6.30pm: El Bonaerense
Argentina's movies have become much more interesting since their economy went tits-up. (Maybe that's where the British film industry is going wrong.) Nine Queens played at last year's LFF to acclaim from The Cineaste, and subsequently went on to have a rather successful UK cinema run. At Edinburgh a few months ago we had the thriller A Red Bear, which wasn't brilliant but was interesting for the way it used the country's economic problems as a motor for a standard Hollywood crime flick plot.
Pablo Trapero's El Bonaerense is in a similar league to the latter film (which is a shame, as my recent interest in Argentinian cinema is sparked by the hope that I'll find a few more films of the quality of the former one). It's the story of Zapa (Jorge Román), a locksmith who does additional less-than-legal work on locks in the evenings. When he's arrested following a safe-cracking job, he's bailed out by his uncle, who pulls a few strings so that Zapa can take refuge in the one place where the police won't bother him again: the police force, or 'bonaerense' of the title. Zapa goes through his training, starting an affair with his drugs teacher Mabel (Mimí Ardú) along the way, and gets to observe the incompetence and corruption of the police at first hand.
Whereas the other Argentinian films we've seen in this country could almost be American DTV fodder with a few minor tweaks, El Bonaerense feels more authentically of its place: much less slick, and pleasingly rough around the edges. Unfortunately, it's also a wee bit dull, not having all that much to say to an international audience apart from "hey, look how rubbish our police are". There are a couple of very promising sequences in the film though, notably Zapa's Christmas Day shift in the cop shop: a chaotic day spent dealing with hundreds of angry people swarming into the station, a night spent drinking heavily with his colleagues and indulging in hilarious firearms abuse. A disappointment overall, but not so much as to stop me looking for the next Nine Queens.
8.30pm: Anita And Me
Another evening, another Gala: and it's becoming apparent that all the gala screenings this year are to be accompanied with freebies. Shame that it appears to be the same freebies over and over again: tonight's haul consists of another bottle of water, another copy of Time Out and - for a change - a bag of popcorn emblazoned with the name of Morgan Stanley. (I've always been amused by the way that Morgan Stanley Dean Witter had to lose fifty per cent of their name last year, when they realised it was being used as rhyming slang for the bottom. But maybe that's just me.)
Anita And Me's audience appears to be largely made up of B- and C-list TV celebrities, as most of the British galas tend to be. The same pretty much applies to the film itself. Based on Meera Syal's semi-autobiographicalish novel, it's the story of Meena (Chandeep Uppal), a twelve-year-old Indian girl growing up in the Midlands in 1972. Bright, articulate and friendless, she starts to become obsessed with Anita (Anna Brewster), the fourteen-year-old white girl who's moved in next door. Her parents disapprove, as they're convinced that Anita will be a bad influence on Meena. And in some ways she is: but then again, in some ways, she isn't.
I don't want to pre-empt Nick in case he subsequently does a full review of this for you, but he said on the way out that this was a good Friday night flick, and despite some reservations I'd agree with that. My main concern is with the overall tone of the film: Meera Syal's novel manages to handle the gear changes between comedy and drama with an ease that Metin Hüseyin's movie never quite pulls off. The comic bits are definitely more successful, although sometimes hamfistedly handled: there's an explosively funny scene in the book involving Meena's performance of a song at a family party, which is beaten to death here by whip pans and 'comedy' reaction shots to emphasise the punchline. Initially you worry about how much first person narration the film contains (always a sign of a badly adapted book), but eventually you realise that the narration's actually the best-written part of Syal's screenplay.
That said, there's a lot to like here. There are some lovely performances, notably from the Indian members of the cast: Chandeep Uppal in particular does a terrific job in the lead for a newcomer. The period soundtrack is suitably evocative, particularly for those of us of Meera Syal's age, although you can almost hear the soundtrack album being cut in the background. And at the very least there are some gloriously funny moments. Anita And Me may be flawed as a movie, but you'll laugh a reasonable amount while it's on.
Asian horror movies are big business worldwide nowadays. When they work - say, for example, the original Japanese version of Ring - they can extract the maximum amount of terror from the minimum amount of onscreen effort. When they don't work - say, for example, the recent Hong Kong release The Eye - you can always luxuriate in the excess of audio-visual style they sometimes use to cover for a lack of content. Three is an interesting sampler of the genre as it stands, an anthology of three forty-minute spooky stories from South Korea, Thailand and Hong Kong, shown here in a welcome late night screening.
For my money, the first story - Memories by the Korean Kim Ji-Woon, whose wrestling comedy The Foul King played here in 2000 - is possibly the best one. A man's wife disappears, and he starts to see strange visions. Meanwhile, his wife is desperately trying to cross town to get back to him. It doesn't take too much effort to see where this one is heading, but the telling is everything: subtle camera movements, disorienting jump cuts, and even plain old SUDDEN LOUD NOISES all play their part in generating a wonderful sense of unease, making this easily the scariest film of the three.
Thailand's The Wheel, directed by Nonzee Nimibutr, is definitely the mid-point lull of the trilogy: just your average cursed puppet story, as the members of a performing troupe fall victim one by one in mysterious circumstances. Enjoyable enough, but there's nothing here we haven't seen before. But the final story, Going Home (by Hong Kong's Peter Ho-Sun Chan), is easily the best constructed tale of the three: a man, his wheelchair-bound wife, and the neighbour who discovers too much about their secret. That secret is beautifully revealed over the duration of the short, and you'd have to have a very twisted mind to see the ending coming. And just enough of the story is left sufficiently vague to keep you slightly creeped out all the way back home.
Notes From Spank's Pals
El Valley Centro
Suzanne Vega Fanclub - First released in 1999 (and according to the director James Benning only shown at festivals), this is the first in what has now become a trilogy of Static Documentaries on the California region. How this works is that the director has filmed thirty five two and a half minute sequences, from a fixed camera position, in thirty five different locations. There is no commentary, nor actors, just a fixed camera watching the world go by. The best way I can describe it is watching thirty five slides projected on screen, where there is both sound and peripheral movement within.
El Valley Centro is set in the rural food and oil producing Californian Central Valley. Now I can't remember all thirty five locations (could you?) but some of the more obvious ones are: the crop duster, the oil fire, the irrigation project, the local prison, oil wells, a military airbase, crop pickers etc. One very much ongoing theme within the film is the historical and current political struggle within California over water usage. Thus how water is used, and where it is and isn't sent, permeates not only many of the shots in this film but also in the following one Los. Unfortunately 'Bennings' photographic technique is a major flaw in this first of the trilogy. Now one of the problems I have always encountered in my pathetic attempts at landscape photography is thus: the more I try to include, the more I end up with 45% of the photo featuring blank sky, and 45% featuring blank foreground, with a small 10% subject matter stripped across the middle. Well Benning gets maybe 30% subject matter here, but most of the time not much more. One felt like shouting 'move in, get a step ladder, tilt the camera down'. However that is not to castigate the director too heavily, this is very much a small scale grant funded project, whose heart is certainly in the right the place. Fortunately this appears to be issue that he addressed for Los.
In the Q&A afterwards I asked (what I thought was) an obvious question, namely: did he move away from the camera when filming, in
particular for the crop dusting sequence (bearing in mind the barnstorming pilot seemed to be literally four feet off the ground). Interestingly he said that the shot was actually deliberately stage managed, and he decided to stay with the camera, in case the pilot thought the objective was to chase him around the field, renacting the scene from North By Northwest. Also for his obvious benefit, the plane was spraying water and not pesticides. Which I suppose goes to show, in order to show reality as it actually is, you have to put in the time to set it up.
The Belated Birthday Girl - This was the third Argentinian film I've seen, and the one that felt least like something which could've come from the U.S., but just with a few bells & whistles. There was a fair bit of interest in what it showed of Argentinian life, particularly of course the Argentinian police, and a lot of the film was very well shot, but in the end the story and characters just didn't work well enough to make this a particularly good film. The director said at the Q&A afterwards that he wanted to start off with a central character you really didn't like & put him through changes so that you end up sympathising with him, and to me he achieved just the opposite. At the beginning he's just young & taken advantage of, and you can feel sorry for him, but by the end he just seems pathetic. The scenes showing the normal life of the police are interesting enough, but in the end there's not enough structure or dramatic interest.
Suzanne Vega Fanclub - Short of course for Los Angeles, this is the second in the James Benning trilogy dealing with present day California. Los is in effect the Urban member of the trio. Now of course as Benning said afterwards, this is very much a personal project. Therefore what we get is very much the arse end of LA. There is literally no Hollywood in this movie. Instead we have scenes from: the municipal dump, a breakers yard, Korean shopping arcade, the homeless ambling down dead end streets, more prisons, billboards, baseball stadium, the school bus, a steam processing plant, railways, highways, byways, etc. Certainly the best one for me was a group of LAPD officers, at what I would assume was outdoors morning rollcall. Gradually they appeared to get more distracted at the back by what appeared to be some sort of chanting. Eventually it got loud enough so that you could hear: "He hi ho ho, fascist police have got to go". Director Benning insisted afterwards that no, that wasn't a set up.
However going back to the personal view project bit, well yes and then again maybe, there is perhaps a bit of spin on that. You see I believe there are two things that seperate a no hoper like me from a real professional photographer. One: they always remember to take the lens cap off. Two: they have the magic word 'Access'. I believe if I lived in Los Angeles, owned a video camera, a tripod and a car, I could probably recreate 90% of this film; all without needing any special access or needing to make much logistical effort. As I said in my review of El Valley Centro, that is not to denigrate this small scale effort, but it is to recognise the director shot only what his limited contacts, resources (and perhaps local knowledge) would allow him to. For instance, the shot of the planes coming in to land over the cars waiting at the junction, was pure Hatton Cross (Piccadilly Line, look it up). I am sure there is a more interesting LA out there.
That said the composition is much stronger than El Valley Centro, and the director is trying to work to a theme. Although the previously mentioned 'Water is power' theme seemed more apparent in El Valley Centro; even if it did come up in the Q&A after this one. Also as you have no doubt gathered from my reviews, these are very much films for people with a photography bent to criticise and enjoy.
The Belated Birthday Girl - A portmanteau film of three Asian ghost stories. The first, from Korea, was the one which had the most scares, the most make-you-jump moments (don't watch the opening with a cup of hot coffee in your hand), but the story was pretty obvious really. Still, it was also nice to see a reprise of the scary long-haired Asian woman image which I've recently got to know in Audition and Ring, and which I am told is a recurring image in Asian horror films since forever. The second, from Thailand, was definitely the low-point, although I was pleased to recognise the actor from last year's (somewhat disappointing) Jan Dara. But for me it was definitely a case of "save the best 'til last". The third film, from Hong Kong, had the best story by far - when you've seen it through, think back again to that opening scene! - and some fine performances. It definitely helped make the whole a worthwhile late-night.
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