Reviewed today: Robert Carlyle Screen Talk, The Witch Of The West Is Dead, The Wrestler.
1.30pm: The Witch Of The West Is Dead (official site)
Full disclosure: we missed the first five minutes of this. Put it down to a combination of a late Saturday night out, the clocks going back, and large lumps of the London tube network being shut down for repairs. We made it to our seats in the Odeon for around 1.35pm, just in time to see a woman on the phone complaining that her hypersensitive teenage daughter Mai (Mayu Takahashi) was refusing to go to school. There may have been some sort of pre-credits sequence in which Mai went nuts with a samurai sword in class and carved up half her mates, but we'll never know. Although to be honest, from the evidence of what we saw, it doesn't seem like that sort of film.
Instead, it's the sort of film where Mai is sent off to live with her Grandma (Sachi Parker) in the country. Grandma runs a small farm on her own, and Mai is roped in as cheap labour, picking wild strawberries and helping to make jam. And aside from some hints that a tendency to witchcraft runs in the family, that's pretty much all that happens. As such, this film from director Shunichi Nagasaki (we saw two versions of his Heart, Beating In The Dark in 2006) would have fitted in quite nicely with the A Life More Ordinary season of Japanese chick flicks that played at the ICA earlier in the year. It's a gentle female character study, without any dramatic action or genre elements, which potters along in a pleasantly inoffensive fashion until a final reel mush-out that's predictable from as far back as the replacement bus service to the cinema.
One thing struck me about the film by the end, though: if you were to bung the whole thing through one of those Photoshop filters that turns photographs into line art, you'd have something that looked very much like one of Hayao Miyazaki's animated tales of teenage girlhood. (Possibly even a sequel to Kiki's Delivery Service?) A lot of the standard Studio Ghibli tropes appear here in live-action form: long lush shots of natural environments, quiet conversations between the characters, a theme song by Aoi Teshima (who did a similar job for Ghibli's Tales From Earthsea two years ago). There's even a comic supporting male character - the local odd job man Genji, played by Yuichi Kimura - who you know would be drawn in the animated version in a more cartoony fashion than everyone else. I suspect that Miyazaki would lose the scene where Mai discovers Genji's porn stash, though.
4.15pm: Robert Carlyle Screen Talk
It used to be simple in the old days. You'd have some people giving talks at the LFF, and The Guardian would be sponsoring them: end of. Nowadays, there are so many different strands of on-stage interviews at the festival, it's hard to keep track. The Script Factory (together with the National Film and Television School) run the Masterclasses, which are geared more towards filmmakers sharing the secrets of their craft: while Variety sponsors a one-off talk tied to an award for UK Achievement In Film, which we can talk about tomorrow. The big star interviews, meanwhile, fall under the Tiscali Screen Talks banner, so you'll need to visit the Tiscali site for any official transcripts and clips that might be available.
At today's talk, Time Out critic Nigel Floyd interviews Robert Carlyle, an actor who commands a great deal of affection from audiences. (Particularly Scottish ones: I remember visiting an Edinburgh cinema just before The World Is Not Enough came out, and their Coming Soon noticeboard delightfully claimed the Bond film starred Carlyle and Pierce Brosnan in that order.) The affection turns out to be justified - Carlyle's a charming, humble and funny interviewee, particularly for someone who's refused to go out on the chat show circuit and hawk his wares. He tells an entertaining story from around the time of The Full Monty, where he made a series of increasingly ludicrous demands to get out of promoting the film in America - an appearance on Letterman, a flight on Concorde - only to find to his horror that they called his bluff and flew him from Romania to New York for a four-minute conversation.
Floyd avoids the strict chronological approach, preferring to base the interview around a series of carefully chosen film clips. We inevitably open with Begbie's big scene from Trainspotting ("that lassie got glassed..."), a line that Carlyle admits will probably end up on his tombstone. But Floyd carefully contrasts this with examples of the actor's less showy work: such as his early appearance in Ken Loach's Riff Raff, alongside other fellow members of Edinburgh's Raindog Theatre. Carlyle talks about his love of Loach's improvisational approach, and how it feeds into everything he does - how 80% of acting is reacting in the spaces between the lines, and using that space to give a subtext to a character beyond what's in the script. (Good example of this: apparently, Begbie's gay.)
Carlyle talks about the big hits of his career (claiming that The Full Monty, "a feelbad movie with a feelgood ending", was the hardest thing he's ever done), and how he balances those out against the smaller, more personal projects ("I'll always read the stuff that doesn't have any money first"). He's a very grounded, down-to-earth sort of bloke, something he puts down to sticking to his roots in Glasgow. But at the same time, he's not afraid to make some very brave career choices. Horror fan Floyd uses this as an excuse to show an extraordinary scene from 28 Weeks Later (locatable on YouTube under the amusingly inappropriate title "Cool Scene Starring Robert Carlyle"), and ask how many actors would accept a role where their character performs such a spectacular act of betrayal. Carlyle admits that the scene in question is probably the main reason why he took the part - the challenge of acting two conflicting emotions simultaneously. "I love you, but I'm fucking off..." as he sums it up: and it's the combination of his willingness to go to that dark place, plus his ability to sum it all up in one sweary sentence, that makes us all love him so much.
8.30pm: Surprise Film: The Wrestler (official site)
To be honest, it's a surprise to me too. Two surprises, technically.
First surprise: I said at the start of the Festival that we didn't have tickets for this year's Surprise Film. And up until yesterday, that was still the case. But we got some excellent ticket-buying advice from the Malcotrazes, which I'm happy to pass on to you. If you're desperate for tickets for a sold out LFF film, keep trying the website between 11.30am and noon each day - that's around the time that BFI box office staff release any newly-returned tickets for sale. The Belated Birthday Girl did just that on Saturday morning, and picked us up a pair of tickets slap bang in the middle of the cinema. Hooray for Mr and Mrs Malcotraz! Loving your work.
Second surprise: so, yeah, once we had tickets, we had to start caring about what the choice of Surprise Film would be. There are unwritten rules - it'll be an American film, already on theatrical release in the US but not out here yet, normally something comparatively mainstream. Back in the Adrian Wootton days, it would have been a big commercial release regardless of quality, and to be honest my initial prediction of Body Of Lies was more in that vein. Since Sandra Hebron took over, the slot's been more commonly used for a late booking of a film that could easily have fitted into the existing Festival programme. Speculation ran rife in the usual places, with Clint Eastwood's Changeling emerging as a favourite. FilmFan's suggestion of The Wrestler was rejected because, as yet, it hasn't been released in the US outside of the festival circuit. So when the title of Darren Aronofsky's Venice award-winner appeared on the screen, it was a genuine surprise: the unwritten rules, apparently, no longer apply. Which could make future years' Surprise Film slots very interesting indeed.
But in the meantime, back to this year. Mickey Rourke plays Randy 'The Ram' Robinson, who was a top player on the American pro wrestling circuit back in the eighties. Two decades later, he's still going, cutting a somewhat ludicrous figure: playing to dwindling audiences, selling Polaroids of himself at conventions, becoming a bulked-up parody of the star he used to be. When the chance comes to face off against his old enemy The Ayatollah in a 20th anniversary rematch, he jumps at it. However, an unexpected health scare - well, if you can call the aftermath of a wrestling match involving broken glass, barbed wire and a staple gun 'unexpected' - forces him to reconsider where his life is heading.
This may well be the only review of The Wrestler you'll read that draws parallels between Darren Aronofsky and Dizzee Rascal, so bear with me here. Aronofsky's first two films played here at the LFF, and both Pi and Requiem For A Dream received a huge amount of acclaim. But then he went off track with the over-the-top romantic fantasy of The Fountain - sadly, the official message boards for the 2006 LFF have been cleared off the site, otherwise I could show you the post where Sandra Hebron admitted she'd refused to allow the film in the festival. Aronofsky lost a lot of goodwill with The Fountain, and needed to do something to get it back. You know how Dizzee Rascal released a nakedly commercial single this summer after years of lounging around in mid-chart mediocrity? Well, that's exactly what Aronofsky has done here - to quote The Belated Birthday Girl on the release of Dance Wiv Me, he's finally made a movie with a tune.
Because when you get down to it, The Wrestler is exactly the sort of story of personal redemption that we've seen a thousand times before, and mainly on Oscar night. Aronofsky's hyped-up visual style is toned down as much as possible, apart from the repeated image of the camera following Randy's back as he walks somewhere, making this the first Oscar-bait character study to have been shot like a first person shoot-em-up computer game. The main subplots dealing with Randy's personal life, notably his relationships with his daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) and lapdancer Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), are played at soap opera level, and never really get resolved to anyone's satisfaction. We get to experience what happens backstage at wrestling tournaments, and admittedly that's not something we usually see in the movies: that's about as far as The Wrestler goes in terms of originality.
But it stars Mickey Rourke as The Ram: and that might just be all we need. It's the perfect combination of actor and role, because Randy's twenty years of decline from his peak heartbreakingly mirror Rourke's own decline over that period, and he knows it. Try having a look at him again in Rumble Fish some time, like I did last year. In that film, Rourke is charismatic, charming, and - dammit, I'll say it - looks terrific. Watch him in Once Upon A Time In Mexico after that, and the contrast is terrifying. Two decades of bad living and worse plastic surgery have taken a serious toll. Rourke has taken all of that, along with a humbling amount of self-awareness, and channeled it all into the performance of a lifetime. The Wrestler, as a movie, may exist solely as a framework for that performance: but that's a good enough reason for seeing it.
(Rourke and Aronofsky also turned up for a post-film Q&A, which was nice. Like a pair of wrestlers, they've planned their characters in advance - Aronofsky the wimpy Jewish intellectual, Rourke the entertaining sweary lunk - and they've got a hell of a tag team going. Best line of the night came from Rourke: "I checked out Aronofsky: I saw two of his movies, and liked them a lot. I saw another one of his movies, and liked it a little bit...")
Notes From Spank's Pals
Suzanne Vega Fanclub - Every year when I watch the surprise film at the Odeon West End (or Leicester Square), I spend the whole time worrying myself sick (okay bit of an exaggeration) that I won't be able to remember the title when it comes to writing up this review. In fact I usually spend most of the film repeating the title as a little mantra only to forget it as soon as I leave the cinema, and then have to wait for Spank's review to remind me what it was actually called. In the event though it wasn't too hard to remember a film that is called The Wrestler. However not being a fan of that branch of sport cum pantomine I must admit my heart sank when the credits started to roll. Yet this one turned out to be quite good, and the first one I have actually enjoyed since The School Of Rock.
Mickey Rourke plays the pumped up steroid monster Ram, who at the fag end of his career, is still trying to get maximum performance from an ageing body. Because the thing is although wrestling may not be a sport, be in no doubt these strongmen are real athletes (remember when Ali tried to take one on, and Tyson etc.......?). As such the film takes us backstage into their slightly bizarre world, as we see the pre-planned rituals, the drugs, and the camaraderie that makes up their not very well rewarded lives.
Rourke's (Ram's) love interest in the story is lap dancer and single mum Marisa Tomei. Thus whilst she is underused in this film, we still see more of her than I had ever expected to in a movie (hopefully that is a one off, and not the sign of a fine career on the slide).
Anyway what we get is a movie that covers a lot of the same territory that was featured in some of the later Rocky films, namely what do you do when your earning power, that has been based on your body, is now up against Old Father Time. Thus Rourke and Tomei are both defying the ageing process for as long as they can to continue to earn a crust, before they end up on minimum wage somewhere or perhaps skid row. Only in Rourke's case this could also be a mortuary slab. Both of them also have problematic relations with their children, as the nature of their work means they haven't got the quality time available for their offspring. As such they are two peas from the same pod, and you find yourself willing them to make a go of it together. It is therefore to the films credit that it doesn't take the easy schmaltzy route, because ultimately these are people that are just too fucked up and set in their ways to change things now.
What was a real bonus was getting both the director and Mickey Rourke onstage afterwards for a very entertaining and revealing Q&A. Somewhere in the middle of their banter the word documentary was used, and that is probably a better way to see this rather than a conventional story. In fact they revealed that all the other wrestlers featured were the real deal rather than actors. The other bonus for me was at the end I got to follow Sandra Hebron (twittering away to some lackeys) down the aisle and out of the cinema. I tried not to stare at her shiny boots, but can reveal she is a lot more petite in stature than how she looks when onstage introducing the film.
Finally however if this film has any real message, it is that it is probably best to stay away from staple guns.