Tag Archives: ROUND-UP

Venice Film Festival 2013 | all my coverage in one place

Salvation Army

by Ashley Clark

From 28 August to 6 September, I was present at the 70th Venice International Film Festival. I had a great time, it didn’t rain much, I ate a bit too much pizza, and I murdered lots of mosquitoes with one of these. I also saw lots of films and wrote about them. Since a few of you have asked me for recommendations on what I saw, I thought I’d bring together all of my coverage in one place. Enjoy:

Sight & Sound Magazine

Venice 2013: truth, lies and admin – American documentaries on the Lido [At Berkeley, The Unknown Known and The Armstrong Lie]

Filmmaker Magazine

Venice 2013 Critic’s Notebook: Gravity and Sorcerer, a strange alchemy

Venice 2013 Critic’s Notebook: Palo Alto, Parkland and Joe – To Live and Die in the USA

Venice 2013: 6 Lessons from At Berkeley director Frederick Wiseman

Venice 2013 Critic’s Notebook: A Means of Escape – African Cinema on the Lido [White Shadow, Traitors, Salvation Army and The Rooftops]

Slant Magazine

Venice Film Festival 2013: Gerontophilia, Tracks, & Why Don’t You Play in Hell? 

Venice Film Festival 2013: The Police Officer’s Wife, Locke The Sacrament

Grolsch Film Works

Gravity – review ✮✮✮✮

Joe – review ✮✮✮✮

Night Moves – review ✮✮✮✮

The Zero Theorem – review ✮✮

Tom At The Farm – review ✮✮✮✮

Under The Skin – review ✮✮✮✮

under-the-skin

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PPH end of year round-up part 2 | Dogs, disappointments and discoveries

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With my year-end Top 10 done and dusted, it’s time to engage in some good old-fashioned negativity, and reveal my least favourite films of the year. Before I continue, I should say that while there were probably plenty worse films out there (in terms of technical quality etc, not to mention all the stinkers I mercifully avoided) this is a completely personal take. What follows is an account of the films that particularly irritated, bored or offended me (or in some frightful cases, all three). Who let the dogs out?!

Cabin In The Woods (dir., Drew Goddard)

In stark contrast to screenwriter Whedon’s sprightly Avengers Assemble, this clever-clever novelty was slathered in a suffocating sheen of smugness; it was almost as though the film kept pausing itself to explain to us – the poor audience – how awesomely intelligent it was. But it fell at every hurdle: not scary enough to work as a horror, not funny enough to work as a comedy, and not smart enough to provoke thought. The film that fell between all these stools was, in its own repellent way, the real stool.

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Damsels in Distress (dir., Whit Stillman)

When critics wrote effusively of Whit Stillman’s “light, frothy” campus comedy, I wondered if they’d watched the same film as me. On the contrary, I saw an airless, smug, joke-free mess with precisely as much respect for its characters as its audience: zero. One of the most painful experiences I’ve ever had in a cinema – I couldn’t wait for it to end.

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The Darkest Hour (dir., Chris Gorak)

Had the filmmakers been honest, they’d have called it The Darkest 89 Minutes. This desultory sci-fi shambles about hungry electrical monsters (I know, I know) was a thrill-free ordeal.

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The Dictator (dir., Larry Charles)

Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest was an ugly, flat, mean-spirited shambles full of lame jokes, pathetic toilet humour and hapless, dated attempts at satire. Another bad sign was the reliance on the celebrity cameo for chuckles; a conceit which underlines the nagging feeling that Baron Cohen – now a major league Hollywood player – is part of the smug, self-congratulatory gang he purports to lambast.

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How I Spent My Summer Vacation (dir., Adrian Grunberg)

“Mad” Mel Gibson’s comeback as an action star was a noxious, derivative blast of casual racism (when will we live in a world where filmmakers will refrain from shooting Mexico through sulphurous filters?), gratuitous, nasty violence and beyond-retrograde sexual politics: ‘spicy’, brutalized Latina maidens were so 1985, guys.

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The Imposter (dir., Bart Layton)

Was there a more appropriately titled film released this year? Sure, Bart Layton’s film had a great story to work with (it’s explored brilliantly in this New Yorker article), but the director completely failed to trust said material, smothering it with pointlessly slick formal jiggerypokery. Worse still, I got the strong feeling that the filmmakers didn’t really give a toss about any of the characters they were dealing with. Contrast the humane way in which the New Yorker article treats the people involved with the cold calculation of the film. A real missed opportunity.

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Irvine Welsh’s Ecstasy (dir., Rob Heydon)

This ridiculous low-budget Canadian adaptation of an Irvine Welsh short story fused the production values of Hollyoaks with the clarity of insight and intellectual rigour of Hollyoaks. A spectacularly misconceived fiasco bereft of a single redeeming feature.

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A Man’s Story (dir., Varon Bonicos) | full review

Varon Bonicos’ deeply boring and hagiographic effort was less of a documentary than an extended electronic press kit. Its biggest crime was to make its fascinating subject (fashion designer Ozwald Boateng, who became the youngest, and first black man to open a shop on Savile Row) seem like a total dullard.

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Red Tails (dir., Anthony Hemingway)

When watching this cheese-sodden, horrendously inept would-be epic about the heroic Tuskegee Airmen, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. There’s a tough dilemma at the heart of the act of responding to the George Lucas-produced Red Tails: should we be simply happy that this important story is being highlighted for a mass audience, or dismayed that it’s been handled so badly? There’s room for both emotions, but it’s little short of a tragedy – and an indictment of Hollywood’s racial mores – that a film this poor had to fight so hard to get made.

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The Sweeney (dir., Nick Love)

I maintain that, despite the critical opprobrium he’s always received, there’s a decent filmmaker lurking somewhere within the bowels of Nick Love. His debut Goodbye Charlie Bright was a truly decent effort, and the first half of The Business showed a hitherto undiscovered lightness of touch. Sadly, his witless, crass, pointless remake of the 70’s TV cop standard reminded us of the reasons for his current standing. Further minus points for wasting some great London locations.

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Dishonourable mentions go to: Christopher Nolan’s bombastic, self-regarding and stupid The Dark Knight Rises thank God that trilogy is over; Oliver Stone’s laughable Savages (only a man with the hubris of Stone would try and get away with one of those pretend endings in this day and age); Cameron Crowe’s nauseating We Bought a Zoo the moment where the director’s giddy optimism crossed the divide from heartwarming into terrifying; rubbish Canadian comedy Starbuck, which wasted a great premise with slack, cartoonish execution; and Michael, a shallow and repugnant Austrian film which played like a bankrupt man’s Michael Haneke remaking Misery after reading about Josef Fritzl. I found its ending (I won’t spoil) particularly unpalatable.

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A quick round-up of disappointments

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Perhaps 2012 found me in a particularly crotchety mood, but I was largely unimpressed with a vast swathe of the year’s biggest critical darlings. The two films I’d most been looking forward to – Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone and Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (feature) – both ended up being my least favourite films to date from their respective directors. I found the former to be a disjointed (no pun intended, Marion) and manipulative – if well-acted and occasionally powerful – affair, replete with weirdly dated sexual politics and hilariously fetishized notions of masculinity.

Anderson’s film, meanwhile, looked and sounded great, but after a superb opening, simply disappeared in a feeble puff of ineffectuality. I was compelled enough to watch it twice (not least so I could further bask in Joaquin Phoenix’s unhinged performance), but was even more bored and confounded the second time round. I think Anderson is a visceral and propulsive filmmaker rather than a cerebral one, and The Master betrayed signs of its creator either lacking ideas or simply failing to communicate them adequately. However, it deserved serious credit for refusing to spoonfeed its audience, and for being such a genuine oddity in the oft-restrictive context of mainstream American cinema. It also inspired some truly outstanding writing, not to mention some lively pub discussion.

Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild was another critical favourite which, despite its undeniable energy and originality, left me cold. I found it hokey, shallow and not a little patronizing. Another film to depend heavily on young actors – Wes Anderson’s ever-so-precious Moonrise Kingdom (full review) – felt like a serious case of diminishing returns even though it looked gorgeous. Early stills and teasers of Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly had me hot under the collar, but the end result – a hectoring, gratuitous and self-satisfied mess –  poured ice down my trousers.

There was plenty of praise for Miguel Gomes’ Tabu, but I found this broken-backed film hard work, and seemed to be alone in preferring the austere first half to the colonial-era second. However, in the interests of full disclosure, I watched it on a laptop on a timecode-inscribed DVD screener – hardly optimal conditions for a film which many described as one of the year’s most visually lush. If it’s playing on a big screen near me any time soon, I’ll make sure I give it another go.

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Discoveries

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I managed to keep a complete record of everything I watched on every format this year, so I thought I’d whack together a couple of (alphabetical) Top 10s of some great stuff I saw for the first time:

Cinema

2001: A Space Odyssey | dir., Stanley Kubrick, 1968 | BFI Southbank

Faces | dir., John Cassavetes, 1968 | BFI Southbank

Hyenes | dir., Djibril Diop Mambéty, 1992 | IFI Dublin

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie | dir., John Cassavetes, 1976 | Prince Charles Cinema

Ordet | dir. Carl Theodore Dreyer, 1955 | BFI Southbank

Ornette Coleman: Made in America | dir., Shirley Clarke, 1985 | IFC Center, New York

The Passion of Anna | dir., Ingmar Bergman, 1969 | BFI Southbank

The Purple Rose of Cairo | dir., Woody Allen, 1985| Arsenal, Berlin

The Spook Who Sat By The Door | dir., Ivan Dixon, 1973 | BFI Southbank

Yeelen | dir., Souleymane Cissé, 1987 | IFI Dublin

 Home viewing

32 Short Films About Glenn Gould | dir., Francois Girard, 1993

All That Jazz | dir., Bob Fosse, 1979

The Bad and the Beautiful | dir., Vincente Minnelli, 1952

Blue Collar | dir., Paul Schrader, 1980

Chameleon Street | dir., Wendell B. Harris, Jr., 1989

The Hit | dir., Stephen Frears, 1984

Safe | dir., Todd Haynes, 1995

Sisters | dir., Brian de Palma, 1973

Spider | dir., David Cronenberg, 2002

Wonderland | dir., Michael Winterbottom, 1999

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Thanks for reading. Tune in tomorrow for the final part of PPH’s end-of-year round-up.

The Month Ahead: May 2012

Welcome to a new, bright and breezy monthly feature in which Permanent Plastic Helmet picks out some of the film-related treats it’s most looking forward to in the next month.

May is Cannes Film Festival month. Still the most prestigious international film festival going (May 16-27), this year’s ‘In Competition’ line-up features a pretty dazzling (though, sadly, almost exclusively male) array of talent. New films from the likes of David Cronenberg (Cosmopolis – pictured), Jacques Audiard (Rust and Bone), Michael Haneke (Amour) and Andrew Dominik (Killing Them Softly) will duke it out for the top prize: the Palme d’Or. You can take a look at the official selection (including Un Certain Regard) here, and full line-ups for the Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week here.

There was no place in the programme for Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film The Master (purportedly about Scientology – but who knows?), which makes us wonder if the 56th BFI London Film Festival in October might end up with a pretty mighty premiere on its hands. We can but dream. Sadly, PPH won’t have a presence at Cannes this year, but looks forward nonetheless to hearing all the news and reactions from the Croisette. At least one of our blogging pals will be there, so expect to be pointed in the direction of that site for feedback during the festival.

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The Raid (May 18)

In terms of May’s new cinema releases, we’re hugely excited about Gareth Evans’ The Raid (May 18) – a hyper-violent, Indonesian-set thriller that’s said to draw upon the likes of John Woo’s Hard Boiled for influence. Julie Delpy’s 2 Days In New York (May 18) – the sequel to her earlier 2 Days In Paris – is one that we’d really been anticipating, though are sad to report that it fails to catch fire in the way we’d hoped. That said, it’s definitely worth seeing for Chris Rock’s straight-man performance as Mingus, Delpy’s jazz-and-Obama obsessed boyfriend.

Professional provocateur Sacha Baron Cohen also returns this month with The Dictator (May 16) which, in truth, could go either way.The press campaign leading up to its release has been a touch on the heavy handed side (official statements from his new character, Middle Eatern dictator General Aladeen, no less!), but when Baron Cohen is at his excoriating best, he’s really, really good. So fingers remain crossed. Oh, there is a new Wes Anderson film coming out too (Moonrise Kingdom, May 25), but the oh-so-mannered, almost self-parodic poster alone provoked a near-vomitous reaction in this writer, who will try his darndest to keep an open mind when it hits screens.

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Amongst an ever-eclectic BFI Southbank programme, this month’s African Odysseys screening (May 26) of Ivan Dixon’s super-rare cult film The Spook Who Sat By The Door really stands out. In The Spook…, a black CIA operative returns to Chicago and prepares his brothers for revolution, a conceit which operates both as biting satire and razor-edged provocation in response to the urgency of its socio-politically unstable times. Boasting a highly charged score from Herbie Hancock, it looks pretty much unmissable. The screening will be accompanied by a 2011 documentary, Infiltrating Hollywood – The Rise and Fall of The Spook Who Sat by the Door, which investigates the film’s troubled, fascinating history.

The Spook Who Sat By The Door (BFI Southbank, May 26)

Other BFI highlights this month include a career overview of one of the renowned stars of French cinema, Jean Gabin: Working Class Hero to Godfather, an extended run of Powell and Pressburger’s much-lauded satire of the English character The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp restored to its full Technicolor glory, part two of the complete Vincente Minnelli retrospective, and the 11th London Sci-Fi Film Festival.

Following its launch with Brief Encounter at the Troxy in February, The Other Cinema returns with a screening of Mathieu Kassovitz’ bracing, brutal and timeless 1995 French film La Haine. The screening (May 4) will feature a live score by the Asian Dub Foundation, and include appearances by local artists. As part of The Other Cinema networks, screenings will also take place at Broadwater Farm Community Centre in Tottenham (May 2) and launch in Paris (May 5). All of the profits from the Troxy screening will pour into the production of the free premiere screening at Broadwater Farm.

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Onto home entertainment, news has broken of the first ever DVD release of a groundbreaking 1986 hip-hop documentary entitled Big Fun In The Big Town(May 21).Directed by the fantastically monikered Dutch filmmaker, journalist and rap fanatic Bram Van Splunteren*, the doc is said to show hip-hop from pretty much every angle, and approach its subjects with a genuine journalistic respect. Highlights include rare live performances, and interviews with a number of key players from the scene’s early days including Russell Simmons, Run-DMC, LL Cool J (interviewed at his grandmother’s house in Queens!), Grandmaster Flash and Biz Markie.

Continuing on a DVD theme, the ever-covetable Criterion collection continues to put out some astonishing stuff, highlights of which include extras-packed, digitally optimized releases of the aforementioned La Haine(May 8), and the welcome return of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s Being John Malkovich(May 15). Best to have a quiet word with your bank account now to let it know that you’ll be treating it with reckless abandon in the coming weeks.

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Finally, kicking off toward the end of the month is the sixth annual Happy Soul Festival (May 25-June 10), a multi-borough, London-set event which aims to entertain, inform and to engage with black and minority ethnic groups and the wider community to help de-stigmatise mental health issues and promote awareness of wellbeing. Though the festival is multidisciplinary in nature, the programme will feature film strongly, and looks like a really interesting, worthwhile event. To find out more, visit the Happy Soul Festival’s website.

*his name reminded me of this near-forgotten rap-rock gem (yes, they exist!) from 1996.

If there’s an event you’d like to see featured here in next month’s round-up, feel free to drop us a line at pplastichelmet@gmail.com

PPH @ LFF – The Final Reckoning

Just like that, the BFI London Film Festival is over for another year. It’s been a staggeringly enjoyable few weeks of film watching, note-taking, tiredness, putting Twitter handles to faces and socializing with some lovely, lovely people. Here, as promised, is a final round-up of LFF stuff: the good, the bad, the sad and the awkward.

PERMANENT PLASTIC HELMET’S FILMS OF THE FESTIVAL

1. SHAME

My favourite film of this year’s LFF was Steve’s McQueen’s powerful sex addiction drama, which features an astonishing performance in the lead role from Michael Fassbender, who is emerging as one the very best actors of his generation. It’s not perfect (the final third veers perilously close toward moral melodrama) but it is exceptional, vital, haunting filmmaking, and New York has never looked like this before. [Read full review here].

2. DREAMS OF A LIFE

A good measure of how passionate you feel about a film is how you react when someone else criticizes it. So when a fellow writer sneeringly dismissed Carol Morley’s devastating documentary Dreams of a Life as “The Arbor for ITV viewers” and I flew into a Basil Fawlty-esque rage, it was pretty clear just how much the film had burrowed under my skin. In combining interviews, reconstruction footage and the director’s own research, Dreams of a Life is a  dizzying attempt to piece together the sad story of 38 year-old Joyce Vincent, a North London resident who lay dead in her flat for three years without anybody coming to check on her. It’s about a million things (community, memories, loneliness, love, music, race, London), it’s brilliantly put together, and it will bounce around your head for days, if not weeks. Sad, staggering and totally unmissable.

3. THE ARTIST

The audience favourite of the festival was Michel Hazanavicius’ wondrously uplifiting homage to the silent era, starring Jean Dujardin as a devilishly charismatic silent star left behind by the talkies. Although it flags a bit towards the end, it’s technically brilliant, incredibly funny (can dogs be nominated for Oscars?) and totally in love with the cinema.

BUBBLING UNDER…

I had a clear top three, but there were lots of other excellent films I saw that I was unable to organize into a coherent top five or top ten. They included…

TAKE SHELTER – A slow-burn drama featuring Michael Shannon’s blistering portrayal of a family man on the edge. [Read full review here]

THE KID WITH A BIKE – The Dardennes Brothers’ affecting, naturalistic tale of a troubled boy coming to terms with abandonment by his feckless father. [Read full review here]

MISS BALA – More Gomorrah than Goodfellas, a bleak, punishing, deeply ironic Mexican drama about the evils of the drug trade. [Read full review here].

THE DESCENDANTS – George Clooney shines in a moving, yet satisfyingly dark Hawaiian-set tale of hard life lessons from the reliably excellent yet lesser-spotted Alexander Payne.

SUPERHEROES – Michael Barnett’s consistently amusing, moving and surprising documentary about the ever-growing community of have-a-go caped crusaders that are taking, rather foolhardily, to the streets of America to enforce their own brand of justice. [Read full review here]

MOST OVERRATED FILM

I was debating whether or not to include this category, because a) the concept of ‘overrating’ something is essentially meaningless, and b) it just feels a bit like more needless negativity thrown in for good measure. However, when I heard that WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN had beaten the far superior Shame and The Artist to the prize of LFF Best Film, my mind was made up. We Need To Talk About Kevin is a weirdly middlebrow horror film, which overdoes the symbolism to a ludicrous degree, and offers practically no further insight into its characters than Eva: not very nice, Kevin: bit of a nutter, The husband: a bit of a twat. Not terrible, then, but certainly not a ‘best film’. A bizarre choice. [Read full review here]

DISAPPOINTMENT & TURKEY ROLLED INTO ONE OF THE FESTIVAL

After the 360 opening night boondoggle, I was convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that I’d been exposed to the very worst that the LFF had to offer. At 10.06pm on Sunday 23rd October, however, as I stumbled out of the VUE cinema, confused and furious, it became apparent that I was wrong.

What was it that had discombobulated me so? Well, in a nutshell, a Surprise Film that had somehow managed to trump the previous years’ one-two punch of Capitalism: A Love Story and Brighton Rock for sheer disappointment. As surprises go, Whit Stillman’s appalling DAMSELS IN DISTRESS was less a turn up for the books, more like finding a cockroach in your soup.

It felt as though Stillman had begun writing it in the early 90s after watching Heathers, slipped into a coma while Clueless, Mean Girls and even, for Christ’s sake, Juno redefined self-reflexive, ironic teen-girl sass, and then farted this out in a half-sentient state after hoovering up the Wikipedia definition of ‘Mumblecore’.

It’s ostensibly a tale of four airheaded college girls at a privileged establishment, but the basics – coherent structure, narrative, characters you can invest in – are entirely absent, and countless scenes sputter to an unsatisfactory conclusion before they’ve really begun. If it deserves any credit, it’s for a singularity of aesthetic style, with the pastel colours and costumes and cloying TV-movie vaseline glow complemented by the relentless muzak on the soundtrack. (A plus point also for bringing The Wire’s tragic Dukie back to our screens in a small role).

Furthermore, it’s not just unfunny, it’s actively offensive, making light of such delightful topics as anal rape and suicide without providing any context for doing so. It’s also rare to find a film that has as much contempt for its own characters as it does its audience; none of the characters seem to learn anything, improve or even develop. Unclear whether it’s supposed to be a parody of college films or simply of its own staggering awfulness, Damsels in Distress is would-be modish, pretentious, vapid garbage that’s destined to become the favourite film of people you’d jump in front of the 159 bus to avoid.

Despite my hatred of the film, however, the distribution company have been kind enough to provide me with its official trailer. Here it is:

DOWNER OF THE FESTIVAL

I’ve written about it here already, but it’s worth repeating that watching certain films first thing in the morning takes a bit of getting used to. The winner of the IT TOTALLY RUINED MY ENTIRE FUCKING DAY™ award this year was Justin Kurzel’s true-life Aussie crime drama SNOWTOWN. Its veritable cornucopia of paedophilia, incestuous rape, animal abuse and graphic scenes of torture were, quite frankly, a bit much for a 10 a.m. start. [Read full review here]

MOST AWKWARD MOMENT

As anyone who has ever been to the BFI will know, there’s a certain contingent of the audience who likes to laugh a little too hard and a little too loud at the most innocuous things, just to prove that they really got it. However, the daddy of all inappropriate laughs came during a screening of EARLY ONE MORNING in NFT1, a downbeat French drama concerning a depressed, humiliated banker who goes on the rampage. The film is barely two minutes old when said psychotic banker played by Jean-Pierre Darroussin (a hangdog genetic splice between Billy Bob Thornton and Iain Duncan Smith) storms into his office and guns down two colleagues in cold blood. You could have a heard a pin drop in the audience. Well, you could have, had it not been for the absolute bellend who let rip a monster guffaw at the first gunshot, probably imagining that by doing so he was striking a blow against capitalism, rather than embarrassing himself and shattering the spell of an incredibly powerful scene. Arse.

FILMS THAT I REALLY WANTED TO SEE BUT SADLY MISSED FOR WHATEVER REASON

Harry Belafonte in activism documentary SING YOUR SONG, Sean Penn Robert Smith-ing it up in THIS MUST BE THE PLACE, low-budget love Brit story WEEKEND by Andrew Haigh, Werner Herzog’s death row doc INTO THE ABYSS and Dexter Fletcher’s directorial debut WILD BILL. Hopefully the chance will come around soon for me to see all of these.

AND FINALLY…

I couldn’t be arsed didn’t have time to review everything I saw, so I’ve also given everything I did see a handy score, using the rating system of favourite culture website The A.V. Club:

Miss Bala B+

Take Shelter B+

The Black Power Mixtape B

Martha Marcy May Marlene B

Americano C

Coriolanus C

Dreams Of A Life A

360 D

The Kid With A Bike B+

We Have A Pope C+

Hara-Kiri: Death Of A Samurai B

Eternity B

Shame A

Rampart B-

Snowtown B

I’m Carolyn Parker B

Carnage B

Alps B

Early One Morning B

The Artist A-

The Ides Of March B-

The Descendants B

Restless City B-

Superheroes B+

We Need To Talk About Kevin C+

Sket C+

Damsels In Distress F

A Dangerous Method B

And… that’s all folks. I hope you’ve enjoyed the PPH @ LFF coverage. I certainly have, and I’m already looking forward to next year’s festival which will be the first under new Artistic Director Claire Stewart, who replaces the outgoing Sandra Hebron. Thanks for the memories Sandra!

APPENDIX/LINKS

PPH @ LFF – Round-up #1

PPH @ LFF – Round-up #2

PPH @ LFF – Round-up #3

PPH @ LFF – Round-up #4

PPH @ LFF – Adrift in New York: A review of Shame

PPH @ LFF – The First Born and the Last of the Silent Era

PPH @ LFF – We Need To Talk About Kevin

"SEE YA!"

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.

*       *       *       *       *

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…

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.