12.30pm: Black Book
On the day when the LFF is more or less brought to a standstill by a tv spinoff movie, it'd be nice to report that Paul Verhoven's adaptation of Dylan Moran and Bill Bailey's sitcom lives up to expectations. And it does, by not having anything to do with it. Black Book is, in fact, Vehoeven's return to his native Netherlands after two decades or so of working in Hollywood. Set in occupied Holland in 1944, it follows the story of Rachel Steinn (Carice von Houten), a young Jewish woman hiding out from the Nazis in an array of other people's houses. When one too many of those houses gets blown up, she starts a new life working with the Dutch Resistance: pretty soon she's snuggling up with German officer Muntze (Sebastian Koch), wheedling information out of him using the oldest espionage method known to woman. It's a strategy which opens her up to all sorts of dangers, and not just from the enemy.
Verhoeven films tend to be either terrific or hellish, with nothing in between: happily, Black Book falls firmly into the former category. All the gloss and sheen that he's picked up from 20 years of working in Hollywood is visible in the glorious look of the film, but it's allied to an intricately structured script (by Verhoeven and Gerard Soeteman) which scrupulously ensures that every setup has a payoff later down the line, even if it's just a variant on the old is-that-a-gun-in-your-pocket routine. Verhoeven's usual attention to detail in the sex and violence departments is in evidence, of course, with the action scenes being particularly gripping. However, they're in service of a beautifully acted story, with von Houten and Koch's confused relationship being utterly convincing.
It's a very old fashioned war movie, from its vibrant use of colour to a sturdy orchestral score by Anne Dudley from Art Of Noise. The old people in the audience seemed to lap it up, which amuses me given the horrors Verhoeven has inflicted on cinemagoers in the past: but this is a fine piece of craft that everyone can enjoy.
4.00pm: The Caiman
The first mention of Italian writer/director Nanni Moretti in these LFF reports was in 1998, with his semi-documentary film Aprile. That film opens with Silvio Berlusconi being elected to power, and Moretti smoking his first joint in an attempt to get over it. Eight years later, he tackles the subject of Berlusconi a little more directly. But only a little.
The Caiman is the story of film producer Bruno Bonomo (Silvio Orlando), described as "the man who revitalised genre cinema years before Quentin Tarantino." He hasn't made a film for about a decade, content to just introduce revivals of his cheesy revenge flicks. At one of these revivals he's handed a script by young writer/director Teresa (Jasmine Trinca). Bonomo's going through a separation from his wife Paola (Margherita Buy), and looking for a new project to occupy his mind, so he offers to produce Teresa's script after only reading a few pages. Too late, he realises what he's committed himself to: a political film that explicitly condemns Berlusconi.
As was pointed out in the Q&A afterwards, Teresa's film is just about Berlusconi, but Moretti's is about more than that. There are several layers here - Bonomo's struggle to get the film off the ground, his parallel struggle to keep his family together, and then on top of that comes all the stuff about Italy's famously bent PM. I can appreciate what Moretti's trying to do, but I don't think it all coheres successfully: in particular, there's a somewhat dull middle section that focusses more on Bonomo's midlife crisis at the expense of the other strands. But outside that midsection, there are a lot of funny and touching moments, including a rather sweet scene that's (somehow) a car chase set to a Damien Rice song.
And when the film actually gets its teeth into the reptile of its title, it doesn't let go, and may even have contributed to Berlusconi's fall from power earlier this year. As a film, it's a bit of a dip from the glories of 2001's The Son's Room: but all the things we know and love of Moretti's cinema are present and correct, from his casual referencing of current films he likes, to his affection for all his characters, no matter how flawed they are. Well, maybe all his characters except one.
6.30pm: Paul Verhoeven Masterclass
As mentioned earlier, Black Book is Paul Verhoeven's return to Holland after a couple of decades away in Hollywood. Jason Solomons' interview takes the chronological approach you'd expect to his career, after a quick look at why the director chose to work in Holland again after so long. As Verhoeven's so scrupulously honest, he's happy to admit that it's partly because things haven't been going that well for him in America over the last few years: during a discussion of favourite music scores, he casually mentions that the music for Hollow Man "is as good as the movie is. Sorry, guys." Black Book was an idea that he'd been playing with for the best part of two decades, but he couldn't make the story work until he came up with the idea of making the protagonist a woman.
Verhoeven could have ended up working as a maths professor: but after a couple of years in the Navy and some time in their film department, he realised he'd rather be a director instead. In the early days, he worked on documentaries and TV drama: amusingly, he stirred up early controversy with a version of Ivanhoe for children's television, which had a few too many torture scenes for parents' liking. He directed a series of sexual melodramas which made his reputation in Holland, but when Spetters crossed too many lines he fell out of favour again. Hollywood had been knocking on his door ever since his 1978 war movie Soldier Of Orange, so he took the brave step (at the age of 47) of uprooting his family and starting a new life in an entirely different culture.
In fact, Verhoeven insists that the move to Hollywood wasn't such a culture shock: he primarily worked outside the studio system with small indies like Orion and Carolco, most of his contacts were European (including Arnold Schwartzenegger, who personally chose him to direct Total Recall), and he quickly found out that whatever you needed, there was a professional available on hand to help you. The Belated Birthday Girl is surprised that after working in America so long, Verhoeven still has an incredibly strong Dutch accent: but I suspect it's partly him playing up to the Mad European Director stereotype, and makes it all the more amusing when he SHOUTS anecdotes about a girl he once saw at a PARTY who displayed her VAGINA the way Sharon Stone would later do in Basic Instinct.
Verhoeven's had his ups and downs over the years: and even though Solomons pointedly misses out Showgirls and Hollow Man in his chronological study, the director is happy to admit when things have worked and things haven't. He seems to be happy at the moment, with an excellent war film under his belt and a book on Christ in the pipeline. ("It was going to be a film, but people warned me that the Americans would kill me.") I always like the way the LFF Masterclass sessions highlight filmmakers who've got a lot to say about the craft, and Verhoeven fits the bill very nicely indeed.
It's Japan in the early 18th century. We're in a small Edo village where the art of swordplay has more or less died out completely: it's become a favourite resting place for samurai with nothing to do any more. One of these is Aoki Souzaemon (Junichi Okada), a reasonably smart kid who tries to help out the villagers by teaching them to read and write. However, he has an ulterior motive: he's looking for the guy who killed his dad, and is waiting for the killer to pass through the village. There's going to be a problem when that confrontation eventually happens, though, because Aoki is shit at fighting.
Like The Big Country, Hana is an anti-revenge movie, pointing out the futility of violence as a means of resolving conflicts. However, it uses comedy and mild ridicule to make its point, rather than melodrama. It's rare to see the samurai culture treated with this level of disrespect, and that makes the film all the funnier - and a real surprise that it comes from director Kore-eda Hirozaku, whose previous film was the somewhat grim abandoned child drama Nobody Knows. A huge cast of familiar faces from all walks of Japanese cinema - Rie Miyazawa from Tony Takitani, Susumu Terajima from Takeshi Kitano's rep company, Tadanobu Asano from everything - are all enjoying themselves immensely, and that enjoyment transmits to the viewer as well.
There's no sign of a British distributor for Hana as yet, but I'd imagine someone should pick it up soon off the back of Kore-eda's reputation. I hope they do: it's very different from any of the director's other films, but is hugely charming while getting a quietly understated message across. It's well worth catching.
Notes From Spank's Pals
The Year After
The Cineaste - Generally speaking, I’m pretty impressed with the way the BFI organise the LFF. The huge numbers of films to be screened, the other events, the talks, the visiting directors, actors and other bigwigs – it must be a huge logistical nightmare which they manage to pull off pretty smoothly. The one thing I find utterly perplexing is their policy on venues – for reasons best known to themselves the BFI chose a fair number of minor, out-of-the-way cinemas which don’t exactly align with the theme of a major international festival, many of them showing a tiny number of films. Of the various venues in use this LFF, six show exactly two films each. And if that wasn’t bizarre enough, even more extraordinarily baffling is the choice of the David Lean cinema – because (a) it’s about the size of your average garden shed, and (b) it isn’t even situated in London (as one of Spank’s Pals who knows the area well will tell you, Croydon is in Surrey).
The Year After is a calm assured look at a teenager with a bit of a crisis for a family. Her very ill dad (who she’s very close to) dies early on in the film, and Manu (very wonderfully and confidently played by Anais Demoustier – look out for her in the future) has to face up to a rather difficult relationship with her mum (Ariane Ascaride, whose face was immediately familiar but I can’t recall where from), and who herself is a little insecure and unsure of her life. So far so straightforward, but what really makes this film a captivating piece is the lack of dialogue or music for effect, so often the viewer is left to fill in what Manu may (or must) be thinking and feeling. In some situations this might simply be poor or lazy film-making, but here it is stunningly effective and brilliantly done. We get little hints of plots/action – her mum’s desire to move house, the estate agent, Manu’s college friend Anais, her am-dram teacher she babysits for - and lots of the rest the viewer is invited to fill in for himself. After a while you can’t help think there must be a simmering volcano of hopes, anxieties, fears and frustrations knocking around inside Manu’s head.
The one criticism I have is that the film doesn’t really build to a natural impactful climax, so the denouement is rather disappointingly weak and open-ended, but then maybe that’s just missing the whole point. The whole film is a brilliantly understated character study which lets the silences do the talking. Isabelle Czajka is a director to look out for in future.
The Missing Star
Suzanne Vega Fanclub - I have finally cracked this whole reviewing lark. Rather than have all that bother of remembering names (or even plots for that matter), let Spank do his first, reorganise the words a bit, and 'Wallah'. It worked for Primo Levi, and now I can do the same with The Missing Star. Obviously if I had adopted this policy earlier, I wouldn't still be smarting over The BBG remembering all the names of those Coffee cartel (is that a flavour) sorts in her review of Black Gold. [Actually, she nicked them all from here - Spank]
So moving onto The Missing Star, it's a case of 'yea like what he said'.
So rather than my standard review, a few additional points instead (almost like a companion piece to Spank's, a sort of gobbledygook DVD extra):
1) I never quite got how Vincenzo managed to meet up with Hua again in China, if she had been sacked? I guess it's one of those small countries where you can just easily bump into people.
2) As Spank said, his reasons for being in China were a bit iffy. I mean who was paying for it all? Not only that, but having expected the film to climax with Vincenzo saving the furnace from a fatal blast, both he and the Chinese workers seemed completely non plussed once the vital metally thing was handed over.
3) Don't quite agree with Spank about avoiding the fish out of water cliches. I kept thinking Lost In Translation, until I remember Scarlett Johansson wasn't Japanese. As for his communication skills, they did seem to resemble the English abroad, namely shout loudly and point at bits of paper.
So what else did we learn. Well Shanghai is one of the world biggest building sites, with skyscapers a particular speciality, and that the Three Gorges Dam is going to displace a lot of people. That there are now many rich people in China with Western style lifestyles, and their is still much grinding poverty. Yet then we knew all that already. So as such it was a beautiful travelogue, about a country/continent about which we really know very little. Yet somehow it still managed to stay aloof to the extent that we could "look but not touch, touch but not taste, and taste but not inhale" (prizes supplied by Spank if you can say which Alan Packingno film that came from).
Perhaps if it hadn't been my fourth film in under 24 hours I could have got a little bit more from it, but I did think Hua was very nice.