9.30am: It Wasn't Supposed To Start Like This
"Come friendly BOMBS! And fall on SLOUGH! Motherfucker ain't a PLACE! For homeboys NOW!" That quote from Puff Daddy's song It's All About The Betjemans was on the front page of this site during the first year or so of its life, for reasons too dull to explain here. So it's somewhat ironic that my first day of the London Film Festival is being spent entirely in Slough. The more observant of you may have noticed that this is not London.
Regular readers of the LFF reviews here will probably have worked out by now that I normally take time off work to do the festival. The people in charge of my Moderately Responsible Job In The Computer Industry have come to accept this over the years, and are usually happy to oblige. But once in a while, there are work commitments you can't get out of. So for today and part of tomorrow, I'm stuck in Slough for a conference. Okay, this does mean I can get pissed as a rat on expenses tonight, and sleep it off in a nice hotel. (Er, and then find out all sorts of useful product information the day after, boss.) But to be honest, I'd rather be sitting in the Odeon West End getting started on this two week movie binge.
So by now you're probably wondering how I can review anything today. Well, you're in luck. Thanks to my useful DVD purchasing addiction, I have three films from this year's festival already in my collection: they were released so long ago in their home countries (America and Japan) that they're already out on home video. So I can preview some movies that haven't actually played in the festival yet - and if you like the sound of them, there may even be time for you to get to the box office and see them for yourself. So pausing only to abuse the complimentary tea and coffee making facilities, here we go.
Saturday October 25th, 1.00pm: The Cat Returns
Well, it took long enough - after all, The Belated Birthday Girl and I were telling you about it back in April 2002 - but last month Spirited Away finally got a release in the UK, and the genius of animator Hayao Miyazaki was displayed in British multiplexes. It's nice to see that the film's UK distributors aren't treating this as a one-off, and they've got the next film from Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli lined up for subsequent release over here too. It'll probably be sold as 'from the makers of Spirited Away', which would be a little cheeky as Miyazaki's sole contribution was the original idea. But like the earlier film, it's a solid fantasy tale told with breathtaking attention to detail.
It's the story of a little girl called Haru (voiced by Chizuru Ikewaki), who saves a cat from being run over in the street. That night, she wakes up to discover a huge cat procession stopping outside her house. It turns out that she's rescued Prince Lune (Takayuki Yamada), heir to the throne of the Kingdom of Cats, and Lune's dad has decided that nothing less than marriage to Haru would be a suitable repayment for the favour. In despair, she turns to two other cats - the Baron (Yoshihiko Hakamada) and his tubby sidekick Muta (Tetsu Watanabe) - to help her escape her bestial fate.
In a sense, the title could refer to the Baron as a returning cat, as both he and Muta appeared in an earlier Ghibli production, Whisper Of The Heart. But don't worry, you don't need to have seen the earlier film to enjoy this one. (Besides, The BBG insists the English title is a mistranslation, and the original Japanese is closer to The Cat Returns A Favour.) Inevitably, British viewers without any knowledge of the early Ghibli films are going to compare Hiroyuki Morita's film with Spirited Away. This film is less over the top in its imagination: the feline world depicted here is very similar to our own, just full of cats walking on their hind legs. But the feel is less exotically Japanese as a result, and those people who find Miyazaki's work just too unusual for comfort will probably be happier with this one. Even so, there are some surprisingly dark touches buried in a sweet coming-of-age story, most notably the King of Cats' fondness for defenestration. Nevertheless, the cuteness wins out in the end, even down to the kawaii! end title song by Ayano Tsuji.
Postscript, 24/10/2003, 2.10am: after going to all the trouble of writing this review, I've just been informed by The BBG that the screening of The Cat Returns has apparently been cancelled. I do hope this isn't some sort of omen.
Saturday November 1st, 6.00pm: The Shape Of Things
On the campus of Mercy College, hyper-confident art student Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) hooks up with timid Adam (Paul Rudd). Despite their apparent incompatibility, gradually Evelyn coaxes Adam out of his shell. Soon he's introducing her to his engaged best friends, Phil (Fred Weller) and Jenny (Gretchen Mol). Phil's suspicious of Evelyn and her motives. Evelyn discovers that Adam and Jenny were almost an item at one point. You know it's all going to end in tears, particularly as a back-in-misanthropic-form Neil LaBute (previously feted on these pages for Your Friends And Neighbours) is writing and directing all this.
I've been waiting to see The Shape Of Things for the best part of a couple of years, ever since LaBute directed this very cast in this very play on the stage of the Almeida in London. It was the hottest ticket in town at the time: annoyingly, I booked to see it twice and had to cancel both times due to pressure of work. (Stuck in Bristol, rather than Slough, on that occasion.) So I've come to this film adaptation with expectations raised sky-high by those of Spank's Pals who did get to see the play... and, surprisingly, it holds up.
It's still an intensely theatrical piece, it's true. LaBute appears to have done very little work in adapting the script - it's a series of clearly defined dialogue scenes featuring the cast of four in various permutations, just as you'd expect in theatre. There's a fine soundtrack of old Elvis Costello songs (from almost the entire span of his recording career), but they're used to cover the transitions between one scene and the next, just as you'd do on stage. All that's left to distinguish this as cinema is the quality of the script and the performances, and thankfully both are immaculate. After a couple of digressions into other people's material, LaBute is back producing appalling characters and plots out of his own fucked-up head, which is what he does best. The four actors have obviously benefited from working through the play on stage several dozen times before filming: Paul Rudd's development throughout the film is especially impressive, as is Rachel Weisz, keeping all her cards close to her chest until it's too late for anyone to do anything about it. Possibly not a film for those who only want art to have a positive effect on people's lives, but the rest of us will have a ball.
Saturday November 1st, 8.30pm: A Mighty Wind
Folk music impresario Irving Steinbloom has died, and his son Jonathan (Bob Balaban) has decided that the best way to remember him is by a concert featuring the three acts he made famous in the sixties. The Folksmen, a popular vocal trio despite their various mishaps (most famously, having one of their albums pressed without a hole in the middle). The Main Street Singers, hated by the whole folk music community for their MOR approach and resulting huge commercial success. And Mitch and Mickey, the golden couple of the movement, though less so since their painful split and Mitch's subsequent breakdown. With an impossible deadline of just two weeks to set up the concert from scratch, can Jonathan possibly pull it off?
Christopher Guest's if-you-will folkumentary uses the same fake documentary structure (and pretty much the entire cast) as his earlier films Waiting For Guffman and Best In Show. It's a structure that goes all the way back to his work on This Is Spinal Tap - and part of the appeal of A Mighty Wind is seeing the three members of Tap (Michael McKean, Harry Shearer and Guest himself) back together again as the Folksmen. Unfortunately, that's about as far as the appeal goes. When Best In Show was released three years ago, there were some reviews which complained about the way it took a soft target - the sort of people who enter dog shows - and cruelly lampooned it for the whole running time. It feels like Guest has taken this to heart, because in this film, the folk scene isn't so much lampooned as given a brief cuddle and chucked under the chin.
And the result of this is crippling, because it means that A Mighty Wind doesn't have any jokes. Well, hardly any. But thinking back to the glorious three-way banter in Spinal Tap, there's no attempt here to do something similar with the Folksmen. And the other acts on show are treated in a similar way. It's only the figures on the periphery who get decent sized laughs, notably Balaban's amusingly played obsessive-compulsive promoter, and Fred Willard having fun as the crazed manager of the Main Street Singers. It's worth noting that the trailer contains at least three or four decent gags that didn't make it into the movie: as ever, Guest's semi-improv methods mean that lots of material ends up on the cutting room floor, or in a deleted scenes section on the DVD. The suspicion is that this film has been edited to play up the story at the expense of the jokes, particularly given the emphasis on Mitch and Mickey's will-they-won't-they reconciliation. But the result is the sort of stillborn comedy drama that British TV is clogged up with nowadays, and most viewers will be expecting much more than that.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Mortadelo & Filemon: The Big Adventure
The Belated Birthday Girl - Overheard on the way out of the cinema: "That was like two hours of Tom & Jerry". I can very much see their point. Mortadelo & Filemon is the tale of two spectacularly incompetent secret agents, attempting to recapture the DDT weapon - stolen during a whirl of an extended pre-credit sequence which sets the tone, and most of the gags, for the rest of the film. Filmed in a highly surreal style, and full of zany - and frequently violent, in a Tom & Jerry kind of way - sight-gags and set pieces, this should have been an absolute treat. Unfortunately, although there was a lot that was extremely funny, many of the jokes are overly repetitive, and some were utterly predictable and/or just not funny. Though reminiscent at times of Jeunet & Caro, with Dominique Pinon as Mortadelo & Filemon's imported rival adding to the impression, to me at least the relentlessness of it meant there was just not with quite enough light & shade to place it alongside films like Delicatessen. At times it was hilarious, and almost every gag in the early part of the film had a payoff later, but I found it felt over-stretched - a lot of the repeat gags could easily have been trimmed. Maybe fans of zany slapstick will find it less wearing than I did at times. Certainly the guys who made the Tom & Jerry comment liked it a lot. I did enjoy it, and it certainly has its moments - watch out for the fax joke (or maybe not, if you're a cat-lover!) - but overall, not all I'd hoped.
In The Cut
Sheryl Crow Fanclub - No I didn't cough up £25 for the opening gala, as being a smart cookie, I saw it less than 24 hours later for a mere £9.50. If I had been smarter still, I could have hung on a week and seen it for nothing with my UGC card; such is the depreciating value of cinema these days.
So where to start? Well Meg Ryan plays a dowdy fortyish high school teacher obsessed with plaigarising poetry from subway carriages. Into her life via a local murder comes a detective Malloy. He believes Ryan, who frequented the bar that was also used by the victim, may have seen someone or something that could prove useful. Thus the stage is set for a movie that is part murder mystery, part relationship mystery. Because of course Meg and detective Malloy get it on big time. The problem being, however, that the relationship is moving too fast for both of them. Thus she becomes almost instantly delusional about his honesty, and his real connection to the murder/s. He on the other hand dosen't seem sure whether he is with her to probe her for clues, or instead with her merely for probing's sake.
Speaking of all this probing, it is worth stating that this is probably the steamiest mainstream movie I have ever seen. Thus the film walks a very thin line between being very sexy or very gratuitous. Meg Ryan however is particularly brilliant in her portrayal of a type of woman of a certain age, who are slightly dotty, and veer between being sexually closed off, and immediately up for it, given the right bloke. Also high marks go to Jennifer Jason Leigh as Ryan's skanky doctor stalking sister.
The hand held camera technique used is a style of cinematography that I particularly like, and in this movie it succeeds in drawing you right into the scene, rather than being just an observer. I also enjoyed the reaction of the Yellow Cab driver who runs over Ryan; obviously a graduate of the same school of motoring as myself. The one minor irritant in the film though was the character played by Kevin Bacon (an actor I normally admire). Basically he added nothing to the plot, created unnecessary confusion to Ryan's personal life, and was not remotely plausible as a suspect red herring.
So it is certainly not hard to see why this film was chosen to open the festival, and after what seems like a few years in the wilderness, this should return Meg Ryan to movie A list status. Anyway you will all be raving about it in a week or so when it goes out on general release.
Finally this is the first time I have ever attended a London Film Festival screening (Spank should know is this normal), where there was no introduction, no "thank you for coming", or Q&A at the end. Obviously that must be what the Wednesday night crowd paid the extra fifteen quid for.
The Belated Birthday Girl - To be completely honest, the main reason I picked this one was the presence of Nao Omori, who I knew initially from Ichi the Killer, and later from Quartet (not that you'd know that from looking on IMDb). But excellent though he was in this, this is very much his co-star Shinobu Terashima's film. She plays Rei, who we first meet wandering around a Tokyo convenience store, musing to herself, looking to buy German wine ("Why don't you see red German wine? They must make it"), thinking about the up-coming "Second Valentine's Day" (in Japan, on Valentines Day women buy men gifts; they have a second one a month later on March 14th for the men to buy the women presents), thinking about how alcohol helps her sleep. Rei's internal thoughts are prominent here and throughout the film, whether in inter-titles or voice-over, and reveal a lonely and bored woman, drinking too much and inducing vomiting on a regular basis and desperate for human contact, while afraid of it at the same time. While in the store, she spies a young truck driver, Takatoshi Okabe (Nao Omori) - difficult not to notice him, with his dyed blond hair - and starts to fantasise about him. Fairly soon she is in the truck with him, sharing shochu and getting more intimate. In the morning, when it's time for him to head off to Niigata, she asks if she can go along. Throughout the journey we get to understand Rei more, through the inter-titles and voice-overs mentioned - which are sometimes extremely funny, sometimes almost painfully moving - and also through inventive and often witty use of flash-backs and aural memories. The trucker regales Rei with tales of his life, introduces her to CB radio, and grows closer to her over the course of the trip. Both actors play their parts well, the cinematography and pacing of the film is beautiful, and you are kept wondering where the film will go. Hopefully it's not giving too much away to say that there's no disappointing trite resolution.
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