Reviewed today: The Bitter Tea Of General Yen, Capitalism: Child Labor, Planet Terror, Son Of Rambow, With Your Permission.
12.30pm: The Bitter Tea Of General Yen
It's become a Festival tradition over the years that we spend part of our weekends in the company of Clyde Jeavons, who organises the Archive section of restorations and revivals. And it's also become a tradition that he'll be frequently accompanied by Grover Crisp from Sony-Columbia's restoration department, who comes here most years to show off the latest work they've been doing on cleaning up their back catalogue.
One of their ongoing projects has been the restoration of Frank Capra's work - Crisp brought over Mr Smith Goes To Washington back in 2004, and this year we have Capra's 1933 Oriental drama. Civil war is raging in Shanghai, which makes it the perfect time for Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck) to travel over there to marry her childhood sweetheart, the missionary Robert Strife (Gavin Gordon). Strife delays their wedding in order to help some orphans in peril, and Megan goes with him, only to find herself caught up in the conflict and rescued by General Yen (Nils Asther). As she spends time in his summer palace, the dividing line between East and West becomes ever more apparent.
This screening is accompanied by an entertaining making-of short from the period, fascinating because it assumes its audience has no knowledge whatsoever of the process. ("Movies are shot on a special material we call 'film'," that sort of thing.) And the contemporary heart can't help but sink at the enthusiastic depiction of the make-up department, demonstrating how they can turn the Dane Nils Asther into an evil-looking Chinaman. It's indicative of the conflicting impulses at work throughout the film - it's deeply in love with the look of its sets and costumes, but runs scared of actual Chinese people, only casting one Asian in a major speaking role (and that's the Japanese Toshia Mori as Yen's mistress Mah-Li), and depicting the rest as bloodthirsty and callous savages. In one dream sequence, Yen resembles no-one so much as Bela Lugosi's Dracula.
Nevertheless, all of this just makes the growing relationship between Yen and Megan even more effective. The two lead performances help this enormously - Stanwyck looks terrific and has an incredibly appealing determination to her character, while Asther overcomes the dodgy stereotyping to give Yen a human soul by the end. It's very much a picture of its time, and still works if you take it in that context.
4.00pm: Capitalism: Child Labor (official site)
I mentioned earlier this year that the National Film Theatre, headquarters of the London Film Festival and its organisers the British Film Institute, recently had a major renovation and became BFI Southbank. Along the way, it's acquired a couple of new screening facilities, and one of the things they've done this Festival is use those facilities to host a couple of free events unlike anything they've been able to schedule before. In particular, over this weekend the 35-seater Studio cinema is playing host to a pair of film installations, showing in the space on a continuous loop.
Today's installation is a 14 minute piece by Ken Jacobs, based around a single photograph. More accurately, a single stereoscopic photograph: one of those ones shot from two slightly different angles, with different images corresponding to what you'd see with your left and right eyes, and intended to be looked at through a special viewer in order to simulate a 3D effect. To an industrial soundtrack by Rick Reed, Jacobs takes the two images of the photo and rapidly cuts between the two to generate the illusion of movement - first looking at the photo as a whole, then overlaying it with closeups of small details within the picture, then zooming in solely on those details.
The photo itself is of child workers in a textile factory, and the implication is that the film as a whole has something to say about the exploitation of human labour. But let's face it, there's nothing in the 14 minutes of strobing images that you couldn't really get from just a close examination of the source photo above. So really, all you get out of Capitalism: Child Labor is a purely kinetic experience, putting its audience much at the same level as anyone who watches Transformers at their local IMAX.
But to be fair, it's actually a pretty good kinetic experience. When you listen to music by minimalists like Steve Reich or Philip Glass, most of the time you're reacting less to the repetitive musical lines being performed, and more to the way they slowly change over time: and the same applies to watching this film. The effect of constantly cutting between the left- and right-eye is to generate an illusion of continuous rotation - and by the insertion of a black frame at different points between the two-frame sequence, that rotation appears to change direction every so often. The close-ups in the latter part of the film add a curious layering effect on top of the basic photo, making it even freakier.
It's pure and simple eye-fucking, and anyone with a sensitivity to flickering images will have a very bad time with Capitalism: Child Labor. But if you can take it, it's an experience that will leave you buzzing and slightly wobbly on your feet afterwards, which has always been one of my key definitions of a good time. Sadly, this is a one-day only installation, so I can't go back and tell you what it feels like watching it when you're drunk.
6.00pm: Son Of Rambow (official site)
Director Garth Jennings and producer Nick Goldsmith have been working together for several years now under the name Hammer And Tongs, purveyors of witty music videos and other similar visual fluff. Their first feature film was the 2005 adaptation of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy - it received a fair amount of stick in certain quarters, but I liked the way it kept a degree of fidelity to the original source material while delivering the stuff that a Hollywood movie demands, and adding some unique quirks of its own. Plus, it looks like it performed well enough to allow Jennings and Goldsmith the opportunity to work on more personal material like this.
Son Of Rambow is set in the early eighties, and follows two wildly contrasting school mates. Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner) is a goody-twoshoes in an imaginary world of his own, partly because he's so shielded from the real one: he's a member of the Plymouth Brethren religious community, who eschew contact with the outside world unless absolutely necessary, and are forbidden from watching television or movies. Lee Carter (Will Poulter) is a wildly amoral tearaway, who we first see in the back of a cinema smoking a fag, watching a 15 certificate film and pirating it on an early camcorder. There's no real reason why the two should know each other: until Will's accidental viewing of Lee's First Blood bootleg inspires them to use the camcorder to make their own Rambo movie.
Based loosely on Jennings' teenage years - he remade Stallone films with a camcorder, but it was the family next door who were in the Plymouth Brethren - Son Of Rambow is a delightful recreation of that time in everyone's early life when the only limit to what you can do is your imagination, before reality stomps all over your ideas. I'm probably just a couple of years older than the Hammer and Tongs guys, and making a cheap movie with my mates was always a teenage fantasy of mine, but the technology wasn't there at the time. So it's rather touching to see the cheerful improvisational spirit in which Will and Lee attempt to recreate Hollywood effects with stuff lying around the house, pretty much in the way I assume I would have done it.
A film like this about childhood friendships can't help but veer into sentimentality a couple of times, and Son Of Rambow is at its weakest at those times. But for the most part, it's a delightful fantasy on what we'd like our childhood to have been like. The period detail is lovingly recreated (apart from the careless use of a 1988 Siouxsie And The Banshees track), the unexpected surreal flourishes expand on the promise demonstrated in Hitch-Hiker, and - crucially - the kids are terrific. On the evidence of the post-film Q&A, Bill Milner and Will Poulter's own personalities map almost perfectly onto those of Will Proudfoot and Lee Carter, which shows Jennings got the casting exactly right.
9.00pm: With Your Permission (official site)
We only chose With Your Permission for research purposes (more on that later), so it's a surprise to find that it's one of the highlights of our Festival to date. Which is nice. It's the story of married couple Jan (Lars Brygmann) and Bente (Sidse Babett Knudsen): a shared love of opera brought them together, but now it's one of the things driving them apart. Bente stays at home all day, refusing to do anything: Jan is starting to crack up at his job on the Denmark-Sweden ferry, particularly when his colleagues keep asking why he's always turning up at work with black eyes and bruising. When Jan goes to counselling, he meets a couple of people who could potentially offer a solution to his plight, but they only end up making things even worse.
Paprika Steen (an actress familiar from a number of the early Dogme films like The Idiots) does a fine job of directing this dark comedy, and her cast aids her terrifically. But the real star of the show is the script, written by Anders Thomas Jensen. Another associate of the Dogme crew, he's best known for somewhat bleak melodramas like Open Hearts and Brothers, so it's a surprise to see that he can do funny as well. As well as several enormous laugh-out-loud moments, there's something more subtle going on in the story at the same time: it turns out that every gag and misunderstanding has a part in the greater scheme of things, which will only become apparent after we're given some information that was previously kept from us. It's not a seismic mid-film twist, more a subtle metamorphosis that forces us to look at the second half in a very different way from the first.
To make all this work you need a cast capable of playing in multiple registers simultaneously, and both Brygmann and Knudsen do terrific work. Both of their characters have to evolve in very different ways, and they never put a foot wrong. The resulting film is simultaneously hilarious and moving: The Belated Birthday Girl thinks it may be her favourite so far this year, and I'll have to think long and hard about whether I agree with her.
11.30pm: Planet Terror (official site)
We've been through the story already here. Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez collaborate as directors on Grindhouse, a double feature homage to the golden days of exploitation cinema. Nobody in America goes to see it. As a result, for international release the two halves of Grindhouse are split into two separate films, each with another 20 minutes or so of material added. A couple of months ago, we had Tarantino's serial killer car chase movie Death Proof at Edinburgh: now it's the turn of Rodriguez's zombie flick. Yes, "the one with the girl with the leg."
The plot should be simple, but it's ludicrously over-complicated. To summarise: a chemical weapon has been discharged in a small Texas town, turning its inhabitants into flesh-eating monsters. A small band of survivors converges on the local BBQ shack. They include go-go dancer Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan), the mysterious Latino warrior known only as El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), the owner of the restaurant (Jeff Fahey), and assorted representatives from the law and the medical profession.
Ten weeks after I last mentioned it, my dodgy Dutch-subtitled copy of Grindhouse is still sitting unwatched on my hard drive. And I'm more determined than ever to watch it now, because the extended version of Planet Terror has the same fault as the extended version of Death Proof: it's simply too bloody long. Tarantino and Rodriguez have both boasted in interviews that the Grindhouse versions of the films have been cut back to the bone, to replicate the gone-in-80-minutes velocity of the originals they were paying homage to. In both cases, adding extra footage to pad them out to respectable feature length makes them ramble like crazy.
To be fair, where Death Proof only had one great idea to its name, Planet Terror has several: there are plenty of those whatthefuck moments I was describing yesterday, and there's no denying the invention at work in the plot twists and gloopy effects. But they're buried in a morass of dull subplots that recall nothing so much as the narrative excesses of the seventies disaster movie, rather than the tightly-plotted fun of a speedy exploitation flick. As a result, even with the cute device Planet Terror uses to skip over some of the more complex plotting, it's still much longer than it needs to be. Both directors have hinted that Grindhouse may still see the light of international day once its constituent parts have had their releases: for the sake of the reputations of both Tarantino and Rodriguez, I hope it's soon.