PPH @ LFF – Round-up #3

The 55th BFI London Film Festival continues apace, and it’s time for another brief round-up of some of the things we’ve seen recently.

Though it would be morally repugnant to complain in any way about getting to see lots of films for free, it can still sometimes be a little jarring to be exposed to certain material first thing in the morning at press screenings.  A couple of years ago, for example, I watched the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man and was so profoundly affected by its bleak, misanthropic take on life that I was unable to do any work for the rest of the day. (My boss simply didn’t understand).

My first instance of that particular phenomenon this year came in the form of SNOWTOWN, a relentlessly sordid Australian crime drama packed to the gills with graphic scenes of rape, torture and animal abuse, which I sat down to enjoy at 10 a.m. Needless to say, it comprehensively ruined my day.

Snowtown is the dramatisation of Australia’s notorious barrel murders between 1992 and 1999, in which 11 people – mostly suspected (not proven) paedophiles – were slain. 16 year-old Jamie Vlassakis, played by newcomer Lucas Pittaway, strikes up a friendship with a charismatic older man, who, sadly for him, turns out to be John Bunting, aka Australia’s most notorious serial killer (a fully-bearded, impressive turn from Daniel Henshall).

Snowtown is a harrowing, upsetting film; a dark and dingy wallow in the sad lives of some deeply disturbed individuals. It’s well-made, atmospheric and excellently acted, but I couldn’t personally recommend it, quite simply because I wish I hadn’t seen it. I’m by no means climbing aboard a moral high horse (if that is indeed a phrase), but there’s so much awful stuff that goes on in the world on a day to day basis that I feel I need more from films like this than to be essentially told: some people are bigoted and some terrible things happened once.

Whereas the tangentially connected (and far slicker) Aussie crime drama Animal Kingdom explored themes of family, loyalty and trust within its thriller framework, Snowtown is largely insight-free, more focused on depiction than investigation. If you’re going to subject yourself to it – an act which involves being implicated in some of the grisliest on-screen violence in ages – you’ll need a strong stomach.

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Another early LFF start came with Takashi Miike’s new film HARA-KIRI: DEATH OF A SAMURAI, a companion piece to last year’s excellent 13 Assassins.  Other than an almost unbearably lengthy suicide-via-wooden-sword sequence, Hara Kiri is extraordinarily restrained stuff from the man who brought you such works of utter lunacy as Ichi The Kiler and Visitor Q. A remake of Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 Harakiri, it tells the tale of a ronin samurai who arrives at the home of a feudal lord to request an honorable place to commit sapporu (aka ritual suicide). When the ronin inquires about a younger samurai who had arrived before him, however, a series of revelations take the story off in an unexpected direction.

Hari-Kiri… is a strong work, effective as both an elegantly crafted drama and a surprisingly fierce examination of the morality of ancient samurai codes and practices. Furthermore, there are modern parallels to be made in its unsparing depiction of a struggling working class and a desperate economic situation.

Even if the film feels slightly overlong, it is powerful, expertly structured stuff and a worthwhile addition to the Miike canon. There is one major gripe, however: the baffling use of 3D. You can’t blame an established, restlessly innovative director like Miike for wanting to experiment with new toys, but it adds absolutely nothing here. One or two weather sequences spring to life, but the film has a mostly dark, murky palette of blues and blacks, and the 3D actively takes away from the film in the final sequence, as an extended fight becomes incredibly blurry. For the most part, it’s only really the subtitles that stand out.

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Thankfully, the title of Roman Polanski’s brisk, four-character comedy of manners CARNAGE is the most distressing thing about it. A Manhattan-set adaptation of Yazmina Reza’s French play, Carnage exhibits the fallout of an incident in which one schoolboy badly injures the other with a branch. In a nice touch, the incident is shown underneath the opening credits in a Haneke-esque static long take.

The boys’ parents (the perpetrator’s played by Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet, the victim’s John C Reilly and Jodie Foster) convene to sort out the mess, but before long they are arguing with other, and riffing on all sorts of issues of class, wealth and relationships. Also, it seems that deep down, they all really, really hate each other.

At just 79 minutes, Carnage is lean, but even so starts to feel a little stretched by the end, as the escalating hysteria of the characters (inspired by copious whisky consumption) becomes a touch enervating. The underlying theme is that adults are just as capable of behaving as appallingly as children, and the cast demonstrate this with absolute relish. Christoph Waltz has a field day as the unctuous, smug lawyer Alan, and Kate Winslet gives brilliant drunk. Jodie Foster’s portrayal of a neurotic writer feels rather forced, but it’s a type of role I’ve never seen her play before, and is least a refreshing change.

Although (*COLOSSAL INSIGHT ALERT*) Carnage feels rather stagey and contrived, the dialogue is sharp, the apartment set feels appropriately claustrophobic and there are plenty of laughs to be had, the majority of them excruciating. Fans of movie vomiting scenes will also be delighted to hear that there is a sequence (sickuence?) which nearly matches Team America: World Police for comedy/gross-out value.

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Also deserving of a mention – and in a totally different vein to the above – is ETERNITY, a sweet, moving and treacle-slow tale of courtship, love and death from Thailand which is clearly very personal to director Sivaruj Kongsakul. With a pace that reflects rural life, it’s the kind of film that would give Oliver Stone nightmares, a heart attack, or both; there’s probably no more than 100 cuts in the whole film.

It’s always good to go into a film without knowing too much, but in the case of Eternity, it would probably have helped to have known something. I didn’t read the blurb, and consequently I must confess to not knowing exactly what was going on for a fair amount of the time, for example that the prologue features a ghost riding a motorcycle! That I still enjoyed it speaks volumes for a film rich with beautifully observed moments and lush imagery. Eternity is a hidden treat, and highly recommended.

Permanent Plastic Helmet’s dedicated coverage of the 55th BFI London Film Festival will continue regularly throughout the duration of the event. You can follow us on Twitter @pplastichelmet, and subscribe to email updates by clicking on the +follow button at the bottom right of the homepage.