Reviewed today: The Artist, Bernie, Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below, King Curling.
Four-film mentalism today. Years ago, I'd have considered it a major achievement to have seen four festival movies in one day. Nowadays, the sad facts are that a) I don't really have the stamina for it any more, and b) I don't really have the money either. The Belated Birthday Girl and I carefully whittled down our choices this year so that only the Saturdays had that many movies in them. Nevertheless, because all four of today's films are at the Vue, the tickets alone are costing us £56 pounds each.
Anyway, we start off with a bit of Japanese animation, a genre which rarely gets a look-in at the LFF. (That might simply be because it's got such a strong worldwide following, it doesn't really need the attention of a mainstream festival.) Makoto Shinkai's film is the story of Asuna (Hisako Kanemoto), a teenage girl living with her widowed mother and her cat Mimi. Her little town is buzzing with rumours of a bear on the loose: but when she encounters a huge toothy creature on the way home from school, she quickly realises that it's not a bear but something altogether otherworldly. Over the next few days she'll learn three very important things. Firstly, the line between the underworld and her own world is thinner than she could possibly realise: secondly, her teacher Ryūji Morisaki (Kazuhiko Inoue) is a special agent with a personal reason to cross that line: and thirdly, cats are really little furry Jesuses.
A decade or two ago, if an anime played at a festival like this one, the hook they would use for a general audience would be some sort of connection with Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira, the first film in the genre to really break worldwide. These days, the equivalent hook would be a connection with the work of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. With its rural setting and young female protagonist, CWCLVFDB can't help but draw comparison with Ghibli's work, and it comes up slightly wanting: but only slightly. The design of the backgrounds and settings is jaw-droppingly beautiful, but the story is a little too schematic a fantasy tale. All too often, new characters and ideas are flown in out of nowhere to solve a narrative problem - I've never been a fan of tales where people can say things like "you must hunt down the Topsiders and take their Clavis" without giggling.
This may not have quite the same degree of love and craft in its making as a Ghibli production, but it makes up for it in darkness. CWCLVFDB gradually becomes an Orpheus-style quest, as both Asuna and her teacher Ryūji descend into the underworld to search for loved ones they've lost. The theme of loss, and the way people are reluctant to accept death as a natural part of life, is dealt with in a surprisingly adult fashion. As is usually the case with Ghibli, Asuna's growing awareness of the opposite sex is also a subtext: although Shinkai handles it less carefully than Miyazaki ever would, with the climax threatening to turn the relationship between Asuna and Ryūji into something moderately unspeakable. But it pulls back from that precipice, and the post-credits epilogue - one which emphasises how much of a coming-of-age story this has been all along - hit me surprisingly hard. This may have been one of the few LFF films that children were allowed into, but I feel sorry for the parents who might have to answer some awkward questions after it.
2.45pm: The Artist [official site]
George Valentin (Jean Dujardin, last mentioned in these pages in 2007) is one of the biggest silent movie stars in late 20s Hollywood. A chance encounter with fan Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) turns out to be the inspiration she needs to kickstart her own acting career. Within a couple of years, she rockets from background roles to becoming the new face of the talkies. Valentin is convinced talking pictures are just a fad, and stubbornly continues working the way he always has, only to find that his fan is becoming more famous than he is.
Here's a controversial statement for you: The Artist will not cure cancer. That's certainly not an opinion you would have gathered from the crazed reaction that this film has been obtaining from audiences recently. Crucially, those audiences have all been at festivals, which I suspect is a cunning bit of pre-release marketing on the part of producer Harvey Weinstein. It's a film tailor-made for a festival crowd, and its style and setting are precisely the sort of thing that makes them feel good about themselves and their memories of old cinema. Whether that buzz will translate to a general audience remains to be seen, but I suspect that Harvey will find it a much harder job to get teenagers into a black and white, Academy ratio silent film, made in the same style as the twenties productions it's a loving homage to.
Still, Michel Hazanavicius' film is good fun while it's on the screen. Having set up its stylistic limitations early on, The Artist is at its best when it finds sneaky ways to break its own rules. When it isn't surprising you by doing that, it can be a little bit saggy, particularly in the middle section where Valentin's fading stardom and the Depression combine to bring him down. Nevertheless, Dujardin and Bejo bring a huge amount of charm to their leading performances, and they keep the momentum going to the end. But it's a film that doesn't really stay in the memory once you've left the cinema, and it almost certainly won't be troubling my end-of-festival roundup. Which I think makes this the most negative review of The Artist published on the internet to date.
6.15pm: Bernie [official site, ish]
Richard Linklater's been a major fixture of my London Film Festivals since 1991, when he came over with his debut feature Slacker. He's been represented at several LFFs since then, and also turned up again in person for a Screen Talk in 2006. This time, his new movie has to stand up on its own without him to introduce it. It's based on the true story of Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a popular assistant funeral director in the small Texas town of Carthage. He's particularly renowned for the way he looks after the grieving widows of the town. Not in that way - you get the suspicion that women really aren't his sort of thing. Although you might suspect otherwise from the way that Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) takes a shine to him. Bernie starts out as her holiday companion, as she spends her vast inheritance on a series of trips around the world. But before too long, it becomes apparent that Nugent is exploiting him, reducing his role to an all-purpose dogsbody.
The main theme of Bernie is this: when someone is as well-loved as Tiede was by the citizens of Carthage, what would it take for him to lose the love of that town? And the answer appears to be, more than you'd imagine. Linklater has chosen to tell his story using a queasy mix of drama and documentary (yeah, another one of those). The main part of the movie is a dramatisation of Tiede's life, but it's interspersed with a series of to-camera interviews with some of the story's key protagonists, as well as the people of Carthage who supported Bernie in his time of need. It's the quasi-documentary approach that The Office first popularised, and which has become the template for several current American sitcoms: maybe Ricky Gervais should be concentrating on making the sorta-drama-doc structure the thing he's best remembered for, rather than his current attempts to bring the word 'mong' back into polite conversation.
But here's a wrinkle that Gervais never considered: the interviewees are a mixture of actors playing roles in the drama sections, and real Carthaginians talking about the real Bernie. And it's left to the viewer to remind themselves which is which at any given time. (Actually, it turns out that the real-life interviewees are the ones with the funniest lines: there's a lot of raw Texas wit on display here.) It's a slightly unnerving approach, and one which has stirred up some controversy prior to its US theatrical release. There are relatives of a real-life dead woman who aren't too keen on her story being told as a comedy.
Putting those reservations aside, though, it actually does work as a comedy, mainly thanks to the acting. Jack Black manages to restrain himself, and pulls off a beautifully controlled performance as Bernie. Shirley Maclaine plays Marjorie as just horrible enough to make us uncertain how we're meant to react to her. There's good support from Matthew McConaughey as the DA who theoretically should be the good guy in this story, but could never be accepted as such, even though he's obviously in the right. And the interviewees from Carthage are incredibly entertaining, providing a real-life context to the story - their reactions, ultimately, are what made the film exist in the first place. But they also make it slightly creepy to watch.
8.45pm: King Curling [official site]
His name is Truls Paulsen (that's one for The BBG there). He was once the captain of a team which was the toast of the Norwegian curling circuit. However, his obsession with 'millimetre precision' drove him to a nervous breakdown, and he's spent the last ten years in an institution. Now Paulsen (Atle Antonsen) is finally out, back at home with his wife Sigrid (Linn Skåber), and under strict orders to stay away from curling for the good of his mental health. But his mentor Gordon (Ingar Helge Gimle) has a terminal lung condition, and the prize money from the national curling championships coincidentally matches the cost of the operation that could save him. After a ten year gap, Paulsen has to get the team back together again.
Written by Antonsen and director Ole Endresen (with the two also providing good value as a Q&A double act), King Curling is a sports comedy where the sport (such as it is) is a very minor part of the story. There's never any doubt as to how the matches will progress: within minutes of the start, we just know that the final act will involve a high-stakes confrontation between Paulsen and his Leo Sayer-haired nemesis Stefan Ravndal (Kåre Conradi). It'd be one hell of an achievement to get any sort of dramatic tension out of curling, and Endresen - to his credit - doesn't even try.
Instead, he uses the sport as a framework to support zany characters, nicely timed sight gags, and a lurid colour palette that rips your eyes out with its brightness (even more so in the digital copy projected at the LFF). Endresen claims that it was made more or less exclusively for a Norwegian audience, with local references only they would understand. He therefore claims to be a little baffled as he watches a London audience laughing all the way through. But I suspect he really knows the truth: the gags in King Curling are mostly broad enough to travel outside their home country, without being so broad as to leave an audience cringeing at their crassness. As comic filmmakers, Endresen and Antonsen have that 'millimetre precision' that Paulsen strives for, and that sort of thing will play in cinemas anywhere.