1.30pm: Open Hearts
It's funny to look back at my review of The Idiots from 1998, and see just what a babbling fool I was at the time for the idea of Dogme 95. Along with everyone else, of course. Back then, Lars von Trier's stripped-down approach seemed like a radical new way of making movies. Four years on, and where is Dogme? Everywhere, really. Back-to-basics filmmaking is no longer the novelty it once was, and most of the features I've seen at this year's LFF have swiped its lo-fi digital techniques for artistic or budgetary reasons. Meanwhile, films are still being made under the Dogme Rules Of Chastity, such as this one from the movement's home in Denmark. To borrow an analogy from The Belated Birthday Girl: if Dogme was the punk rock of filmmaking, and now it's part of the mainstream, does that mean that the originators who are still hanging on to the rules are its equivalent of the Anti-Nowhere League? (Actually, no. I just like the line.)
Cecilie (Sonja Richter) and Joachim (Nicolaj Lie Kaas) have just got engaged, and are having a lovely time of it. It's kind of an unspoken rule of Dogme that this happiness cannot possibly last, and soon a tragic accident has driven their relationship to breaking point. In despair, Cecile turns for comfort to Nils (Mads Mikkelsen), a doctor whose wife Marie (Paprika Steen) was in part responsible for the accident. Soon there are two relationships in trouble rather than just one.
Written by Anders Thomas Jensen in collaboration with director Susanne Bier, Open Hearts is notable for being less overtly melodramatic than the earlier 'classic' Dogme films, but just as emotionally tense. It's beautifully played by all concerned so that your sympathies are constantly being shifted from one character to another - there are no good people or bad people in this story, just people who all make errors of judgement at times. The visuals are perfectly in keeping with the nature of the tale, primarily shot on good-looking video with some ingenious use of film for the occasional fantasy sequence. For those of you keeping track of violations of the Dogme rules, Bier keeps to them for the most part, although there's some cheating in Cecilie's use of a Discman full of Danish chick rock to give the film a soundtrack of sorts. I'm not sure that the use of a thermal camera is covered by the rules either, but it does make for an end titles sequence that's as fascinating as the rest of this movie.
3.30pm: Standing In The Shadows Of Motown
Tamla Motown released countless hit records in the 1960s, but you've probably never heard about the backing band that played on virtually all of them: the Funk Brothers, a collection of Detroit jazz musicians hand-picked by label boss Berry Gordy to create the unique Motown sound. Effectively, this makes them the most successful recording group of all time: but none of them ever received a sleeve credit for their work, until Marvin Gaye's 1970 album What's Goin' On finally gave them the recognition they deserved. Within a year, Motown had shifted its base of operations from Detroit to LA, a move which effectively killed off its house band.
Paul Justman's documentary (see, I told you it was a good year for them) brings the Funk Brothers back together again after thirty years apart, to play a reunion gig in their home town and talk about the past. It's a bit like Buena Vista Social Club, except its soundtrack CD is less of a trendy fashion accessory - everyone knows and owns these records, it's just a revelation to see who played on them. As well as interviews with the surviving members of the band, a suitable amount of screen time is dedicated to the key members who are no longer with us: notably James Jamerson who reinvented the art of bass playing with his rock-solid but fabulously busy style, and Earl van Dyke who played the piano so aggressively that a piano tuner was kept on permanent standby.
These guys are a treasure trove of anecdotes, and more importantly know how to tell them. With narration from Baltimore Homicide's finest, Andre Braugher (whose attempt at a Scouse accent for a John Lennon quote may be the funniest thing I've heard all year), the result is a fascinating history of sixties soul music. And the footage from the reunion gig proves beyond doubt that the Brothers still have the Funk, and are as tight as ever. Unfortunately, they were only ever a backing band, and the concert sequences are let down by the erratic selection of guest vocalists brought in to perform the various Motown classics with them. Chaka Khan and Montel Jordan do a fantastic job on Ain't No Mountain High Enough, and Bootsy Collins contributes a couple of performances that are almost as show-stopping as his costumes. But Chaka and Bootsy are proper larger-than-life stars, and it's sad to see the band that worked with Stevie, Smokie and Marvin reduced to supporting personality-free no-marks like Ben Harper or Joan Frickin' Osborne. That aside, enjoy.
8.30pm: 8 Mile
Jimmy Smith Jr. is Eminem, rather than the other way round as you may have thought. Curtis Hanson's film may only claim to be loosely based on the life of its star, but the story's that little bit too close to the Eminem myth that's been built up over the last few years, with slutty mother (Kim Basinger), sluttier ex-girlfriend, virginal daughter and all. Jimmy's a white rapper living in a trailer park with his mother, struggling to make a name for himself while two rival mentors - long-time friend Future (Mekhi Phifer) and rival gang member Wink (Eugene Byrd) - struggle over the rights to his artistic soul. Everything will be resolved at the rap battles, a series of events in which two rappers trade off improvised rhyming insults and the audience gets to vote on who's best.
Hanson pulls off something remarkable here. On one level, 8 Mile could be seen as a revisionist version of the Eminem story with some of the more dubious parts carefully airbrushed out. (Look, he's got a gay friend! And at least he doesn't hit women like his mum's boyfriend does!) On another level, it's a rap exploitation flick whose plot dynamics wouldn't look out of place in Breakdance 2: Electric Boogaloo, as a plucky young guy from the wrong side of the tracks makes something of his life thanks to the power of music. But despite all this, it still works as a dramatic movie: because despite all the above, this film's made by people who believe completely in what they're doing, and that comes through in every single frame.
Eminem may just be playing himself, and it's quite possible that his acting skills aren't up to anything else beyond that. But he's 100% believable in this role, partly thanks to the support he gets from the actors playing his posse: the scenes in which they're just shooting the shit between themselves are incredibly natural, as well as being incredibly funny. The film's stroke of genius is to make the rapping elements a competitive sport, allowing those scenes to play off the love of language that's always been Eminem's strong point. Four years ago I was raving about Slam, and the way it made poetry readings sound like the most exciting thing in the world: and now we finally have a rap movie that manages to match its energy, the climactic battle working as a fabulous piece of crowd-pleasing cinema.
Best of all, the film manages to be both realistic and upbeat at the same time, refusing to wallow in the worst of the gangsta movie cliches. Hopefully it's not giving too much away to reveal that nobody dies in 8 Mile, and the one gunshot injury depicted is an unglamorous, rather ridiculous thing: all of the conflicts are ultimately resolved by people shouting rhymes in each other's faces. Which may, as has been suggested in some quarters, make 8 Mile as safe and non-threatening as an Elvis picture: but it's an Elvis picture made by filmmakers who care, and that makes all the difference. It's rock-solid entertainment for everyone: you don't even have to be a fan of the music, as I explained to my homie The Notorious BBG afterwards. Word.
Notes From Spank's Pals
The Belated Birthday Girl - Shadow Kill tells the story of an ageing hangman in pre-independence India, wracked with guilt over his hanging years before of a man he later discovered to be innocent. It has been many years since the last time he had to hang a man, and we follow him as he prepares to carry out his duties once more.
The main reason I wanted to see Shadow Kill was to see the Keralan landscapes, having once, more than a decade ago, holidayed there. The film is beautifully shot, making good use of the gorgeous setting, and with many very photographic scenes, and was indeed worth seeing for that alone. The story moves along slowly, building to a somewhat melodramatic and not entirely unexpected climax. So, not bad overall, but more for how it looked than anything else.
When Mariam Spoke Out
The Cineaste - This was a strong and thought-provoking comment about marriage in a Lebanese society when events do not take the “expected” course expected of that society. Mariam and Zaid have been happily married for three years. They do not have any children yet, a fact which does not bother them at all, but which does considerably bother their mothers. And we see scenes as the two mothers badger their respective daughter/son to do everything to encourage a family. There are humorous scenes as Mariam’s mother explains to her how to increase the chances of pregnancy, and even how to influence the sex of the baby (a son is, after all, far preferable).
The mothers’ persistency eventually gets to the couple, and decisions have to be made: fertility tests, whether they could/should adopt, the option for Zaid to take another wife. Zaid, much against his will, is persuaded to take another wife, and that’s when difficulties and misunderstandings really set in. The overall plot developed very naturally: the pace of the film was restrained, but the interest level never let up. The overall effect was aided by some strong yet measured acting, and enhanced by moments of gentle and clever humour.
And the ending was wonderfully forceful, without being in any way melodramatic. A quite brilliant and poignant film.
The Belated Birthday Girl - "Better a junkie mum than no mum at all". So says Louise (played by Keira Knightly) at one point, and this would seem to be the central thesis of Pure. This is the story of ten year-old Paul, played by newcomer Harry Eden, and his junkie mum Mel, played brilliantly by Molly Parker, by far the best thing in the film. We watch Paul discovering the truth about his mum's "medicine" and his dead dad's old best mate Lenny, now the local pusher and pimp. Louise is a teenage waitress in the local greasy cafe where Paul hangs out when he's bunking off school, who had a baby some time before, which was taken off her by social services.
Perhaps how you respond to this film depends in part on what you think of that central thesis, but sadly I found it a disappointment. Almost every aspect of the story was set up and resolved far too pat, and there were also too many plot-holes. With the exception of Molly Parker, who really was excellent, the performances were merely OK, and I never really believed in the boy. The film's problems were mostly with the script. There was too much speechifying, too little ambiguity. There were interesting themes in there, about how a boy in that situation comes to realise the meaning of what is going on around him, about how he copes in the place of the parent. But the script isn't strong enough to explore them properly. And personally I found the music intensely irritating: there was a saccharine plinky-plinky guitar theme which came back over and over and which by the end of the film I was thoroughly sick of.
Pure is not without its moments, but its lack of believability and determinedly upbeat ending meant overall it didn't work for me.
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