Sunday, June 22, 2008

Lorna's Silence

Tense, discomfort-making drama-thriller from France about a young woman's involvement with a criminal ring which assists illegal immigrants by arranging citizenships for them through sham marriages and other means. The film is carried by Arta Dobroshi as Lorna, who is in every single scene, and considering the film's predilections for naturalism and the eliding of anything at all expositional, she's got a hell of a lot to carry. It's also a major feat that you relate to her so differently during different stretches of the film. She seems by turns unkind, morally concerned, resourceful, foolish, brave, naive, righteous, etc.

The principal situation concerns the ring's exploitation of a heroin junkie for arranged marriage purposes, as they know that he won't run off on Lorna. But when he decides one night that he's going to get clean, the threat of his independance spooks the crims. Things turn ugly and Lorna enters into a series of ongoing moral and practical perils.

The film's demanding style probably obscures important plot points more than it should. I was able to follow 99% of it, but in a post-film conversation I discovered that one thing I hadn't understood at the time had been very important. In common with No Country For Old Men, this is a largely excellent film, but perhaps one with a streak of unnecessary unhelpfulness about it.


Helen is a vier for my favourite film from the 2008 festival. Steadfast in mystery, atmosphere, weirdness and emotional bleakness, the film follows the slow-growing obsession of the eponymous heroine with the former life of another girl, Joy, who disappeared in the local park one day, and whom Helen is 'playing' in a police reconstruction of the event.

The film has a beautiful cryptic quality, not in any conventional kind of whodunnit sense, but as regards both the elusive character of Helen and the nature of the film itself. The long, unbroken takes, great silences and restrained, almost self-effacing interactions amongst the characters generate fascination and curiosity. Is it some kind of hyper-naturalism? Or the opposite of naturalism? The players are often facing away from each other, or off the screen, or shot from behind, or just so that you can't see their faces. When a creepily patronising policewoman arrives to brief Joy's schoolmates about the reconstruction of the disappearance, half the scene is viewed via its reflection in a mirror.

Some of the dialogue is bizarre in its expositional nature, enough to prompt amusement, yet at others times it is completely evasive. Helen feels such a great hollow within herself (she has been raised in care, and her past and parentage are shrouded in mystery) that her vocalisation mostly consists of dull murmured statements. The strongest indication that some of the weirdness is in droll taste is an amusing scene in which a morose-looking teacher appears to do the worst job in the world in trying inspire the students with talk of 'blue skies thinking'.

The film is framed by metronomically perfect editing, fades to black, abstraction-making shots of dappled light filtering through park trees and a glacial ambient score. It reminded me at times of David Lynch in its poetic design. It offers a unique vision of a situation which opens onto multiple mysteries, most importantly the mystery of what is inside Helen, played with supernatural understatement by Annie Townsend. And it is emotionally confronting, with some moments that are very difficult to bear. This is beautiful cinema.

Son of Rambow

It's the eighties, and an isolated kid with a stellar imagination, whose family situation is religiously oppressive, teams up with / is bullied by the school miscreant into shooting a version of First Blood using a stolen video camera, in hopes of winning a young filmmakers competition.

Son Of Rambow's aims are big, conspicuous audience rousing and uplift, and comedy, and emotional heft. (The festival volunteer coordinator said he 'bawled and bawled'. At least I think that's what he said. It was at a party and things were very loud.) On the way, the film's got everything in it but the kitchen sink; an animated fantasy sequence, socially realistic grit, cartoon humour, shades of 'Oliver', a never-any-question-that-it's-bad religious cul... I mean order, and plenty of montage of First Blood. And a meant-to-be-cool French exchange student character who is so dully performed that he sucks all life and energy out of any scene he's in.

The first half of the film is outlandish and winning. It's also a bit discomforting. Lee, the miscreant, is a charming but totally heedless blagger, with zilch parental guidance and a criminal older brother. He's thieving from someone in nearly every scene he's in, and he basically threatens Will (the sensitive kid) into helping him with the film. Will is heavily removed from reality and it's not easy to watch him being driven to do stuff by someone who's unaware of his mental state, like fall out of tall trees for stunt purposes. The film switches to cartoon mode at such times so that nobody's actually harmed. Later on, when characters need to be harmed, the cartoon delivery is no longer in evidence. It's this kind of veering about with its style and logic that I didn't like in Son of Rambow. It's a particularly relevant issue for the second half of the film, where things become more emotionally heavy. That, plus the sheer amount of stuff the film tries to address, plus the increasing presence of the scene-deadening exchange student, started to make me antsy. But the film does rally for a rousing ending of the type you almost demand in the 'filmmaking kids come good' genre (?).

If I say for argument's sake that Son is a kids film, it's one with a lot of edge and non-surface complexity. There's no doubting its humour and warmth overall, but there are things that don't work, and things that are downright murky. And there's that bloody French exchange student.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Fear(s) of the Dark

From France, Fear(s) of the Dark is a black and white compendium of animated horror and ghost tales. Its structure is very satisfying. Some stories are broken into segments spread over the film's length while others are one-offs, and each has its own animation style. The stories are further studded by monologue episodes in which a woman describes her social and intellectual fears, to the accompaniment of expressionistic geometrical animations onscreen. These monologues certainly have the taste of French preoccupations about them, with significant talk of the bourgeois and a particular slant on political conundrums, but they are the minor part of the whole.

The first story is a fun/gross EC horror comic-like affair about the sexually ravenous girlfriend who turns out to be no girl. The best story in terms of generating a real sense of horror is the one about the hideous old gentleman taking three vicious dogs for a walk. In each segment he releases the reins of one dog so that it can graphically tear someone apart. Each mauling is depicted in all its bloody ragdoll glory, and the closeup of the man's hideous face lighting up conveys his warped delight.

The last story is the most accomplished artistically. A man seeks shelter from a snowstorm in an abandoned, powerless house. Entirely white outside, it's almost entirely black within, with the darkness concealing evidence of the building's violent history. Brilliantly designed outlines pick out just tiny slivers and pools of light as the man searches the house, leaving most of the frame completely black and creating excellent fascination and suspense in the process.

The combination of earthy pencil and ink textures and smooth, Flash-like animation work generates a beautiful aesthetic for this film. It's not as scary as I'd hope for a film explicitly addressing fear (and horror films are my favourites), but it definitely has periods of creepiness, of horror and of humour. And it flows very well as a whole.

Jar City

The English title for this film, 'Jar City', is kind of ugly. I'd have preferred they stuck with the Icelandic title 'Myrin', which apparently means 'swamp'. Whatever you call it, the film is a tough and grisly police procedural set in Iceland, though with some dark humour and a lot of juxtaposition of gastronomic action (policeman eats donut, policeman eats sheep's head, morgue guy eats something unidentifiable) and putrefying organs and corpses.

Oh yeah, the sheep's head. I probably should discuss this now. Interrupting traditional review trajectory in this way will reflect the way the audience's attention to the plot was distracted by the relative prominence of sheep heads in the film.

The lead cop, Erlendur, is an unflappably brutal character, though with the face of a bearded intellectual. In one scene he rolls up to some stall and asks the young lady there for a sheep's head. She hands him a tub and tells him 'Enjoy', McDonalds style. He takes the tub home, opens it up to reveal a sheep's head, and while he's thinking, starts by plucking out an eye and eating that. Then he pulls apart the skull and eats what's in there. This scene raised a lot of very surprised gullets in the audience.

A bit later came a cafeteria scene in which similarly prepared and clingwrapped sheep's head meals were all over the counter for the taking.

As usual, IMDB answers all questions. The sheep's head is an Icelandic delicacy and tastes a lot like lamb, they say. Though the stall at which Erlendur bought that first one is apparently the only one offering them for takeaway in the country, so relatively speaking this may have misrepresented the prevalence of sheep heads in Iceland by suggesting to us foreigners that you would typically rock up to a takeaway stall for a sheep's head.

Away from all the gastronomy, what I dug about this film was the harsh delivery of some rigorous police investigation in an environment completely unlike my own. Myrin reminds me why I broadly prefer genre films as a type. The demonstration of pure creativity is easier to effect in genre, and is achieved more rapidly, because fewer bridges have to be built from scratch. Myrin's methods are familiar but the specifics are unique. Erlendur is a captivating central figure of the kind you fantasise you could be when you don't feel like tolerating fools at all. Or when you do feel like throwing some jerk down a staircase.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Boy A

Exceptional UK drama about a young man released from prison for a grave childhood crime and his attempts to live a good life under a new identity. Performances are excellent all around here, especially from Andrew Garfield in the lead. The flashback editing structure used to gradually reveal the childhood incident is one of the best examples of this kind of thing I've seen. Perhaps most surprising is that a film which uses so many extreme closeups in combination with over the shoulder shots succeeds with the style, being incredibly candid and engaging, and not irritating me once – because I traditionally associate the use of endless extreme closups in drama with being irritated. A transparently great, tense, affecting and though-provoking film.

Glass Lips

This Polish film is a weird, confronting series of impress/express-ionistic tableaux depicting the past and present (and maybe future) times of a poet, whose adulthood is spent in a mental institution and whose childhood at the hands of forbidding parents was cruelled. At least this is the synopsis I venture. I don't know that a group of people would ever agree entirely because it's a symbol-ridden film with no regular narrative.

Glass Lips polarised the audience. I say this with authority because I watched the film with them, handed out ballots at the end and counted the votes. The people who hated it staggered out as soon as the credits started. One lady was cursing as well as staggering, and wrote curse words on her ballot. Someone else swore on their ballot, but only one of the two swearers had the presence of mind to remember to tear their ballot as well as swear, and thus register their perturbment officially.

If you really don't like this kind of film, there's a possibility that you never will grow to like it. The only moderately accurate comparison which comes to my mind is with Matt Barney's Cremaster Cycle. I loved Cremaster, but I was cool overall on Glass Lips. It's gentle on trajectory, long on repetition (especially where the character of the father is concerned) and in the area of sound design, irritating as often as it is beautiful. Knowing that the film was constructed from thirty-three shorts which originally worked as gallery installations might help to explain these factors. There is less to worry about re: repetition when an audience doesn't have to experience all the parts back to back.

The film is also long on symbolism. It's hard for me personally to be much interested in Christian symbology (crucifictions and Jesus Christ poses are huge in Glass Lips), and when symbolism is the main mode overall, of course it's going to be hard for an audience. The director himself described the film after the screening as being a narrative of inner life, which is an idea I love, but my engagement levels were all over the place at different times.

Glass Lips is certainly pretentious, but it has the chops to be that way. If you attribute validity to pretension, is it not actually pretension anyway? If a poet falls in a forest of ice, is there any accompanying dialogue? (NB - there is no dialogue in Glass Lips.) I might try watching this again someday. I didn't really like it, but I am still thinking about it, so that's probably good, but... AUGH!