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Tuesday, 18 October 2011

London Film Festival - Part One

Four down; eight to go...and so far it's been a mixed bag indeed: two watchable obscurities, one hilarious oddball destined to do little business, and one major disappointment from the prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike.

The obscurities both come from the "Treasures from the Archives" strand of the fest ('lost' and newly restored or 'rediscovered' classics) and it is a little unusual for us to watch two of these two days in a row.  The first was "The Goose Woman", a silent feature from 1925 with impeccable credentials.  It was directed by Clarence Brown who went on to direct a string of 30s and 40s classics and starred Louise Dresser (already into middle age when she made her movie debut a few years earlier), Jack Pickford (brother of Mary and not overly charismatic), and rising star Constance Bennett (sister of Joan who both were memorable in films of the next two decades). The story concerns an erstwhile famous opera singer who lost both her career and her voice when she gave birth to an illegitimate son many years earlier and who has become a drunken slattern on her run-down farm.  She sees an opportunity to regain her celebrity when a rich neighbour is murdered and fabricates a story which unfortunately implicates her estranged son (who is of course romancing the successful actress Bennett).  Dresser's version of the events is supported by the state prosecutor -- the wonderfully named actor Gustav von Seyffertitz, until true but long-suppressed mother love breaks through.  The film as you may guess is something of a pot-boiler but a stand-out turn from Dresser just about saves the day.  Showing with this 83-minute movie were two Vitaphone shorts featuring former vaudeville stars and each more embarrassing than the next.

The second 'treasure' was a little-known, obscure feature from neo-realist Italian director Roberto Rossellini, completely at odds with his other films called "The Machine that Kills Bad People" (1952). One just doesn't think of this director as being able to handle satirical fantasy which is what is on display here.  Set in a small seaport town south of Naples where a broadly-drawn group of yanks have recently arrived to develop a hotel on the land of the communal cemetery, a photographer is visited by a strange old man who teaches him the secret of using his camera to kill those who just don't deserve to live.  Taking a picture of a picture in his studio, the subject suddenly expires (in the same unmovable pose) in another part of town -- these range from the bumptious village policeman, a very noisy donkey, a rich old woman and her greedy relatives, and an assortment of corrupt town officials who wish to divert a recent windfall of funds from the government to their own selfish ends.  The whole thing plays like some sort of peasant farce, striving to make its points about the deserving poor of the town (very Rossellini) versus the rich folk who live up the town's many steep staircases.  It certainly had its moments of comic mayhem along with its attempts to make some serious points from the director's personal credo; its rediscovery is very welcome -- if only as a palliative to Rossellini's more humourless films.  Showing alongside this was the newly remastered and re-colored Melies short, the familiar "A Trip to the Moon" which has been making the festival rounds, starting as the opener at this year's Cannes -- worth seeing for its historical importance, if in fact rather silly and crude. 

Next up was the hugely enjoyable and nearly impossible to categorize French film, "The Fairy", written and directed by three of its four leads: Dominique Abel, the Australian-born Fiona Gordon, and Bruno Romy.  I have not seen the team's two earlier films, but will certainly seek them out if this one is anything to go by.  The tall, skinny and gawky Abel plays the night clerk at a small seaside hotel, beset by interruptions as he tries to watch TV and eat his ketchuppy sandwich, particularly from a weird Englishman with his beloved Sealyham hidden in a plaid carry-all.  In walks the equally tall and long-limbed Gordon who announces that she is a fairy and that she will grant him three wishes -- two of which he requests immediately but the third of which is still pending by the film's end.  Romy's contribution is that of a more-than-short-sighted bar owner who keeps walking into the walls.  The main delights however come from the characters 'Dom' and 'Fiona' as they pursue their weird attraction and love affair in a series of acrobatic dances and Keatonesque set pieces, including Fiona's magically giving birth to six-month old child virtually overnight.  Hovering in the background are three black illegals who want to get to England and a pair of comic Keystone-ish cops. The innocent silliness is strangely infectious and while I do not see this movie doing much box office, I can certainly see it becoming a cult favourite.

On to "Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai" from Miike.  His early films had a certain weird appeal in their crazy takes on the yakuza genre, but his later works were largely long-winded and rather tedious affairs.  Last year's historical romp "Thirteen Assassins" seemed to imply a return to form and this movie, shot quite unnecessarily in 3-D, promised more of the same.  Set during a peaceful period in the l7th Century and based on an earlier film, this opulent but slow-moving saga tells of the clash between traditional 'honour' and humanity.  Out of work samurai have been approaching noble houses, asking their permission to commit ritual suicide in their courtyards, in the hope of being bought off with either work or a few coins.  In this box within another box storytelling, an older ronin has come to the House of Ii to make such a request; there he is told the story of another younger man who foolishly did the same and who was forced to try to kill himself with a bamboo sword (having been forced to sell his real one) and who is then beheaded by the stern clan lord. Then he tells his own story -- turns out the youngster was this man's son-in-law whose death also resulted in those of his grandson and daughter, and he has come to seek revenge.  While beautifully shot, with only the very occasional effective use of 3-D effects in the shallow and dark interiors, the story just creaked along and proved more exhausting than entertaining, with virtually no action at all before the final minutes.

More and hopefully a little more entusiastic reviews to follow in due course...
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