11.00am: Classification: New Challenges
New Thrill!, as Tharg used to say on 2000AD (he may still do, for all I know): we're spending the morning in the Marriott Hotel at the former County Hall, attending a free panel discussion on the subject of film classification around the world. It's not until we get there that the setup becomes clear: this is actually an all-day conference of European Film Classifiers, but they've opened up one of its sessions to the general public as a tie-in with the Festival, allowing thirty or so of us plebs to join in. And The Belated Birthday Girl and I are two of those thirty, so count yourselves privileged.
The discussion is chaired by Professor Julian Petley of Brunel University, and features representatives from the UK, Ireland, Singapore and the former Yugoslavia. And it's interesting to note - with the exception of the last of those - how censorship bodies around the world seem to be moving towards an international standard. Part of that standard involves presenting themselves as friendly classifiers rather than angry censors: witness the name change of our own British Board Of Film Censors to the British Board Of Film Classification, one which both the Irish and Singapore boards are hoping to emulate soon. David Cooke of the BBFC sees their role as being to advise parents and other viewers of content levels, only pulling out the scissors as a last resort. His presentation is an anecdotal report of some of the trickier decisions he's had to deal with over the last twelve months - not just the Daily Mail-hyped outrage over the uncut 9 Songs, but less familiar tales like the blasphemy issues with Belladonna: My Ass Is Haunted and the exploitation of real-life violence in Terrorists, Killers And Other Wackos. In both of those cases, the BBFC's decisions are driven by the current laws of the land, rather than their own opinion of what's good for us.
It's fascinating to see how other countries compare with us. Amy Chua works with the Media Development Authority in Singapore: despite their reputation as a tough censor, they're trying to go through a similar programme of liberalisation to the BBFC. They've only been classifying cinema films since 1991, and videos since 2004 - prior to that all videos were cut to a PG level, now more adult material is allowed (though not at the highest R21 rating). Chua talks about the specific issues of Singapore's non-homogenous society, and how as a result race and religion are the most sensitive topics in films. (She insists that political censorship isn't a problem, though there are some people out there who would disagree.) Meanwhile, film studies professor Nevena Dakovic describes the somewhat anarchic situation in Serbia-Montenegro: domestic film production is at such a low that everyone will watch a local film whether they're told they can or not, while international movies are impossible to control thanks to the region being the video piracy capital of Europe.
John Kelleher of the Irish Film Censors Office provides the most interesting illustration of how things are changing worldwide. Previously, Ireland had one of the most restrictive film policies in the world, with many films being cut or banned following pressure from the Catholic Church (one of his predecessors complained about being caught "between the devil and the Holy See"). But there have been huge social changes in Ireland in the last decade or two, and IFCO has changed itself in order to reflect them. They use a similar rating model to the BBFC, but seem to be working to improve on it: providing even more content advice for the viewer on their website, and introducing the fine distinction between an advisory 15 rating and a compulsory 16, to give two examples. Plus, their survey of Irish viewers throws up some unexpected results about areas of concern - depiction of hard drug use came top, violence came second, sex came fifth, and bad language barely registered as an issue. Coming as I do from a country where until recently you had to be 18 to hear someone say 'cunt' in a cinema, it amuses me that the Irish are now more liberal than we are on that score.
4.00pm: Lonesome Jim
Jim (Casey Affleck) doesn't really know what he wants to do with his life. He'd quite like to be a writer, but all of his literary heroes topped themselves at some point, which doesn't really inspire him. He's tried getting a job in New York, but it didn't work out. So he returns back home to his mum and dad (Mary Kay Place and Seymour Cassel) to mooch off them and possibly fit in a nervous breakdown while he's there. Except Jim's brother Tim (Kevin Corrigan) beats him to it - although there's a suspicion that he was driven to a suicide attempt simply by talking to Jim. With Tim bedridden for several months, Jim is forced to actually do stuff: get a proper job in the family business, take over Tim's role as coach of a girls' basketball team, maybe even get friendly with nurse Anika (Liv Tyler).
The main attraction of Lonesome Jim is that it's directed by Steve Buscemi - best known as the face of countless American indie movies, but also a film director modest enough to come along for a Q&A at a 4pm screening. This is his third feature film, but in the interim Buscemi's done a lot of television work on shows like Homicide, Oz and The Sopranos. In particular, his episodes on the latter show have become something to look forward to: he isn't a flashy director with a particular visual style, but he's always guaranteed to get the best performances possible out of any situation.
That's certainly the case with Lonesome Jim. Jim Strouse's script feels like a curious nineties throwback, his lead character being a prime example of the sort of Gen X angsty slacker who was all over indie movies like a bad suit a decade or so ago. The difference is, Strouse is less concerned with empathising with his pain, and more concerned with gently pointing out how ridiculous he is. Buscemi pitches the comedy beautifully (with the obvious help of his cast, particularly Mary Kay Place as Jim's dementedly cheerful mother): and he shows a great sense of comic timing in the editing, which I don't think I've seen before in his work. Lonesome Jim won't change the world, but it's a charming 85 minutes while you're in the room with it.
6.00pm: Blood Rain
Donghwa Island in Korea, 19th century. It's the home of a well-regarded paper mill, whose product is so fine it's used by the imperial court. But lately, it's not been a very nice place to work. During a religious ceremony, a shaman suddenly starts talking with the voice of the late Commissioner Kang, prophesying doom on those responsible for his death. Within seconds of this, a large shipment of paper suddenly goes up in flames. Detective Weon-Gyu (Cha Seung-Weon) is brought in from the mainland to investigate the possible arson attack, but while he's making his enquiries a series of gruesome murders commences: all involving people who were connected with Commissioner Kang.
Director Kim Dae-seung has pulled off something fascinating here: a period drama, with all the attention to sets and costumes you'd expect, but with the plot of a contemporary police procedural. Weon-Gyu is a recognisably modern detective, working with deduction and forensic evidence, and he's up against what looks like a recognisably modern serial killer with a fiendish imagination for ways of bumping people off. It's the contrast between the ancient and modern approaches that really makes this interesting to watch - that, and the tantalising possibility that it could still be Kang's ghost doing all this.
Having said that, there are two things I found a little frustrating about this screening. Firstly, the distributor Tartan couldn't get hold of a print of the film in time, and had to send a digital copy along instead. Bad Hamish! No sweeties for you. It looks okay projected on a big screen, but a lot of the subtleties and detail of the photography are lost in comparison to a decent celluloid print. Secondly, I have to admit that by the end of the story I still wasn't entirely sure who'd done what and why: this film has a lot of characters all wearing similar robes and hats, and coupled with the film noir level of plot complexity it's sometimes difficult to keep track of exactly what's going on. However, both those problems just make me more determined to see Blood Rain again if and when it gets a proper theatrical release.
8.30pm: Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang
Having just rushed from a tightly plotted detective thriller to get to Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, it's amusing to see its writer/director Shane Black on stage saying one of his aims was to make people wonder why you don't see tightly plotted detective thrillers in cinemas any more. This one is the story of small-time crook Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr), who ends up becoming a Hollywood actor through a series of circumstances too silly to relate here. At an LA party he meets up with two people who will change his life: childhood sweetheart Harmony (Michelle Monaghan) and private investigator Perry Van Shrike (Val Kilmer). Harry accompanies Perry on a case as research for his upcoming movie role: but pretty soon the pair of them are dealing with an unspecified number of dead women, at least one of whom is drenched with Harry's urine.
Shane Black was best known in the nineties as the biggest writer in the action genre, pulling down multi-million dollar deals for scripts like The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight. After almost a decade off the scene, he's directing here for the first time, and it's interesting to see how Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang actually has an almost identical visual style to those earlier films, which were directed by other people - either Black is a very quick study, or the visual style of his work is an integral part of his writing. But this is the sort of action movie we haven't seen on screen since the days of his four million dollar pay packets - a major plot twist every ten minutes or so, one-damn-thing-after-another pacing, jokes and gags piling on top of each other so fast you miss a quarter of them on your first viewing. And it has no real heart whatsoever, which is a gloriously refreshing thing in a Hollywood movie these days.
It's a comforting, familiar formula, and it's nice to see it back: but this time round, Black has added a layer of self-referential wit that takes the whole thing to another level. He expressed astonishment at the screening that a serious film festival audience would be interested in his noisy sweary cop movie. But why not? It's a noisy sweary cop movie that conspires with its audience thoughout (mainly thanks to Downey's hilarious back-and-forth narration): pointing up how silly its story contrivances are, and asking the audience to laugh at them but go along with them anyway. And we do. The sheer level of smartassery in this script may be too high for some - in its final seconds, Black deliberately alienates a large section of his potential American audience just for the sake of a cheap gag - but if that doesn't bother you, stock up on the popcorn and have fun.
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