22 July, 2012

Attack Redux

So here's the thing,

It's been over eleven months since the end of the 2011 film festival, and for that entire time I've had a post sitting here on the festival, effectively fully written, and I never quite got around to posting it because I couldn't be bothered with the effort involved in formatting it. But, with less than a week to go until this start of this year's festival, I really should get around to posting this.

In the past, I've written full posts about certain films, but I never got around to writing about all of the films I wanted to, and the time it took me to write them stretched out so long that, at times, by the time I was writing about them the films were already on DVD. So for the last year's festival, I wrote about all of the films on Facebook as I saw them. This post is those short comments, effectively my first impression shortly after seeing the films. I've tidied a few things things up, and have tried to clarify a few points that on reflection aren't clear, but mostly this is straight from my Facebook feed.

I should emphasise that these were written in haste, usually at midnight after a long day (or, by the end, two weeks of long days). I was usually exhausted when I sat down at my laptop to put these together. These comments are therefore by no means my best writing. While I've tried to fix the worst offences against the English language, it would involve a total rewrite to actually get these into a shape I'm totally happy with. Instead, here is a record of the year I saw an average of two films a day during the festival; my initial reaction, expressed only slighty less incoherently than they were when first written.

(Comments on 34 films, plus one short film, after the jump.)

THE TREE OF LIFE (see the trailer here) - 30 minutes into the film, I was worried it was everything I'd feared; Terrance Malick indulging his worse tendencies, artistry at the expense of compelling cinema. The film is largely plotless, with frequently dialogue-free impressionistic scenes/images, mostly focused on a troubled family, accompanied by meditative voiceovers. But then the film started to work for me, with an emotional core is so strong that I ultimately really liked it.
It helps that the most indulgent sequence, in which we view the birth of the universe and the origins of life, mostly takes place in one extended 20-minute sequence (rather than being spread through the film), and is over with two-thirds of the film still to go. Otherwise the film stays fixed with this one family, in a beautiful contemplation of grief and anger, and the way these can weigh a person down for years, even decades after the events. And it also reflects the way our memory works as we reflect on our lives - incidents are fragmentary, out of order, free of context, misleading even. It may be plotless and erratic in its storytelling, but it's always clear why it is so.
Add to that some of the most beautiful film shooting you will see - whatever you think of the film as a whole, there's always something striking or interesting to look at on the screen. And the acting is great, particularly by Brad Pitt, as the frustrated and angry over-disciplinarian father.
It's not for everyone (in fact there are probably very few people that would actually like it), but I finished the film very satisfied and glad I saw it. It feels intensely personal, like Malick is exposing his own griefs to the world, and it gains a lot of its power from that.
(Biggest surprise: I'd heard so many people talk about how awful the dinosaurs were that I was expecting some long tedious sequence. I was shocked to realise it was two scenes long, maybe a couple of minutes at that. I'm genuinely shocked that this was the scene that pushed audiences too far, especially since that scene basically ends the birth-of-the-universe sequence that is the most challenging part of the film.)

CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS (3D)  (see the trailer here) - It's difficult to discuss this as a film, because it really only exists to document and make publicly available the oldest-known cave paintings. As such it's remarkable. You really need to see this in 3D, since so much of the artwork makes use of the subtle contours of the cave that you really miss a lot in 2D. Indeed, there is one moment where we see a 2D photograph of a painting, and then cut to the actual 3D artwork, and the difference is noticeable.
And these paintings really are phenomenal. When I think about cave paintings I've seen before, I think about primitive work that even I could easily do. But some of these pictures are so complex, so carefully produced, so precisely observed, that I could not begin to reproduce them. Astonishing. There's this one panel in particular, a wall of horses, that is just breathtaking.
And the documentary around it is certainly enjoyable. Sure, it's probably mostly padding to fill the film out to a length to justify a feature film, but it's engaging and fun, whether it's the guy demonstrating primitive hunting weaponry, the guy playing "The Star-Spangled Banner" on a prehistoric flute, or listening to the former circus performer-turned-archaeologist discussing the cave. And Werner Herzog's often-speculative narration is enjoyable, if a little overpresent and strange at times (I swear that the final narration, which literally asks "how would mutant albino alligators view these paintings?", really does make sense in the context of the film.)
But ultimately the film is just about looking at the paintings. There are moments where the film just stops and gazes at these incredible paintings, allowing you to just soak in all the details. Wonderful.

PAGE ONE: INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES (see the trailer here) - An enjoyable documentary which charts a year in the US paper of record. It mostly focuses on David Carr (former crack-addict, now leading NY Times columnist on media issues), and he's a great character - intelligent, funny, passionate. But the film looks at wider issues around the paper - particularly the challenges presented by a collapsing news market.
And in that area, the film is probably a bit of a one-over-lightly - it takes the importance of the NYT as read, and there's nothing really surprising to anyone with any awareness of recent issues in the media. But it's fun to watch the debate happening (Carr has a brilliant moment in a debate on the death of the old media where he shows what would happen to a news aggregator if old media dies, while in another scene he takes down a arrogant-seeming guy who is overly proud of an internet "cannibalism in Angola" story).
And then there's just the insights into how the Times works - we watch as they work with Julian Assange on the Wikileaks story, or as David Carr breaks a story that will ultimately force a resignation, or try to work out if a supposed story on the withdrawal of troops from Iraq is really happening or just exists as a media event.
It's not a particularly deep film. After all, it does take an entire year of big news events, major industry upheaval, and significant challenges, all in one of the most important media entities, and squeeze all that into a 90 minute film. But as an entertaining piece of filmmaking that touches on some key issues, it's well worth seeing.
(It's also of note as possibly the only time David Simon will ever be identified as "former reporter for the Baltimore Sun," rather than as "the creator of the greatest television show ever." Although his greatest achievement cannot be avoided - when he appeared on-screen I could hear the guy behind me whisper "that's the guy that made The Wire.")

THE MAN FROM NOWHERE (see the trailer here) - A fun Korean action film. Hardly an original plot (loner with a mysterious past has young girl as his only friend; girl is kidnapped; loner has to kill a lot of people to rescue her from a gang of drug-dealing organ-harvesters), but action is well-done, interesting characters, and some suitably horrific moments. Nothing ground-breaking, but a good time in the cinema.

HOT COFFEE (see the trailer here) - A very good advocacy documentary that starts with the famed McDonalds "hot coffee" lawsuit (which, when you hear the facts, really was an appalling case, and the ultimate verdict really makes a lot more sense), and then uses that to argue that business interests are trying different ways to suppress the ability of people to use the legal system to hold companies accountable for their actions.
The film is from a first-time director, but it doesn't feel it. It feels confident and assured, the director knows what she's trying to say, and manages to construct a very clear persuasive argument. And she manages to make a subject as potentially dull as "tort reform" enjoyable and accessible.
It's also a good reminder that we're not always as well informed by the media as we may think. I remember when the hot coffee place occurred, and being shocked by the news reports because yes, a $2.5m award does seem outrageous. It's arguably less outrageous when you realise just how bad her injuries were, or when you realise almost all of the award was punitive because McDonalds had received hundreds of similar complaints without changing a thing. It's easy to believe we know all about a case because we've read a few articles, so it good to be reminded just how limited, and potentially inaccurate, an impression can be created by the media.

ARRIETTY (see the trailer here) - The new Japanese animated film, based on the novel The Borrowers. This one isn't directed by Miyasaki, but he did write the screenplay, and the actual director does a very good job. The best summary of the film is the fact that the Studio Ghibli logo at the start got an excited cheer from the audience. The logo promises quality animated filmmaking, and the film lives up to that. It's not one of the studio's best, but it's still charming and enjoyable.

13 ASSASSINS (see the trailer here) - So much fun. A bunch of samurai team up to kill a seriously evil and cruel lord. The climax of the film is a remarkable 45 minute uninterrupted action sequence, but so skilfully constructed that it never tires nor bores the audience, and just allows them to ride this incredible wave.
The action is clearly presented, and because we've spent so much time actually getting to know the characters, the climactic scenes feel much more weighty and involving. (I just wish someone would point Michael Bay to this film and tell him "this is how you construct a prolonged action scene.")
Takashi Miike is famously a rather extreme filmmaker (this is the first time I've ever wanted to see one of his films), but he's clearly a remarkable talent, with a clear passion for his artform, and a definite skill at controlling his tone. An impressive piece of work.

TABLOID (see the trailer here) - Probably the funniest film of the festival. A deliberately laugh-out-loud documentary about a woman who became a tabloid figure after being prosecuted for the "sex in chains" kidnapping of a Mormon missionary and then, 30 years later, became a public figure again after having her dog cloned. One of those stories for which the phrase "you couldn't make it up" was invented.
Errol Morris is one of the top documentary filmmakers working today, and he's clearly enjoying this story. So much of the film involves Morris bouncing one side of the story against the other, piling confusion onto confusion. We hear Joyce's story, we hear from the tabloids how they told the story, at some points we have three or four different versions of the story being presented to us, until we genuinely don't know what happened precisely.
And at the centre of the film is this woman Joyce, who comes across as having a very charming and winning personality, and so, so funny. One of the things the film makes clear is that Joyce is someone who always had a stream of admirers who would do anything for her, and watching her interviews it's clear that's not solely because of her looks. And yet despite all that, there's a definite sadness to her story - she never married, basically because she's still in love with this guy she "kidnapped" thirty years ago.
And it really is a funny film. The audience frequently erupted with laughter, at the journalist who never misses a chance to use the word "spread-eagled," at Joyce and her male friend disguised as nuns or as an Indian couple, or at just the sheer complete insanity of the story that we're watching. In the end, it's just a fun film, but one with a lot to say about the tabloid media culture.

MEEK'S CUTOFF (see the trailer here) - It's one thing to make a film about characters wandering around lost and directionless; it's another thing to make a film that itself feels lost and directionless. This was a beautifully-shot film, and the actors (particularly Michelle Williams and Bruce Greenwood) are very good, but it's all in aid of a film that just did not work for me at all. And that's disappointing.
It's not that the film is slow - I'm fine with slow films. Indeed, I saw this film because I enjoyed Kelly Reichardt's previous film, Wendy and Lucy, itself a very slow film. But that film was about something, and even if the subject seemed slight (young woman loses her dog, tries to find it), that's enough to give the film a purpose and to hang the film's emotional connection on. And things happen in that film, situations change - slowly, perhaps, but they do happen. But Meeks's Cutoff, a wagon trail western that focuses on the women and their frustrations as the men have no idea what to do or where to go, doesn't have that core focus. It's just a collection of scenes, most of which never feel like they really added anything. There's the occasional moment of interest or suspense, but they are precious few. Mostly the film just is.
It's not helped that the ending really does not put a full-stop on the story - at best, it offers a semi-colon. And normally I'm fine with that type of ending, [EDIT: Indeed, one of my favourite films of this festival had that type of ending] but in this film it just became another cause of frustration. The film does have its merits, but it's a struggle (although not a five-weeks-lost-in-the-desert struggle) to get through. I had hoped for more.

LET THE BULLETS FLY (see the trailer here) - A 1920s-era Chinese gangster action comedy about a bandit who poses as the new Governor of a town, becomes a Robin Hood figure, and goes to war with the local crime godfather, both constantly trying to outwit the other one. At times it has an awkwardly brutal tone that doesn't fit with the rest of the film, but mostly it's just an insane, funny, and entertaining film.

ANTON CHEKHOV'S THE DUEL (see the trailer here) - Full disclosure: prior to this film, I had no experience of Chekhov - never read one of his novels, never seen any of his plays. My impression was that his works were very heavy and burdened, but that's not what this film is like - it's serious, but still light and pleasurable to watch. (I also liked that this story by Chekhov featured, not one, but two guns - there is a duel, after all.)
The film is still very dramatic - it's about people who are trapped, be it in relationships, by society, by arrangements, whatever, and that does give the film some weight and burden. And the characters are mostly awful people - selfish, materialistic, venal, adulterous, self-important, people you wouldn't actually want to spend time with. This isn't a fun romp with nice people. But there was a level of humour in the film that I really was not expecting, and that lifted the film from a typical dry period drama genre, Add to that beautiful cinematography , some fine, well-rounded characters portrayed by talented and interesting actors, and it becomes a true delight. This was one of the films I added late to my list to bring myself up to the "34 films" target, and I'm really glad I saw it.

TAXI DRIVER (see the trailer here) - It's one of film's greatest movies; certainly one of the highpoints in the rich filmmaking period that was the 70s. It's arguably Scorsese's best, De Niro is compelling, and Bernard Herrmann's remarkable final score is some of his finest work. And I got to see it on the big screen, with a beautifully restored print. What could be better?

FOOTNOTE (see the trailer here) - I saw this solely because I was intrigued by the idea of a comedy about a rivalry between two Professors of Talmudic Studies. And I'm glad I saw it. The central characters were father and son, where the father's minor career is overshadowed by his son's much higher profile and success, and the tensions that come out when the father finally wins a prestigious award. And it was a very enjoyable film.
But I don't know that I'd call it a comedy. It had occasional comedic moments that are very funny (one scene, involving a meeting taking place in a room little larger than a closet, was particularly great), but mostly it tended towards the light drama area. And there's a lot of sadness in the film - the film focussed on the father, a man whose entire career has been overshadowed and stymied, first by his rivals, then by his own son, and how this built up into great resentment. There's a scene early on where the son delivers a speech, and the shot focuses solely on the father's face, barely attempting to hide his disgust and anger at his son, and his own self-loathing at never achieving the success he deserved.
All of which makes it sound terribly serious. It's not - there are some good laughs, wrapped around an good, well-made, engaging story.

SUBMARINE (see the trailer here) - The problem with describing a film as a "coming of age" film is that this immediately creates this particular impression of a film - the key notes that the film will inevitably hit - but, while Submarine doesn't exactly subvert those expectations, it does find a way of hitting those notes in a surprising manner. The end result is a film that always feels original. After all, when was the last time you saw a ninja-move-obsessed psychic self-help-guru?
So yes, the film is about a kid's first relationship, about him trying to grow up, about him struggling with the realisation that his parents struggle in their relationships. But it positively runs away from any kind of sentiment, aided in part by Craig Roberts' surprisingly natural central performance - surprising because the character is someone who almost seems alien in his obsessions and inability to understand people, someone who seems to try to grasp human interaction through books.
The film is well-made by Richard Ayoade (and yes, I am the only person in the world who has never got around to seeing The IT Crowd). It occasionally feels very Wes Anderson-esque, but without the level of twee that can often accompany that director's lesser work. It's a piece displaying supreme confidence, and I look forward to his future films.

BLUE - I just wanted to acknowledge this brilliant short film that played before Submarine. The story revolves around a children's character (think the Teletubbies) from a long-cancelled show, now working in a cheap diner. The film starts out playing the premise for laughs through its sheer absurdity, but around about the point where one of Blue's co-workers tragically dies, the tone switches radically into one of tragedy.
And as it carries on it becomes a much more human story - we see Blue hiding the loss of his friend and the loss of his dreams behind a permanent big grin that can never change. It's an extremely relatable story, and I'm surprised at how skilfully it navigated the changing tone of the piece. All in all, an impressive piece, and one that would be worth seeing even on its own.

FIRE IN BABYLON (see the trailer here) - A very enjoyable documentary about the remarkable rise of West Indies cricket in the 70s, from a team that were widely regarded as a joke to become a team that went 15 years without losing a test series. It's a great story, the players are charismatic in interviews, and the snippets of cricket we get are phenomenal.
Unfortunately, at under 90 minutes, it's a little short. I'd have loved a two hour version, with a bit more space to delve deeper into the wider cultural elements that fed into the team's rise, as well as the way the team was received at home. Still a really good film, and one I'd imagine even non-cricket fans would enjoy.

MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (see the trailer here) - I really did love this one. A young woman escapes from a small backcountry cult, moves in with her sister, who has to try and help Martha undo the brainwashing. It's a remarkable film, centred around an impressive performance by Elizabeth Olsen (sister to the Olsen twins - who knew there was actual acting talent in that family?)
I also loved the performance of John Hawkes as the cult leader - so charismatic and charming that you can understand how he manages to control and manipulate these girls. I'd barely noticed him before, but between this and his Oscar-nominated role in Winter's Bone, he's quickly becoming a favourite of mine.
What I was particularly impressed with was the way they used flashbacks. At first, it just seems like they're throwing in these scenes to tell the story of her life in the cult, but as the film carries on, it starts becoming hard at points to tell exactly which timeline we're in, allowing us to experience the same disorientation and fear that Martha is experiencing.
This is the first feature film from the writer/director, and it will be interesting to see where he goes from here. There is so much control and skill on display - the way he builds the tension so carefully that you're barely aware of it until it suddenly hits you, the tasteful approach he takes to some seriously disturbing material without it ever losing its power - that it will be interesting to see where he develops from here.

PROJECT NIM (see the trailer here) - A moving and shocking documentary about a study in the 70s to raise a chimpanzee as a human and teach him to communicate through sign language. It's a skilfully-made documentary from James Marsh, who made the Oscar-winning Man On Wire, but where that film was particularly notable for how the filmmaking was prominent, here Marsh just sits back and lets the story tell itself.
And it's a horrifying story. The entire experiment was poorly conceived from the start - the chimp is taken from its mother, and put in to live with the family of a woman the project leader had been sleeping with, a family that couldn't use sign language even though they were teaching him sign language. Even after they try to take the experiment back to a more scientific basis, it's still a mess - there's an incredible indulgence of Nim (he even smokes pot, for crying out loud), and a basic failure by all involved to understand that they were dealing with an animal, not a human being, which leads to some horrific incidents. And then the whole experiment ends, having failed to achieve anything, and Nim lives the rest of his life in an environment for which he is entirely unprepared since, you know, he's lived with humans his entire life. It's truly an appalling story. But a great documentary

SLEEPING BEAUTY (see the trailer here) - It seems like every year there's a creepy sex film in the festival, which I normally avoid. But I'd heard an interview with the director of Sleeping Beauty, and it sounded intriguing, so I saw it. It's not a film for everyone, and there were quite a few walkouts even among the self-selected people in the festival for whom a film like this might appeal. The film focuses on a young woman, completely disinterested in pretty much everything in her life, so disengaged that she decides whether or not to go home with a guy on the basis of a coin-toss, who takes on a new very-well-paid job. This involves her stripping naked, being drugged unconscious, and then being visited by men who can do pretty much anything they like to her body (within certain limits). It doesn't go well; or perhaps it does.
As is perhaps inevitable in a film with such a distanced character, the film itself seems remote and disconnected from the events that it portrays, and so there is a lack of emotional connection or passion in the film. I don't know, but I suspect it may be that disconnection that may have lead to the lack of interest by some in the audience. But the film hits a tone  that I found utterly compelling.
In the central role, Emily Browing is truly remarkable. I remember being impressed with her as a teenager in the Lemony Snicket film, but after that I hadn't seen her until her lead role in Sucker Punch earlier in the year (where she was good in a deeply-problematic film). And then here she demonstrates that she has become the actress I had expected - it's the type of role where everything is pushed down, pushed away, but we need to see her emotions even as she suppresses them, in order for the finale to work at all. There are moments in this film where I would just watch her, wondering how it was possible to give the performance she was giving, but she did it, and it was great to watch.
It's certainly a flawed film - it's obviously the work of a first-time director, it's very heavy-handed at times, there are some late plot developments that don't pay-off at all (particularly involving a video camera), and even only watching three clients throughout the film, by the third time you can sense the director having difficulty thinking what someone might pay to do to a unconscious woman. But I really did love its tone. The film almost certainly won't work for most, but it worked for me.

BEING ELMO: A PUPPETEER'S JOURNEY (see the trailer here) - I am still not a fan of Elmo, who I do feel panders to the young audience of Sesame Street in a way that the other characters do not. But Kevin Clash, the man behind Elmo, comes across as such a nice likeable guy that it becomes hard to dislike the character he plays. It's an easy, enjoyable documentary that charts how Kevin grew from being a young child obsessed with Jim Henson's work to working with his idol and creating one of the most loved Muppets.
I particularly enjoyed the small little insights into the techniques in bringing the Muppets to live - there's a great sequence where he's teaching the cast of the French Sesame Street various tricks (always keep the character's mouth slightly open to create a smile; always move your character, even when they're not speaking, so they seem alive; if the character is scratching their head, incline the head towards the hand, to avoid revealing the rods used to control the hand). It really does show how much there is that goes into creating these characters.
The documentary is very light, with only a token acknowledgment of the toll that playing Elmo has had on his own family life. It's an area I'd have liked the film to look at a little more, although I can understand them not. Mostly this is just a heartwarming story of a guy who had a passion and a talent, who had supportive parents willing to do what they could to enable this talent, who took every opportunity to meet the people who could mentor him and help his development, and who achieved his dreams. It's probably the most unabashedly joyful films in the festival, and well worth seeking out.

METROPOLIS (see the trailer here) - A classic, landmark science fiction film, a film that was butchered shortly after its release, and one that (after a recent surprising discovery) we can finally see in its original form. I first saw Metropolis about 8 or 9 years ago, when they showed it at the festival in a new restoration, with the belief that we would never see the lost 30 minutes of footage.
But a complete print was discovered a couple of years ago, and while the badly-scratched impossible-to-restore new footage stands out against the beautiful previously-existing material, it's still wonderful to see the film as it was intended to be seen. And it's essential to see it on the big screen -- there is so much huge spectacle in the film that it deserved to be seen on the biggest screen possible. It's just a shame it didn't screen last year, since in the meantime I've bought and watched the Blu-Ray, and I really wish this could have been my first screening of the full film. Still, glad I saw it on the big screen.

LE QUATTRO VOLTE (see the trailer here) - This is the type of film that people think of when they talk about "pretentious art films", only done really well. In four distinct stages, the film follows an elderly goat herder with a cough, a newborn goat that gets lost, a tree that is cut down and then raised up in the centre of the village, and a pile of charcoal. It's not a type of film I normally expect to like, but it's so well-made that it's actually rather entertaining.
One of the most astonishing things about the film is how impossible the film at times seems. There is this one scene that builds carefully involving a truck, a group of people recreating the Easter story, a hill, a herd of goats, a fence, a rock, and a dog who creates absolute mayhem with these elements. The entire farcical scene plays out in one single take, observing the events from a distance. And the scene seems impossible - I cannot conceive of how they would begin to try and execute it. But execute it they did, and the effect is brilliant - there is a moment where it suddenly becomes clear what is about to happen, and the entire audience burst into surprised laughter. And while that is the most notable scene, just for the variety of elements that go into building the sequence, there are a number of scenes that have the viewer wondering how they did that.
But mostly the film is just a reflection on life, particularly around this small Italian village. It is very slow, contemplative, and nothing could really be said to happen in the film. But there is definitely a skilled artist constructing the work. And it is funny - I have seen actual comedies that failed to raise a smile from me, but this film had me laughing out loud at a number of points. If you're not put off by the surface-level art film, it's a genuinely enjoyable film.

THE YELLOW SEA (see the trailer here) - I saw this film solely on the basis of the director, whose previous action film The Chaser was a particular highlight a couple of years ago. And for the first 40 or so minutes, I was disappointed. The film seemed more interested in discussing the trials of Chinese-Koreans living in a no-man's-land. But that opening section was just setup that allowed the rest of the film to be an absolutely breathless action film.
The film revolved around a man forced to sneak into Korea to murder a particular man. But that murder unfolds in a completely different way than expected, and from that point, the hero finds himself on the run from the police and two different criminal organisations. The chase scene that follows the murder is remarkable (there was even a smattering of applause when it finally ended), and there are a number of other perfectly executed action scenes throughout the rest of the film.
What really surprised me was just how brutal the action was. You could count on one hand the number of gunshots in the film. Every piece of violence in the film is in close-quarters and personal. Knifes, axes, wrenches, pipes, even a large bone, are used as weapons, and people do not go down easily. The film seems determined to point out to us that killing people is not easy or pretty. There's even a plot point that revolves around the removal of a thumb, and we see our lead character imagine how the removal will work (one chop and off, like in most films), and then later how it actually happens (which is positively cringe-inducing).
If you can find it, and if you've got the stomach for some brutal violence, the film is well worth seeking out.

NOTHING TO DECLARE (see the trailer here) - An amusing French comedy, that points out the absurdity and irrationality of racism by focusing on a white, French-speaking Belgian customs officer dedicated to protecting his country from the scourge of the white, French-speaking French. It's not subtle in saying what it's trying to say, but it's a comedy, and it made me laugh frequently, so that's all you can ask.

SENNA (see the trailer here) - I am in no way a fan of Formula 1. I can think of few things more dull than watching cars drive around and around for hours on end. So it really does say something when the documentary on the life of Ayrton Senna, one of the greats in F1 racing, has easily been one of the highlights of the festival.
What makes the film particularly effective is the way it's told. It's entirely made up of archival footage, and the use of voiceover commentary is limited to only those matters not covered by footage. This gives the film an immediacy that very few documentaries manage to achieve. This does not feel like some reflective view of history, this is a piece of gripping film-storytelling. And it draws you in - there are moments where I wanted to cheer (and some in the audience actually did) when Senna executed a skilled manoeuver, there were times where I became genuinely angry at just how much racing politics came into play to affect the results. And at the centre of it is this apparently nice, charismatic guy, with a strong faith, and a love for and pride in his country. This is someone that as an audience you cannot help but like. And the story of his rise is remarkable, his duels with Alain Prost are suspenseful, and every set-back becomes a challenge we can enjoy watching him overcome.
And then you reach the point where the film slows to a crawl, and focuses on this one race, and you realise this is the race, this is the day that Senna dies. That's the other thing about the way the film is made - it's so immediate that most of the time I forgot where this story would end. And when I realised he would die at any moment, I could barely stand to watch. I've seen that crash dozens of times over the years, but now I did not want to see it. The filmmakers handle it tastefully and with respect, but regardless, it was one of the most moving and upsetting movie sequences I've seen in the last few years.
Senna is one of those documentaries that overcomes its subject matter and becomes interesting regardless of the audience's interest in the subject. It's an impressive achievement in filmmaking.

ANOTHER EARTH (see the trailer here) - A recognisably low-budget film that takes a very basic story and overlays it with a slight science fiction tinge. The film focuses on a drunk teen who crashes into a car while distracted, and the driver of that car who loses his wife and son. It's a film of brutal emotions, while literally overhanging the entire story is the appearance in the sky of Earth 2, a planet identical to Earth in every way - landmasses, cities, even the same people.
It's a low budget film from a first-time feature director, and it does feel it. It's very unpolished, and there are parts that simply do not hold together. And while the film does a reasonable job in explaining why the guy has no idea that this girl is the person who killed his family, you can still feel the hands of the writers manipulating the circumstances to create that situation. But still, the film is good at getting to grips with the raw emotions of the two key players, exploring the way guilt and grief can burden a person, even years after events take place.
Walking out of the film, I was surprised to hear some people discussing how they were really wanting to see what was happening on the other Earth. That seemed like a weird comment. In many ways we do see what's going on up there, since it's presumably much the same as what's happening on the Earth we're watching. (As one person comments in the film, "do you really think they call their planet Earth 2?") But in other ways it doesn't matter what's going on up there, since the other Earth is really irrelevant except as an idea, a hope, a place that can be held onto where this event may not have happened.
In a lot of ways, it reminded me of last year's Rabbit Hole, which was also about the pain of grief, and a friendship that develops between a grieving person and the person responsible for that death. That film even touched on the idea an alternate realities where events may have turned out differently, albeit in a less literal form. Another Earth is not as good as Rabbit Hole (which is really great), but it is an interesting and challenging film that has a lot to say.

THE FORGIVENESS OF BLOOD (see the trailer here) - It sounded like an interesting premise (kid's father is involved in killing his neighbour, neighbour's family now has the right under 500-year old rules of blood feud to kill the kid if he steps outside his house). The collision of a modern world with these seemingly out-of-place rules could be fascinating. And it wasn't a bad film, but it unfortunately just didn't engage me.
Part of the problem, I think, is that there was never any sense of claustrophobia. There's really only one scene (where the kid starts carving into the wall with a knife) that we really get any sense of how much he must be struggling with this situation. Generally he's annoyed because he misses his friends, and the girl he likes, but otherwise we don't really feel how hard all this really is for him. He certainly manages to sneak out of his house at night, to go wandering around without any apparently fear of harm coming to him.
I was actually more interested in the subplot of the sister in the family, who has to leave school to take over the family business, selling hand-made bread to the village from a horse-drawn cart, competing against people fron neighbouring villages trying to muscle in, terrorised by the family of the dead man, finding new opportunities for money-making, and trying to learn how to run a business.
Overall, it was interesting to learn that these types of blood feuds are still taking place in today's world, but the film just didn't hold me. And that was disappointing.

ELITE SQUAD: THE ENEMY WITHIN (see the trailer here) - I've never seen the original Elite Squad film, but having now watched the sequel, I'd be really interested in seeking it out. ES2 is a well-constructed action thriller with a very strong commentary on corruption in Brazil. It's a film that is filled with rage at the problems director Padilha sees around him, but the unambiguous commentary at no point gets in the way of making an entertaining film.
The opening twenty minutes is a bit frustrating - there's a big sequence around a prison riot that was thrilling, but that (other than introducing the two central characters) seemed disconnected from the rest of the film. (To be honest, it felt like the sequence existed solely to move the lead character from where he presumably was at the end of the first film to where he needed to be for this film to take place.)
But once everything was in place, it was a really good film. It has this big grand story that operates a multiple levels, looking at the abuses that occur through use of the military as a police force, at the corruption that infects the police and the varyng political levels, and at how efforts to clean up the streets in Brazil have actually made compounded those problems. It's an impressive and enjoyable film, and I'm excited about going back to the first film.

A SEPARATION (see the trailer here) - This was one of my marginal calls, a film I nearly never saw. I am so glad I did see it, though, because it's one of my favourites from the festival, and probably of the year. A great Iranian film about a Westernised couple who separate over her desire to leave the country, requiring the husband to hire a devoutly religious woman as caregiver to his Alzheimer's-afflicted father, and what happens when the husband is accused of murder after possibly causing the caregiver to have a miscarriage.
There was just so much in this film. The festival write-up compared the film to Hitchcock, and the comparison is understandable - the film is much smaller than that, mostly centred around just four people, but the tension that builds in the conflict between the characters is so incredibly strong, and there's a level of suspense that builds through the film as we try to imagine how this could possibly resolve itself, and the resolution is so perfect.
But there's so much more that this film has to say. It's primarily about the destructiveness of lies - there's this one key harmless lie that is told right at the very start of the film, and this entire nightmarish story builds inevitably from there, until everyone finds themselves firmly stuck in this irresolvable conflict with everyone lying to to defend their positions. But it's also about the clash of a secular worldview against a religious, about the privileged upper-class vs lower-class, about pride and anger, and about the place of women in Iranian society. And it talks about all these issues inside an intelligent, subtle, thrilling piece of cinema. One of the highlights of the past few weeks.

GOODBYE (see the trailer here) - The astonishing thing about this Iranian film is how it was made: the director Mohammad Rasoulof was arrested (along with Jafar Panahi) for a film they were planning to make; he's now facing six years in jail. But he had this small gap in time where he was free, and he used that time to secretly make this film, which explicitly addresses the Iranian government's treatment of its citizens. The film was then smuggled out of Iran, premiering as a surprise entrant at Cannes.
The film revolves around a young disbarred female lawyer, with an activist journalist husband in hiding and an unborn child with possible health problems, looking to find a way to sneak out of Iran. Meanwhile the government's control of the population is firmly evident, from the scene where she's terrorised, interrogated, and has her home searched by plain-clothes policemen, to the scene where her satellite dish is confiscated because satellite TV has been made illegal. There's this entire theme constantly running through the film about the trials of being a woman in Iran - there is seemingly nothing they can do without their husband's permission, from checking into a hotel to undergoing medical tests on her unborn child. It is a film of complete oppression, tragic and angry, in no way a fun film, but it would still be a remarkable piece of cinema even before you consider the circumstances around its making.
Talking to a friend about the other Iranian film I'd seen at the festival, A Separation, my friend said he'd heard that film compared to Michael Haneke's Cache (aka Hidden). I didn't see that comparison all, but having now seen Goodbye, I wonder if this is the film he was thinking about, because there's a very real similarity in filming styles. Ase in Cache, there are entire scenes that play out with a firmly stationary camera, never panning, never cutting, relying on the viewer to decide where to focus. At the same time, Cache would have scenes play out in entire long shots from up the street or across a courtyard, while Goodbye would at most offer show an entire room. At other times, the director would go into closeup on a random item, on a pet turtle in a bowl, on a half-packed suitcase, while events play out offscreen, with only the audio to inform the viewer what is going on. The result is frustrating but utterly gripping to watch. AN intriguing and upsetting film, given extra weight by the shocking backstory of its making.

THE GUARD (see the trailer here) - Comparisons of this film to In Bruges were inevitable; both star the wonderful Brendan Gleeson, and The Guard is written and directed by the brother of the man behind In Bruges. But I'm not sure that comparison does The Guard any favours, because while it's a lot of fun, one of the most fun films I've seen this year, it does fall short when compared to that remarkable earlier film.
Comedy-wise, it's probably close to being on-par with Bruges, with some truly hilarious sequences. In the titular role we have Gleeson, a police officer who is in no way good police (in the first scene he searches a car crash victim for drugs, and on finding them he tries a sample; later on, he takes a day off a major investigation because he's booked a couple of hookers), but someone who is somehow still utterly lovable. This is the point where casting is key - with the wrong actor, we would hate this guy, but with Gleeson his general offensiveness ("No offense, but I thought all black people were drug dealers") comes across as genuinely innocent and good-natured. Throughout the film, he develops a buddy-cop relationship with the great Don Cheadle, as an FBI agent hunting for half a billion dollars of drugs, and the conflicting relationship between the two may not be original, but is a lot of fun. So the comedy is very solid.
The problem with the film is that the action didn't really work. The film climaxes with a big action scene - there's a shootout, exploding boat, everything. But I felt strangely uninvolved. Compare that to the remarkable climax in Bruges, which wasn't just fun but was thrilling and exciting and felt genuinely dangerous, and the ldegree to which The Guard fell short in that key area is obvious.
Still, it's very funny, and a film that is well worth seeking out.

SHUT UP LITTLE MAN! AN AUDIO MISADVENTURE (see the trailer here) - Back in the 80s these two roommates tape-recorded the loud, extreme verbally-abusive arguments of the two elderly alcoholic guys that lived in the apartment next door. The tapes ended up being shared around, and became quite a viral event - there were comic books, music remixes, stageplays, even a narrative movie based on these tapes. So this film was an interesting documentary about the making of these tapes and how they became such a big thing.
Firstly, I'll just say: there is something uncomfortable about these tapes. I personally do not find them funny, although most of the people in the film and many in the audience did. To me, it seems like just a torrent of the foulest abuse you can imagine. I do not see the wit and genius people talk about. (In fact, after a while I started feeling ill whenever we'd go back to the recordings.) That said, it is a remarkable story, especially when you remember this all happened long before the internet and YouTube made viral videos so prominent. These days, the Christian Bale rant (which is referenced in the film) can erupt so quickly that two weeks later it's old news. But the development of the phenomenon of these tapes was much more natural, slowly adding new fans as new people discover the recordings or one of the many derivative works. This allowed it to be sustained as a thing over many years.
The film touches on some of the wider issues around these recordings: the legality of making and sharing the tapes, and the moral issues about exploiting the lives of these two. (To be honest, when I heard that you could buy copies of the death certificates of the two neighbours from the official website for these recordings, that to me seemed like it was one step way way too far.) Unfortunately, I don't know that it really explored those issues are really explored in depth - they're acknowledged, then the film moves on. Still, an enjoyable film, and I did like it.

POINT BLANK (see the trailer here) - I don't know that I have a lot to say about this one. A guy's pregnant wife is held captive while the guy is forced to break an injured gunman out of the hospital. Set-up done, the rest of the film is basically one sustained action/chase film, albeit a very well-made one. There is no depth to it, it has nothing to say, it's just a perfectly constructed and executed thrill ride. A lot of fun.

PINA (3D) (see the trailer here) - A tribute to contemporary dance choreographer Pina Bausch. It centres around performances of four pieces choreographed by Pina, interspersed with brief comments by members of her troupe, who also perform pieces out in the real world. Key to the film is the 3D - because the pieces focus on the dancers' relationship to the space that they are in, the 3D is essential to communicate that space.
The main disappointment is the way each of the key pieces are interrupted by the interviews and shorter pieces. It means we get a few minutes here, a few minutes there, but we don't really get a sense of how each of those pieces really flow. Which is a shame, because they seem like really great pieces - at times emotional, sad, even laugh-out-loud funny. I would love to have been able to enjoy them uninterrupted.
Still, that's a minor quibble. It really was an enjoyable film, and if you're at all interested in contemporary dance, it's an essential film.

DRIVE (see the spoiler-filled trailer here) - And that's it; my final film of the festival. A piece of pure enjoyment cinema - Ryan Gosling plays a cool, calm getaway-driver-for-hire who falls for his neighbour, and then agrees to help her husband rip off a pawn shop to keep her safe. Not deep, not meaningful, just a reminder of how much fun well-made cinema can be.
The highlights of the film are easily the driving scenes, of which there are several. I am confident that over time they will come to be spoken of in the same way as the driving scenes in Bullit or The French Connection - yes, they are that good. What makes the scenes work particularly well is that they are so expertly filmed. This is not a film where the action is constructed piece by piece in the editing lab, with never any sense the two cars are even on the same. This is a film where you can see that these are real cars driving down real roads, crashing into each other for real. It's quite exhilarating.
And the rest of the film is very good. The director, Nicolas Winding Refn, is someone I've been meaning to get into for a while, and the quality of filmmaking on display here is such that now I really need to dig into his back-catalogue. And the acting is excellent - Ryan Gosling as the central driver is very calm, emotionless, almost a blank slate. He's coldly professional in his dealings, and Gosling does a good job in communicating his efforts to remain distant with his love interest. Which is naturally difficult, because Carey Mulligan remains as appealing as ever. And in three key supporting roles, we have some of the best actors from some of the best TV shows being made right now - Bryan Cranston from Breaking Bad, Ron Perlman from Sons of Anarchy, and Christina Hendricks from Mad Men, all giving interesting performances. Plus Albert Brooks, who's always fun to watch.
Drive doesn't reinvent cinema, it's all stuff we've seen before, there is nothing surprising about this film except for how well it is made. And that's all I really want.

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