Spank's LFF Diary, Sunday 14/10/2012
Spank's LFF Diary, Tuesday 16/10/2012

Spank's LFF Diary, Monday 15/10/2012

Reviewed today: Chakravyuh; Francine; The Summit; Teddy Bear.

Chakravyuh12.00pm: Chakravyuh [official site]

Don't get me wrong: I think Tess is a terrific film, and I'm glad that I saw it on Saturday afternoon. But while I was doing that, The Belated Birthday Girl was watching the second half of a self-created Indian double bill, following up Satyajit Ray's 1963 classic Mahanagar with the new Bollywood romcom Aiyyaa. And I think it would be interesting to do what she did, and directly compare Indian cinema half a century ago with what it looks like now. An unfair comparison, sure, given that Ray is established as one of the finest directors in the world, and Aiyyaa is just a fluffy romcom. But many people have a very stereotyped view of what Indian movies are like these days, and it helps to be able to see the alternatives: it's not just melodrama and people singing on top of mountains.

Having said that, Prakash Jha's new film Chakravyuh is partly melodrama and people singing up mountains, but that's down to the commercial pressures exerted by the local industry. What's interesting is the other stuff that's in the film. Its central characters are two men who've been friends since college, but have only just been reunited after a period of estrangement. And that needs to be stressed: two friends. Everything up to and including the official press kit synopsis says they're friends: but Cary Sawhney's note in the LFF programme booklet is entirely constructed around the mistaken premise that they're brothers. (The error's subsequently been fixed in the online version, but is still there under today's entry in the downloadable calendar.) Mind you, given that I got the spelling of Aiyyaa wrong the other day, I'm hardly one to crow about other people's mistakes.

Anyway, about these friends. Adil (Arjun Rampal) is a dedicated cop: Kabir (Abhay Deol) turned out to be too reckless and impulsive to hold down a police job, which was the breaking point that kept him apart from his friend for eight years. Adil is having a problem dealing with the Naxal Maoist insurrectionists who are threatening order in his district, and it's Kabir who comes up with a solution: he'll join the Naxals as an undercover agent, reporting back to Adil on their plans. Is this a plan that's doomed to catastrophic failure? Take a guess.

Initially, you think you know where this is heading: the police are good, the Naxals are bad, the moral lines are clear-cut. Which is one of those stereotypes that I mentioned earlier - the general assumption that Bollywood films are all about the white hats versus the black hats. Watch enough of India's recent movies, though, and you'll see that moral ambiguity is rife. Frequently, the country's biggest superstars will play flat-out murderers - Aamir Khan in Ghajini, Shahrukh Khan in the Don films - and audiences will be expected to sympathise with them simply because they're famous actors. We can't always assume that the authority figures are the goodies.

The first warning actually appears in the opening titles, where we get the opposite of the traditional disclaimer that any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental - "there are no coincidences." And as we progress through the film, Jha is careful to give both the police and the Naxals equal treatment. As each side in the conflict retaliates with increasing force, our sympathies automatically transfer to the other side, until - like Kabir - we simply don't know what we believe any more. It's not until close to the end that we realise that Jha has been working on a much bigger theme than the cops-versus-terrorists film we thought we were watching.

Which may make Chakravyuh sound like a difficult watch: it isn't. It's been made with an Indian mass audience in mind, and it's produced to the usual high-gloss standard we've come to expect from the country. The action scenes are excitingly shot, the melodrama escalates in a slow but pleasing fashion, and we even get a few musical numbers - at least half of which turn out to be the toe-tappingest Maoist propaganda anthems you've ever heard. As is also standard form for Bollywood these days, we also get two separate warnings about the dangers of smoking. Which is strange, given that as far as I recall there wasn't a single ciggy on display in the whole two and a half hours. The one bit of censor's interference visible is some pixellation on a shot featuring a torture victim's severed ear: maybe he was keeping a fag tucked behind it.

Francine4.15pm: Francine [official site

There are some TV shows where fans get very affectionate towards their cast members, even after they've been taken off the air. I said a couple of months ago that for me, Oz was one of those shows: and the earlier cop drama from the same producers, Homicide: Life On The Street, is another. Members of its ensemble cast have kept popping up all over the place since the show's demise in 2000, but it's Melissa Leo who's come out of it best. Whether she's swearing her head off on telly after winning an Oscar or putting Louis CK's head through a car window for refusing oral sex, she's been out there taking extraordinary chances with her choice of roles. And here's another one. Sometimes, as with Frozen River from a few years ago, she's the only good reason for watching a movie. With Francine, it's different: this is a film constructed entirely around her astonishing lead performance.

Francine has just been released from some sort of institution back into society. She's been warned that it'll be hard to adjust to life outside, and over a loosely-structured 75 minutes we get to see if that's true or not. Certainly she very much keeps herself to herself, finding it hard to make contact with other people, or stay interested in them for very long. She's a lot more comfortable around animals, both in terms of the work she takes on and the small menagerie she assembles in her house.

Writer/directors Brian M Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky tell Francine's story in a series of disconnected scenes, and it's often left to us to interpret them or fill in the gaps. Some of them are quite obvious: as Francine forms an attachment to a man she meets at a church social, it's easy to see the point where things go wrong. Others are more subtle: she starts to enjoy herself briefly at an open-air heavy metal gig, until she notices that the audience is entirely made up of loners like herself. Sometimes there's a risk when you leave interpretation up to the viewer, of course. At one point Francine takes a job as a vet's nurse, and a scene of her shaving a cat before surgery mysteriously appeared to be the funniest thing this ICA audience had ever seen.

But all these little details slowly assemble themselves into a deeply sad portrait of a lost woman trying to find herself again. And Melissa Leo gives the performance of a lifetime, depicting that sadness without a hint of melodrama or overexaggeration. This is the sort of film that could easily disappear from view after its festival screenings, and I really hope it doesn't.

Teddy Bear8.45pm: Teddy Bear [official Facebook]

Meet your second socially inept leading character of the day: it's Dennis, the subject of an earlier short film by Mads Matthiesen, who's now expanded it into this feature. Dennis (Kim Kold) is a Danish thirtysomething bodybuilder who lives with his over-possessive mum and has trouble meeting girls. At least two of those facts may well be connected. When his uncle comes back from Thailand with a new bride on his arm, Dennis starts cooking up a plan to get one for himself. All he has to do is make sure that his mother doesn't find out.

After a slow and awkward start, you begin to worry that this is going to be yet another film about the perils of sex tourism, particularly when Dennis arrives in Thailand and starts getting ripped off by the locals. But gradually, a warmer strand to the story emerges, as Dennis learns to stop trying so hard and to just be himself. And once he's returned back to Denmark, we start to realise what the film was really about all along.

Teddy Bear wouldn't work unless the gigantic lump of muscle at its core had our sympathy. Kim Kold does a terrific job, displaying a vulnerability that completely belies his size: when things go well and he gives one of his rare smiles, you can't help but feel good for him. My only concern is that in order to achieve that sympathy, the film has to pit him against an unpleasant potential girlfriend back home, as well as his overbearing mother (a splendidly manipulative performance by Elsebeth Steentoft). Based on the evidence of this film and yesterday's The Great Bird Race, all the women in Denmark these days are horrible. No wonder the blokes have to keep ordering out. (For balance, The BBG would like to point out that based on the evidence of the same two films, all the men in Denmark these days are lying sods.)


Notes From Spank's Pals

The Summit [trailer]

The Belated Birthday Girl - K2 may be second in height to Everest, but when it comes to climbing, it is considered the more challenging and deadlier peak. And getting to the top of K2 is less than half the battle. According to a statistic quoted in Nick Ryan's The Summit, out of every four climbers who reach the top, only one survives to tell the tale. This is a film about 11 who died on K2 on a single climb at the start of August 2008, 8 of whom had made it to the summit.

One of those 8 was Ger Mcdonnell, and the genesis of the film was when Pat Falvey, another Irish climber and adventurer who had known Ger, contacted Ryan to get the story made into a film. So the film is strongly focussed on Ger's part in the climb, and in uncovering more about how he died. But the stories from those who survived were confused and contradictory, and the film is also in part about the question of how the story of such an event gets told.

Using a mix of archive footage, footage shot on the expedition itself, reconstruction, interviews and stunning world-record aerial photography, The Summit takes us back to the start of the summer of 2008, when the Norit team of which Ger was a member arrived on K2 to acclimatise and prepare for the main ascent. Over the coming weeks of poor weather, more teams arrive, and by the time a weather window opens up, it is August and there are 24 climbers from various countries and teams all striking out together. With the interviews of some of those who survived, and of Ger's family and friends, the film tells of turns of events and decisions made which, with the benefit of hindsight, led to the tragedy.

One of the significant things about the story of the 2008 tragedy was how it got told, even while events themselves were still unfolding and the fate of people still out on the mountain was unknown. With the prevalence of blogging, reports quickly appeared on the internet, and reporters took their stories from the first people arriving back, airlifted off the mountain, while others were still descending by foot. It was to correct what they saw as unfair and partial portrayals of events that Ger's family and friends wanted this film made. The point about the subjectivity of the telling of history is backed up by interweaving with the story of the first successful ascent of K2 in 1954.

However, there are still others whose own telling of events was not able to be included - whether because they died on the mountain or declined to take part - and so it seems a bit of a shame that in order to get what it sees as the true story of Ger's part out there, the film itself plays a little of the blame game. But that is only a very small part of this beautifully shot tale of human spirit, and The Summit tells a story which deserves to be told and in a way which deserves to be seen on a big screen.



Apart from Sarah Lund (I think you meant to say).

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