Reviewed today: A Christmas Tale, Hunger, International Animation Panorama, Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, Quiet Chaos, RR.
2.00pm: International Animation Panorama
Here's a cheeky thing: at NFT3, in the box by the door where they normally have the movie programme notes, today they're displaying an advertising leaflet for a book. British Animation: The Channel 4 Factor is written by Clare Kitson, who commissioned animation for Channel 4 during the boom period between 1989 and 1999. The start of her reign coincides with the time I started attending the LFF animation programmes on a regular basis - animated shorts were turning up regularly on Channel 4, and companies like Aardman were beginning to make a name for themselves, so I was curious to see what other work was out there.
Nearly two decades later, the animation programme is still a fixture of my festival. It's changed a little over the years - there isn't quite enough work out there to support separate British and international programmes like there used to be - but you're still guaranteed a couple of fascinating hours showing you where the form is at right now. (See 1998, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007 for comparison. I have no idea now what happened in 2000, before you ask.)
How does this year's selection hold up? Well, it's usually the case that there's an awkward conflict between the crowd-pleasing funny films and the grimmer, artier ones. If there's a trend to be noted this year, it's that the funny ones have got more grim and arty as well. Let's take them in performance order, as I'm writing this at 7.45 in the morning and haven't got the mental capacity to group them by theme as yet.
Izabela Plucinska's 7 More Minutes makes for a good illustration of my thesis: in other circumstances it'd be a whimsical bit of claymation showing four people messing about on the beach, but the circumstances that brought them together give the film added poignancy. Koji Yamamura's A Child's Metaphysics is a delightfully surreal piece of line-drawn whimsy, as a group of kids finds new ways to think about their bodies. Yann J's Berni's Doll starts with a gruesome little gag involving the industrial conversion of mice into cat food, and from that opening keeps us on edge with the story of a factory worker who assembles his perfect woman from mail-order doll parts. It crosses the line into sheer wrongness on several occasions, reminding me of Robert Crumb's dodgier fantasies about how much easier women would be to handle if they didn't have heads: but the beautifully rendered CG and rampant inventiveness makes it more palatable.
Dennis Tupikoff's Chainsaw is, at 24 minutes, the longest piece in the programme, and its length works against it. A pseudo-documentary about Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, bullfighters, cowboys, cattle and chainsaws, it throws a lot of teasingly linked themes at the screen with some cool-looking rotoscoping, but doesn't quite tie everything together enough for my liking. (It's also frustrating that at the time of writing, the Flash portal into Tupikoff's website appears to be knackered.) Sally Pearce's Elephants is the only short this year to appear in both the International Panorama and the Children's Animation programmes, and I can imagine the story of a home's invasion by oversize pests going down well with kids, particularly when the horrified family discovers their droppings.
Arthur Metcalf's Fantaisie In Bubblewrap is easily the best and funniest short on display here, but it's also the most disturbing, taking a single simple gag and pushing it far beyond any reasonable person's comfort level. You're so on edge by the end of it that it's hard to really appreciate Paul Vester's In The Woods, which is the most politically engaged of these films but doesn't really do anything in its hyperactive collage work that we haven't seen before. Alex Budowsky's Last Time In Clerkenwell is an engagingly bonkers sequel to his earlier video for The Real Tuesday Weld's Bathtime In Clerkenwell, and I'm sure I'd be loving it to pieces if it wasn't for the awkward coincidence of my own Real Tuesday Weld video (The Day Before You Came) being banned from YouTube just this week.
Rattling through the last three fairly quickly. Kristian Andrews' Rabbit Punch is a creepily evocative depiction of the random cruelties of childhood: Wiola Sowa's Refeny (Refrains) is beautiful to look at (see picture above) but curiously unengaging at any level other than the visual: and Smith and Foulkes' This Way Up is the sort of high-density visual gagfest that was made to close festival animation programmes. Although even that one involves a funeral going horribly wrong...
6.30pm: Quiet Chaos
If the animation programmes have become a fixture of my LFF, then there are a number of directors who I feel the same way about: and Nanni Moretti is one of them. His breakthrough film in the UK, Dear Diary, premiered at the festival, and most of his other features have played here since, usually accompanied by the amiable presence of the man himself. Quiet Chaos is unusual in that Moretti isn't directing: he co-wrote the screenplay (based on the novel by Sandro Veronesi) and bagsied himself the leading role, but passed it on to his old friend Antonello Grimaldi to direct.
Despite this, it still feels like a Moretti film, and one Moretti film in particular - The Son's Room, which looked at the impact of a bereavement on a family. In that film, it was the death of a son: here, it's the death of a mother. After a suitable period of mourning, Pietro (Moretti) decides that he and his daughter Claudia (Blu Yoshimi) should try to return to their normal lives. While she happily goes back to school, he finds it hard to return to his executive post, and ends up doing his job from the park across the road from the school. He insists he's doing this just to keep an eye on Claudia: but other family members, including his flaky sister-in-law Marta (Valeria Golino), aren't convinced.
Compared with The Son's Room's tightly focussed depiction of a family being torn apart by grief, Quiet Chaos is a more conventional treatment of the subject. Some scenes teeter into sentimentality, while others (notably those involving the office politics going on in Pietro's absence) verge on the dull. What ties it all together, inevitably, is Moretti's performance at the centre, as he again plays the flawed everyman we've come to love from his own films. (That everyman image is cleverly played with in a scene late in the movie, one which apparently resulted in hate mail from the Vatican.) It's not up there with Moretti's own best work, but it's still worth seeing just for his performance.
9.00pm: Hunger (official site)
The first of my big Gala screenings for this year: although it seems somehow wrong that a film about hunger strikes and dirty protests is being heralded with red carpets and paparazzi. And on the subject of dirty protests, did anyone really think through the implications of handing out free gifts of chocolate to the audience? (Green and Black's, though. Yum.)
Steve McQueen's been mentioned on this site before, in the context of his 1999 Turner Prize win. His work as an artist has frequently involved the use of film, but Hunger is the first thing he's made for cinemas rather than galleries. It's always tricky when artists get involved in commercial film: some of them quickly get the hang of providing the kind of narrative hooks a general audience needs (Julian Schnabel springs to mind), some of them don't. McQueen sort of gets it, using the sort of broken-backed structure that could easily have worked for Stanley Kubrick but seems a bit overambitious for a debut director.
His movie breaks down into three distinct acts. The first is a depiction of life in the Maze prison in the early eighties: convicted IRA members are protesting for the right to be treated as political prisoners, by refusing to wear uniforms and smearing the walls of their cells with their own filth. In retaliation, the prison guards frequently drag them out of their cells for beatings and forced bathing. There's no denying this is the most visceral part of the film: the violence is harsh, brutal and tough to handle. Interestingly, apart from an opening caption and a couple of radio voiceovers, there's little to put this in context (or, for that matter, any real dialogue at all). McQueen isn't particularly interested in the philosophies at this point, he's just trying to get across what life would be like in this environment.
For my money, part of the problem with this section is his struggle to find a balance between depicting the horrors and alienating the viewer completely with them. Even when we're looking at walls caked with human shit, McQueen can't help but see them with an artist's eye: at one point we watch one of these walls being hosed down, and it looks like a Chris Ofili painting. But if he'd gone too far in the other direction, the film would be unwatchable.
The middle section of Hunger is already notorious, but for entirely different reasons: prisoner Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) meets with his priest Father Moran (Liam Cunningham), and they have a twenty-minute argument over the hunger strike that Sands is about to commence. This is the point where co-writer Enda Walsh (of Walworth Farce fame) earns his money, as it's the one and only place where the context of the protests is discussed at all. Walsh is primarily a theatrical writer, and this is an incredibly theatrical scene - most of it is performed in a single take in front of a locked down camera. The actors perform it beautifully, although again McQueen is content to leave the debate unresolved rather than come down on one side.
The final third of the film concentrates on the hunger strike that eventually killed Bobby Sands. After the verbal feast of the second act, as it were, we get the famine: but Fassbender's astonishing dedication to his wordless performance (including ten weeks of fasting to reduce him to a near skeleton) again gets across what it would feel like to do this for a cause you believe in. For all the piss and shit flying around in the opening scenes, it's the destruction of Sands' own body that I found hardest to watch.
There's no denying that Hunger is an ambitious film, but I think it's trying to do too much - as evidenced by the way that it's really three very different films run back to back. As a result, I'm not entirely convinced it works as a whole: the two acts focussing on the emotional depiction of life in the Maze don't really dovetail with the intellectual discussion in between them. (Plus, McQueen cheats a little by divorcing that discussion from what Sands - or anyone else, for that matter - was actually in prison for in the first place.) But there are enough astonishing moments in here to convince me that McQueen does understand how a visual artist could work in narrative film, and I'll be fascinated to see what he does next.
Notes From Spank's Pals
A Christmas Tale (official site)
The Cineaste - Before the film there was a large crowd outside the OWE, just milling around, and I didn’t realise there was an orderly queue for returns. So having been directed there I took my place. A few minutes before the scheduled start time the door person called forward a number of queuers, up to the person right in front of me. And then there was some other signal and the milling throng surged forward, and I couldn’t help feel I was missing out on what precious few tickets remained. But at last I got one, and, arriving in the auditorium, I was surprised to see a Q&A of sorts taking place before the film, with Arnaud Desplechin in attendance answering Hebron’s queries. This was the first time I’d seen a Q&A before a film, and briefly I wondered if it was the previous screening running late. It wasn’t, and rather bemused I was glad not to have missed any of the action.
Desplechin has created here a multi-layered and complex film about a sizeable family of three generations who have their differences and prejudices, and goes to some pains by way of flashbacks to try to explain the origins of these antagonisms. It’s a bold, very ambitious and to some extent creditable effort, but I couldn’t help starting to think about half way in that it’s all a bit too complicated for it’s own good, with the result that some of the threads weren’t developed satisfactorily, and the characterisation by and large was weak and disappointing.
The Vuillards, Abel and Junon (Catherine Deneuve) are now getting on, and their children are grown up with their own families. The oldest Elizabeth has bouts of depression, and her husband is rather unstable and prone to outbursts of violence. The first son Henri is the loose cannon of the family, having had a business failure as the manager of a theatre, and seems to have fallen out with most of the Vuillard clan. And the youngest son Ivan has a wife with some hang-ups about her romantic past, although at least their two young sons seem normal compared to everyone else.
Desplechin then goes on to introduce other assorted family members, all who have their own baggage and axes to grind, and some with medical problems as well. So matters are bound to come to a head when the whole clan try to meet up one Christmas for the first time in years. But it all gets a bit stodgy and heavy-handed, mainly because there was too much going on and it all got overly intricate. At 150 minutes the film was (far) too long, the general uneasy tension not relieved by any humour or anything else. Strong acting and atmospheric music, but overall I got the impression there was a really good film there that was struggling to get out but didn’t quite succeed.
Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist (official site)
The Belated Birthday Girl - As someone who is overly sensitive to bodily emissions and their portrayal on screen, it is somewhat ironic that my alternative to seeing Hunger, Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, at one point makes quite a feature of vomit. But that aside, it is in no sense a gross-out comedy, but more of an indie late teen rom-com, focussed around one night in New York trying to find a secret gig. The central couple, Nick (played by Michael Cera, familiar to me from trailers for Juno and Superbad) and Norah (Kat Dennings) first meet at the start of that night, when Norah sees Nick's band The Jerkoffs (in which he's the only straight member) playing at a gig. But although she doesn't know it at first, she kind-of knows him already, because she's been collecting his discarded mix CDs made for his bitchy ex who she goes to high school with.
From the initial set-up, the conventions of the genre mean there is never any doubt where any of the film is going, but it's never really about the plot. The two leads are sweet and smart, and do have a chemistry, and the film has a lot of humour and makes great use of its indie soundtrack and New York locations. But the privileged background of the characters, particularly Norah, put a limit on how far you can identify with them, which I think is a bit of a drawback. But to be honest, I think I'm just 20 years too old for this, and I'm sure people nearer the target age (which I'd imagine to be late teens to early twenties) will get a lot of enjoyment out of this good-natured film.
The Cineaste - Before the film Adrian Wootton gave a brief introduction to, and we got a brief appearance from, director Antonello Grimaldi and director-turned-actor Nanni Moretti. Right behind me there was a gaggle of women of a certain age, and when Moretti climbed onto the stage they started whooping and hollering as if they were at a Tom Jones concert.
What an endearing and charming film this is. Nanni plays Pietro, a husband and father who has a high-powered job in large company. Whilst chilling out at the beach with his brother, he’s called upon to save a woman from drowning. Only mildly bemused that none of her group of family/friends stop to thank him, he goes home to be met with the devastating scene of an accident that’s taken his wife’s life. From there he starts doing a few odd things, but only mildly odd so that the film doesn’t become a series of clichés. Instead it’s a wonderful look at how Pietro changes his habits and relationships with those around him, regularly interspersed with enchanting understated humour.
At first I thought it was going to be a very straightforward look at how Pietro was going to cope, but gradually the film brings together other seemingly chance encounters and threads a link between them very astutely. It looks at his relationship with his young daughter, his interactions with other members of his family, and how he deals with upheavals at work. It was very cleverly done, and hugely enjoyable.
The Cineaste - A highly unusual film of American trains. As Sandra Hebron says in her preview, this film consists of 43 shots of a train (not the same one, obviously) crossing the frame. And that, literally, is it. Some people in the audience clearly expected more, because there were periodic walkouts, starting only about fifteen minutes in.
Not wanting to spoil the fun for those seeing it after me, there isn’t really a great deal to add. The one, probably predictable, fact that can be mentioned is the length of their trains. Our friends across the pond do things on a grand scale, and their trains are no different. The sheer size of some of them was absolutely staggering. Seen in a wide variety of locations, the shots come in a huge variety of situations – set against barren landscapes, industrial backgrounds, over expanses of water, close up, distant, mid-range. And there’s one clever scene about a third of the way in when…..well, no, no, you’ll just have to see it for yourself.