Reviewed today: Draquila - Italy Trembles, Howl, Route Irish, Sawako Decides, Surviving Life.
1.00pm: Draquila - Italy Trembles [official site]
By this stage in most recent LFFs, I've turned into Sylvester Stallone at the end of Rocky, a burnt-out husk standing in the middle of an auditorium yelling "ADRIAAAAN!" That's Adrian Wootton, of course. Regular readers will know that he ran this Festival between 1997 and 2001, and still pops up now and again as one of the programmers specialising in Italian cinema. I don't know if they shove all the Italian flicks to the back of the schedule or not, but it looks that way to me, as it always seems to be quite late in the Festival before I get to spot him.
Still, there was always a pretty good chance of seeing Adrian at this one, particularly when he's got a nice Italian woman to talk to in the Q&A afterwards. That woman is Sabina Guzzanti, the satirist behind this documentary. I've seen the phrase 'Italian Michael Moore' bandied around a couple of times in connection with Guzzanti: physically, it's an appalling slur, but she certainly shares a modus operandi with Moore. She's using wit and humour to put forward a clear political viewpoint of her own, and if the other side thinks they're going to get a fair say, they can piss off.
When that other side is Silvio Berlusconi, you can see her point. Draquila tells the story of the town of L'Aquila in the twelve months following the devastating earthquake of April 2009. If you believe the state TV news, by September that year Berlusconi was personally welcoming the inhabitants of the town into newly constructed houses. The reality turns out to be a little more complex than that: most of the townsfolk are living in what amounts to a concentration camp under ludicrously tight security, while the process by which contracts for the new houses were allocated looks dodgier and dodgier the more you examine it.
With smart use of archive footage and cheeky animation, Guzzanti reveals how Berlusconi pulled this off. The key to it all was Civil Protection, the government department which has always had powers to go beyond the law in cases of national emergency. All it took was a slight rewording of 'national emergency' to include 'big events', and you've got a scheme where a national swimming tournament could be used as an excuse to build a couple of private swimming pools at public expense.
The great thing about having Berlusconi as your subject in a film like this is that you don't need to work too hard: sooner or later, he will do something stupid and the whole scheme will collapse in on itself. But that's cold comfort to the townsfolk of L'Aquila who one year on still don't have permanent housing, while their original homes - most of which are still pretty structurally sound - are under military guard and unable to be accessed.
Guzzanti explains this all brilliantly for those of us who didn't know about the scandal, but without the hectoring tone that Michael Moore frequently descends into. She interviews several people who think that Berlusconi is an angel for what he's done ("at least he isn't a queer," claims one woman proudly), and is happy to sow doubts among her interviewees on camera. The result is a splendid film that mixes wit with a palpable political rage at the way that Italy's become, in the memorable words of one interviewee, "a shit dictatorship without the torture." Which makes it all the more irritating that I had to leave as the Q&A started to get to my next film. ADRIAAAAN!
2.45pm: Surviving Life [official site]
Except the next film started a good 20 minutes late, so I didn't need to leave early after all. Bah!
Jan Svankmajer last featured in these reviews in 2006. I've long worshipped him as the god of Czech surrealist animation, so it came as a bit of a shock that his last film, Lunacy, was rather poor. I noted at the time that his wife and long-term collaborator Eva had just died, and hoped out loud that he was just going through a temporary rough patch.
It was just a temporary rough patch: Surviving Life is the best thing he's done in years. As with Lunacy, it opens with Svankmajer himself apologising for the film, this time specifically for the low budget that's forced him to use paper cut-outs as his primary animation technique. He uses it to tell the story of Eugene (Vaclav Helsus), a married man who starts seeing a beautiful young woman (Klara Issova) in his dreams. He asks his co-worker, his doctor and his psychoanalyst for advice on what to do. Unfortunately, they all misunderstand the situation completely, because they think he wants the dreams to stop. Eugene's plan is quite the opposite, and he's soon regularly venturing into dreamland by sucking on his mother's old handbag. (That's not a euphemism. Or is it?)
From the early shot involving buildings growing feet and walking around, it's impossible to watch Surviving Life without thinking of Terry Gilliam's old cartoons for Monty Python. But Svankmajer adds a glossy digital spin to an ancient technique, along with some motifs that'll be familiar to fans of his work - repeated rituals, extreme close-up live action shots, and at least one sequence involving severed animal tongues slopping all over the place.
Svankmajer says in his intro "there's very little that you will find amusing," but he's lying for comic effect. After the somewhat glum Lunacy, this is an absolute laugh riot - the running gag involving the portraits of Freud and Jung on the analyst's wall is worth the price of admission alone. Plus, because Svankmajer is a proper old school surrealist, he can do dream logic right. Look and learn, Nolan.
6.00pm: Howl [official site]
My second Rob Epstein film of LFF 2010. Early on, we had his feature debut in the Archive section, as he was one of the collective behind the documentary Word Is Out. Since then, he's worked on a number of gay-themed features, the best known being The Times Of Harvey Milk. And now we've got his latest, made in collaboration with Jeffrey Friedman, and this time taking a dramatised documentary approach.
The starting point of Howl is Allen Ginsberg's trailblazing poem of the same name. Two of the four threads of the movie are based around the poem itself: one is a recreation of the first public reading by Ginsberg (James Franco), the other is an illustrated version of the text with animation. Interspersed with this, we get dramatisations of two related events: an interview that Ginsberg gave two years after publication, and the obscenity trial which put its publishers - and the concept of freedom of expression - in the dock.
It's an ambitious structure for a movie, and it nearly works. The four parts complement each other very nicely indeed, and the fact that every word in the script comes from a published source gives the dialogue solid authenticity. The trial (played direct from the transcripts) is an interesting debate on when obscene language is justified within art, although it has to be said that the audience sympathies will be somewhat skewed when your prosecutor is weaselly David Strathairn and your defence is handsome Jon Hamm. And the interview sequences give a fascinating insight into Ginsberg's philosophy of life and writing. Anyone who works with language for a living, for fun, or for whatever the hell it is I'm doing here, will find Ginsberg's words positively inspirational.
But at the heart of it all is the poem itself, which we have to hear in full for the rest of the movie to make sense. And for my money, the animated scenes don't quite work. There are some stunning individual visuals - I love, for example, the way that legendary designer Pablo Ferro was brought on board for one shot only. ("Moloch!") But all too often, the illustrations just become straightforward line-by-line depictions of the text, and are far too literal for their own good. The scenes at the public reading work better, though I do appreciate that they couldn't do that for the whole poem. Don't ask me what they could have done instead.
It's a minor niggle, and it's possibly one that's personal to me, maybe because I already see too much mismatched animation during these Festivals already. If you have fewer qualms about that sort of thing, then Howl might just blow you away completely, and to be honest I wouldn't blame you.
8.30pm: Sawako Decides [official site]
I've not seen all that much Japanese cinema so far this festival, have I? Sure, there's been 13 Assassins, although to be honest I think of that more as a Miike film than a Japanese film. I was amused to discover that last Saturday's diary, which featured two reviews of 13 Assassins, has received a ludicrous number of hits as it's been retweeted between a small army of fans of the Japanese boy band SMAP. (Gorô Inagaki from the band plays the baddie.) You can never tell what's going to attract people to these reviews, can you? SMAP! SMAP! SMAP! SMAP! SMAP! Just thought I'd try it to see if it worked again.
Anyway, for the last three days of the Festival we've got three new Japanese films to look forward to, and this is the first. Sawako (Hikari Mitsushima) is, to put it bluntly, a doormat. Having left her village under mysterious circumstances and moved to Tokyo, she's made her way through a succession of bad jobs and worse boyfriends, the latest one being eco-wimp Kenichi (Masashi Endo). Through it all, her attitude remains the same: there's not much you can really do about it, is there? And when her father takes ill and she's bullied into running the family clam business, things go from bad to worse. Something will, eventually, just smap. Sorry, I meant snap.
Sawako Decides could almost be a remake of Lars Von Trier's Breaking The Waves, except the third act doesn't involve Sawako being raped to death by big hairy Scotsmen. And despite the indignities that writer/director Yuya Ishii piles upon his star, it's always done with a light touch and plenty of sympathetic laughs. So when the tide inevitably turns for Sadako towards the end, we're pretty well prepared for it.
Nevertheless, Ishii can't resist fiddling with our expectations just a bit more towards the end, when you think you've got it all worked out. He finishes off the film with that wobbly emotional tone I've come to expect from Japanese comedy dramas - it's not entirely satisfying, but then again neither is real life. The Belated Birthday Girl has an interesting theory that Sawako's decision is a message to Japan as a whole: we're all a bit mediocre really, and we should just admit it and get on with stuff. Personally, I'm not entirely sure that just applies to Japan.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Route Irish [trailer]
Suzanne Vega Fanclub - Well of course I made it, with time to spare as well (.........er you need to read yesterday's review of The Pipe to get that). Anyway keeping in with the Irish theme of The Pipe, I saw Route Irish on the same day, but am reviewing it now on the following day, although you will be reading the review of The Pipe today, as the review I write today won't be read by you until tomorrow. Well that is the tomorrow from the day that I am actually writing it, although when you read it, it will of course be today.
So if I wasn't already feeling pleased with myself, having got from one cinema in Waterloo to another in Leicester Square in under twenty minutes, my excitement was rapidly coming to the boil, when the lady of the shiny boots appeared on stage to introduce the director: "so let's give a warm welcome to Ken Loach......."
Oh shit, that will teach me to pay more attention when booking these things. Although in my defence I was making my choice based on what little was still available, and in order to fit into a time slot. So yes you could say I am not a fan. However in my defence again, only a couple of weeks ago I did try having a go with Looking For Eric (after all how wrong can you go when a film has a footballer in it). However I thought I could watch that in bed and then of course it all went Zzzzzzzzz.
Anyway this is a pseudo Get Carter plot, in a 'who killed my brother/half brother/bestest mate, don't believe the official explanation' sort of way. Only in this case the action/deed took place in darkest Baghdad. Although as Spank has already pointed out in his review, one problem for this film is that it takes place mostly in Liverpool (methinks the director thought better of taking a film crew out to Iraq). Am I leaving bits out here? Okay well there is nothing Irish about this film, as Route Irish is slang for the road to hell that connects Baghdad Airport to the Green Zone. Also that our lead character/hero Fergus, and his dead mate Frankie are contract security mercenaries, operating in Baghdad.
Now there is a real story waiting to be made out of the role of private security firms operating in Iraq (mainly American), that outnumber the military, have far less stringent rules of engagement, and for a number of years have operated outside and above the law. Thus given Loach's nuanced, informative and eloquent perfomance in the Q&A afterwards, without knowing any better I would have said he was the man to make such a film. This unfortunately is nowhere near it.
So let's not pull our punches here. This is a load of old macho posturing bollocks, that has more in common with something like Lock Stock And Two Smoking Barrels than anything that is relevant to what has been happening in Iraq. Also our hero (puke) Fergus is such an aggressive in your face cartoon character, that I spent the entire film hoping someone would hurry up and put a bullet through his head.
Trying to be a little more positive, I would say that this is not really a film for the cinema as such, but could potentially make a small splash as a two or three part television series. Mainly of course for the sort of audience who thinks Spooks is a genuine inside look at a world normally hidden from us. However its more natural format is probably to be some sort of computer game.
Anyway if I wasn't so erotically intimidated by the lady with the shiny boots, I would have tried to get her attention in the Q&A afterwards. Then I could have asked Loach about the morality of using actual news footage of the mutilated and dying in Baghdad, to pad out his piece of fiction. The last film I saw take such a cheap and disgusting approach was Welcome To Sarajevo, and that was a load of old tosh as well.