the State, and whilst I hadn’t read any reviews I had seen some of the two star ratings it had been given. Still, it was technically free and seemed a better bet than How to Lose Friends and Alienate people, so in I went. I am about to tell you what happens, so if you really care please skip to the next bit.
The idea of ‘them’ being able to see and hear everything you do thanks to the extensive CCTV network and mobile phone tapping etc. isn’t a new one, but I wasn’t expecting it to be a rampant AI. A rampant AI which believed that the best way to serve the American people is to kill the people in charge of the country. Of course, It Has To Be Stopped, but despite the deflating feeling on discovering the twist of the movie it also feels like a genuinely subversive idea wrapped into a blockbuster-by-numbers. If you made a computer to protect society and told it the rules straight up, it would probably seek to stop the President of the USA as he makes things worse. It makes sense. There would have been no Bush jr. in the first place, as he didn’t actually win the election.
The worst thing about Eagle Eye is undoubtedly the embodiment of said AI – probably the laziest piece of film design this century, the computer has a light for an eye, like HAL, and is in a little, golden globe on the end of a stalk in a big dome with lots of shiny, golden spheres on the walls with echoes of Flight of the Navigator. After the uninspired but solid stunts leading up to the big reveal it serves as a puncture wound to the big blockbuster balloon for which there is no patch.
Plus there are sticking points. An AI being able to control automatic cranes with split-second precision and flying and unmanned, armed military plane through a tunnel, and Jerry Shaw jumping from a building onto train tracks below with no injuries don’t seem to pull the viewer out of movie land, but towards the end of the film when Jerry makes his desperate attempt to stop the AI’s murderous plan, he has a fight. It has already been pointed out that he is a good-for-nothing, drifting between crappy jobs and treating a string of girlfriends poorly, and that, after FBI agent Billy Bob Thornton asks some security guards how he held a shotgun, he is not a professional. And yet, after being chased and bashed around a number of times, Jerry is able to overpower a guard stationed at an underground entry point to the White House. A guard who is not knackered or stressed beyond belief after having just escaped from an explosion as the aforementioned unmanned plane crashes in the aforementioned tunnel, and almost certainly is trained to kill with his bare hands, is taken down by Jerry Shaw after a somewhat brief struggle.
Whatever, at this point the movie has lost after copying the AI design from a movie that is now 40 years old.

Happily, The Fall fares much better than director Tarsem’s previous film, The Cell, would have you expect. The Cell was never less than visually interesting, but undeniably failed to work as a narrative piece, becoming a mostly mundane serial killer/police procedural outside the sequences set in the psyche. The Fall fares much better due to the grounding in between the flights of visual fancy. The relationship between Lee Pace’s bed-ridden stunt man Roy and five year old Maria helps to cement the movie together when it could easily have been seen as a collection of pretty but empty scenes. Some of the visuals on display are unbelievably beautiful, to the point that you are distracted as you wonder literally where on earth the director discovered his locations, but the humour in the film and the fantastic performance by Maria halt any danger of The Fall slipping into pretension or a series of unconnected music video clips.
The mechanic of using people familiar to the protagonist in their dream world has been around since the Wizard of Oz, but here it used to great effect as the sequences are literally straight from the child’s imagination, by way of Roy’s story telling.

Three films in three days and I haven’t actually seen anything at the festival yet, but I’m certainly in the mood.


That was obviously written a while back now, an echo of the past. I had recently moved into this new flat, and now I have seen the festival films I mentioned.
I will be posting pictures as is seemingly becoming a tradition; in the meantime, my latest review is up on hkcinema, link to the right.

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