1.15pm: When Brendan Met Trudy
You may think I've got problems, but Brendan (Peter McDonald) really does see far too many films for his own good. When we first meet him, he's face down in a rain-soaked gutter muttering the opening narration from Sunset Boulevard: "The poor dope - he always wanted a pool. Well, in the end, he got himself a pool." Inevitably, we flash back to where it all started: Brendan's initial meeting with Trudy (Flora Montgomery) in a pub. He's a rather shy schoolteacher whose only real hobbies are choral singing and watching movies: she's a wildly outgoing Montessori teacher who loves to hear him sing and watch movies with him. The relationship begins well, but Brendan gets suspicious about what Trudy does when she sneaks out of the house at night. Particularly when reports start appearing on the news about a spate of nocturnal castrations.
After a number of novels made into movies (The Commitments, The Snapper, The Van) and one TV screenplay (Family, which was rewritten as the novel The Woman Who Walked Into Doors), this is Roddy Doyle's first original script for the cinema. And he's obviously enjoying every minute of it: this is totally devoid of the darker overtones that colour a lot of his work, and is a flat-out romantic comedy with some lovely surreal touches. Obviously it's another one of those film buff ego-strokers crammed with references to classic movies: although it manages to be less exclusive than these things usually are, as all the movies referred to are seen elsewhere in the film as clips (or, in the case of A Bout De Souffle, a poster that stays in shot rather too long). So even if you don't know the originals, you should be able to get the in-jokes. (But shame on you if you don't know the originals.)
Kieron J Walsh (best known for the Channel 4 series The Young Person's Guide To Becoming A Rock Star) directs this with an agreeably light touch, cramming the frame with background gags a la Airplane - note the multiplex showing a film called The Usual Shite - but not letting them overwhelm the romance at the centre. Peter McDonald, who's already been seen this Festival in Saltwater, displays a certain bumbling charm as Brendan: but it's Flora Montgomery as Trudy who really sets the screen alight, as Old Lag said just the other day. There's also an eclectic soundtrack that includes everything from Jonathan Richman's Egyptian Reggae to John McCormack's Panis Angelicus. The film sags a little towards the end, but a gloriously daft Where Are They Now coda helps you forget that completely. Another BBC film, but good enough to track down when it gets the usual perfunctory cinema release that these things get.
< 3.15pm: Gojoe
Kyoto. The Dark Times. Two great warrior clans - the Genji and the Heike - are battling it out for possession. In the midst of all this turmoil stands Gojoe, the Hell Bridge, guarded by a demon who has pledged to take the souls of one thousand men. The monk Benkai (Ryu Daisuke) has been told in a vision that he must battle a demon - any demon, really - and the one at Gojoe seems to fit the bill nicely. Except he quickly finds out that it's not a real demon at all: rather it's Prince Shanao of the Genji (Tadanobu Asano), who's using the Gojoe legend to stir up fear and help his own plans for power...
Gojoe is an intensely moral film, which is what posh critics say when they mean violent as fuck. The action scenes are staggering, played as huge impressionistic blurs of flying metal, limbs and haemoglobin. The style is more suitable here than it was in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, as the battles are more about conveying an impression of limitless carnage rather than personal conflict. (Although it's difficult to see why the soldiers here even bother to put on armour, given their tendency to come to pieces at a single stroke of a sword.)
Director Sogo Ishii is only really known over here for his 1984 film Crazy Family, a domestic black comedy that gives no indication of the extraordinarily rich visuals he pulls off here. The look is incredibly reminiscent of the Hong Kong sword 'n' sorcery flicks of the late 1980s, with moonlit forests, glowing fires and huge foaming geysers of arterial blood battling it out for screen space. A shot of the Gojoe bridge illuminated by hundreds of flaming arrows is an early highlight, but this film literally has visual style to burn.
In case I've made this sound like 135 minutes of pure violence, I should point out that Ishii is infinitely more subtle than that. In the traditional Japanese style, the scenes of wanton destruction are carefully balanced by long periods of quiet and meditation. The same goes for the soundtrack: one of the most in-your-face surround sound mixes I've ever heard, but it uses total silence to devastating effect. It's most notable in the aftermath of the penultimate battle, in which it seems that virtually all trace of hope on the planet has been destroyed.
In the end, this is what Gladiator should have been like: an epic struggle between good and evil boiled down to a one-on-one conflict between two men that's endlessly deferred until the final reel. But where Gladiator's climax couldn't live up to its buildup, Gojoe's effortlessly tops everything that's come before: which, considering how over the top the previous two hours have been, is no mean feat. With just over 24 hours of the Festival left, my personal Best Film award is pretty much in the bag.
8.30pm: The Weight Of Water
Just over a century ago, Maren and John Hondvedt (Sarah Polley and Ulrich Thomsen) emigrate from Norway to start up a new life on Smuttynose Island, New Hampshire. They soon acquire a permanent set of housepests: Maren's sister Karen and brother Evan, Evan's wife Anethe, and John's friend Louis Wagner. One night Karen and Anethe are brutally murdered: Wagner ends up hanging for the crime, but there's always been uncertainty about who was really responsible. In the present day, photographer Jean Janes (Catherine McCormack) travels to Smuttynose with her husband Thomas (Sean Penn), her brother Rich (Josh Lucas) and his new girlfriend Adaline (Elizabeth Hurley), in an attempt to uncover the truth.
Director Kathryn Bigelow's been incredibly quiet since her 1995 film Strange Days. Most of that time was spent trying to get her Joan Of Arc project off the ground, only to see Luc Besson beat her to it. Her first film in five years eschews her usual visceral action, apart from the physical and emotional storms of the climax. It's a brave attempt to do something different, but it doesn't quite work. The problem is with the twinned time structure of the film (and presumably of Anita Shreve's source novel). Bigelow handles the switching from past to present and back again magnificently (and without the usual cues to ease us between them), but you spend most of the picture trying to work out how the two strands will meet: either the past story will be finally explained from a modern perspective, or the present story will end up mirroring the past. Eventually at least one of these happens, but the climax is so determined not to look like narrative manipulation that it's almost over before you realise what's meant to be happening.
The other problem comes with casting Elizabeth Hurley in a key role. Not that I'm saying she can't act, mind: what I'm saying is that her public persona has become so established that you can't see past it any more. With any other actress in what initially appears to be a superficial bimbo role, you'd just think "oh, it's a superficial bimbo" and accept it: with Liz Hurley, you think "oh, it's Liz Hurley" and never stop thinking that. Which kind of spoils it when she turns out to have a more significant part in the story than you first thought, because you still keep thinking of her as Liz Hurley rather than the character. Everyone else is just fine, with McCormack and Polley particular standouts as the leads in the two strands. But the past and present stories never really tie together or comment on each other in a satisfying fashion, and basically the whole film's like that: lots of good individual elements, but a somewhat disappointing whole.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Old Lag - Like Father is a film about ex-miners in the North East, made by the Amber film co-operative and partly financed by BBC films. It explored in particular the lives of three generations of men - the youngest still at school - but mainly of how his father the 40 year old Joe and his wife made ends meet in the post mine world. A constant theme, his musical abilities particularly in connection with brass bands. One of the main plot ideas was the removal of the old men's allotments and pigeon lofts on a strip of land facing out to sea for an undisclosed property development. The coast line in Northumbria is exceedingly beautiful but hardly developed, I guess because it is too cold to become a massive tourist area. In exploring all this the film does meander in a slow fashion but not such that it becomes boring. It was described as a side product of co-operative film making in that too much was perhaps made of each individual's lives. The film was described as work in progress so it could be tightened up. It did not suffer from having been filmed on video and transferred to film. Completion of the sound track would also help.
Old Lag - A fascinating and enjoyable political thriller, that is the talk of the town in the US and is one of the few films I have read general coverage about before the festival. Script writer Rod Lurie introduced the film and he was a very effective anecdotalist, conveying amusing stories and a great deal of enthusiasm for the film. The movie pits a Democratic US president, played as a fun and politically confident dude by Jeff Bridges, and a female senator whom he wishes to promote to Vice President, as a swan song to his political career, against a republican congressional committee chairman. The latter materialised, much to everyone's surprise on reading the credits, to have been Gary Oldman disguised as a much older man. The committee has to ratify the vice president's promotion and aims to block it with a metaphorical knifing in the abdomen, with salacious photos from her past and her attitude to God, marriage and abortion. The female Senator makes a stand of no comment, it's my personal life, and refuses to fight back against the committee's accusations. She does this even though (as we find out later) she is both innocent and is given scurrilous information about the committee's chairman. In the end the president wheels, deals and outmanouvers both the opposition in his own party and that of the republican congressman. In the proceedings the female senator's leadership qualities, argued as being lacking, shine through and we are left to believe that she becomes vice president. Marked as a low budget movie it did not feel it and makes an interesting comparison with Like Father, reviewed elsewhere. Incidentally it was said that Gary Oldman's participation allowed the film to get adequate financing.
Old Lag - I'm quite convinced Spanky hasn't seen this one. Farewell, a life in a day and a day in the life of Bertolt Brecht, the world renowned communist playwright. A fictionalised account of the last day of Brecht's summer holiday of 1956 in the East German countryside. Here Brecht is holidaying with his long term partner Helli, her daughter, his ex (now old and alcoholic) mistress, his publishing companion (probably an ex-mistress), his new mistress, a young aloof actress in his Berlin Ensemble, and another lover and her husband the philosopher Henricht. Sounds like a good set up for some interesting dialogue doesn't it? You can read it a number of ways: one is a fictionalised study of a visionary playwright who is flawed and the impact, use of and damage to the people around him portrayed in a fairly oblique fashion. In truth Brecht dies 3 days later, Henricht is arrested at the end of the day to serve 10 years in jail, for being involved in the idea of overthrowing the head of state. Helli his tough life partner carries on running his acting troupe until 1971 when she dies. The question time, unlike most at the film festival, was marked by some very interesting discussion by an older and knowledgable crowd. At the point when a Brechtian actress described the film as bourgeois for a bourgeois audience, the Lagster had to shoot off to hit last orders. V. interesting film.
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