Spank's LFF Diary, Thursday 16/10/2008
Spank's LFF Diary, Saturday 18/10/2008

Spank's LFF Diary, Friday 17/10/2008

Reviewed today: Birdsong, Dean Spanley, Love Live Long, A Perfect Day, Quick Gun Murugun, The Secret, A Simple Heart, Winstanley.

The Secret 8.30pm: The Secret (official site)

On Thursday night, when I should have been starting my festival, I was being led astray in Glasgow by naughty Irishmen. We went on a booze session that travelled from here via here to here, and I didn't get back to here until 2.30 in the morning. Seven hours later, we were all back in the training room to struggle through the final day of our course. I took the easyJet back to London, sitting near a couple of kids who couldn't understand why the plane seats didn't have tellies on the back: and by 8.20pm I was safely inside BFI Southbank, meeting up with The Belated Birthday Girl and The Cineaste. (As you'll see below, they've been doing a fine job of covering the LFF in my absence.)

So, finally, on to my first film. Tony Rayns says in his programme note that The Secret "traverses genres as confidently and unpredictably as Hong Kong movies once did," so that was always going to grab my attention. Its central character is Janus (Fachry Albar), a narcoleptic whose illness is having a seriously detrimental effect on his life: his wife's divorcing him, and he's on the verge of losing his job at the local paper. Meanwhile, Indonesian society appears to be collapsing around him, with mob violence ruling the streets and people close to him dying in mysterious circumstances. Is it just him? Eventually, he discovers the answer: yes. Yes, it is just him.

I'd agree with Tony Rayns on 'unpredictable', but I wouldn't go so far as to say 'confident'. 'Reckless,' certainly, because The Secret is all over the place. Its central idea is a brilliant one, playing around with the Chuck Palahniuk concept of knowledge being as dangerous as any bogeyman you could conjure up. But writer/director Joko Anwar swamps this idea with so much else - Indonesian myths and legends, political conspiracies, the breakdown of social order - that the film becomes frustrating to watch. The writing simply isn't up to the job: Janus' narcolepsy is used as a way of skipping over plotholes by just having him wake up somewhere else, while a single question from investigator Eros (Ario Bayu) to a random passerby results in a two-minute speech that sets up most of the second half of the plot.

There's potentially a fun film buried inside The Secret, but it's all played at such a po-faced level of seriousness that any sense of fun is lost completely. (There's a joke in the final seconds that I had to have explained to me by The Belated Birthday Girl, because it was literally the first bit of humour in the script and I missed it.) A Hong Kong director with a flair for ludicrousness could have made this work as a trashy romp, but you get the horrible feeling that Anwar thinks he's actually saying something in the final scene: and that's the wrong sort of ludicrous.


Notes From Spank's Pals

A Perfect Day (official site)

The Cineaste - Ferzan Ozpetek had the popular Ignorant Fairies screened at the LFF in 2001 and I was looking forward to seeing this.

A Perfect Day is a multi-layered look at complex families in modern day Italy. The plot, for what it’s worth, had several strands, not obviously related initially but they all clicked into place quite craftily towards the end. Forgive my memory, but the precise details (names especially) are a bit fuzzy, not least because I arrived late, flustered, and the first few minutes of the film I just couldn’t piece together. The main protagonist (a woman, whose name I can’t remember) is actually having the exact opposite of a perfect day, since she’s been fired made redundant from her job in a call centre, and her estranged husband has tracked her down, much to her horror, at which point they proceed to have a blazing row.

But the thing about Ozpetek’s films (and I speak here with the authority that comes with having seen precisely one other), is not so much the plot, but the situations, the understated humour, the clever camera work. So here we had moody lengthy tracking shots, quite endearingly charming children (not at all overly sentimental), great cityscapes (I don’t know where the film was shot, somewhere in Italy), children’s parties (a kind of kids’ version of the party in Eyes Wide Shut), and references to football. And last and certainly not least, when two teenagers were introduced to each other, the bloke came out with the killer line “Chiara told me you like Led Zeppelin”. Brilliant.


Birdsong

The Belated Birthday Girl - When a director introduces his film by telling us how we're maybe lucky because only about a fifth of the Cannes audience walked out on this one, when around two-thirds had walked out on his first one, maybe that's a clue to something. Birdsong opened wordlessly on one of the Magi, and then opened up to a long shot with the three Magi slowly crossing the landscape from one corner of the screen to another, and I hoped it wasn't going to be like that all the way through. Unfortunately, it pretty much was.

The LFF programme described Birdsong as "a witty contemplation" and "a celebration of the playful and the imaginary". Although there was some mild amusement to be had occasionally from the absurdist use of banal, repeated dialogue and over-extended scenes, there wasn't enough there to count as "witty" and it soon became merely boring. The almost wordless scenes of the Magi in various terrains soon stopped raising even the occasional giggle, and those of Mary and Joseph, some shot in almost total darkness, also held little interest. Aside from one crucial scene, there was no score, and nothing really to hold the attention. Maybe that was the point, but personally I found little of interest in this film.


A Simple Heart

The Cineaste - This was a terrific interpretation of Flaubert’s short story. I’ve never heard of director Marion Laine before, but she’s done a wonderful job here, with superb performances from the two main protagonists, Sandrine Bonnaire and Marina Fois.

Bonnaire plays Felicite, a maid who’s been unlucky in love and previous employment, so emotionally she’s a bit fragile. Then she finds work as a maid for the widowed Madame Aubain (whose first name I’ve forgotten as well). Mme Aubain is rather cold and detached, both as an employer to Felicite but also to her children Clemence and Paul. So when Felicite quickly forms a strong and easy friendship with her children Mme Aubain is hugely piqued, not least out of jealousy.

Marion Laine handles the situation with considerable deftness, commendably avoiding the trap of over-exaggerating the tension and differences between the two women. Gradually they grow to feel sympathy for the other, sympathetic to the other’s hurt.

It’s an endearing little film. Rural French life, honestly portrayed [NB note of warning – at one stage there’s a rather graphic, albeit brief, scene of a pig being slaughtered] bucolic farmyard scenes – they all add up to a little gem of a film.


Quick Gun Murugun

The Belated Birthday Girl - With a brash and colourful opening, and playful use of slo-mo CGI bullets, from the off Quick Gun Murugun was as different a film to Birdsong as you could hope for, and seemed to promise to be a lot of fun. Sadly, it didn't quite fulfil its promise. It certainly had its moments, and there were real laughs, but there just wasn't enough consistency in the pace and quality. One questioner in the Q&A afterwards mentioned Tears of the Black Tiger, and that film did indeed come to mind right from the opening scene, with its mix of vivid colours and black, bloody humour, but Quick Gun Murugun suffers by the comparison.

With its central plot of cowboy Murugun's mission to save pure veg Indian Dosas from an evil, corrupting foe, I was almost as often put in mind of a rather poor film I saw earlier this year, Sushi Prince Goes to New York, where it was sushi which was in peril. Although Quick Gun never feels as lame as the Sushi Prince film, and does have a more consistent tone, it didn't have enough to lift it into the category of the weird and wonderful, and its faults could not be overlooked.


Love Live Long

The Cineaste - You’ve got to hand it to Mike Figgis, if someone’ll find a different angle, he will. He’s surely got to be the most experimental British film director currently on the scene. (I sometimes think that in the LFF’s Experimenta section, they could fill it almost exclusively from Figgis’ back catalogue.)

Here Figgis does his own take on the Gumball 3000 rally. Basic plotline: the Gumball rally is a hedonistic high-performance car rally across several countries, played out by the rich if not famous. They drive hard by day, and party harder by night (on the rally’s website there’s a brilliant quote from one of the previous organisers, who says sleeping is for cheats). Here, rather than doing a straight documentary, Figgis brings a (kind of) storyline: organiser Darren Hourigan, an Australian now domiciled in London, married with two kids has brought the party to a stopover in Istanbul. Casually meandering round the city’s spice market, he bumps into an English tourist (female, obviously), and invites her to the party. You can guess the rest (or can you??? – maybe not so obvious). Part documentary, part fiction, it brilliantly fuses the two with very blurred boundaries.

But the plotline hardy really matters – it’s the Figgis characteristics which make this such utterly mesmerising film – the screen-split-into-three, slow-mo’s, freeze frames, grainy black and white, muffled sound as if sieved through cotton wool, long languorous tracking shots. All that alone would make it an arresting film, without the piece de resistance: when ostensibly interviewing Darren at the start of the film about the rally, Figgis asks about the participants’ relationship to cars. And in the reply comes the immortal line “Jeremy Clarkson is a complete wanker”.


Winstanley

The Belated Birthday Girl - As was pointed out at the Q&A after the screening, Kevin Brownlow's 1975 dramatisation of the Diggers' 1649 commune and Gerrard Winstanley's writings feels deeply relevant in today's time of banking crisis and "credit crunch", and Brownlow confirmed that relevance to the economic crisis in 1974 of Winstanley's writings was part of the reason for making the film. Brownlow's own background in film history and restoration (he is responsible for three restorations of the 1927 epic Napoleon) show in this wonderfully shot film.

Filmed in glorious black and white, the use of tight shots, closing in on the faces of his almost entirely non-actor cast, gives a real emotional contact, and the actual words of Winstanley, used as narration throughout the film, have beauty and resonance. Although the acting is somewhat raw, there is real commitment from the cast, which makes up for a lot. The film's commitment to authenticity, in the language used, in the costumes and armour, in the livestock and in the landscape, add in to its considerable pleasure.

Shown as part of the Treasures from the Archives strand, it has been beautifully restored, and a presentation after the screening of before and after footage, accompanying explanations of details of the restoration process, was enjoyable and illuminating. A BFI DVD of Winstanley will be on its way next year, and should be well worth getting hold of. An early highlight of the festival, after the first day's disappointments.


The Secret

The Cineaste - Janus, a news reporter, has inadvertently picked up a tantalisingly ambiguous message about a long-lost treasure from a woman he witnessed being killed in a road accident. But what does the message mean? What does the grim reaper have against his friend Dubandi? And why are people around him getting murdered?

Director Joko Anwar has put together a classy psychological thriller here. Political corruption, gruesome ghostly goings-on (at one stage I almost leapt out of my seat), and a brilliant twist in the denouement, make it a very gripping film. Lots of smoking, lots of rain (but not in a Bela Tarr gloomy way), and the bizarre thing, almost the entire film takes place at night, making for lots of scenes in next to no light at all. Exciting stuff, hugely enjoyable.


Dean Spanley

The Belated Birthday Girl - First, a small confession. The main reason I chose to see this in the festival was the hope that Peter O'Toole might make an appearance, as I've been an enormous fan of his since my childhood. And in that I was not disappointed, as we had the film presented to us by quite a number of cast and crew, including director Toa Fraser, screenwriter Alan Sharp, as well as Sam Neill, Jeremy Northam and O'Toole. But to say that the film did not disappoint would be a huge understatement. I often have (possibly unfairly) low expectations of British films in the LFF (albeit this one is a UK/New Zealand co-production), and thought this unlikely to be quite to my taste, but I am happy that on this occasion I was very wrong indeed.

O'Toole gives a masterly performance as the father who doesn't believe in grieving his son killed in the Boer War and who has always felt that "if things take the trouble to happen, then they should probably be looked upon as inevitable". Jeremy Northam plays his surviving son Henslowe, who dutifully goes to visit him every Thursday. An excursion on one of these Thursdays leads to Henslowe striking up a friendship with the eponymous Dean Spanley (played in a remarkable performance by Sam Neill), consisting of Henslowe plying Spanley with his favourite rare tipple end thereby eliciting surprising retelling of former exploits ("I wasn't always a Dean" as Spanley mentions when wondering whether he has met conveyancer Wrather (Bryan Brown) somewhere before).

The script is extremely funny and deeply moving. Adapted from Lord Dunsany's book My Talks With Dean Spanley, how much of the dialogue is lifted from there I don't know, but it is a wonderful script, and brought to life superbly by the terrific cast. This is a lovely film, and highly recommended. With an expected release date of 12th December, I expect this to be in my Top 10 for 2008.

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