Thursday, 29 October 2009

London Film Festival - the final days

Well, that's that for another year. On balance, a mixed bag but one with its share of goodies, and I'll be back for more next year, as always with great anticipation:

Underground (1928) and J'Accuse (1919): We viewed these two silents on consecutive nights which was probably overgilding the lily. Both were of great interest but not without definite flaws. Never before has a restored silent been given its own gala evening and "Underground" certainly received the lion's share of pre-screening publicity. Directed by Anthony Asquith and filmed on location on parts of the tube system and at Lots Road Power station, it presents a fascinating picture of 1920's working-class London, including the answer to the mystery of why it is proper to stand on the right on underground escalators. It tells its story of love, hate, and revenge through two young couples, Brian Aherne and Elissa Landi (both of whom progressed to minor careers in Hollywood during the 1930s) and villain Cyril McLaglen (younger brother of John Ford stalwart Victor) and his hard-done-by girl friend Norah Baring (whose only other major role was the recently restored "A Cottage on Dartmoor"). The acting was frankly indifferent, verging on the hammy, but the backgrounds and ingenuity of the filming were memorable. Unfortunately we found the delayed showing (while everyone concerned patted themselves on the back beforehand) marred by the overpowering musical accompaniment of Neil Brand's five-piece combo.

In contrast the one-man accompanist for "J'Accuse" was a marvel of innovation and improvisation, as he combined his piano with flute passages. This film by French director Abel Gance is less well-known than his mammoth "Napoleon", but shares the same artistic visual flare. He remade this anti-war diatribe again in 1938, but it is this beautifully-restored copy that deserves its place in cinema history. It tells of a bucolic community where a pacifist poet longs for his lost love now married to an insensitive brute, and how their lives are changed by the coming of war. It is interesting to note that World War I had only just ended when this film was made and the loss of friends and the futility of fighting was fresh in Gance's mind. Looking at the story from our modern perspective some 90 years on, much of the melodrama comes across as a load of old tosh, especially the side-story of the love interest being abducted and raped by German soldiers and coming home with an unacceptable bastard daughter. However Gance's images of battlescenes -- complete with dancing skeletons -- and the dead marching home to evaluate whether their sacrifice was worthwhile are brilliantly handled, if, I thought at times, just a little repetitive. At nearly three hours, this film took a lot of watching, but it was well worth it.

Kamui (2009): This Japanese movie was described in the programme as probably the best ninja movie ever -- but I ask you, how many good ninja flicks can you name? Nevermind, this lengthy addition based on a legendary, multi-volume manga was good fun with great action scenes enhanced by wirework and CGI. The story unfolds like a folk tale as we follow our hero from his wretched beginnings through his ninja training and finally his futile attempts to escape his ninja vows and find happiness of a kind amongst simple village folk, only to endanger all of their lives. The film ends on a note which obviously invites a sequel, which no doubt will be advertised some time in the future as 'the best ninja movie ever'!

What Do You Know About Me (2009): You'd think we might have learned our lesson after "Double Take" that films about film are often disastrous, but this Italian documentary about the country's cinema past and present sounded as if it might be a treat in the vein on Scorsese's three-parter on Italian movies made for cinema's centenary year. Well it was nothing of the kind; clips from a few films of the past were overpowered by the minging of a bunch of modern directors going on and on about the difficulty of funding native cinema when the whole shooting match is controlled throughout the world by the almighty American distribution system. While there may be a modicum of truth in this slander, I do not buy it for a minute and wonderful non-American movies continue to emerge worldwide (even from Italy let it be said) -- thank goodness. The argument was muddled, poorly put together, and once again something of a waste of time.

A Serious Man (2009): We ended the fest on a 'commercial' note with this Coen Brothers movie which had its UK premiere at a gala the previous evening, not that the brothers have really ever strived to make popular, commercial films. This one was certainly interesting and in many ways possibly the most personal of their films, but it is unlikely to become one of their quirky cult favourites. While it is almost not certainly autobiographical, it is set in the 1960s in a mainly Jewish suburb of Minneapolis, similar to the one where they were raised, and looks at the troubled life of one Larry Gopnik, a university professor (like their father) who is seeking tenure and trying to deal with his dysfunctional family. His wife wants a divorce to be with their pompous recently-widowed family friend, his about-to-be bar-mitzvahed son is more concerned with pop music,TV, and dope, his noisy teenaged daughter wants to save up for a nose job, and his troublesome brother has moved in to sleep on the sofa. Then there's the nude-sunbathing minx on one side of their tract house and the deer-hunting 'goy' on the other. With further troubles from a bribing Korean student whom he has failed and the possibility of more bad news from his doctor, Gopnik seeks advice from the three local rabbis, receiving only platitudes, unhelpful 'wisdom', and indifference.

The main story is prefaced by a seemingly unrelated scene filmed in Yiddish and involving a dybbuk, set in a 19th Century shtetl. However this sets the stage for Gopnik's modern story as he searches for answers to impossible questions and wonders whether there is any sense to his religious beliefs. After all, he is a serious man, but life is full of temptations and trials. The largely unknown cast rise to the occasion -- it's an unusual mainstream undertaking where Adam Arkin is the best-known of the actors and the movie does not feature any of the Coen regulars, although John Turturro's wife has a very small role. However the film is all the better for that as the viewer is forced to focus on the scenario rather than any baggage-carrying cast member. It's a mature piece of film-making and the Coens do not set out to give us any easy answers. The movie just ends abruptly with an impending natural disaster, and the camera moves back into the heavens leaving us to contemplate our existence.

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