Reviewed today: Adore, As I Lay Dying, The Congress, The Lusty Men, Nobody's Daughter Haewon, One Day When The Rain Falls, Sandra.
If you're reading this review on the day it's published (October 11th), then get ready to celebrate: today marks the first time that a Hong Sang-soo film has escaped the festival circuit and made it into UK commercial cinemas. Annoyingly, the movie in question is this one, showing here in the second of two LFF screenings just one day before it gets a release. If I'd known that was going to happen, I would have used my £9 matinee ticket to see something else instead.
Why have distributors avoided Hong until now, but jumped on Nobody's Daughter Haewon? I'm half wondering if they purchased it purely on the basis of the first few minutes, which are largely in English, and show a starstruck Haewon (Jung Eun-chae) meeting Jane Birkin in the street. The two of them have one of those typical Hong conversations that involve no actual communication at all, before the director pulls another one of his usual tricks to warn us that as ever, a straightforward linear narrative is not on the cards here.
In fact, pretty much all of Hong's trademark quirks are on display in this film, which won't be a problem for anyone coming to his work for the first time, but will leave the old hands marking them off one by one on their bingo card. Is the main female character having problems with an on-off lover? Tick. Is that lover a failed film director turned college professor? Tick. Are their meetings filmed using long takes with frequent use of zoom? Tick. Are certain key locations revisited over and over again? Tick. Is there a pivotal scene where lots of people get drunk on soju and embarrass themselves? Tick - but in many of Hong's films that's a scene that happens offscreen, and we only get to hear about it from hungover reports afterwards. Here, for a change, we get to see it happen, a ten minute masterclass in the theatre of embarrassment.
The cliches may well be all present and correct, but the whole film coasts along quite nicely as entertainment, with only the final narrative twist feeling a little too much like Hong by numbers. As long as we only have to see one of his films a year, I think I can cope quite happily with them all starting to get a bit samey. Which makes it a bit awkward that I've booked to see another one next week...
3.00pm: As I Lay Dying [trailer]
A few months ago, The Belated Birthday Girl and I went to see Edgar Wright's The World's End, and like most people we felt it was a film that had too many problems to be comfortably enjoyed. ('Most people' there doesn't include Americans, because based on the US reviews I can only assume that tickets for the movie came with free ice cream and a handjob. But I digress.) The screening The BBG and I attended had more problems than most, because we accidentally saw it on an evening when the film was being shown with extra subtitles for the hard of hearing. This turns out to be an incredibly subtle way to ruin a comedy: when every joke is flashed up on screen a second or two before it's spoken, it completely ruins the comic rhythms of the film.
This only ruins those rhythms for people who can hear the soundtrack, of course: I'm not complaining about the effort that's being put into making cinema more accessible to all, and positively welcome it. In fact, on Saturday the LFF has an audio-described presentation of All Is Lost, the movie that's just Robert Redford stranded on his own in a boat for a couple of hours, and I'm almost tempted to feign blindness just to hear how that works. Today's screening of As I Lay Dying, meanwhile, is subtitled. There's no risk of the jokes being ruined here - the film only has one, awkwardly positioned as a punchline to the story. I started off by trying to ignore the subs, but it turns out that having them on screen isn't such a bad thing after all: the dialogue isn't quite as incomprehensible as UltraCulture would have you believe, but it's a close run thing.
Based on William Faulkner's classic novel, As I Lay Dying tells the story of a Mississippi farming family, the Bundrens. With mother Addie freshly dead, her husband Anse (Tim Blake Nelson) sets out in a horse-drawn cart with his sons and daughter to carry Addie's body to a suitable burial place. The first problem they encounter is a broken bridge, which forces them into an extended detour which doesn't do much for Addie's freshness. And then things get worse, and worse, and worse, until we more or less end up with a hillbilly version of Requiem For A Dream (with some interesting similarities in the fates of a couple of the characters).
Somehow, I've managed to write three paragraphs without mentioning James Franco once, which is surprising because this film is very much his baby - he co-wrote it, directed it, and plays one of the Bundren brothers. People give Franco a lot of stick for dabbling in so many artistic areas, with Zach Galifianakis getting the most entertainment value out of it. But you do think the phrase 'jack of all trades' might have been invented specifically for him. You're always conscious of Franco directing the film, as he throws several different stylistic devices into the mix. Some of them work - when various characters perform monologues direct to camera, it's a neat way of replicating Faulkner's use of multiple narrative perspectives. But the main visual trick here is Franco's heavy use of split-screen, which is disastrous - it's a modern device that completely jars with the period setting, and there's never a valid reason why two images need to be on screen at the same time.
Meanwhile, Franco can't resist showing off as an actor either, giving himself a disproportionate number of closeups and going into full gurning overdrive as the story moves towards its climax. But at least he's audible, unlike Tim Blake Nelson's mumbling through a mouthful of no teeth - he's the main reason why anyone can benefit from the HOH subtitles. It's a shame they get so much screen time between them, because there are some fine performances in some of the lesser roles, particularly from Jim Parrack (Hoyt from True Blood) and Ahna O'Reilly. Somehow, the power of Faulkner's story keeps your attention throughout all these problems, all the way up to that tonally awkward final scene, which I had to look up on Wikipedia to see if it's in the source novel. It is, apparently: maybe another filmmaker could have found a way to make it fit with what comes before, but Franco really isn't up to the job.
6.15pm: The Lusty Men [trailer]
These days, now that Time Out London has been cut down to just a single sheet of A4 paper, its film critics inspire little more than laughter from children in the street. It wasn't always like this, and it's nice to be reminded of earlier happier times by the presence of Geoff Andrew, former editor of the magazine's film section, at our first screening from this year's Treasures archive programme. Andrew is a huge fan of the work of Nicholas Ray, and gives a terrific introduction to this rare 1952 movie from the director. Even if it does give him the opportunity to use the phrase "when I talked to Robert Mitchum" six times in the space of ten minutes.
Shamefully, the only film of Ray's I've ever seen is the one that everybody knows, Rebel Without A Cause: it's one that really has to be seen on a big screen, with its daring use of Cinemascope and Technicolor. By comparison, The Lusty Men is a much smaller-looking film - Academy ratio, black and white - but its emotions are just as overheated as Rebel's. Robert Mitchum plays Jeff McCloud, a rodeo rider forced into retirement after an injury. A chance meeting with a young married couple, Wes and Louise Merritt (Arthur Kennedy and Susan Heyward), has several consequences for Jeff: he finds new employment on a ranch, and also gets to earn extra money on the side teaching Wes how to compete in rodeos. As Wes spends more of his time in competitions, Louise starts to fear more for his safety, and inevitably turns to Jeff for whatever comfort he can offer.
Geoff Andrew's introduction mentioned the unusually slow pace of The Lusty Men, and he's absolutely right: the film seems to draw its tempo from the laid-back delivery of Mitchum's dialogue. There are regular bursts of rodeo action when things threaten to get too relaxed, though, containing enough unsimulated horse falls to make the BBFC crap their collective pants (the film was never released uncut in the UK, presumably for that reason). Mix all of that with the love triangle coming slowly to the boil, and it makes for terrific entertainment. The three leads are all great to watch, with Ray carefully ensuring that none of them ever comes across as the villain of the piece, and there's a huge collection of finely drawn supporting characters to back them up. The only real issue I have with The Lusty Men is that after the deliberate pacing of its first hour and three quarters, its climax feels unnecessarily rushed. Is any film I watch today going to have a satisfactory ending?
9.00pm: The Congress [official site]
Ari Folman was last here in 2008 with Waltz With Bashir, an animated documentary about his time in the Israeli Army. By comparison, his followup is a much less personal movie. Or is it? The Congress may have Stanislaw Lem's novel The Futurological Congress as its acknowledged source, but Folman has made several tweaks to turn it into a satire on the movie industry.
Robin Wright (playing herself) is made a rather terrifying offer by the boss of Miramount Studios (Danny Huston). His theory is that as nobody wants to watch actresses in their forties in movies any more, Wright's career is as good as dead. So, Miramount will create a full digital scan of her body and emotional reactions, and they'll use this digital version of her in all of her subsequent films. In exchange, Wright will get a hefty payoff, as long as she promises never to act in public again. After some soul-searching, Wright agrees to the process: after all, there's no obvious down side, is there? (This is, of course, depicted as the prelude to the dystopian future that's the subject of Lem's original novel. But as Wright points out in her Q&A afterwards, she's already stored on Robert Zemeckis' hard drive thanks to her work on A Christmas Carol and Beowulf.)
The Congress ends up breaking down into three hard-to-reconcile parts. The opening section is somewhat on the nose in terms of its industry satire, but plays well, especially to a know-it-all film festival audience. It's after that when things start to break down badly, as the film switches from live action to animation. Twenty years after her digitisation, Wright is invited to give a speech at the Congress of the title. This is the point where, theoretically, the film gets to let rip visually, and initially its Fleischer Brothers-inspired look is impressive. But it's never quite as trippy as it thinks it is - and as the middle section drags on and on without any obvious point, the combination of detailed visuals and sketchy plotting just becomes frustrating.
The final section of the film just about redeems what's come before, though, making The Congress the first movie of the day with an ending that actually works. It takes Wright far too long to work out what it is that her character really wants, but once she's realised that it gives the story a belated focus. There's a surprising emotional power to the final scenes, even though you might struggle to describe what's actually happening in them. It's frustrating that The Congress swings so wildly between excitement and tedium, but it's possible that it may play better to a viewer who hasn't seen three other films immediately before it.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Adore [official site]
The Cineaste - A less than enthralling and faintly ridiculous tale about two early middle-aged lifelong friends who end up sleeping with the other’s teenage son. Poorly scripted and woodenly-acted, it potters along with poor coherence, very little characterization and far too little to engage the viewer. What plot there was took some implausibly convoluted twists and turns at the denouement.
Partially redeemed by plenty of Aussie sun, sea, sand, surfing, Sheilas and sex.
Sandra (Vaghe Stelle dell’Orsa) [trailer]
The Cineaste - Stronso!! A veritable tour-de-force from Claudia Cardinale, in this superbly melodramatic and richly atmospheric movie from Luchino Visconti, and I reckon I must have dozed off for about half the sodding film (not a good start, with ten days still to go).
Cardinale gives a towering performance as the smouldering, moody, local-girl-made-good, who, now a popular socialite with a glamorous husband, returns to her small-town home to pay her respects at a memorial for her late father. Gossip flourishes amongst the locals, and Sandra’s family – and her friends and enemies – have plenty of skeletons in the closet about which to gossip.
Visconti’s feel for a sense of atmosphere is really brilliant. His use of accompanying grandiloquent piano score, and the almost continual strong winds for outdoor scenes, build up a great sense of melodrama. (Visconti himself seemed to attract melodrama in his own personal life. From an aristocratic family, he once famously announced to his father when he was young that he wanted to be an accountant. Horrified, his father is alleged to have replied, “you’re doing no such thing as boring as that, you’re going into show business”. Accountancy’s loss is Italian film heritage’s gain.) A wonderful film (even if I missed a sizeable chunk of it), greeted by an outburst of generous applause at its conclusion.
One Day When the Rain Falls [official site]
The Cineaste - An interesting idea for a film, the separate strands of which didn’t really blend together.
The patriarch of a family gathers said family together (minus his estranged wife) for a feast to celebrate the end of Ramadan. It’s a joyous evening, after which his sons and daughter go their separate ways; and the film follows what they’re each getting up to. Younger son Ragil lives with dad; we see him looking after his father, tending to his illnesses, helping him get to grips with how to work the computer. All the while Ragil is exchanging texts with his gay lover, trying to summon up the courage to tell his dad he’s gay.
The daughter meanwhile goes home to her mum, estranged from dad. This “chapter” was quite extraordinary – part gothic horror, part surrealism, it was quite out of context with any other part of the film. It was going nowhere.
The older son, Raga, returns home with his girlfriend. They argue, then make up, then argue again. Then Raga’s ex turns up. More misunderstandings ensue. All rather tedious, it was neither original nor engrossing.
The film needed some sense of direction to bring the different strands together. Separately they made little sense or purpose.