1.00pm: Lost In Translation
Every film festival has one film with a buzz: the one everyone's talking about, the one where ticket demand massively outstrips supply, the one for which people would sell their grandmothers into white slavery to get a ticket. When I originally wrote that back on November 10th 1999, the film that was causing all the commotion at the LFF was Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich. This year, without question, it's Lost In Translation. I know a number of people who tried to book tickets for last night's Gala screening, and not one of them was able to manage it: and this matinee was one of the rare ones to sell out in advance, meaning that The Belated Birthday Girl, Jon and myself had to queue for an hour to get our hands on three of the last dozen or so tickets. I don't pretend to understand the alchemy that inspires an audience to chase after one film sight unseen, and not another. Curiously, this one's directed by Sofia Coppola, best known among other things for being Spike Jonze's former missus.
In comparison with her ex-hubby's densely-plotted film, Lost In Translation is a fluffy little meringue in narrative terms. Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is a failing Hollywood movie star, currently in Tokyo to film a whisky advert for the domestic market. Charlotte (Scarlett Johannson) is the wife of a rock photographer, who's continually stuck in her hotel while he's out on assignments. Bob and Charlotte meet up. Er, that's it. But obviously the movie's about a lot more than its narrative.
Much has been made of the Tokyo setting, but other than the plot device of Bob's Suntory whisky adverts, there's no real reason why it needs to be located in Japan: all that's really needed is any location foreign enough to make two people feel sufficiently isolated that they end up together. But Tokyo does fit the bill nicely on that score, and Johannson is particularly fine at conveying the bemused awe that most people feel on their first visit. Murray doesn't have quite so much of that to do, but in the early stages he pulls off the most perfect depiction of long-haul jetlag that I've ever seen on film. And every so often he gets to cut loose in one of those trademark bouts of comic improvisation that make us love him so much, most notably in the scenes where he's battling with his Japanese hosts on the advert shoots. But don't be fooled by the trailer: those comic scenes are carefully spaced throughout the movie like sword battles in a samurai flick, they're only a small part of what the film's about.
The key element is, of course, the will-they-won't-they relationship between an actor in his fifties and a girl in her twenties. Coppola teases this out for as long as she can, an affair conducted almost entirely in tiny subliminal reactions and gestures. A couple of people on the way out were coming up with suggestions to make the film better, and they all involved rewriting it as a thoroughly conventional Hollywood romance: but the main thing - possibly the only thing - that Lost In Translation has going for it is that very unconventionality. It's there in the eclectic choice of songs on the soundtrack, the unexplained strangeness of a couple of scenes, the vaguely unresolved ending. The result is really just a wee trifle of a film, but who doesn't like trifle? Just don't expect the flat-out masterpiece that the LFF queues might imply.
4.15pm: Kitchen Stories
Kitchen science was, apparently, a big thing in Sweden in the fifties. Huge teams of scientists performed studies on housewives to design the most ergonomic ways of working, allowing them to make grand proclamations like "instead of a housewife having to walk the equivalent of Sweden to the Congo during a year of cooking, she now only needs to walk to Northern Italy." With the Swedish kitchen conquered, the scientists travelled to foreign parts - Norway, in fact - to perform a similar study on single males in the country.
Kitchen Stories tells the story of a Swedish observer, Folke (Tomas Norström), and his assigned Norwegian batchelor, Isak (Joachim Calmeyer). Folke's job is to spend all day sitting in Isak's kitchen, making detailed notes on his movements. At first Isak ignores Folke, to the extent of secretly doing all his cooking in the bedroom. When they eventually start talking, the relationship between the two is a little frosty: as Isak notes, "the Swedes were neutral observers during the war too". But inevitably, a thaw comes.
Bent Hamer's movie is a delightfully constructed comedy. Aside from some of the best timed visual gags of the festival so far (particularly during the early stages when Folke and Isak aren't talking), there are also some sniggers to be had at the jokes about the rivalry between the Swedes and the Norwegians. I must admit that I went into this film with the idea that it was going to be following a number of the scientific studies, rather than just concentrating exclusively on one: but it's an inspired decision, as most of the comedy comes from following the subtle changes in the relationship between the two men. Best of all, the film manages to pull off the rare feat of a perfectly judged sentimental ending: not descending into total mush, but just soppy enough to leave audiences with warm smiles on their faces. Like Lost In Translation, it's a film that's pretty much coasting on gentle charm, but it makes a nice change from the exploding Koreans that seem to have taken up a large part of this week.
6.15pm: Decision At Sundown
Most of the time, we knew him as Paul15. He was a regular fixture on the Film Unlimited talkboards, an articulate and funny fan of movies in general and old ones in particular. In 1999, about a year after the talkboards started, Paul dropped me a line suggesting it might be nice to meet up in real life. So prior to an LFF screening of Ghost Dog, we spent a very enjoyable hour in the pub swapping stories. I've subsequently met up with loads of people from the talkboards (and one of those meetings, without exaggeration, was life-changing) - but Paul was the first of the FUers to suggest it could be done, and without his intervention I may never have been inspired to meet any of the others.
Paul's death last month came as a hell of a shock to all of us on the talkboards. As we first met at an LFF event, it seemed fitting to mark his passing at another LFF event. Particularly this one, the last in a series of westerns that had been restored and presented at the festival on an annual basis, which he'd regularly attended. The six westerns made by director Budd Boetticher and star Randolph Scott in the 1950s have gathered a reputation over the years as fine examples of solidly-made B-pictures, but it's a reputation that's been as unstable as the quality of their prints. Hence Columbia's efforts over the last few years to clean them up for new generations to watch.
The Sundown of the title is a small town, and Tate Kimborough (John Carroll) has it pretty much all sewn up. He's got the townsfolk on his side, the sheriff in his pocket (Andrew Duggan, mentioned here recently in connection with Larry Cohen's Bone), and after today's wedding he's going to have even more power. But he's reckoning without the sudden appearance in town of Bart Allison (Randolph Scott) and his sidekick Sam (Noah Beery), who are looking to confront Kimborough about a dark secret in his past.
FilmFan, who's seen all six of the Scott/Boetticher films (many of them with Paul), says that Decision At Sundown is probably one of the weakest in the set. But speaking as a newcomer to the cycle, this is a pretty solid B-western with all the trappings you'd expect - a trim hour-and-a-quarter running time, nice colour photography, a few bursts of action, and a couple of very funny lines (at one point Sam complains about Bart giving Kimborough too much warning of his intentions - "if rattlesnakes gave as much notice as you did, they'd be as dead as those dinny-ossers"). What I wasn't expecting was the dark edge to the characters, and the muddiness of the morality - there are no black hats and white hats here, and it's acknowledged by the end that nobody here's completely in the right. It's a nice reminder of the days when the writing of a B-movie script was a craftsman's trade, rather than something you did while waiting for the coke buzz to wear off. It's just a shame you didn't get to see it, Paul.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Sheryl Crow Fanclub - A pretty young woman is out walking about, on a sunny afternoon in St. Petersburg. Out of nowhere comes a slightly younger man, with the sole aim of chatting her up. Amused by his attentions, she becomes more and more receptive, until he has her agreeing to travel to Moscow with him later on that night. For reasons best known to himself however, he invites his best mate to come along and meet her. Thus the three of them are now spending the day strolling around St. Petersburg. She on the one hand, is telling the lads ever more fanciful stories about herself and her background, they on the other are becoming more competitive and antagonistic, as each tries to compete for her undivided attention.
That is basically it, with the whole of this charming little movie being shot on a hand held camera, as they race and laugh and squabble around the city. Ultimately however it has to end somewhere, and the clue is in the periodic calls she is getting on her mobile. It turns out her real fiancee had bet her that she couldn't spend a day walking around the city without sitting down. Thus when the lads and her fiancee eventually meet, they explain to him (as she explained to them) that she isn't able to sit down because of a long standing fall from a horse; thus providing her with sufficient proof to win the bet.
As I have said before I do like hand held mobile filming, and this gives you a real feel for St Petersburg that you just wouldn't get from a more conventional approach. The city therefore comes across just like any other European city on (I guess) a Saturday afternoon; namely full of slightly bored young people, wandering about looking for their next diversion. The three main protagonists all fit perfectly into their roles for what must have been a massive dialogue learning exercise. The director afterwards pointed out that their was no improvisation, and everything was scripted. Pretty impressive, considering the wordy nature of the film, and the fact that the opening section consists of a twenty minute uncut take.
I was more than a little disturbed however by the sheer bloody chances they were taking every time they crossed the road (a real case of cover your eyes and hope they were still standing). Far more disturbing though was when they walked past a street level billboard, showing a picture of Geri Halliwell (unless that was meant to highlight the evils of globalization). Anyway this movie gets my vote, and was some much needed light relief after yesterday's abomination. Whether this movie ever makes it to these shores, outside of a festival screening, remains to be seen.
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