Reviewed today: Cowboy, Drinking Buddies, Lifelong, Luton, Nine Lives, The Strange Colour Of Your Body’s Tears, Suzanne, Tell Me Lies.
It's the final day of the London Film Festival, and I'm not in London for it: instead, I'm on an early morning flight out of Heathrow, heading off to foreign parts for work. When I discovered a couple of weeks ago that this was going to be the case, The Belated Birthday Girl suggested that it would be useful if the in-flight entertainment included some films that were in the LFF programme. Astonishingly, it turns out that two of them are - but they're two that I've already seen, The Great Passage and So Young.
Apart from catching up on some telly programmes, the main thing I end up watching on my flight is a Hong Kong movie called Badges Of Fury, apparently starring Jet Li as a cop. In fact, Li has second billing, playing Danny Glover to Zhang Wen's Mel Gibson in a garbled mess that doesn't know if it wants to be a broad spoofy comedy, a grim serial killer drama or a kung fu flick with far too much CGI enhancement. I suspect comedy is the main thing director Wong Tsz Ming was aiming for, but it's hard to tell: the funniest bit on this particular version is the leering focus on Ada Liu's cleavage in the bad girl role, undone by the airline's insistence on pixellating out all visible signs of boob. (See if you can work out which airline I flew with from that information.)
Anyway, that's how I spent the last day of the LFF. But regular correspondents The Belated Birthday Girl and The Cineaste stayed in London, and wrapped up the festival in some style. So today's climactic report is all down to the two of them from this point onwards, in an epic eight-review pileup. It's too big to hide under the Notes From Spank's Pals heading, so I'm putting them both in the main body of the page for a change, with pictures and everything. Enjoy: we'll all be back shortly with our final thoughts on the festival in The Wrap Party.
12.30pm (Saturday): Drinking Buddies [official site]
The Cineaste - This is a delightful and feelgood movie from director Joe Swanberg about friendships and flirting, intimacy and forgiveness. I’m reluctant to simply call it a rom-com because that has rather stereotypical negative implications, but that was what the film was in a good way, without the stereotypical clichés or happy-ever-after-ending.
Kate works as a senior manager in a brewing factory. She gets on really well with her work colleagues (almost all of whom are men). Almost all of them being young and trendy, we see her and her colleagues in various upbeat situations, in a mature and intelligent way, joking and bantering with each other. It’s a real happy-mood setter which permeates the film as a whole (if this sounds sentimental and mawkish, it certainly isn’t). One of her workmates is Luke, who she gets on particularly well with. Many of them regularly enjoy a few beers after work (well of course they would!).
The film in particular takes a close look at the personal lives of Kate and Luke. Kate is in the early stages of a relationship with an older bloke – are they truly right for each other? And Luke is engaged to a cutesy girl-next-door-type who’s keen to set a date for their wedding. The two couples spend a weekend away together in a seaside chalet. And over the course of the weekend we see a lot of laughter, flirting, one or two uneasy confessions and essentially a look at the blurring of the line between friendship and romance.
Swanberg handles these scenes very adeptly. Without needing to resort to melodrama, he paints a delightful picture of some very plausible scenarios with very believable and touching characters.
In the Q & A afterwards Swanberg was a really interesting and informative talker about his approach to film-making. In a tie and rather ill-matching clothing he looked rather like a junior assistant in a firm of accountants, but then when he spoke he was fascinating. He had to have the actors cast before really developing their characters; he had only the vaguest of scripts – typically he said each scene would have a one-line description, then basically he let the actors get on with it. And then there was the soundtrack – yes, the soundtrack mainly came from (unknown) Canadian band(s) – Swanberg’s approach being that well-known tracks always have a person’s “story” attached to them and so you can’t really listen to them (as part of the film) in a neutral way. Both a likeable film and director, made it a wonderful cinema visit. I confess I’ve never seen any of his films before but this was a great introduction to them.
12.45pm: Cowboy [trailer]
The Belated Birthday Girl - In his introduction to Cowboy, Clyde Jeavons said how he always likes to include a Western in his Treasures programme, and personally, I always like to try to go and see it. Once again we are fortunate to have a glorious restoration hot off the digital presses of Sony Columbia to enjoy. Sadly Grover Crisp is already on his way home by the time we start our screening, so Clyde gives us the technical intro in his stead, describing how the existing print material of Cowboy, and particularly the colour, was very degraded and so the digital techniques were very much required in this case. As ever, they have done a lovely job, and right from the Saul Bass opening titles the colours sing out.
The film itself is a well-worn tale of a greenhorn getting to tag along on the cattle trail, seeking adventure and to gain the hand of a beautiful woman, and of how the trail changes him and how maybe he changes his hard-bitten trail boss. The greenhorn, Frank Harris - based on the author of the same name of the semi-autobiographical book from which the film was adapted - is played by Jack Lemmon, and the trail boss, Tom Reece, by Glenn Ford, and there are the love-hate odd-couple vibes you would expect, beautifully played by these accomplished screen actors. There is also good support from the rest of the cast, including Darrin-from-Bewitched (Dick York) as the ladies' man of the crew. The cinematography captures the beauty of the American West, and even if Cowboy is not one of the truly great Westerns, it is still a joy to watch on the big screen, and long may the team at Sony Columbia and the Treasures strand of the LFF continue to give us the chance to see these films where they belong.
1.00pm: Luton [official site]
The Cineaste - Luton. Yes, Luton. The title of a film, surely, is to try to entice the undecided punter into seeing it, not put them off. I mean, even Pontefract or Croydon would be better than Luton. Errr… , no, on second thoughts, maybe Croydon wouldn’t.
Well now, here’s a thing. This (he sheepishly admits), is my first ever visit to Hackney Picture House. Very nice (well you know that already). Very nice indeed. I’ve always been a fan of e.g. Clapham Picture House and the Ritzy, but this cinema really is something different.
This Greek film from director Michalis Konstantatos is an intense look at the mundane minutiae of people’s lives. There are only a few loose strands of a plot, and minimal dialogue. There are three main characters: one, a late middle-aged convenience store owner, who seems to be in a permanently grumpy mood: a thirty-something trainee lawyer who's becoming disillusioned in her search for the right bloke (and that’s not the first time we’ve visited that theme this LFF); and a high-school teenager who’s……. well, like millions of other high-school youngsters.
And so the film looks at the trivial details of their daily existences. The opening scene studies Mary (trainee lawyer), running on a treadmill in the gym. It just looks at her side on, as she runs and runs and runs. It then looks at Dimitris (school-kid), as “school’s out” for the day. Most of his mates get picked up, he doesn’t. And then there’s the convenience store owner, exasperated by a client who’s only got a large denomination note for a small purchase. And so it goes on. In her preview Jemma Desai describes the scrutiny on these characters’ lives as almost sadistic – yes, it’s almost as if the viewer is invited to smirk at the hollow dullness of their daily routines.
Relief comes by way of Mary’s nightclubbing. One memorable scene is inside the ladies’ bathroom; the camera looks diagonally along a row of washbasins with about seven or eight women attending to themselves in the mirror. They’re all young, they’re all extremely glamorous, and they’re all wearing very, very short figure-hugging dresses. My interpretation? “Sod the fact that the economy’s buggered for decades, we’re still going to enjoy ourselves.”
If the basic premise for the film sounds so minimalistic as to be boring, no doubt some would find it so. Bizarrely, I found it strangely captivating. Konstantatos’ long takes and leisurely pace were soothingly alluring and hypnotic.
3.15pm: Tell Me Lies [trailer]
The Belated Birthday Girl - In 1968, Peter Brook and actors from the RSC created an extraordinary piece of political film-making. Developed from what I imagine was an equally extraordinary piece of theatre, US (the title is a pun, to be read both as "U.S." as in "U.S.A." and as "us" as in "we"), Tell Me Lies combines songs, poetry, archive material, reconstructions, and unrehearsed real debates about the Vietnam War.
Although clearly broadly anti-war in its sentiments, the intent of the film was to present the issues and arguments, driven from the actors navigating their own responses. One of the most memorable segments takes place at a party, where we see politicians and other major figures of the day, including the likes of Peregrine Worsthorne, Kingsley Amis and Stokely Carmichael, giving honest opinions and reactions to questions on Vietnam or on political violence: unbeknownst to the attendees, the party was in fact thrown for the purposes of the film. Neither documentary nor fiction - at one point characters in the film describe it as "semi-fiction" or "semi-documentary" - Tell Me Lies is a unique document from a very specific moment in time, but also feels totally relevant in its subject and as experimental in its approach today.
It had a brief release at the time it was made, but has rarely been seen since. Using archive material from the BFI, the restoration by teams of specialists in France was overseen by Peter Brook himself, and, as Clyde Jeavons pointed out in his introduction, this means we are in an unusual and privileged position, to see an archive film restored by the original director. This screening, the UK premiere, was made all the more special by the attendance of Peter Brook himself, who both introduced the film and gave an interesting Q&A after. Eschewing the description of the film as "agit-prop", because he said that implied a desire to impose a point of view, he embraced the "agit" but wanted to "take away the props".
Clyde Jeavons said he thought of this as the closing gala for the archive programme, and the special nature both of the film and the circumstances of the screening meant it was a fitting one.
3.30pm: Suzanne [clip]
The Cineaste - Suzanne (the film) is a bit of an oddball. It leaps about in time quite frequently, and I found I was just starting to become absorbed in one particular thread or another, when, hey presto! we’d be another several years down the line.
The film basically covers, as a very general overview, the life of Suzanne from early childhood to early middle-aged motherhood, and her attempts (successful or otherwise) to stay on the right side of the tracks and avoid a life of petty crime with the wrong sort of people. It starts with Suzanne and her younger sister Maria as young girls, six, seven, eight years old. Carefree and innocent, they’re likeable, laughing young girls. Dad, a long-distance lorry driver, is already widowed. From these happy early days (and we probably see these times from early childhood to emphasize the contrast), we see various episodes in Suzanne’s life, most of them troubled. She falls pregnant as a teenager, and won’t reveal the father. Dad is happy to bring up the young son. Then she meets another local lad. He doesn’t have a regular job, and tries to drag Suzanne into petty crime. Then we jump forward again (several times) to focus on later episodes of her life.
As the grown up Maria (younger sister), Adele Haenel was a wonderful character, a strong presence in a restrained way. Her dad (Francois Damiens) was also a very credible and sympathetic character, juggling the demands of his job (which regularly required him to be away from home for days at a time) with his honest attempts to keep his daughters (well, Suzanne in particular) on the straight and narrow and guide them to doing something meaningful and useful with their lives. But the regular time-jumps made it a difficult film to feel absorbed in. Katell Quillevere had some good ideas here, but maybe the whole project was a bit too ambitious and the whole didn’t really hang together.
6.15pm: Nine Lives [complete film]
The Belated Birthday Girl - There was still one more film to be seen in this year's Treasures programme, one more film for Clyde Jeavons to introduce (in spite of his earlier description of Tell Me Lies as his closing gala), and one last film for me also, and that was the 1957 Norwegian film Nine Lives. Based on the book We Die Alone by British author David Howarth, Nine Lives tells the true story of Jan Baalsrud, a Norwegian resistance fighter in World War II who, in 1943, was the sole survivor of an unsuccessful operation delivering arms from Britain to the Resistance in Norway. In the film, the story is told as Jan's mission debrief to a British representative at the Swedish hospital where he is recuperating, so his survival is never in doubt. Rather than a straightforward wartime thriller, the film is a story of human endurance, and of the selfless courage of the many Norwegian citizens who aided Jan in his escape from German pursuit across the mountains to neutral Sweden.
Even though we know from the outset that Jan makes it, there is still a great deal of tension, and this remarkable story is beautifully told, with the impressive but harsh Norwegian landscape featuring prominently. David Howarth's son was there to help introduce the film, and told us that his father had once said to Jan that he could never have done what Jan did (and in return Jan said that he could never have written a book, so they made a good pair). The question which occurred to me watching the film was how many of us would do what the ordinary Norwegians did, who risked their lives and to whom the film was dedicated. As well as a great piece of film-making by a great Norwegian director, the film Nine Lives stands as a testament to the best in people, and made a fine end to this year's LFF.
6.15pm: Lifelong [official Facebook]
The Cineaste - This, dear reader, is a film I can’t tell you about. Feeling pleased with myself at having managed to shoehorn it into my finely-calibrated schedule, I can’t tell you about it because my schedule got well and truly buggered. Buggered, indeed, by my embarrassing miscalculation. Thinking I had over two hours between the end of Suzanne and the start of this one, I was enjoying a revitalising espresso in Clapham when it hit me between the eyes. Scheisse! I had miscalculated by an hour and Lifelong actually started five minutes ago. I couldn’t have felt more of a plonker if I’d been riding naked on horseback down Clapham High Street. Make that espresso a triple brandy.
8.45pm: The Strange Colour Of Your Body’s Tears [official Facebook]
The Cineaste - “A visceral exercise in operatic violence and perverse eroticism” writes Michael Blyth. Yeah! we’ll have some of that. Indeed, after that triple brandy (how many did I have?), probably just about anything would seem operatically violent and perversely erotic.
This film was absolutely, staggeringly awesome. It was just unbelievably imaginative, gripping, it was sensationally terrific to watch. Indeed as I write this I’m struggling to find the right words to do it justice. It really was off the scale, beggaring belief and description. The last film of the day, I was pretty bloody knackered afterwards, but this film kept me right awake, laughing at the sheer audacity and imagination of co-directors Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani (and I hope I’m not prompting any feelings of envy in anyone forced to miss the last day due to work commitments).
The plot? Almost incidental. A man is arriving home after a business trip to Frankfurt. He telephones ahead to tell his wife Edwige he’ll be home shortly, and is rather surprised only to get the voicemail. When he arrives home, she’s vanished. And then the film goes into overdrive. The story follows Dan (Edwige’s husband), as he combs through his very old, part-Gothic, part-Art Nouveau, 100% creepy apartment building looking for her. He comes across some pretty weird characters that complicate the story and throw in a few red herrings. But it’s all about how Cattet and Forzani do this. The erotic knife play, squelching leather gloves and trembling panting that have become hallmarks of their films are proudly on display in here, only this time, those hallmarks are more bawdy, erotic, perplexing, confrontational and tantalising. The camera takes, imaginative lighting and accompanying soundtrack make it a pulsating watch.
Running out of appropriate superlatives, I’ll end by turning to Michael Blyth again; “a gift to fans of psychedelic 1970’s Euro-horror: pitched to perfection, and delivering devious surprises with every blood-splattered frame”. Amen to that.