12.30pm: Donnie Darko
Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is basically just your typical traumatised American teen, with the pyromaniac past and the medication and the therapy and everything. A recent development within his troubled psyche has been Frank, the monster who appears in his dreams and tells him that the world's going to end in a month's time. Fortunately for Donnie, while he's out on the streets sleepwalking, he misses the jet engine that falls out of the sky and crashes into his bedroom: this sets off a train of events that will totally change his life, and also ensures that this movie won't get released until memories of the Queens air crash are a little less fresh.
The best way to approach Donnie Darko, the debut film by writer/director Richard Kelly, is as a smart, dark variant on the US high school movie. It's got an interesting suspenseful feel as the countdown to Donnie's predicted apocalypse progresses, and some sweet jokes that come entirely out of nowhere. Jake Gyllenhaal effectively depicts the traumas familar to all adolescent males, and copes well with integrating the more surreal elements of the role. There are a couple of excellent star cameos - Drew Barrymore as the world's nicest English teacher, Patrick Swayze as a creepy self-help guru - and some rather cool musical montages, which seem to imply that Kelly has a fondness for 80s British pop.
However, Darko has a tone all of its own, and Kelly has some problems sustaining it from beginning to end. There are some bad judgement calls throughout the film, notably the ridiculous-looking monster that symbolises Donnie's deepest fears. Towards the end, as events get sillier and more melodramatic, the film starts to lose it badly, at one point even managing to work in the phrase 'porn dungeon' without giggling. But amazingly, Kelly turns it all around in the final reel, and manages to pull off an ending that completely redeems everything that precedes it. For that ending alone, he deserves to be looked out for in the future.
3.30pm: Sex And Lucia
Lorenzo (Tristán Ulloa) is a writer with the careless habit of drawing heavily on events from his life for his fiction. So when he has a night of fabulous no-strings sex with the mysterious Elena (Najwa Nimri) while on holiday, he ends up writing a book about it. Lucia (Paz Vega) reads this book, and becomes so obsessed with its author that she tracks down Lorenzo in Madrid and ends up moving in with him. But neither of them realise that Elena is also in Madrid, trying to track down the anonymous father of the child she conceived on her holiday. Confused? You haven't heard the half of it yet.
This is terrific stuff. Director Julio Medem has retreated from the slightly sterile cerebral world of his earlier Lovers Of The Arctic Circle. This is more hot-blooded and reminiscent of some of Pedro Almodovar's mid-period work like Matador: it's a dark, emotional farce with - yes, Monsieur le Cineaste - heaps of shagging, though not as much as the title may lead you to believe. As the central triangular relationship grows at least another three sides, Medem keeps the audience informed of all the complications as early as possible: and the joy of this movie is watching the agonisingly slow speed at which the characters themselves work out what's going on.
It's terrifically acted, beautifully shot (the burned-out look of Lorenzo's island hideaway is lovely) and written with all the twists and structural tricksiness you'd expect from Medem. In particular, given Lorenzo's occupation and the use of storytelling as a motif throughout, you're continually on your toes trying to work out how much of this stuff is actually happening anyway. An engrossing, intriguing, and (more as an afterthought) sexy movie.
6.30pm: The Lady And The Duke
Unfortunately I keep reading this title of this French Revolution movie as some sort of variation on The Lady And The Tramp. Keep doing that, and before too long you're going
She gets too hungry for dinner at eight
She loves the theatre but doesn't come late
She wants to keep France as a monarchist state
That's why the lady is a duke
Or is that just me?
In fact, the French title is L'Anglaise et le Duc: the Anglaise in question being the Englishwoman Grace Elliott (Lucy Russell), upon whose real-life memoirs the film is based. She lived in France throughout the period of the Revolution: early in her stay she had an affair with the Duke of Orleans (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), and despite their subsequent split they remain friends. She's an ardent royalist, he's a supporter of the Revolution, and the film charts how the nature of their friendship is tested to destruction by the events of the 1790s.
Most of the pre-publicity for this film is taken up with astonishment that 81-year-old director Eric Rohmer is still not dead, and that he's even taken to experimenting with digital filmmaking at this late stage in his illustrious career. However, it isn't quite the visual breakthrough that everyone makes it out to be. Rohmer's main trick here is to use paintings in the style of the period for the exterior shots, matteing his actors into them. In theory, the digital texture should give these shots the feel of living oil-on-canvas: in practice, the whole thing looks like a cheap children's fairytale adaptation, particularly in an early scene where Grace is on the run in a forest, carrying her basket like Little Red Riding Hood.
But Rohmer's work in all the other departments is as excellent as ever. His storytelling sense is faultless, giving a simple narrative line the strong treatment it deserves. It's a rare example of a tale of the Revolution told from the losing side, and even though the broken-backed structure causes it to lose a little momentum at the halfway stage, it picks up real power as it approaches the climax. The performances are all fine, with Lucy Russell doing a marvellous job as the spunky heroine. And who knows, maybe those digital exteriors may work for you after all. Give it a look.
9.00pm: Time Out
Vincent (Aurélien Recoing) has just lost his job, but is too scared to tell his already depressed wife (Karin Viard) and family about it. So he starts lying. Every day he leaves the house, potters round various service stations, and comes home at night claiming he's done a full day at the office. But obviously, this isn't bringing home the bacon. So the lies start getting bigger: a posting to Switzerland, a financial scheme involving various old acquaintances. All we can do is wait for the inevitable moment when Vincent's life will collapse in upon itself.
There's a lot to admire about Time Out, the latest feature from French director Laurent Cantet (previously best known for Human Resources). The initial premise is very intriguing, and carefully worked through in a non-sensational way (particularly when you hear about the pile of corpses that resulted from the real-life events which inspired the film). There's a nice subtext about how simple it is for Vincent to pull this off, especially the ease with which he walks into an office and pretends he's working there. There's a lovely string-driven score from Jocelyn Pook, and an excellent performance by Aurélien Recoing in the lead.
But in the end, the film's length works against it. It's two and a quarter hours long, and could easily have lost a third of that without breaking a sweat. The pace is just that bit too slow to sustain your attention throughout. Though I'm prepared to believe that the loss of attention might have had something to do with this being my fourth film of the day. Still: interesting, but flawed.
Notes From Spank's Pals
The Emperor's New Clothes
Old Lag - A disappointing British film based on a French novel. The plot is basically, Napoleon secretly leaves St Helena prison island leaving behind a lookalike. Both are played by Ian Holm. The lookalike fails to give up the game as he is enjoying himself so much, preventing the real Napoleon from revealing himself in Paris. When the lookalike dies it is treated by all concerned, to save their necks, as the real thing. We are led to believe that this forces the real Napoleon to give up any hope of returning to his previous station. Whilst all this has been going on, Napoleon in Paris has been reorganising his new partner's watermelon selling business on military lines, and having a Mills & Boon love affair where his partner will not acknowledge him to be Napoleon for the sake of her love. And that is it really. No humour in an odd predicament and a tale of failure in Paris that is difficult to believe.
The Cineaste - This is a bold film, set against the backdrop of the war in Croatia in the very early 90’s. Indeed the events in the war are so integral that the film credits emphasize the fact that it is only, and entirely, a fictional story, but with the war events enmeshed in it.
The title of the film refers to a Bolivian man, born of a Hungarian father. Chico’s father was a political agitator, so, when Allende’s government in neighbouring Chile is overthrown, Chico’s father is a targeted man. Chico wisely decides it is time to move away, and, armed with a Hungarian and Spanish as well as a Bolivian passport, he arrives in the country of his father’s birth.
We see him becoming disillusioned with Communism in Hungary – and arguing with his father over the phone about it – before he moves on to Albania, where he works as a reporter for a Spanish paper.
The film works well as it shows Chico in various situations which mould his political allegiance. He interviews a Catholic priest, who, without any bitterness, describes being tortured and underfed. Gradually Chico gathers a motley gaggle of a dozen or so people to help fight for Croatian independence.
The overall film is wonderfully done, with good use of imagery and music. One striking image was when Chico and his group, sheltering in a village, listen to the news on a radio and hear that Vukovar has fallen. The displaced locals are shown on the march, set against Verdi’s The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves.
The film was perhaps too ambitious, in that it mixed perhaps too much the scenes and story of the war into a fictionalised story. One moment it was fiction, the next very close to being a documentary. It was made in the style of a documentary (there were periodic voice-overs from Chico), and it would only have taken little amendment to make it very credible as a documentary.
You probably need to be in the right mood to see this film. After spending all the morning barely able to resist the temptation to throw my computer out of my window, I probably wasn’t. But I was still able to appreciate a bold and admirable film. Star rating: three.
Tribute To Pixar and John Lasseter Guardian Interview
Old Lag - John Lasseter is the creative head of Pixar Studios. Pixar Studios in conjunction with Walt Disney brought Toy Story 1 & 2 and A Bug's Life as high grossing movies to our screens. They were the first computer animated feature films to be made. Jonathan Ross had to ask very few questions as John Lasseter explained the history of Pixar, which is one version of the history of computer animated movies. The talk was ably demonstrated by clips from films. Having successfully produced some shorts such as Luxo Jnr in 1986, with Tin Toy and Knick Knack demonstrating the very latest techniques in computer animation, they came to believe that they could make a computer animated feature. This came about with Toy Story, released in 1995 to great acclaim and financial success. A totally creative endeavour from animation to storyline. John, a great talker (which probably helped get these projects off the ground), argued that the films always played to the strengths of the computer software. He also argued that the computer systems are only a tool for accomplishing an artistic vision, and that vision should always support the story. He also argues that his films will always be family entertainment in that they will make compelling viewing for adults as well as children. He also argued that the 2D animation that produced films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is not totally outmoded by computer 3D animation, as there are qualities of drawn animation that cannot be replicated by computers. They can also benefit by computer aided backgrounds. It is however, because of the pace of innovation of computers, a continually growing art. John himself fell in love with animation as a child and his career has been continually at the forefront of computer animation, latterly as a director or supervising director. A very interesting lecture.
Old Lag - Monsters, Inc. from Pixar studios is probably the biggest movie to go through the London Film Festival, if it emulates the popularity of the Toy Story films and A Bug's Life. It had its European premier here and will be released within two weeks of Harry Potter. Essentially a buddy movie between the two main characters, it takes place in a factory where by ingenious means the monsters pass through doors into children's bedrooms, where the children's screams are transferred into a storable source of energy. The children are not always afraid of course, which results in failure: and we are led to believe that the monsters themselves are scared of the children. It is an exercise in flights of fantasy with a baddy and a benevolent boss fighting and aiding our dynamic duo, who to us are amusing but not scary. It was enjoyable enough, but did not really grab me or excite me other than some of the big screen effects. The film was very busy with lots of activity in every scene, which can either be annoying or a source of interest, dependent on your viewpoint or if you want to watch it several times. A so so movie.
The Cineaste - Having booked my ticket independently, on the day, it was a pleasant surprise to find Spank and some of his pals in the row right behind me.
Director Laurent Cantet is obviously a man interested in work-related issues. Not in the banal and crass way that current British TV comedies reflect office situations, but how we value our work as a reflection of our status. His first film Human Resources looked at issues of coping with redundancy; Time Out, from a different angle, looks at a man’s struggle whilst he isn’t working.
The film starts with Vincent on the phone to his wife. He’s away from home, and explains that he’s caught up with business meetings etc, and he won’t be able to get back home until tomorrow. Only this isn’t the case at all: it’s all a sham. He isn’t working, he’s sitting in public parks reading the newspaper, sleeping in his car at night. His wife, a teacher, has an open day at school. When Vincent turns up, his wife’s colleagues are interested in this new position which Vincent has hinted at, and he’s obliged to explain to his wife that he needs to go to Geneva to sort out the contractual details.
The film develops from here, showing Vincent’s efforts to maintain a plausible front that he’s got a prestigious position with the UN in Geneva. Without overstating the case, this was compelling stuff. Cantet has gone on record as saying that he’s fascinated with the machinations of (especially large) offices. What goes on in them? Vincent drives to Geneva, and driving around the city, he sees a large office block. He walks in, wanders around, and eavesdrops on a meeting about investments and developments in African countries. These “developments” then become the basis of his “new position”. The film unravels as an intriguing exercise in deception. Vincent persuades his father to give/lend him 200,000 francs for a flat in Geneva; he persuades his friends to invest varying sums of money in the African developments; by a chance meeting he becomes involved with a slightly shady salesman.
The acting was very convincing. The deception was finely stated – clear, but never overdone. The film perhaps lacked a convincing denouement (maybe Cantet was a little unsure how to end it), but overall it was a sharp comment on how we place a lot of weight on our job when we assess our worth in society. Star rating: three-and-a-half.
Go For Broke
Old Lag - Go for Broke was an interesting mainland Chinese, low budget documentary based in Shanghai. It dealt with a group of people with the interesting Chinese problem of having been laid off work from state controlled industries and finding work in new and private businesses. The business in this case was a DIY shop that also remodelled flat interiors for private customers. Interestingly people not only found a job with the group but invested their savings in the enterprise as well. Certain Chinese preoccupations were highlighted, perhaps even stereotypically. Although there was a entrepreneur leading the group, he continually sought consensus among the people working for him. There were a lot of communal meals and gambling was shown to be a major preoccupation, particularly the state health lottery where the group won a significant prize - again communally. All set against a background of high rise business Shanghai. The film was a handheld video production with the real life people acting themselves in the history of the company. It is difficult to tell whether this film was ment to be an educational or a propaganda piece. Twice, The Red Star was sung on film with particular reference to premier Deng's financial liberation. Certainly it covered what must be a common and relevant problem in China, as it moves from a state controlled economy to a private finance one.
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