Reviewed today: Dreileben 1: Beats Being Dead, Dreileben 2: Don't Follow Me Around, Hara-Kiri: Death Of A Samurai, International Animation Panorama Programme 1, Rampart.
I've seen this story before. Los Angeles, 1999, society on the brink of collapse as the city's police run riot through the streets. And when a Rodney King-style beating by a rogue cop is captured on video, it turns out to be the spark that sets the city ablaze. I've not just seen this story before, I've seen it at a previous LFF: the year was 1995, and the film was Strange Days. Of course, that film treated 1999 as science fiction, and the main addition to the outline above was Ralph Fiennes wanking over pictures of his ex being pumped through wires directly into his head. Rampart, on the other hand, is a period piece. Funny how the time goes, isn't it?
LA cop Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) would probably agree with that last bit: he's the sort of person who would tell you that things were better in the old days, before all these scumbags flooded into his city. He's already got a blot on his record, and is carrying around the nickname 'Daterape' thanks to a dodgy shooting he was involved in a decade ago. When video emerges of him beating the crap out of someone for a driving offence, it starts hitting the fan big time. But is Brown just having a run of bad luck, or is someone out to make an example of him to distract attention from the rottenness of the rest of his colleagues?
Rampart has a terrific pedigree. It has a basis in fact, as the Rampart division of the LAPD was notoriously swimming in corruption at the turn of the century. (There was almost a TV show called Rampart based on the same events, but they decided at the last minute to call it The Shield instead.) It started life as a script from acclaimed novelist James Ellroy. It reunites director Owen Moverman and star Woody Harrelson from one of the most interesting movies to come out of the Iraq war, The Messenger. And it has a ludicrously overstuffed supporting cast, with every secondary role played by a big name: Sigourney Weaver and Steve Buscemi as the city suits trying to bring Dave down, Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon as his ex-wives, Ned Beatty as his former mentor, Ice Cube as the cop investigating the scandal.
But it doesn't work. Dave Brown is the sort of full-on bad boy character that an actor loves to get his teeth into, and there's no denying that Harrelson takes on the challenge admirably. But he's the only character that's really there at all: Moverman crams every scene with guest stars, but he can't distract us from the fact that he and Ellroy have come up with a leading role without a decent framework to put it in. There's no real story, just an escalating sequence of mistakes that Brown makes in his professional and personal lives, and a series of one-sided confrontations whose outcome is never in doubt. The LFF programme's statement that Rampart is "the best crime movie of recent times" seems ludicrously hollow once you've actually watched it: it's a fine performance, sure, but a film needs more than that.
No surprises here, surely? The animation section of the LFF programme has been a highlight ever since my second-ever festival in 1990, and I'm always keen to see what Jayne Pilling's selections are for each year. As ever, the programme is a mixture of British student and independent films, and small-to-large budget affairs from all over the world.
This year's first selection (expect a report on the second in a couple of days) opens with two of those British shorts. Terrifyingly, Emma Burch claims that Being Bradford Dillman [official site] is based on her own childhood: however, she's taken the trauma of being told by her alcoholic mother that she was born a boy, and combined a subtle mixture of 2D and 3D animation with Tim Burton-style character designs to make something surprisingly touching out of it. In a similar fashion, Corinne Ladeinde's NFTS graduation film Ernesto [trailer] takes another childhood memory - that period at primary school when losing your milk teeth becomes a badge of honour - and gives it a surreal twist that turns it into a thing of pure joy.
Neither of these films is particularly aimed at children, despite their subject matter. Two of the other shorts in the programme are, however. José Miguel Ribeiro's Dodu: The Cardboard Boy [studio site] appears to be just one episode out of a long-running series, inventively putting its lead character into an imaginary world made entirely out of cardboard just like him. It always fascinates me how animation is a medium that so often foregrounds the process involved in its making, especially when it's aimed at such a young audience: the use of cardboard for everything (barring Dodu's best friend, an insect made out of a bottle top) ends up being more or less what the film is about. Meanwhile, Ralf Kukula's The Man Who Still Believed In The Stork [studio site] is an adaptation of a popular German children's book. It takes on the sticky topic of where babies come from, and tastefully answers the question with the fairytale story of a naive grown-up man trying to that find out for himself. Although I'd imagine that if you got a child to watch it, they'd have several more awkward questions of their own afterwards.
In recent years, the International Animation programmes have tended to include much longer films than in the past - you used to get a dozen shorts for your 75-90 minutes, now you're lucky to get half that. The two longest pieces in this programme coincidentally turn out to be the best and worst of the set. Rosto's The Monster Of Nix [official site] doesn't work in this programme primarily because of its length: at 30 minutes, it's like having a jukebox of your favourite punk singles suddenly interrupted by a prog rock double album. Sure, the technique of its CG animation is flawless, and the story it eventually settles down to tell has a neat post-modern twist or two in it. But the fantasy world that Rosto presents is so overstuffed with detail that there's no room for the viewer in there.
I'm much happier with the 13 minute adaptation of Oedipus [clip] by legendary Dutch animator Paul Driessen. Aside from the usual fun of his loose-lined style, the decision to have Oedipus relate his woes in therapy allows Driessen to do something even more radical - tell the entire story backwards. It sounds like a gimmick, but the countless reversed mini-stories within his main tale are hilarious to watch: and they require the viewer to engage with the film in order to make sense of them, something that Rosto's sit-back-and-look-at-this-photorealistic-thing-I've-made approach doesn't allow for. It's far and away the best film of the six, and it's sent me back to YouTube to (illegally) remind me just how damn good Paul Driessen is.
8.15pm: Hara-Kiri: Death Of A Samurai [official site]
No surprises here either, I guess. I've spent over a decade raving about Takashi Miike's films in LFF reports, starting with Dead Or Alive back in 2000. Last year marked the point where the rest of the world caught up with me, as 13 Assassins moved beyond festival fodder and became a proper commercial hit. Which inevitably means that his followup will come with the words "from the makers of 13 Assassins" all over the poster. Which could be a problem: from a distance, it may look like Hara-Kiri is cut from the same cloth, but it's a very different film from its predecessor.
Previously filmed in 1962 by Masaki Kobayashi, Hara-Kiri tells the story of samurai who've fallen on hard times - when Japan is at peace, there aren't many ways left for them to earn a living. One of the few options left open to them is, basically, a scam: go to a noble house, ask for permission to perform ritual suicide in its courtyard, and hope they'll take pity on you and give you money or a job. The house of Ii, led by Kageyu (Kôji Yakusho), is becoming fed up of this sort of thing: when a young ronin called Motome Chijiiwa (Eita) pays them a visit and makes the same request, they decide to call his bluff. They have no idea what the consequences of this action will be.
It's the title that's going to be the problem, isn't it? People will put that together with Miike's reputation, and assume that this will be a gorefest with entrails flying everywhere. But The BBG and I told you just a few months ago on Europe's Best Website that Miike is capable of making all sorts of films: and he's chosen to follow up the full-throttle action of 13 Assassins with a quiet, well-acted historical drama. He sticks quite closely to the plot and structure of the 1962 original, making one small but crucial change to the battle at its climax: a bold move which makes that battle more badass and less violent at the same time.
The lack of violence is probably going to irritate the casual viewer, but Hara-Kiri's pleasures lie elsewhere. The story has real dramatic force as it progresses, and if anything Miike plays it even more straight than the earlier film. Kobayashi almost presents the big hara-kiri scene as black farce, with both parties knowing exactly what's going on but unwilling to say it out loud. Miike, on the other hand, allows both Kageyu and Motome to make their intentions more explicit, setting this up as a tragedy from the word go. As we discover more of the backstory behind Motome's suicide plan, the dramatic ironies pile on top of each other in an almost Shakespearian fashion.
The one thing that doesn't really work, unfortunately, is Miike's decision to shoot in 3D. Again, put yourself in the mind of the casual viewer who assembles the words 'Miike', 'hara-kiri' and '3D' in their heads - they'll wonder, what kind of crazy shit is he going to hurl out of the screen at us? Well, nothing, really. The extra dimension gives restrained depth to the settings, with hardly anything breaking out of the plane of the screen at all. The 3D effect is most pronounced during some pretty shots marking the changing of the seasons, and during the snowstorm that accompanies the final battle.
But everyone knows what the problem with modern 3D movies is - because they have to be viewed through polarised lenses, everything looks much darker than normal. And Miike is using this process to shoot a story that's largely set indoors, in the days before electric light. Without 3D, you could imagine this being a beautifully underlit movie, with its cast suffering their trials inside a succession of artfully shadowy interiors. With 3D, you're frequently left peering through the gloom trying to work out what the hell's going on. It's nice that the LFF made an effort to source a 3D copy of the film, but when it gets a proper release let's hope there's a 2D print available too.
Despite the problematic visuals, I'm glad I saw Hara-Kiri - it's more proof of Miike's versatility as a director, although I'm the last person who needs proof of that. I'm particularly glad that I saw it at this festival, the place where I was introduced to Miike at the first time. And I'm especially glad of the happy coincidence that allowed me to see Shin-Heike Monogatari and Hara-Kiri on consecutive days. The first film turns out to be about the rise of the samurai: the second sets up the circumstances for their ultimate downfall. And both films end with a symbolic act of transgression that marks the transition of power from one group to another. Double bills are always the most impressive when they end up being accidental.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Dreileben 1: Beats Being Dead [official site]
The Cineaste - This is the first of three films tenuously linked by being located in the same fictional venue in the former east Germany. Johannes – probably in his late teens/early twenties - wants to study medicine in LA, and to boost his chances he’s got some humble temp work in a hospital, work he’s secured with the help of the head doctor, a family friend. We see him going about his duties, and conscientiously studying for his exams.
But that’s the logical sequence of events out the way, because after this the film veers around - it doesn’t seem to know where it wants to go, or how to get there. By a rather contrived sequence of events Johannes meets the similarly-aged Ana, who works in a local hotel, and they start an on/off affair. There are attempts to make a creepy, spooky background (there’s an escaped offender at large), but the whole thing doesn’t ring true. Lush woodland landscapes make for some fine scenic shots, but the overall ensemble doesn’t really engage.
Maybe the film is a comment on youth – their spontaneity or lack of focus? Their adaptability or aimlessness? We never see Johannes or any of his family or friends so we never really get to understand him. The film doesn’t build to any sort of proper denouement – from about 30 minutes from the end I started wondering where it was all going, and sadly the answer is that it all rather peters out as an anti-climax.
Hara-Kiri: Death Of A Samurai
The Belated Birthday Girl - Audiences who first came to Miike only recently through 13 Assassins will with this film think that what he does is jidai-geki. But it is only a coincidence that he followed up 13 Assassins with another film about the samurai era, and it is always a mistake with Miike to think "this is what he does", whatever "this" is (and in fact Miike also made family film Ninja Kids!!! in the same year as this one).
Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai is a very different film to 13 Assassins, and that may have led to some of the negative comments which came out after the Cannes screening. The film is in fact the second film adaptation of Takiguchi Yasuhiko's novel Ibun Ronin-ki (roughly translated as "the strange tale of the masterless samurai"). The first was made in 1962 and was also known to audiences outside Japan as Hara Kiri, but was actually titled Seppuku in Japanese (which is the correct term in Japanese for the ritual suicide, not hara-kiri, which is never used). Miike's film is entitled Ichimei in Japanese, which would translate as "a Life", and it does indeed tell the story of the life of a young samurai who grew up in times of peace, relocated to Edo as a child after the destruction of Hiroshima castle and the disbandment of his clan at the Shogun's order.
This film follows closely the same structure as the earlier film (and presumably therefore the novel) where we see a masterless samurai, Hanshiro Tsugumo (played here by the bad-boy of Kabuki, Ebizo Ichikawa), turn up at the gates of the powerful Ii clan and ask to be allowed to commit suicide in their courtyard, as the honourable alternative to living a fruitless life in poverty. But Tsugumo is not the first samurai to have turned up on the Ii doorstep with such a request, and we soon hear what happened with the first - a younger samurai Motome, played by popular TV and film actor Eita.
Ebizo Ichikawa is pitch-perfect in the role of the older samurai: although he seems a little young for the part, his performance hits all the right notes, particularly the stately restraint of the samurai requesting to be allowed to commit seppuku. Miike as director is also showing stately restraint, and those hoping for gushing blood and epic battles may be disappointed. But as a moving and poignant film portraying the waste of a life and the desperation which poverty can bring, with Hara-Kiri Miike has delivered a film which again shows his versatility and sure hand.
Dreileben 2: Don't Follow Me Around
The Cineaste - Johana is a police psychologist. With the escaped offender in Dreileben still at large, she’s been called in to give help with her psychological profiling to help track the criminal down. Not a local, we see her saying goodbye to her young daughter and her parents, and off she drives. When she arrives at the hotel at Dreileben, her room has been double-booked and there are no more vacancies. By coincidence an old university friend has been living in the town for several years with her successful writer husband, so Johana is able to stay with them.
She meets the local police authorities, and a conventional police & criminal thriller could have developed from there – only it didn’t. Because Johana and her friend Vera start reminiscing, and lots of ghosts fall out of their closet. Vera and her husband are an odd couple – one minute very serious, the next laughing uproariously at next to nothing. The film is very talky – but lots of it is irrelevant and inconsequential, and quickly it was too much bother trying to work out what was relevant or not.
As in the first film, I think the director wasn’t really sure what sort of a film – what genre - he wanted to make. It meanders too slowly for a proper thriller, and it takes itself too irritatingly seriously to be a sod-the-plotline-just-enjoy-all-that-arty-fartyness sort of film. With little particularly memorable about it, Dreileben was disappointing.