Reviewed today: Angosto, Container, The Missing Star, Nuggets (including Bent Double, Blood And Chips, Broadcast 23, Close + Low, The Clown Children, Deadly Tantrum, East Side Story, Goggles, Hombre Kabuki, Julie - A Love Story, A Look At Cook, The Rhythm Of Youth, There's A Flower In My Pedal, Walkman, We Are The Faithful, Zuly), Primo Levi's Journey.
3.30pm: The Missing Star
The Chinese are coming. They've bought the blast furnace from an Italian steel mill, ripped the whole thing out and shipped it back to their own country. But maintenance engineer Vincenzo (Sergio Castellitto) knows there's a problem: a mechanical fault in the furnace that could cause a serious injury. So, entirely off his own bat, he heads off to China to warn everyone about it. His only real contact there is Hua (Tai Ling), the young Chinese translator he managed to get sacked during the original deal in Italy.
There are definitely things to like about Gianni Amelio's film. It has a confident sense of the wild contrasts of China, from the high-rise glitz of Shanghai to the squalor of the small industrial towns. It avoids the usual fish-out-of-water cliches you'd get in a story like this, showing Vincenzo as a savvy traveller who engages with his new surroundings to such a level that his limited language skills aren't an insurmountable problem. And there are fine performances from both leads, with newcomer Tai Ling particularly impressive.
But there's a huge gaping hole at the centre of the film where Vincenzo's actual character should be. We follow him all the way across China as he tries to solve this problem only he seems to know about, and never once find out what's motivating him to do this. In fact, we never find out anything about him at all, other than his need to solve this problem. At one point Hua observes that Vincenzo has nobody back home he can phone with news, but it's never brought up again. And his need to complete his quest on his own, even when he's got a perfectly willing guide with him, goes unexplained as well. By the end, you're struggling to make up your own reasons for his trip to China - I wondered if he was bringing the Chinese buyers a duff version of the wonky blast furnace part as revenge for their shutting down the Italian steel mill.
Is Vincenzo's total lack of visible motivation the point of the film, somehow? It's hard to say: and it's that absence that makes The Missing Star such a frustrating experience, despite its good points.
Lukas Moodysson, the story so far. 1999: Show Me Love, a delightful story of teenage girls in love. 2000: Together, an even more delightful study of life in a seventies commune. 2002: Lilya 4-Ever, a grim but fascinating look at the child sex trade. 2004: A Hole In My Heart, an almost unwatchable mash-up of porn, vomiting and genital mutilation. It does make you wonder what happened to Moodysson between 2000 and 2002 that suddenly turned him into such a grim filmmaker. The only thing I can think of is that The Belated Birthday Girl and I started going out in 2001, and that's somehow depressed him. I suggested this to The BBG and she said, "yes, I'm sure you're right, nothing else depressing happened in 2001 at all," so I think I'm on to something here.
Container does nothing to suggest that Moodysson has perked up at all. It has two actors - Peter Lorentzon (male, fat, frequently in drag) and Mariha Aberg (female, oriental) - and follows them around in a series of disjointed, grainy black and white images. Meanwhile, Jena Malone reads a poetic voiceover narration in a high-pitched wispy monotone: it may be the voice of the man, or the woman, or Malone herself, or a child waiting to be born, or a celebrity news junkie, or someone who can't filter all the input the world throws at them. Or something else.
The visuals are a massively dated, 1960s idea of what experimental filmmaking is like: a throwback to the days when you could just take two performers out onto a set, ask the man to fight his way out of a duvet cover and the woman to run her hands through a bathtub full of ravioli, and assume that the mere act of filming this would turn it into art. (I haven't made those examples up, by the way, they're in the film.) Meanwhile, the narration purports to be humourous, but the only real laughs come from the constant surreal references to celebrity culture: whether it's Brad Pitt dumping Jennifer Aniston "because she's not Rachel any more," or Malone wondering out loud how Britney Spears can fit the whole of Romania inside her.
The narration is possibly the most distinctive element of Container, and at the very least turns it into a hypnotic experience. Prior to this screening, Moodysson suggests that drifting in and out of sleep during the film may even improve it. It's an interesting theory: after all, that's how I managed to get into some sort of psychedelic headspace during last year's Ten Skies. So around halfway through, when I realise that Container isn't working for me, I try to doze off to see if that helps. It doesn't, because every time I'm close to sleeping I'm woken up by the sound of another seat tipping up and someone else noisily walking out of the cinema.
Moodysson, frustratingly, is charm itself in the post-screening Q&A, and tries to reassure us that his next film will be a more conventional narrative. Well, he's going to have to work hard to get me along to it. A Hole In My Heart at least took you to places you'd never been before, even though you didn't particularly want to go there: Container's retro avant-garde stylings just count as another step backwards in his career.
Short film programmes are always tricky sods to review, and this one may be even trickier than usual, given that there are sixteen shorts crammed into under two hours. The original brief for Nuggets, apparently, was to focus on shorts with tiny budgets: this gradually got broadened to include films that are physically tiny, no more than a couple of minutes long. The resulting programme mixes up both types of shorts, but at least sorts them into a series of thematic strands which could help with the paragraph breaks.
Colin Mowbray's East Side Story makes for a fun opener, mainly because it shows the filmmaking process impinging onto real life as a New York date is continually hijacked by a mysterious director. It's followed by a couple of wee dramas, each the length of a pop single: Ryan Phillips' Blood And Chips is an interesting vignette about racial tensions built and defused in a chip shop, while Anton Short's Bent Double is a charming three-scene poem about an old woman's relationship with her surroundings.
A trio of horror shorts follows. Tom Putnam's Broadcast 23 provides a somewhat painful spin on the scientists-menaced-by-the-monster-they're-investigating genre. David Cave's Julie - A Love Story tries to conceal its true nature until its very end, but is undone by the film festival habit of the audience clapping as soon as the credits start, only to find that the punchline hasn't happened yet. The best of the three is Mike Mort's Deadly Tantrum, which eschews luxuries like setting up the story in favour of a hilarious violent setpiece, shot and edited with an energy that recalls early Peter Jackson.
Three rather fine conventionally dramatic shorts follow - Leo Age's Hombre Kabuki, a beautifully crafted sequence of sexual power games involving a boy, a girl and a Mexican wrestling mask: Alexandra McGuinness' Walkman, a charming Irish romance conducted with personal stereo equipment: and Jeff Winch's Close + Low, in which a man reflects on the importance of his dog in his life. Then comes the odd one out: Dean Armstrong's A Look At Cook, ostensibly a travelogue of Captain Cook's home in Whitby, actually a glorious piece of amateur silliness. It would be moderately amusing when linked to from B3TA, but somehow becomes even funnier by being stuck in the middle of a series of more professional films.
Next comes a documentary section, which may well be the most consistent part of the evening. Jannicke Systad Jacobsen's The Clown Children is a sensitive study of street kids who've found an entertaining method for getting money out of drivers waiting at red lights. Brendon Foster-Algoo's The Rhythm Of Youth has the rough edges you'd expect from a student project, but is a nice portrait of an eleven-year-old rock drummer whose band colleagues are all at least ten years older than he is. But the absolute highlight of the whole programme is Michael Koch's We Are The Faithful, which trains two cameras on the crowd at an FC Basel game, as a wildly enthusiastic fan with a megaphone leads them in terrace classics like We Hate FC Zurich And Wish Them Dead.
We Are The Faithful's raw energy is a hard act to follow, and the programme drifts to a slightly disappointing close with three bits of whimsical heart-warming fluff - Olivia Peniston-Bird's kiddy conflict drama Goggles, Andrea Dorfman's illustrated poem There's a Flower In My Pedal, and the frustrated romance of Jean-Philippe Tremblay's Zuly. But despite the weak ending, this is an entertaining mix of genres and styles, featuring at least a couple of names to look out for in the future.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Primo Levi's Journey
Suzanne Vega Fanclub - Do any of you recall the Seventies ITV 26 part Jeremy Isaccs epic: The World At War? Well not only can I recall it, I can near recite it verbatim, given the amount of times I have seen it, as it made its travels over the last three decades through BBC2, Channel 4, and currently UKTV History. Anyway for me perhaps the saddest anti war episode of all (in the ultimate anti war series) is part 26. Thus with hostilities over, we see literally millions of people trudging past each other on the roads of Europe, trying to return to nations and homes that in many cases no longer exist. Not just refugees, but also former combatants who only a few weeks prior would have been trying to blow each others' heads off.
Primo Levi (whom I must admit before this film I knew nothing of) was just one of those milions, as he tried to get back to his home town of Turin, from the hell of Auschwitz. His journey taking something of a zig zag direction (given Europe's smashed rail network, and the fact that the military had all the diesel) through the Soviet Union, Poland, Romania, Austria, (West) Germany and finally Italy. This journey was later documented in The Truce. What director Davide Ferrario does in this film is both retrace that journey using Levi's own narrative, as well as examine those places (many like Moldovia and the Ukraine that are no longer part of the old Soviet Union) in their present cultural climate. Thus as a project the aims are indeed laudable, in execution however I just do not feel it works.
Firstly I never really got to grips with Levi's journey and experiences, given the film's continual jumpcutting into the present day. Even more irritating, I always kept finding myself being surprised when it turned out to be back onto Levi's words, as the film narrative seemed to be one continual commentary from the same voice. For me Levi's journey should have been the whole film, and just forget about the present day.
Unfortunately however the director couldn't, so what did we learn about Eastern Europe today as is? Well, that the stain of both the Second World War and the Communist bloc still hangs heavy on those living there. Well maybe, but then perhaps maybe not. For me this had everything to do with the age of the director, and what he had decided to go looking for before he had even got there. For example if you sent my mother to Ireland with a film crew, she would come back with a film about the Old Ireland of her childhood, which would have next to nothing to do with that country in its present form. Ditto in this case the director, who was looking to recreate the Europe of Levi's time in the present. The sheer bankruptcy of this approach was highlighted when he got to Germany, and could only represent 60+ years of one of Europe's leading federal democracies by digging up a handful of shouting Neo-Nazis (no wonder he had to cut the camera shot real close). This being much to the chagrin of a young German (I'm good with accents) member of the audience, who asked him was that the only thing he could come up with to represent Germany.
What was even worse however, was that the director had by that point long since decided to go off on a journey of his own, most notably through the Ukraine. In fact I can see the conversation now, as someone tells Primo Levi some sixty years back: "Don't forget to remember and write about this particular bit of barren wasteland in your journey memoirs. Because when nuclear power is invented, we are going to build a power station called Chernobyl here, and a new town called Pripyat to house all its workers."
So basically the whole project was a mess to the extent that by the time it finished, I couldn't even remember whether Primo Levi had finally got back to Turin, and what sort of Italy he had found when he got there. Instead we were served some pointless dwelling on his suicide some four decades later.
A missed opportunity.
The Belated Birthday Girl - This complex Spanish thriller, from first time writer/director Jorge Sánchez-Cabezudo is very difficult to write about, as it is the sort of film which it is best to see with little foreknowledge. Set in a remote and dying rural community, it is a film about hopes, violence, revenge, dilemmas. Told in non-linear fashion, we see a fateful couple of days in the village of Angosto and its surrounds, when the discovery of a cave leads some potholers from the city to visit. We see the events which unfold from the specific points of view of the different groups of people involved, each given its own section in the film, overlapping and building up to complete the picture. But each section makes narrative sense: this is not a jigsaw puzzle, but is more of a musical fugue structure, with each new theme filling in spaces left by the last and then carrying on for itself.
The performances are all solid, and the cinematography gives a sense of a beautiful but declining Spanish countryside. The portrayal of these lives, showing the boredom and restlessness, touched by the fear of loss, is utterly convincing. The overall mood is one of suspense, but there are disruptive moments of shocking brutality, and also at times gentle comedy, at other times sadness. And at the heart, the story does pose questions about how people behave in extreme circumstances.
The director introduced the film by saying that he didn't want to say much, as he hoped the film would surprise us. I'm trying not to say too much either, as I would hope to keep those surprises for any of you who get to see this, too.