1.15pm: Not One Less
Up until a couple of years ago, you knew exactly where you stood with Zhang Yimou. One of the most highly regarded directors in China, his speciality was lushly filmed period pieces looking at his country's past, with subtle references to its present included. Films such as Raise The Red Lantern, The Story Of Qiu Ju and Shanghai Triad were always guaranteed a worldwide audience. Then a few years ago he started working with more contemporary themes, and it got harder to see his films: the Wong Kar-Wai-esque Keep Cool only got shown in this country at the 1997 LFF. Whether this is because of pressure from the Chinese government, or because Western audiences want pretty historical stuff rather than films about the here and now, is difficult to say.
His new film Not One Less has the might of Columbia Pictures behind it (it was made for their Asian division), so hopefully it'll get a wider screening. It's set in a small village where the primary school's teacher has to go away for a month because of family illness. The substitute sent to replace him is a 13 year old girl, Wei Minzhi, who's barely a couple of years older than the children she has to teach. However, they're desperate for a teacher, and she really needs the cash. Her bonus is dependent on her not losing any of her class during the month: a common problem in China, as poverty is so rife that children frequently drop out of school early to make money for their families. So when the class tearaway Zhang Huike runs off to the city, Wei is determined to bring him back, even if she has to use her students as child labour to raise the bus fare into town.
This is a touching and socially aware comedy filmed with Zhang's customary visual lushness, although the images take on a harsher, grimier edge once the story moves into the city. His cast is made up of non-professionals whose characters use their own names - the closing credits unusually note their day jobs - and they're all thoroughly believable as a result. Wei Minzhi's stubbornness in the lead role is particularly fine to behold, leading to several displays of that Chinese style of argument in which both sides repetitively state their case with ever-increasing volume until one breaks down. And the child actors (led by the evil grin of Zhang Huike) are all excellent - it's been a good Festival for them all round. There are a lot of serious points raised here about the problems of education in China, particularly in the rural areas, but they're wrapped in an engaging story that anyone can enjoy.
3.45pm: Tube Tales
Not wishing to pre-judge or anything, but it's a pleasant surprise to see the name of Sky TV attached to something that isn't a crock of shit. Co-produced by Sky's movie critic Richard Jobson and Time Out publisher Tony Thompson, Tube Tales originates from a Time Out short story competition in which readers were asked to submit stories which used the London Underground as a key location. From over 3000 entries, nine were selected and passed to a collection of mostly inexperienced directors to make into short films. Most of the publicity associated with Tube Tales has come from the heavyweight talent working behind the camera for the first time, such as Ewan McGregor and Jude Law.
As you'd expect, such an episodic film can be patchy in parts. As is usually the case with short films, some of the most successful parts consist of one simple, funny idea executed with maximum economy: Amy Jenkins' Mr Cool is so economic it's used (brilliantly) as a pre-credits sequence. The same applies to Armando Iannucci's hilarious Mouth, a wonderful study of how the arrival of one person inside a carriage can affect the lives of everyone else in it, particularly when that one person's played by Daniella Nardini and she's had a skinful.
There are no links whatsoever between the nine stories, but they all share a lot of details about the minutiae of tube travel that may only be familiar to regular users. Ewan McGregor's Bone, in particular, is one man's sexual fantasy based around a woman he's seen on a lost Photocard in a ticket booth window. Similarly, Menhaj Huda's Grasshopper is a shaggy dog story of drug-related paranoia with a neat punchline we can all relate to. Less successful is Stephen Hopkins' study of sexuality on the Underground, Horny, which seems to be there primarily so male critics can punch up their reviews with a photo of Denise van Outen. Ahem.
For all the emphasis on humour and fantasy - and the film sags badly halfway through with the overly whimsical one-two of Jude Law's A Bird In The Hand and Gaby Dellal's Rosebud - the best two episodes try for something deeper and succeed. Bob Hoskins' My Father The Liar, written by Paul Fraser, is an elliptical study of a father/son relationship with all the impact and resonance of a Raymond Carver short story. And Charles McDougal's climactic Steal Away is both smart and moving, a crime story culminating in a journey that goes way beyond the limits of a six zone Travelcard. It's a shame that a collection this good is being pissed away with a TV screening just a couple of days after this premiere: maybe Sky thought the material won't have the same appeal to audiences outside London, but they could have at least given a token cinema release a go.
This time last year (to the day, almost to the minute) I was watching Neil LaBute's Your Friends And Neighbours: now it's Anthony Drazan's Hurlyburly, based on David Rabe's hit stage play. There are certain similarities between the two, notably in their sheer hatred of the rest of the human race. Unlike Ken (see below), I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing: however, it doesn't work here.
The central characters are four prime examples of LA media scum. Eddie (Sean Penn) shares an apartment with Mickey (Kevin Spacey): Eddie's continually off his face on coke while Mickey stands on the sidelines abusing him. Eddie maintains a strong friendship with Phil (Chazz Palminteri), despite the latter's violent outbursts and overall hatred of women. And Artie (Garry Shandling) doesn't really serve any function other than to donate loose women or provocative ideas to the story whenever it starts flagging.
One of the key similarities this film has with Your Friends And Neighbours is having a series of bastards as the main characters, but making one of them a total uber-bastard in order to make the rest of them seem vaguely socially acceptable. As Mickey points out to Eddie, that's why he's friends with Phil in the first place: "when you're lying there on the kerb, he'll be sprawled out in the gutter looking up at you in admiration." However, the women in YFAN were at least given some capability for battling on equal terms with the men: here, they're such a collection of losers and sluts that the movie starts revelling a little too much in its characters' misogyny to be comfortable. They're given the odd snappy put-down in the dialogue, such as Meg Ryan's "If your manner of speech is any indication of the workings of your mind, then it's a wonder you can even tie your shoes", but it's not quite enough.
In the end you feel this all probably worked much better on stage, where the distancing effect of the proscenium arch would take some of the edge off all this, and point up the admittedly funny lines that regularly surface. Despite Rabe's adaptation, this is still nothing more than a showcase for some Capital A Acting, where everything happens in one of two set locations (the apartment or a car): no amount of wild emoting from Penn or cool sarcasm from Spacey can disguise the theatrical origins of the story. It really should have stayed there.
9.00pm: Show Me Love
Show Me Love originally played in its native Sweden under the far more evocative title of Fucking Åmål. The town in question deserves all the abuse you can hurl at it, at least as far as its teenage population is concerned: anything that's "in" takes so long to make it there, by the time it does it's "out" in the rest of the country. 14-year-old Agnes (Rebecca Liljeberg) moved to Åmål eighteen months ago, and still hasn't made any proper friends. She really wants to be friends with older girl Elin (Alexandra Dahlström): in fact, to be honest, she wants to be a lot more than that. The film follows the ups and downs of their on-off relationship.
Writer/director Lukas Moodysson has the mercurial nature of teenage friendships and love affairs down to a tee: this is a story that would be recognisable to adolescents all over the world, with the added frisson of typical Swedish elements such as lesbianism and suicide (a somewhat botched attempt using a plastic Bic razor). There are a number of gags that are baffling to foreign audiences but still charming, such as a childhood superstition that standing on an A-drain gives you AIDS, abortions and anal sex. It's shot in a quasi-documentary filming style (all low lighting and sudden zooms), and the attention to detail in the music, decor and casual cruelty means that it all looks just right.
The acting is great, especially by the two leads: they're impossibly lovely, and you can't help but root for their relationship to succeed. Their literal emergence from the closet at the climax (a beautifully understated visual pun) is a 24-carat audience-pleasing moment. Sure, it's all been done before: Jon has suggested a possible influence may be last year's British coming-out movie, Get Real. (Fucking Båsingstoke, perhaps?) But the small amount of Swedish cinema we get to see in the UK these days means that Show Me Love is a rare wee gem to be treasured. It's got UK distribution, so you've got no excuse for missing it.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Ken - At last! A truly dreadful film to get my reviewing teeth into. It's a sort of buddy movie staring Sean Penn, Kevin Spacey, Garry Shandling and Chazz Palminteri as four of the most obnoxious people you could ever meet. Big mistake. The secret behind this type of movie is to create characters you can identify with and care what happens to. You certainly don't care what happens to these worthless wretches. At one point I almost said out loud "why don't you all just top yourselves?" The characters spend their time taking drugs and having long boring discussions about the meaninglessness of existence and who they've shagged. They follow this up with a lot of partner swapping with the female members of the cast. At one point I did hope that one of the characters was going sufficiently nuts to grab a gun and massacre the others before shooting himself. Unfortunately he only killed himself, leaving the others to more soul searching and long pointless discussions. Later one of the characters fell into his swimming pool drunk and drugged up. Yes! I thought, they're all going to kill themselves one by one. Unfortunately he survived and so did the others. Don't get the idea that it's all bad though. There are some laugh out loud funny moments. Just not enough to make it worth sitting through the rest of this drizzle.
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