Spank's LFF Diary, Saturday 08/10/2022
Spank's LFF Diary, Monday 10/10/2022

Spank's LFF Diary, Sunday 09/10/2022

Reviewed today: Bobi Wine: Ghetto President, EO, Foolish Wives, Love Life.

EO12.15pm: EO [trailer]

For the last couple of days, the song I’ve had running around my head has been the Half Man Half Biscuit number Venus In Flares, and I’ve only just worked out why. It’s a track from their 1984 debut album Back In The DHSS, and like a lot of their material from that period it’s musically quite basic: the verse is built around a riff of just two chords pitched one semitone apart. Which is the same chord structure as the LFF trailer I’m currently seeing three or four times a day. Since I worked that out, every time I see that trailer I’m singing along with it: ‘A million housewives every day / pick up a can on beans and say / what an amazing example of synchronisation’. Anyway, that’s my personal hell at the moment, feel free to join me there if you like.

Coming up after the trailer... despite this one having a title that’s literally two letters long, we’ve calling it That Jerzy Skolimowski Donkey Film for short. When we first meet EO he’s working in a circus, partly as one of the animal acts, partly as a beast of burden. Thanks to a combination of animal rights activism and bankruptcy, EO gets out of the circus and relocated to work elsewhere. At some point he decides to get the hell out and go exploring the world. So he does.

The only other Jerzy Skolimowski film I've seen to date was the one he made in 1982 for the just-launched Channel Four: Moonlighting, telling a story of Polish builders in London long before it was fashionable. He was making films before that, and still is now. He's 84 years old: he should be in the pipe-and-slippers phase of his career by now, not making the most visually surprising film I've seen for years. Obviously we have to start with the initial challenge of telling a story from a donkey's point of view: Skolimowski does this with a combination of intense close-ups and low angle shots, putting us right down there with him. (It's a very similar shooting style to last year's Cow, which leaves you nervous throughout that the story's going to end in a similar way.)

But that's just the start of what this film offers. The screenplay (credited to Skolimowski and co-producer Ewa Piaskowska) only brings in human dialogue when it's absolutely necessary to move the story forward. This means that the images are at the forefront, and every couple of minutes the film shows you something else that you simply weren't expecting - an unusual angle, a sudden left turn in the plot, or one of a series of surreal interludes that could be EO dreaming or something else entirely. You're totally immersed in EO's newly-discovered world, and as confused and excited by it as he would be. There are so many questions you could ask the director about why he chose to make this film at this point in his life, and it's a shame that poor scheduling on our part meant we couldn't stay for his Q&A. But maybe some things are best left unexplained.

Useful tip for visitors to the Odeon West End screen one, by the way. If you need to leave the cinema during a Q&A and you're trying not to disturb anyone else, do not take the exit to the left of the screen, even if people are holding the door open for you. You’ll find yourself in a fire exit route that requires you to climb up four flights of stairs and then get staff from the Londoner hotel to unlock the door to let you out. Still, that felt like a little EO-style adventure of discovery in its own right.

Foolish Wives2.15pm: Foolish Wives [entire film]

Quite often at the LFF, we go to the Archive Gala - it's one of the few Galas we're prepared to pay full whack for, because it's frequently a silent movie and you get a live soundtrack thrown in. This year, however, the Gala is a restoration of Gary Oldman's Nil By Mouth, which is all well and good but it's a mere 25 years old: how much restoration does it need? (Fair dos, though, I'd pay money to hear Neil Brand play a piano soundtrack to that one.)

Maybe we can treat Foolish Wives as our own personal Archive Gala this year. For one thing, it's exactly one hundred years old, and I've never seen a feature film that old before. (Some shorts and fragments, maybe, but not an actual feature.) It also comes with a supporting programme, as film historian Kevin Brownlow (also 84 years old, coincidentally) kicks off proceedings with a lecture on the life of its director Erich von Stroheim. He focusses on von Stroheim's magnificent history of lying about his background, noting that bullshitting was one of his top life skills: for example, Foolish Wives claims in its opening credits to be based on a novel by the director himself, a novel that was not only never published, but also only exists as a book read by a character in the film.

Von Stroheim was also known for his excesses when it came to making films - the print of Foolish Wives we're seeing here runs to nearly two and a half hours, but he was originally hoping to make it last six. Given that sort of running time, it's quite a thin story really. Three Russian nobles – or are they? – are holed up in a Monte Carlo villa for the summer: Count Wladislaw Sergius Karamzin (played by the director), and his two cousins (hem hem) Princess Vera Petchnikoff (Mae Busch) and Her Highness Olga Petchnikoff (Maude George). They're looking out for soft touches to scam out of their money, with Karamzin's preferred method being to seduce the women. When an American diplomat arrives in town with his wife, Karamazin's there like a rat up a drainpipe.

It's not a subtle film by any means, particularly when two of the characters listed in the opening titles are Ventucci, A Counterfeiter and Marietta, His Half-witted Daughter. But for a two and a half hour movie without too much plot, it's a fabulously entertaining watch. It was apparently the first film to cost a million dollars, and von Stroheim makes damn sure it's all on the screen, with Monte Carlo recreated in glorious detail on a backlot and populated by hundreds of extras. Some of the photography is genuinely surprising, too, with lighting effects that seem far ahead of their time (and complemented by some interesting tinting effects, nicely reproduced in this restoration). As an actor, meanwhile, von Stroheim milks the melodrama for all its worth, playing the Count as a magnificently sleazy character: to be honest, in acting terms hardly anyone else on screen registers at all.

And while he may have missed out on the chance to work out a piano sting that could accompany Ray Winstone's wifebeating, Neil Brand does his usual spectacular job in providing a live soundtrack to Foolish Wives. He's particularly fine when it comes to the action-packed climax, where he hammers out a good ten minutes of what we stereotypically think silent movie piano should sound like. He looks absolutely shagged out by the end of the film, and I don't blame him. Bravo, sir.

Love Life5.30pm: Love Life [official site]

Thanks to the annual Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme, The BBG and I see a lot of contemporary Japanese films, particularly family dramas. And to be honest, Kôji Fukada's film looks very familiar if you've spent any time with the genre. We have a couple living in one of those apartments that every Japanese family drama seems to be set in: Taeko (Fumino Kimura) and Jiro (Kento Nagayama), relative newly-weds who live with Taeko's son from her previous marriage. They're preparing for a family gathering, but there are weird little cracks starting to show - tension with Jiro's father, and a mysterious guest who leaves just before things start properly. There's a sense that for all the cosiness, something bad is about to happen. It does, and it starts off a chain of events that leads to both Taeko and Jiro reconnecting with their exes.

It would be fair at the ten minute mark to assume that Love Life is going to be a hugely sentimental piece of work, particularly given Japanese cinema's tendency to go for mushy emotion if it's available. Surprisingly, after the jolt of that opening sequence, it settles down into a grown-up analysis of what holds couples together, even after they've potentially drifted apart. The introduction of Taeko's ex-husband Park (Atom Sunada) adds a couple more interesting layers to the story, as he's not your typical Japanese husband for two specific reasons. Apart from that, there's nothing spectacularly new here, and the story meanders along pleasantly enough until we get another smaller surprise towards the end. But it could have been a lot more emotionally manipulative than it actually is, so I suppose we should be grateful for that.

Bobi Wine: Ghetto President8.15pm: Bobi Wine: Ghetto President [trailer]

[Note: the onscreen title when we saw this was Bobi Wine: The People's President, although the trailer above still goes with Ghetto.]

Time for another music documentary. Well, sort of. In 2014, Bobi Wine is a singer making perfectly acceptable dancehall records in his native Uganda. But as President Museveni enters his third decade in power while refusing to deliver on his initial promises, Bobi’s lyrics start to become more explicitly political. From there, he starts getting more into activism: then he gets elected as an MP, where he campaigns heavily against an amendment to the constitution that would let Museveni stand as president for life. When that campaign fails, Bobi takes the one option remaining open to him: he announces he'll run for president in 2021. And that’s where things start to get nasty.

When did you last see a political documentary that got you properly enraged at the state of the world? Well, good news, sort of: Moses Bwayo and Christopher Sharp have made one that will leave you shaking. Cards on the table, here: I was aware that Bobi wasn't elected as Ugandan president, but I didn't know going into this film whether he survived the campaign or not. Because that was - and, unfortunately, still is - a threat in Uganda. We see Museveni's attempts to crush opposition escalate terrifyingly through the seven years covered by this film: it starts with elected officials being arrested and taken away literally in the middle of TV interviews, and by the end has moved on to torture and kidnapping. People are killed by the police, others die in riots - you genuinely fear for Bobi Wine's life as you're watching.

In the post-screening Q&A (also attended by Bobi's wife Barbie, who a few Ugandan audience members pointedly address as 'First Lady'), co-director Sharp says that they could easily have turned this documentary into a catalogue of on-screen atrocities - and be warned, the ones he's actually kept in the film are very hard to watch. What keeps it from being unbearable is the portrait of Bobi himself. He's very obviously got a huge amount of pop star charisma that helps him in public appearances, but he's also got a calm and measured approach to the country's problems, as well as a determination that he could sort them out given the chance. At the same time, his slogan is 'People Power' - he doesn't want to become another Museveni, he wants to let Uganda's people take control of their own destiny, and sees himself as setting an example. The ending may be downbeat, but there's still hope there, which seems right. That's certainly Sharp's aim, and he intends to get this film seen as widely as possible, with National Geographic and Disney already on board for global distribution as well as plans to somehow tour the movie around Africa. It's a hard watch, but an important one.

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