Tag Archives: BFI London Film Festival

PPH @ LFF: The We and the I | review

When a bunch of teenagers board the bus or train you’re on, what do you feel? Dread? Disgust? I usually try to reassure myself that when I have kids, they won’t be so un-self-aware. But the thing is, when people are in groups – teenagers or not – we tend to have a certain blindness of others outside our group. And when we were teenagers, it was even worse; remember being painfully aware of your peers while egocentrically preoccupied by your own drama-filled thoughts? (I hope that wasn’t just me.) Michel Gondry’s The We and the I brilliantly captures our struggle against groupthink to be individuals in a condensed form by limiting the camera’s gaze to a bus ride home on the last day of school. It’s refreshing and fun to catch a glimpse of Gondry’s view of the world – realistically flawed, humorous and vulnerable moments combined with a bit of visual whimsy.

The film begins by contrasting the relative quiet of the South Bronx neighbourhood with the frenetic chaos that the end of the school day unleashes. Students pile onto the public bus and compete for seats; it quickly becomes clear who is confident and who is not. As a high school teacher myself, parents sometimes ask me for advice about teenagers; one of my first questions to them is where their kid sits on the bus. The kids who think they’re cool, often bullies, sit way in the back. The independent-minded ones don’t mind taking the seats in front. Most end up in between, but still leaning towards one side or the other. The We and the I gets this just right, presenting a good mix of teenage archetypes without it seeming too forced: up front, some snooty clever kids; some couples, both straight and gay; some sensitive musician boys; an artist; an awkward outcast; an aloof outsider who stoically keeps his headphones in; and of course, the cocky bullies in the back. Thinking back, a bit of you probably belonged in each group… but you had to choose an affiliation, unless you were one of the rare ‘floaters’.

The cramped setting of The We and the I mirrors the sometimes suffocating social world of teenagers; it’s a real technical achievement that Gondry manages to be a fly-on-the-wall in such small spaces. The camera seamlessly flits around the bus, dipping in and out of each hormone-fuelled micro-drama while still capturing the dynamics between groups. The kids’ cell phone use is included to admirable effect, from my teacher’s point of view – most teens today feel compelled to be plugged in at all times, which also leaves them more vulnerable to social missteps. As the bus gradually empties, the We does become the I; the teens have to choose their own individual paths.

Having taught just outside NYC, the kids in The We and the I are much more familiar to me than the casts of past teen films – much more recognisable than the characters in Dazed and Confused, which just represents a very different part of America. There’s no guitar rock on this soundtrack – it’s mostly Young MC and old-school hip hop. It’s also such a relief to see teenagers onscreen actually talking like teenagers – swearing left and right, voices emphatic, vocabulary normal (not what an adult wishes they’d say). It’s heartening to see teens represented so honestly by these non-professional actors. When the credits roll, you see that all the character names are the kids’ actual names – Gondry workshopped the film with these kids at The Point, a community youth centre. The result of their collaboration is a uniquely candid document of the lives of urban youth that makes me very glad that someone like Gondry keeps making films.

Advertisements

PPH @ LFF: Key of Life (Kagi-Dorobou no Method) | review

Choosing which films to see out of the hundreds at the BFI London Film Festival is never an easy task, but one key bit of information definitely helps me prioritise – whether the film’s already got a UK distributor or not. I always pick at least one foreign film or documentary that I may never get another chance to see, usually from Asia, often from Japan. They’re safe bets to me, considering the country’s rich cinematic history, and they provide refreshing breaks from Eurocentric perspectives. My personal opinion is that many modern Japanese cultural products, from anime to music to cinema, thoughtfully mix Western influences and Eastern values so that the experience is both enticingly unique and broadly accessible.

This year I chose director-screenwriter Kenji Uchida’s entertaining tragicomedy Key of Life, a Japanese-style riff on Trading Places in which Sakurai (Masato Sakai), a down-and-out actor, opportunistically steals an amnesaic’s identity. Sakurai’s life is in shambles – he owes everyone money and the ex-girlfriend he still loves is engaged. Likably pathetic, he even fails at committing suicide. When Kondo (Teruyuki Kagawa) slips and hits his head in a bathhouse, a shortcut for restarting Sakurai’s life literally falls at his feet. It’s extra-lucky that Kondo happens to be quite wealthy. Kondo-as-Sakurai chances upon a bit of luck too in befriending Kanae, a nerdy magazine editor, at the hospital. She is on an endearing-yet-vaguely-pitiable mission to get married before her ill father dies, and discovers that it’s convenient to get to know someone while he is trying to rediscover himself. It’s all fun and games until the real Sakurai stumbles across the source of Kondo’s wealth – it turns out that he’s an assassin for the mob, and his last job wasn’t quite finished… thus the fates of these three previously isolated figures are suddenly tied together, and they’re left testing when their collective luck will finally run out.

The world the film portrays is wacky, yet recognisably modern and cynical; apart from the main trio, everyone makes selfish decisions that destroy relationships and are largely driven by pride and materialism. That backdrop is vital, as it facilitates us rooting for these naive principal characters while they earnestly fumble through these unusual circumstances. We trust them enough to go along for the ride, happy to be surprised at the twists and turns.

But most importantly, there’s plenty of laugh-out-loud moments as the two men play with their new identities. Most of the credit goes to Kagawa’s bravura performance as Kondo, deftly switching between the cold, professional assassin to the vulnerable amnesic; Sakai seems outclassed, too much of a ham, but in fairness, his character is supposed to be a failed actor. Key of Life orchestrates its many tonal shifts skilfully, evoking an enjoyable range of emotions. Uchida’s well-crafted, well-executed comedy is well-worth a watch. And next time you’re perusing a film festival programme, keep an eye out for good foreign films without distribution deals.

Will Ferrell: A Nice Bunch of Guys

PPH @ LFF 2010

By accident rather than design, the last two films I’ve watched have both featured the mercurial talents of the manic-yet-melancholic man-bear Will Ferrell.  Firstly in the absurd buddy comedy The Other Guys, and then in the upcoming drama Everything Must Go, based on the short story ‘Why Don’t You Dance?’ by Raymond Carver.

In EMG, Ferrell stars as Nick Halsey, an alcoholic salesman who, having lost his job and his wife on the same day, finds that all of his belongings have been strewn on the lawn. Forming a tentative bond with a lonely, overweight neighbourhood kid, Halsey resolves to stage a 5-day yard sale in front of his house, initially borne of a bloody-minded obstinacy to stay put, and eventually to purge his demons and advance tentatively toward a new beginning.

The key themes of memories, loss and new starts are nothing new for an American indie, and neither are the burnished, gentle tones of the cinematography, insistent bursts of sad acoustic guitar or drifting evocations of suburban disquiet and disillusionment.  There is a gentle humour at work, occasionally tinged by a more scabrous edge (one explicit yet incongrous scene pitches for Lynchian suburban hell, but just feels wrong).

Laura Dern, appearing and appealing in one scene, is underused, and Rebecca Hall’s lonely, pregnant new neighbour is really used as little more than a device to bring us to the conclusion that Ferrell’s egregious externalisation is a mere variation on the rest of the world’s desire to keep their troubles behind closed doors.  However, the melancholy vibe is pervasive and Ferrell, with his sad eyes, furrowed brow and gently imposing presence, gives the film real heart. With his relentless drinking, morally questionable past and salesmanship patter, he appears to have walked in from Steely Dan’s world of dissolute drifters, lapsed family men, addicts and schemers; a Deacon Blues or Cousin Dupree for our times. I wouldn’t be surprised if the film’s title was taken straight from the duo’s 2003 album.

In stark contrast to the sombre tale of EMG, Ferrell is back to his usual tricks in The Other Guys, an unholy mixture of broad sight gags, surreal touches, genre spoofery, pop culture reference overload (Michael Keaton’s hapless Captain single-handedly mentions TLC more in this film than the rest of the world has in the last 5 years) and explosive action sequences.   Tonally, the film is all over the place, and is notably weighed down from about midway-on by a tiresome and convoluted (if at least topical, and perhaps laudable for such a film) plot about major-level financial misdemeanors.

However, when the film is funny, it is genuinely hilarious – see the silent fight at a funeral, and the inexplicable deaths of a pair of turbo-cops played by Samuel L Jackson and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. An expository subplot which details Ferrell’s accidental graduation to becoming a pimp at college, although stolen straight from an episode of South Park, gives Ferrell the opportunity to revert to his unhinged best – although it falls short of his finest ever moment on screen (Find me a better phone booth scene than this Anchorman panic attack).

Ferrell gets to pal up with Mark Wahlberg, who is here in good form; wired, beady-eyed and intense a la I Heart Huckabees, although every time I see Steve Coogan slumming it in Hollywood (here as Ershon – not Enron – Ershon, the Ponzi scheming bad guy), I yearn for a return to the days of prime Partridge. I guess his own bank balance is doing OK for it…

The lasting impression from both films is Ferrell; a sad clown, a maniac, a savant, a broken man, and a genuinely versatile actor. I wonder – I really do wonder – if, like Joaquin Phoenix in I’m Still Here, the Academy might come calling for Ferrell’s performance in EMG . More nuanced than his previously best-known straight-faced work in Stranger Than Fiction, Ferrell lifts up a film that might well have languished in the hands of a lesser talent.

Everything Must Go will screen in October at The 54th BFI London Film Festival