1.00pm: Birthday Girl
Tickets for tonight's Closing Gala of K-PAX are rarer than rocking horse poo, and I don't have one. (Though Old Lag does: see below.) And the final day's films at the LFF tend to either be bottom-of-the-barrel filler or extra screenings of unexpected hits. So it takes me a while to discover that the three films available to close my LFF 2001 are all British. As discoveries go, this would generally be on a par with finding blood in your stools. But will that be the case today?
Suburban bank clerk John (Ben Chaplin) is looking for love in all the wrong places: specifically, on a website that offers Russian mail order brides. He chooses Nadia (Nicole Kidman), only to find on her arrival that she doesn't speak a word of English. Still, once she discovers his hidden collection of Hog-Tied Bitches magazine and understands the sort of thing he likes, the two of them start to develop a relationship that thrives on their lack of communication. So where's the catch? When two of Nadia's friends from Russia unexpectedly arrive on John's doorstep, he starts to find out.
Birthday Girl is the second film by Jez Butterworth, who had a minor hit on stage and screen with Mojo four years ago. In the meantime he's done quite a bit of work for television, and it shows: Mojo was very obviously a filmed stage play, but this looks like a real movie. On the surface, the script (by Butterworth and his brother Tom) has a nice line in quirks and unexpected twists: the scene where John talks about his former girlfriend is surprisingly handled, and the writers aren't unafraid to make John act like a bastard for a bit once he's worked out what's going on.
But delve a little deeper into the writing and it becomes apparent that Birthday Girl is too content to coast along on its charm (although I admit it does have a fair bit of that). Maybe it's a bit much to expect watertight plotting in what's basically a light-hearted comedy thriller, but there are a couple of holes in the thriller element you could drive a truck through. It's a bit tacky going to all the trouble of setting up a suspense climax, only to have it hinge on the assumption that a major international airport's security division is entirely staffed by blind people.
Still, pleasant enough for a weekday afternoon, and the cast is good. Nicole Kidman scrubs down nicely as Nadia (or whatever the opposite of 'scrubs up' is), and handles the Russian dialogue convincingly. Ben Chaplin is okay as John, though his overnight transformation from bank clerk to criminal simply doesn't convince. Two stalwarts of modern French cinema, Vincent Cassel and Mathieu Kassovitz, are obviously having big fun as the visiting Russians. And there are some entertaining solo cameos from the members of a couple of British comedy teams. But it's the kind of movie that the shrug was invented to describe.
4.00pm: Happy Now
This year's token Welsh movie in the LFF: and as ever, Spank's Pal Jon is on hand to ensure that I come along to cheer on his home team with him. Happy Now is set in the coastal town of Pen Y Wig, which suffered a tragedy in 1988 when beauty queen Jenny (Emmy Rossum) vanished without trace. In fact, she'd been killed by two local boys, Glen (Paddy Considine, British acting's best-kept secret) and Joe (Richard Coyle): but they managed to pass the blame on to the tramp known as the Tin Man (Om Puri), and he went to prison for it. Fourteen years later, it all hits the fan at once. Glen is running for local office: the Tin Man is about to be released from prison: and a teenage girl called Nicky has arrived in town from Alaska, looking exactly like Jenny...
As with Birthday Girl earlier today, this is entertaining enough, but it all falls down in the script. The problem can be best summed up like this: at some point in the film's production, during a meeting between director Philippa Collie-Cousins and writer Belinda Bauer, somebody must have made a comment along the lines of "it's all pretty good so far, but what we really need is Alison Steadman in an iron lung". The whole film is full of surreal elements like that: the obsessive-compulsive cop played by Ioan Gruffudd, the TV sets showing nothing but old episodes of Bonanza, the twinning of Pen Y Wig with Three Mile Island.
The reference point used repeatedly in reviews is that this is a Welsh Twin Peaks: but David Lynch made the weirdness an integral part of the fabric of his show. That's not the case in Happy Now: all the strange bits are self-consciously tacked on to what is ultimately an incredibly slight mystery plot, with a hyped-up climax that hasn't really been thought through. Again, watchable while it lasts, but unsatisfying afterwards.
9.00pm: Teenage Kicks - The Undertones
In the absence of a Closing Gala ticket, I finish off my Festival in NFT1 with this repeat screening of a documentary about The Undertones, Derry's finest punk band. The film's based around John Peel interviewing the various band members: an obvious choice, as Peely still insists to this day that their debut single Teenage Kicks is the finest record ever made. But they can't be considered one-hit wonders, as they released a whole string of excellent singles and albums between 1977 and 1983. (Time Out reviewer Derek Adams, however, describes all their post-Kicks material as "pretty damn turgid". If I had time, I'd give you a picture of him bumming a dog, but let's move on.)
Journalist Eamon McCann is another interviewee in the film, and manages to nail the band's appeal in a single sentence: the way that such a sweet, beautiful sound could come out of such an ugly place as Derry. The band saw their sound as an escape: they lived in this place through the Troubles, they didn't need to write about it as well. Hence the "More Songs About Chocolate And Girls" we associate with The Undertones, although later on some more political material like It's Going To Happen started filtering through. However, their success attracted some resentment back in their home town: former friends assumed that the band were just showing off their wealth when they got the drinks in. The pressures proved too much for singer Feargal Sharkey, and he jumped ship in 1983, causing the band to split.
Sharkey is conspicuously interviewed separately from the rest of the band. They reformed with new lead singer Paul McLoone a couple of years ago, and are still touring (I'm somewhere in the crowd in that footage from the 2000 Finsbury Park Fleadh). Sharkey is adamant that singing Teenage Kicks when you're pushing 40 is a silly thing to do: the band seem to agree, but insist that once they're on stage playing it's no longer an issue. Having seen the reformed band live, I know what they mean.
So where does Tom Collins' documentary fit into today's State Of The British Film Industry analysis? It's certainly the most enjoyable of the three films, despite being wholly lacking in technical polish. The closest thing to an arty BBC2 flourish this documentary can muster is a series of chapter headings based on Undertones song titles (particularly liked the use of I Don't Wanna See You Again for the band's split). It doesn't try to chart a picture of headlong decline like, say, your typical VH-1 documentary would: it's a more random portrait about how five guys made some great music for a few years, and then stopped. Some classic performance footage and a series of warm, funny interviews make this a very nice close to the LFF indeed.
All I need to do now is work out what my favourite films were...
Notes From Spank's Pals
K-PAX (Closing Gala)
Old Lag - We were in row B of the Empire Leicester Square for the closing gala of the London Film Festival. As such we were right in front of Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges when they came on to talk about their new film K-PAX. Nick also spotted Kylie Minogue and there was a Royal Highness as well but we did not know who. K-PAX was essentially a two hander with Kevin Spacey playing Prot, a patient in a Manhattan Psychiatric Hospital, and Jeff Bridges the doctor assigned to cure him. The problem is that Prot claims to be from outer space and the doctor, and even more so the other patients, have difficulty in separating fact from fiction. The doctor, performing more like a detective than a doctor, chases down some sort of truth but is never able to verify it with his patient. There is something about a camera that makes Kevin Spacey incredibly watchable on screen and so it is with this excellent movie, with the two stars receiving a standing ovation at the end of the film.
The Cineaste - So, the last day of the festival. Twenty-nine films in, and many of them very fine ones, what goodies could I watch today? Since the total number of British films I’ve seen is exactly……. err, well, let’s put it this way, perhaps it was time to see a British film. So here I was, in a surprisingly full OWE on a Thursday lunchtime. The typical filmgoer at this screening is distinctly different from those who attend foreign language films, with a strong element of young lads with number-one cuts. Perhaps the words “Nicole” and “Kidman” are a strong reason for this. Somehow I can’t quite seem to shake out of my mind some of Spank’s comments about Last Orders, along the lines of nagging concern about that film being chosen as the best of British for the British gala. How would BG measure up?
John has chosen a bride, Nadia, from a Russian internet lonely-hearts website. He meets her at the airport, and problems (for which, read cringing clichés) start straight away. Despite her letters having been written in good English, she can’t speak a word of the language. She smokes, to John’s displeasure. That said, she appears content settling in with John, and certainly isn’t reticent about initiating sex. Soon, however, two Russian friends of hers arrive, and stay at John’s, much to his unease, and then the problems really escalate. John finds himself unable to avoid participating in a series of outlandish adventures which seem less and less likely to have a peaceful conclusion.
The problem with this film was that there was too much that was obvious, unoriginal and uninspiring. John is a stereotypical nerdy type, socially inept, and we see him in clichéd situations at his job in a bank. The first half of the film contains too many cringing scenes. After Nadia’s first full day at John’s, he arrives back home from work and gives her a present. Her face lights up, only to find it’s a Russian/English dictionary. One scene is a blatant copy straight out of Airplane, made worse by the fact that it just wouldn’t fit appropriately even if it was original. Which is all a bit of a shame, because there is a nucleus of a good plot there, with some attention-grabbing twists and turns. Kidman as ever looks superb, acts very accomplishedly and gives a highly creditable impression of being au fait with the Russian language. Sadly the film’s potential got submerged under lazy, unoriginal, bland and cringing film-making. Come back Sid James and the gang, we love you desperately. Star rating: one-and-a-half.
Me Without You
Old Lag - If this film was about two men it would be called a buddy movie, but with two women it does not seem appropriate. A relationship movie seems more appropriate. The story covers the relationship between Marina (Anna Friel) and Holly (Michelle Williams) between 1973 and 2001. A period that covers my own generation but for which I felt very little empathy. Marina is the shallow manipulative charater and Holly the shy dedicated one. From the beginning there is envy of each other's family life style and towards the end the relationship becomes quite claustophobic as their lives and loves, particularly that of Holly's long term torch for Marina's brother, revolve around each other. It suggests that Holly makes a break from the relationship in the end, but this is made unclear by the final scene. An enjoyable film that is perhaps a little too long.
Water and Salt
The Cineaste - This was to be my final film of the festival. What to choose? The evening’s programme largely made up of British films (and therefore, to me, best avoided), how could I repair the rather downbeat mood generated by Birthday Girl? Water and Salt didn’t exactly leap out at me. The brochure copy was vague, I knew next-to-nothing about the Portuguese film industry, and, as it happened, the film played to the smallest audience I’ve been in this festival, a barely quarter-full NFT2. As it turned out, what proceeded was a most beautiful, glorious film.
It unfurled at a sedate pace, centring around Ana. She says goodbye to her husband and daughter, as they go to Milan to stay a while with her husband’s relations, leaving her on her own. Gradually we get introduced to some glimpses of Ana’s life, questions it is posing her. She befriends a lad, younger than herself, not romantically, and helps him with his domestic concerns. She has a close female friend to stay, and they flirt coyly with a gorgeous romeo in a local bar. But what really makes this film are the shots, scenes, and atmosphere. There are wonderful shots of the sun-drenched scenery, the sea, long takes, little dialogue. These are set against music from Bach and Schubert. The mood of the film is wonderfully mature; when Ana actually gets to meet the gorgeous romeo there are no embarrassing clichéd chat-up lines. It’s impressive, cerebral, grown-up stuff.
Galatea Ranzi as Ana gives a brilliant performance. Even Joaquim de Almeida, as her husband, even though he only reappears in the final quarter of the film, gives an inspired performance too. But then what really makes the film, is that it’s not all sun-drenched atmosphere and casual encounters, because little by little, a plot gradually emerges, with an outline picture taking place, drawn from the strands we’ve seen of Ana’s life. There’s an unexpected denouement at the end. The shots, the cinematography, the music, and the atmosphere - this is staggering, heart-warming stuff. A truly beautiful, sensuous, luscious gem of a film. Please please let this have a general release. Star rating: five.
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