PPH @ LFF – Round-up #4

My fourth, final and briefest (I’m really quite tired) round-up of a thrilling London Film Festival takes a look at a group of films which concern themselves with American dreams and systems. This piece was intended to culminate with a review of Werner Herzog’s riveting excavation of the U.S. penal system; death-row documentary INTO THE ABYSS. Unfortunately, the organizers saw fit to hold the press screening of this highly anticipated film at the 36-seater Hospital Club and I was unable to squeeze my entitled blogger ass in there.* Consequently I can only speculate as to its riveting excavation-ness, but having picked up the Grierson Award for Best Documentary at the LFF awards ceremony, I suspect it will certainly be one to see.

We’ll begin with RAMPART, an uneven yet compelling police corruption drama set in late-90s L.A., marked by a wired, intense and totally dominant performance from Woody Harrelson as Dave “Date Rape” Brown. Brown is a bad cop (the plot hinges around him being caught on camera administering a Rodney King-style beating), but his home life is just as unorthodox as his professional one. In an “L.A. creepy” twist, Brown lives with two sisters (played nicely by Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon) as well as two daughters he’s sired with each of them. In spite of his family commitments, however, he still finds time to go out on the pull.

Rampart is intriguing, but almost as wayward as its protagonist; there is a clash of styles and tones at work which clearly betrays the tension between James Ellroy’s original script and writer-director Oren Moverman’s radical rewrite. The consistently scorched, sun-baked look of the film is reminiscent of Oliver Stone’s chaotic U-Turn, but it’s full of odd, distracting stylistic flourishes including one truly ridiculous moment (at a multi-character meeting) in which the camera pans 180 and then resets at each cut to a new character. There are also minor niggles which riled my lurking inner pedant, for example the use of a contemporary Justice song in a nightclub scene, undermining the period setting and adding to an overall slapdash feel.

Rampart is an odd, disturbing work that feels like two or three different films squashed together. However, there’s enough to it to suggest that it might be one of those films which improves with repeat viewings.

Also, in my “research” for this piece, I discovered this rather LOL-some trailer for a never little-seen film of the same name. Ch-check it:

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Andrew Dosunmu’s directorial debut RESTLESS CITY puts a fresh spin on the classic American dream narrative, charting the efforts of a young Senegalese musician to make it big in New York City. Predictably, things don’t go to plan, and our hero finds himself inveigled into a web of romance, violence and criminality.

Restless City’s strongest element by some distance is the way it looks. It’s exceptionally well shot by DoP Bradford Young, and New York has perhaps not looked this vibrant since Ernest Dickerson bathed Do The Right Thing’s Brooklyn in an unforgettable, colour-saturated glow.

It’s an elliptical film which creates an impressively hazy, relaxed atmosphere. That’s fine in itself, but sits at odds with the thriller elements of the plot. Tension levels are low and the scenes of action and confrontation feel rushed, while lead actor Hervé Diese looks the part, but lacks charisma. It’s certainly a promising debut, and definitely worth seeing, but ultimately it feels more like a short stretched out to feature length.

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One of the unexpected treats of the festival was the HBO documentary SUPERHEROES, a non-judgemental take on the ever-growing community of average Joes who don costumes and take to the streets to enforce law and order on the streets of a collection of American states. It’s a brilliant subject for a doc, and is nicely structured around comic-book intertitles to give it an accessible feel.

As we are introduced to one eccentric character after another (including the dishevelled, alcoholic Master Leader) it becomes apparent that director Michael Barnett is a dab hand at pulling off the immensely difficult trick of engendering audience empathy towards what are, in many cases, pitiable, borderline insane individuals. There’s lots of laughter to be had here, but never once does the humour feel exploitative.

Superheroes is a fascinating, troubling account of a group of earnest, damaged people which raises a number of important questions around care in the community, the role of the police and vigilante justice. It’s a must-see, and timely in the wake of James Gunn’s misjudged, ultra-violent comedy Super, which was released to critical indifference earlier this year.

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Perhaps the most heartwarming film of the festival was Jonathan Demme’s documentary I’M CAROLYN PARKER, which focused on one remarkable New Orleans resident’s determination to return to her house in the Ninth Ward district following the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. It doesn’t do anything extraordinary in terms of documentary filmmaking (it’s super low-budget, chronological, largely point-and-shoot stuff), but its subject is absolutely special enough. Parker is engaging, determined, witty, fearsome, and a living embodiment of the human capacity for survival in the face of adversity. She’s an advert for America’s own special brand of optimism.

On another note, however, as observed by blogger Your Turn Heather, the film’s poster is heinous, hideous and lots of other words that begin with ‘h’; it’s as though they sat Carolyn down and gave her fifteen minutes to design it herself using Paint. And another thing I’m cribbing from Your Turn Heather is her topical (Katrina-related) posting of KanYe West’s surprise broadside against George Bush, which provoked one of the greatest expressions in history from an unprepared Mike Myers. To quote commentating’s Barry Davies, “Look at his face! Just look at his face!”. Never gets old.

*In the interests of fairness, I must confess that I did have the opportunity to see Into The Abyss at a public screening, but jettisoned the returns queue to get a slice of pizza from Cafe Rimini opposite the Vue. I opted for pepperoni. It was essentially satisfying, if a little dry.

The final PPH @ LFF reckoning will be published tomorrow, and will feature reassuring lists compiling everything I saw and couldn’t be arsed didn’t have to time write proper reviews for. Until then…

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