Reviewed today: Before Midnight, Honeydripper, No Country For Old Men, Now Wait For Last Year, The Substitute.
1.00pm: Honeydripper (official site)
You've got to feel sorry for Ben Affleck, really. He was all geared up to make a major splash at this year's LFF, with his directorial debut Gone Baby Gone lined up for a Gala screening and the man himself giving a Screen Talk. And then somebody realises that his film's about a missing little girl and her
obviously guil suspicious parents, and decides that this might be a bad time to show the film in the UK. So, no movie, and no Affleck. But on the upside, we get a couple of late additions to the programme to fill in the gaps, and John Sayles' newie is one of them.
We're in Alabama in the 1950s, where two nightclubs exist just next door to each other in the town of Harmony. Toussaint's place has a cranked-up jukebox and customers by the dozen: but the Honeydripper, owned by Tyrone Purvis (Danny Glover), has a malfunctioning power supply, music supplied by an old biddy who's on her last legs, and no more than two or three drunks propping up the bar at any one time. With people sniffing around the place looking to buy up his livelihood, Purvis decides to make one last stand, hiring popular New Orleans musician Guitar Sam to bring the crowds in. Meanwhile, in a wholly unrelated development, young guitarist Sonny Blake (Gary Clark Jr.) has wandered into town looking for work.
There's really no point in telling you any more about the plot, is there? From that previous paragraph, you could probably make a decent stab at guessing every major story development up to the end. But the interesting thing is this: it doesn't matter. Even though Honeydripper doesn't do anything we haven't seen before, it does it incredibly well. For a film that's so heavily based around music, the best comparison I've been able to come up with is the twelve-bar blues: you know exactly where the changes are going to come, but it doesn't mean that you can't still enjoy it if the feeling's right.
Sayles definitely gets the feeling right here. His script has his usual mixture of sympathetically drawn characters and wry humour, and the cast does it proud. It never tries to be preachy about the topic of race, just showing people getting on with their lives as best they can. And, crucially, the music is mighty fine - though you have to wait so long for Sonny to finally plug in his axe, that you do wonder briefly if there's a nasty surprise in store. But it's not that kind of movie. If you want to hear for yourself what the Honeydripper house band sounds like, they've got some clips on the Emerging Pictures YouTube page.
3.45pm: Now Wait For Last Year
Yesterday we saw Capitalism: Child Labor, the first of two installation films playing all day in the new BFI Southbank Studio. Today's installation is by Rachel Reupke, and is less likely to blow out your retinas. Inspired by the architects' billboards you see in front of building sites showing what the finished project will look like, she's created a fantasy version of Beijing. Shots of the city have been digitally messed around with to include futuristic gaudy buildings, standing in the middle of congested streets or on the slummier corners of town.
Obviously, the contrasts are what this film is about: the contrast between the sci-fi architecture and the contemporary surroundings, or the contrast between the realism of the streets and the self-aware fakery of the additions (notably in the opening image shown above, where the backdrop of cheesy sunset and flying birds has the deliberate look of a kitsch painting). But to me, they're not particularly interesting contrasts.
And there's one other problem with showing this in a cinema rather than an art gallery - it ensures that the audience will be made up of cinephiles rather than art lovers. The art lovers will doubtless be considering the subtext of Reupke's images, while the cinephiles (if they're anything like me) won't be able to get over the fact that her matte lines are so shoddily visible. At least Capitalism: Child Labor had kineticism in its favour: Now Wait For Last Year does so little with the idea of its images being moving ones, it makes you wonder why it isn't just a series of pictures hung in a room.
4.00pm: Before Midnight (official site)
When I wrote about the new facilities within BFI Southbank earlier this year, I mentioned the delights of the Mediatheque: a room full of viewing stations allowing you access to huge amounts of footage from the BFI archives, all for free. As a tie-in with the Closing Gala screening of The Darjeeling Limited (which we haven't got tickets for), the Festival has suggested that viewers check out this collection of films covering the whole of 20th century India. And with two hours to kill owing to Robert Rodriguez cancelling his Screen Talk, it seemed like a good idea.
In fact, Before Midnight hasn't been explicitly programmed for the Festival - it's a collection that's been in the Mediatheque for a few months now, tying in with the recent celebrations of the 60th anniversary of India's independence. But they recommend A Foot-Hill Town as a good entry point into the collection, seeing as it's actually set in Darjeeling. It's a nine-minute travelogue from 1937, showing off the scenery, railway, and tea-picking. From there it's a short hop to a similar film, Gardens Of The Orient, which even uses some of the same footage in its depictions of the tea-growing communities, enhanced by the first in a series of deeply condescending English voiceovers.
Having watched those, plus a home movie (Southern India - Tobacco Area) which takes a less sanitised view of the agricultural processes, we start looking for a more structured path through the material. After all, Before Midnight consists of 80-odd bits of film, from one-minute fragments to all 13 hours of the TV serial The Jewel In The Crown. As they're listed chronologically in the on-screen search, we start picking out interesting-looking films in date order. For example, the 1899 Panorama Of Calcutta is the earliest Indian footage they have, a simple tracking shot from a boat showing the ghats of Calcutta (though the BFI appears to be having a little trouble confirming the location).
Most of the footage from the early part of the 20th century comes from silent travelogues, or whatever fragments survive of them. Cinghalese Dances and Sword Dance Performed Before The King And Queen In India do pretty much what they say on the tin, with The Wonderful Fruit Of The Tropics having the added bonus of a stencilled tint job, with sections of every frame literally coloured in by hand. In contrast from the same period, we have the rather dull Calcutta School Of Tropical Medicine Film (which is little more than an illustrated lecture on the disease kala azar), and the dodgily amusing sight of a music-hall comic blacked up to perform The Rollicking Rajah.
Once we get to the sound era, there's oodles of subtext to be extracted from the narration of these films. Tins For India is a rather charming study of the manufacture of kerosene tins and their wide variety of uses, and is notable for not passing judgment on the people in it. The Fair City Of Udaipur and A Village In India appear to be more typical of theatrical travelogues from the 1930s: the former is a tourist's view of Indian society from a distance, while the latter is a glossier affair with Jack Cardiff photography and a couple of attempts at imposing narrative on the scenes. There's also some unpleasant commentary on the superstitious and primitive nature of the Indian people, which degenerates into full-blown sneering in the Central Office of Information's Indian Background, made in 1946 just one year before India made the break from England.
There are plenty of films from the pre-independence era that we didn't get to explore: and post-1947, the focus is more on feature length material that wouldn't fit into the two-hour slot we'd allocated ourselves. (Yes, that really does include Carry On Up The Khyber, as well as more sympathetic depictions of the country such as Black Narcissus and Elephant Boy.) But the delight of the Mediatheque is that you can pick and choose from the entire catalogue as you please. I've just selected a dozen or so films from one section of the programme, but feel free to choose your own.
8.30pm: Surprise Film: No Country For Old Men (official site)
I wanted it: The BBG wanted it: the collected pundits at FU wanted it: even coked-up trollop Britney Spears wanted No Country For Old Men to be the Surprise Film this year. It almost made it a slight disappointment when the title actually appeared on screen, like it wasn't really a surprise this year after all. Still, a very popular choice, to the extent that the cheer which greeted the film's title meant that nobody got to hear the first line.
Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, this is Joel and Ethan Coen returning to the film noir territory of their debut film, Blood Simple. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is out hunting when he comes across the aftermath of a dope deal gone wrong: several dead bodies, a truck full of drugs, and a suitcase with a couple of million dollars in it. Not wishing to be greedy, he just takes the money, only to find that several bad men are soon chasing after him for it. And the baddest of them all is the psychopath Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who's armed with several devices capable of making big holes in people. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is, for the most part, reduced to following in Chigurh's wake and counting the stiffs.
I've been looking forward to this one ever since Britney alerted me to the trailer. But that trailer doesn't get across the astonishing visual bravado the Coens bring to the story. Sure, there are a lot of beautifully turned lines in their screenplay, but the sequences that you'll take away most vividly from the film are all totally devoid of dialogue. Much of the movie involves single characters struggling to make their situation work out, or pairs of characters chasing each other. The Coens give each of these sequences their own unique tension, without resorting to the gimmicky camerawork that made their earlier films so fun.
It's interesting just how tense the film is, because in its own way it's as predictable as Honeydripper. But whereas Sayles' film has you thinking "hee hee, I know what's coming," the Coens are aiming for "oh shit, I know what's coming." It's film noir at its most fatalistic, with Chigurh as a realistic yet unstoppable force laying waste to everything in his path. We know that nobody will come out of this story a better person from the off: all we can do is wait and see who'll be left standing by the end. Excellent performances from all concerned (especially Jones and Medem) keep you hooked throughout.
"Well, that was cheerful," said one of the FUers afterwards. Well, yes, it is. Because after a couple of misfires with Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, we have the Coen brothers back on form doing what they do best, and who could possibly not be cheerful about that? Oh.
Notes From Spank's Pals
The Substitute (official site)
Suzanne Vega Fanclub - Alien life force takes on human form, frightens the kids, whilst disbelieving adults say everything is all well and normal. Hmmm I think we have seen this scenario one or two times before. In this instance Paprika Steen, an actress familiar to me from The Idiots and Festen (and who directed the one Spank saw on Saturday), takes on the role of substitute teacher, to a bewildered bunch of Danish pre-pubescents.
So yes nothing new here, but even so the Danish twist on matters keeps you watching, and Paprika Steen herself already has the sort of withering glance that could frighten the hardest of school yobs (let alone these four eyed cute kids), without needing to resort to snakes coming out of her head.
Steen said afterwards in the Q&A that once you pass forty, the only parts available to an actress are grandmothers and aliens. As such she came across as far funnier and attractive in person, than what was there on screen. Thus for a film that isn't sure whether it wants to be a genuine horror or comedy, perhaps it could have done with more of that from her.
Mildly amusing nonetheless.
No Country For Old Men (official site)
Suzanne Vega Fanclub - Well when the title came up on screen as this year's surprise film the audience seemed pleased anyway. What was also interesting was when Sandra Hebron asked everyone to put their hands up who had been to one of these before (which appeared to be just about everybody). So with such a popular format, why is it I always end up being seriously disappointed with the films she chooses for this slot?
Anyway it's stretching a point to try and write any review of this, as my first instinct is to dismiss it in one sentence, but here goes. American psycho goes round killing people for no reason. No wait he works for some people who wants to recover a stash of money from some failed drugs deal. Yet he kills people for no reason anyway, including the people he works for, and he is not really bothered about the money either when it all comes down to it.
No that didn't work so let me try again. Okay the film is about a duel between hunter psycho and hunted cowboy who found the stash of money. You know like Terminator looking for Sarah Connor. Well except the big climax between these two doesn't happen and we have to guess instead how it reached its outcome. No wait that must be because the real duel is between Sheriff Tommy Lee Jones and American psycho. Well except that nothing comes of that either. So how does it end then you ask? Well it doesn't actually, it just stops.
So sorry I give up, I just think it was a junk movie really that promised a lot and delivered nothing. I can't believe this is from the Coen brothers. Perhaps they have reached such a level of fame, that no one can dare tell them when they have delivered a turkey. However if you are the sort of person who enjoyed a film like Mulholland Drive, you may well consider this to be a masterpiece.