Reviewed today: Brand Upon The Brain!, In The Shadow Of The Moon, International Animation Panorama, Let's Finish!, Summer Rain, The Voyeurs.
1.45pm: International Animation Panorama
My usual opening gambit with these animation programmes is to praise the technical staff involved with their projection. After all, these shorts come in a bewildering variety of formats - 16mm and 35mm film, video tape, digital media - and the projectionists have to shuttle between them all without leaving enormous gaps between the individual films. Sadly, I can't really do that this year. Ominously, the animation programme (loosely based around the dual themes of dreams and travel, though I don't know how deliberate that is) starts twenty minutes late owing to problems setting up one of the projectors. These things happen, I guess: but more unforgivably, two of the films out of this year's programme of eight actually have their projection botched to some degree.
And worst of all, they're the only two films where the director is present in the audience. Reka Gacs' slight but entertaining Nothing Happened Today does some nice things with the idea of a woman waking up the night after a one-night-stand, and is charming enough for the audience to groan with frustration when a couple of tape glitches stop the film for several seconds. But David Alexander Anderson's The Tongue Of The Hidden suffers an even worse fate, when a projection misalignment crops a large chunk off the left hand side of the film, including half the title and the forenames of everyone in the credits. Which is a crying shame, because it's the most visually stunning of the eight, taking the words of a Persian poet and literally constructing imagery - peacocks, fish, landscapes - out of the Persian calligraphy of those words.
The rest of the programme avoids these technical difficulties, thankfully. Tibor Banozcki's Milk Teeth doesn't really amount to much in its story of a young boy's adventures in a sinister cornfield, but its technique gives it a suitable air of creepiness, using layers of photorealistic imagery and having them queasily slide over each other digitally. It's the character eyes that freak you out the most, and the same applies to Chris Lavis and Mariek Szczerbowski's Madame Tutli-Putli, whose spooky train journey starts out strongly but (literally) loses its way by the end. Meanwhile, Kaspar Jancis' Marathon is typical of the few Estonian animations I've seen so far, with lots of surreal gags and colliding plotlines crammed together into too short a space for them to breathe.
The other three films are probably the most flat-out entertaining of the rest - and interestingly, all of them are French, two of them coming from the Caimans Productions stable. Premier Voyage has already been raved about by The Belated Birthday Girl when she caught it at Edinburgh, and its claymation depiction of a father's first train journey with his daughter is crammed with enough jokes and charm to please any crowd. Its director Gregoire Sivan also worked as editor on Alice Taylor's Même en Rêve, a witty hand-drawn affair on the dangers of sharing your dreams with your loved one. Finally, La Queue de la Souris is a cute fable involving a mouse and a lion, pleasingly rendered by Benjamin Renner in shades of black, white and red. We may have to watch out for the French this time next year, you know.
4.15pm: The Voyeurs
Buddhadeb Dasgupta's film is a story of big city life - the city in this case being Calcutta. Yasin (Amitav Bhattacharya) is a young man who's just moved their from the country to make his fortune. He hooks up with old mate Dilip (Prosenjit Chatterjee), and together they make their money installing surveillance cameras in locations both legitimate and otherwise. When actress Rekha (Sameera Reddy) moves in next door, they decide to install a camera in her room so they can watch her secretly. As you can imagine, this doesn't end well.
There's a strong dividing line in Indian cinema between the Bollywood singing and dancing fluff, and the more serious dramatic productions. The Voyeurs falls firmly on the serious side of the line, but with some concessions to an audience wanting pure entertainment - a comic subplot involving Rekha's encounters with a film director who I believe we have to describe nowadays as a 'person of size', and a cameo from popular HIV/AIDS mascot Buladi. But at the same time, there are surreal flourishes like the regular appearance of a group of travelling people carrying furniture on their heads (a common sight on the streets, according to the director), and a sensitive depiction of the problems people face in modern cities.
So it's a shame that The Voyeurs falls apart in its final half hour, when a subplot that's only been hinted at barges melodramatically into the foreground. Until the post-film Q&A, I'm ashamed to admit I found the climactic twist utterly unconvincing, and didn't really consider the parallels with events in London. But although I have to accept that things like the events of the climax do happen, the gear change the story requires to get there is clumsily handled, and simply didn't work for me at all. There's a lot to like here, and it's a shame it couldn't be sustained for the full two hours.
6.30pm: Brand Upon The Brain! (official site)
This is my first Guy Maddin film, if you don't count a four-minute short that played with Monkeys As Becky at the 2000 LFF (I obviously didn't think it was worth mentioning at the time). Based on his own childhood with the absolute minimum of embellishment, the film opens with the adult Maddin returning to the orphanage where he grew up. Located in a lighthouse and run by his mother (Gretchen Krich) with an iron hand, the orphanage works its inhabitants hard, and neither the young Guy (Sullivan Brown) nor his sister (Maya Lawson) can escape mother's tyrrany. But there's something even worse going on in the basement where father performs his experiments - and only harp-playing girl detective Wendy Hale (Katherine Scharhon) can solve the mystery.
Based on Maddin's reputation, I was expecting Brand Upon The Brain! to be experimental, visually all over the place, and eccentrically plotted, and it was certainly all of that. I wasn't expecting it to be this much fun, though. The film's pitched as a massively overheated silent movie, with music by Jason Staczek and narration from Isabella Rosselini: instead of dialogue, we have ripely melodramatic captions crammed with more exclamation marks than a Khoisan telephone directory. The visuals are equally feverish, with grainy black and white camera work edited at an almost subliminal pace, with the occasional breathtaking flash of colour. Add to that a story that takes in orphans in peril, cross-gender confusion and the perversion of science, and you can't really go wrong.
I can accept that Maddin's style isn't for everyone (I can name you at least one example): but if you're prepared to go with the flow, and roll with the melodramatic twists and turns, Brand Upon The Brain! is an absolute riot from beginning to end. Now, can someone arrange for screenings in London like they've had in Toronto, where the film's accompanied by a live orchestra and foley artists?
9.00pm: Let's Finish!
A lot of my film choices for the LFF are made fairly quickly, in the couple of days between the announcement of the programme and the opening of BFI members' postal booking. And in recent years, I've become aware of what I've decided to call The Seafood Fallacy. It got that name after the 2004 festival, where the programme included a Chinese film called South Of The Clouds, mentioning that the director's previous film was called Seafood. "Hey, I saw that in 2001!" I thought, and so booked for South Of The Clouds. Which turned out to be not very good at all. And when I finally got around to looking at what I'd written about Seafood at the time, it turned out I hadn't enjoyed that one either.
So you can see there's a lesson to be learned here. But when you have to make film choices based on very little information, sometimes just going for a director with previous form has to be enough, even when you can't remember what that previous form actually is. Which is why today finishes with the new film from Korean director Whang Cheol-Mean, whose flawed two-hander Spying Cam played here in 2005. Let's Finish! has a great opening premise - it's based around a road trip by two guys and a girl (Jeong In Ji, Hong Ki Hun and Kim Min Jae) who have arranged a suicide holiday through a website. The plan is simple: the three of them will share the driving, and will make their way around Korea until their money runs out. Once that happens, they'll kill themselves. Having set up our ending right at the start, all that's left for us to do is see if it goes to plan or not.
And, unfortunately, that's literally all that's left for us to do. There's some lovely dark humour in the initial setup: such as the discovery that the only music they have for their trip is an iPod full of cover versions of Gloomy Sunday. But until the final scenes, nothing really happens at all. One of the ground rules set at the start of the trip is that the three characters mustn't discuss their backgrounds with each other, and that unfortunately means we never find out anything about them either. They're only defined by the things they possess which the other two don't - a dog, dancing skills, a vagina - and they stay that way till the end. The lack of backstory may have some possible significance, but it makes for an incredibly dull narrative.
Then again, maybe I was just irritated by the change in the film's title, shown on screen as Let's Finish!, but advertised in the LFF programme as the much more excited Let's Finish!!! It's quite possible that aside from the director's previous form, it was those two extra exclamation marks that sold it to me, and I feel cheated now.
Notes From Spank's Pals
In The Shadow Of The Moon (official site)
Suzanne Vega Fanclub - A trend I have noticed recently among documentary makers (especially cinematic ones) is a tendency to claim that they are the first person ever to cover a subject, and - get this - they have exclusive never before seen footage. Last year's John Lennon one being a good example, or another recent documentary claiming to be the first ever interview with Hitler's secretary Trudi Junge (must be a different Trudi Junge than the one interviewed for The World At War series in the Seventies then). Anyway director David Sington tries to pull the same stroke here claiming that NASA gave him access to an archive of never before seen footage. Well as my shed is stacked with Space/NASA videos I can categorically state I have seen all of this before (save for the wooden prototypes of the CSM and LEM). What's worse which I spotted straight away (but which in fairness they do acknowledge in the credits) they use footage from one mission claiming it as part of another ('Buzz Aldrin' descending the LEM in colour being one example).
However I don't want to criticise this project any further than that because it is still an excellent piece of work for two reasons:
1) The strength of the subject matter anyway and the chance to see all that great footage on the big screen.
2) The interviews given by nine of the Apollo astronauts (all moonwalkers except Michael Collins, and I would have to check on Ed Mitchell), who are now in their seventies and are more lucid and humorous about the experience than I have ever seen them before. For instance Buzz (Aldrin not Lightyear) reveals that he paused half way down the LEM not to survey the surroundings, but to fill his urine bag. Apparently he is the only person to do that on another planet, with the caveat that no one else has yet disputed his claim. Thus the film is full of amusing little snippets like this that you couldn't imagine these guys saying before, but of course they are now too old to care whether they are on message or not.
Where the film slightly falls down (which in a way was why the whole Apollo program fell down) is that no one really says why or what for. The old minor cliche about science was trotted out somewhere. So let me chip in and help then. Apollo was not about science, because what did they do when they got there, other than collect a few rocks and make a few measurements? No, Apollo was about engineering, about exploration, and about the Cold War. The problem being that once they had achieved the virtual impossible by getting to the Moon (and back) there was nothing to do once up there, and the best the program could do then was to prove (a few times) that they could do it all again.
Thus we now have reached a state of near cultural vandalism, where it is almost accepted as common currency that the moon shots never happened, well except for some TV studio out in the desert. However as Charley Duke (Capcom on 11 and commander on 16) says, "if you're going to have a hoax, why do it nine times". What didn't help was Spank's Diet Morrisey making a Freudian slip in the post film Q&A, referring to the 'actors'.
The problem I believe is that NASA never went back (Apollo 17, December 72, being the last time a manned spacecraft has ever broken free of low Earth orbit). What's worse (and correctly acknowledged by the director in the Q&A) is that NASA no longer knows how to do it, as it lacks the old technology and method, and has yet to invent a new one. As such in the timeline of man's evolution, Apollo happened some fifty years ahead of its time, and perhaps had to stop in order to let mankind catch up with what they were trying to do. So a documentary like this may be something of a repackaging job, but it is a must see for the know it all internet generation, who give greater credence to conspiracy theories than archive material.
Neil Armstong incidentally declined to take part.
Summer Rain (official site)
Suzanne Vega Fanclub - Oh it was set in the Seventies was it! (as I hastily read the notes on the BFI website) That would explain the absence of mobile phones then.
So what was I thinking? Well okay this one was really picked to fill a slot between two movies I actually did want to see. Yet you know, some of these foreign ones (Spanish in this case) can be almost like real films; even the ones with subtitles. Sadly not the case here.
So what we have is young aspiring poet type (post kidney removal operation) chases after girl, wins girl and conspires to lose girl. Meanwhile all of their friends hang around, shag, squabble, and that's about it. Yet what really sunk this film for me was the metaphoric commentary cum pseudo crap poetry voiceover, that kept intruding into the action for no good reason. Without that it might have just been light and watchable. As it was this narration buried the whole cast under a blanket of pretentiousness. At one point and for about twenty seconds the projector conked out, and for a moment I thought my seige was going to be lifted. No such luck as my seating position meant I was forced to endure it to the bitter end.
Directed incidentally by Antonio (Mask of Zorro) Banderas; what was I thinking?