29 June, 2013

Shadow Redux

So here's the thing,

As happened last year, it's taken me almost a year to post my thoughts on last year's film festival. I originally posted these comments on Facebook to record my immediate response to each film, and the effort in putting all of this into words is apparently nothing compared to the toil involved in motivating myself to paste these comments into my blog and formatting them. But the upcoming sale of tickets for the 2013 festival has finally prompted me to put in the effort. And so...

[Thoughts on my 2012 film festival after the break].

The Hunt
A compelling drama about a kindergarten teacher who is falsely accused of molesting one of his students, the daughter of his best friend. The film is convincing in showing how accusations of this type can be built up from nothing, how well-meaning people genuinely wanting to do the right thing can instead inflict  great harm, and how these types of events can easily destroy a community. Mads Mikkelsen (probably best known as the villain in Casino Royale) is great as a good man whose world is ripped out from under him, struggling to retain his self-pride even while completely bewildered by the events that have consumed him. One thing I found fascinating was this nice sweet relationship that he had with the kids, especially his 4-year-old accuser, and there was this oddly moving way that the film played this loss of that connection as the thing that weighed most on him. I wasn't entirely convinced by the easy ending - the film jumped forward in time in a way that conveniently left much of the resolution off-screen - but the final moment of the film did a good job in bringing more nuance into the ending. A good start to the festival.

Beasts of the Southern Wild
When introducing the official opening night film, festival organiser Bill Gosden said "Finally I can stop trying to describe this film. Now that's your problem to deal with." And having now seen the film, I can understand why none of the reviews I've read have really tried to describe the film. It's not that the film is incoherent; it's not a David Lynch-style impression-driven piece. This is a film that has clear well-defined characters, a distinct setting, and a coherent story - I always knew exactly what was happening, why, and how it connected to everything before. But there's something about this wondeful film that you just cannot capture in words. It just needs to be experienced.
The film revolves around a young girl, named Hushpuppy, living with her unwell, often-drunk, violently-angry, but loving father in a ramshackle community located below the levees in New Orleans. At one point early in the film, a Katrina-esque storm comes, some in the community are washed away, the rest stay, celebrating and partying as they wait for the waters to fall, avoiding the authorities trying to make them move; all the while elsewhere giant defrosted prehistoric beasts make their way across half the globe towards the community.
You see, that's part of the difficulty of this film. This is not a film that necessarily takes place in any place of reality (if it did, the giant defrosted prehistoric beasts probably wouldn't be in it), but nor does it seem to take place in some magical reality world. It just is this thing, that is wonderful and brilliant and moving and horrifying and enchanting. The film is beautiful - even when the images presented are horrifying and ugly, there's a curious beauty to them. And it's a film that is emotionally honest - most other films would push the relationship between father-and-daughter into one of one-dimensional abuse , and that would be easy to do. But this isn't that - this is a father who doesn't know how to be a father, who doesn't know where to begin, who is facing his own situations and can't be bothered by those of his daughter, yet as scary as his violent rages often are, there is a genuine love and affection evident between the two.
The film is carried by the performance of 9-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis, who is absolutely phenome
nal as this resourceful child, not really understanding this world that she lives in, but able to navigate it. This is a character who at times finds herself in terrible danger, but for whom there is never any sense of peril because, whatever situation she finds herself in, she is resourceful in control of herself, and if she ever dies, it's because she chose to die. This is someone who cooks food (or rather, "food") wearing a football helmet because the way she cooks she just needs a football helmet. There's really only one moment where she truly becomes a child - late in the film where she finds herself in a kind-of possible-afterworld pleasure-boat-brothel, dancing with a woman who may be of particular significance. And that's a moving moment, because for a moment it's like Hushpuppy is someone entirely different.
The film has been getting wild praise ever since premiering at Sundance, and it's patently clear why. This is an incredible film.

The Cabin in the Woods
I went into this film deliberately trying to know as little as possible about what I would see as possible. I knew it was written by the great Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, directed by Goddard, I knew it was a horror film with a standard setup (a bunch of young stereotyped kids go to a cabin in the woods), and I knew that it was in many ways a deconstruction of the horror genre. That's all I knew, and I'm glad about it, because it meant this film could surprise me, right from the start. This is a brilliant film, and one that I suspect would hold a lot of appeal, even to people without any interest in the genre (I mean, I'm not a horror fan by any means, and I loved it), because it is so smart in what it does.
It was wonderful to watch it in a packed audience, because that crowd response - the genuine laughs or shocked reactions from all around you - really helps the film work as an experience. It really is a shame the film is going direct-to-DVD here, because this film deserves to be seen in a cinematic environment. It's a good film so it will work perfectly well on TV, but it deserves more.
(Hopefully vague spoilers follow...)
The thing that surprised me about the film is that, in many ways, it's two stories. There's the kids-in-the-woods story, which is well-made but (deliberately) cliched, and there's a second storyline, intricately connected to but separate from that main storyline. And that second storyline constantly undercuts the main storyline, arriving usually right at the moment of greatest tension with some nice piece of humour, yet never diminishing the emotional impact of the main story. If anything, the second storyline amplifies it - often in horror films the characters can just become pieces of meat to be killed off, but here that second storyline reminds us that (in this world) these are actually real people being killed, increasing the audience's emotional connection to the characters and thus the impact of their victimisation. It's like a magic trick; it seems impossible that you could have these two disparate elements interacting and not harm one or the other, and I genuinely don't know how they did it.
And it's in that second storyline that the film's magic works. The nature of that second storyline offers an opportunity for some nice commentary on the horror genre, the reasons why characters in these films always make the most idiotic decisions possible, and the need to constantly meet the audience's demands for new and different things. (There's some nice recurring jokes about Japanese horror, that reminds us how, just a few years ago, J-horror was the new big thing we'd never seen; a few years later, we're fundamentally unfazed by it.) And that commentary, which is smart and funny and understanding of the audience that is is speaking about and speaking to, is wonderful.  Joss Whedon in particular has made his career in part on exploring and deconstructing genre tropes, but where that's usually just one element in his longer-form TV shows, the time constraints allow Whedon and Goddard to focus primarily on and truly explore that deconstruction, causing the film to become something I truly believe has never been done before.
The film culminates in a third act development that is absolutely insane, in a perfectly good way. I hesitate to say anything for fear of spoiling it, but it is probably the funniest thing I've seen in a year or two, and the perfect cap to a remarkable piece of entertainment.

Moonrise Kingdom
"Does it concern you that your daughter has just run away from home?"...
... "That's a loaded question."
Wes Anderson is one of those directors where you either completely connect with his distinctive sensibility and love spending time in his world, or you find his work overly art-directed and twee. I've been in the first camp ever since Rushmore became my favourite film of 1999. But I could see why people criticise his work, and a few films into his career, I too was starting to feel that Anderson was just caught in a rut. He is someone who runs the risk of being a style-over-substance filmmaker. And while Wes Anderson's style really is wonderful (more than any other filmmaker, the way he composes his picture is unmistakable), I found I wanted more. Moonrise Kingdom felt like a remarkable return to form, and is easily my favourite Anderson film since The Royal Tenenbaums.
The thing is, Anderson is a comedy director. And while his films are always very funny, there's always a sense of melancholy that afflicts them. But while this film definitely has the potential to move into that area, it never does. That's probably due in part to the core plot of the film - two young 12-year-old kids fall in love, and decide to run away together - is filled with a youthful optimism that overrides any of the risk that this might turn into something else. The rest of Anderson's films tend to have a strong element of a life or lives unfulfilled, but there's none of that here. Instead, there's a joy and a fun, a sense of endless possibility that is entirely appropriate for this film. And that allows the comedy to shine - it may just be the experience of watching with a sold-out audience, but I don't think I've ever laughed as much at a Wes Anderson film as I did with this. This is a funny, funny film.
What also really helps the film is the casting. While I like when directors have a core troupe of actors that work repeatedly with that filmmaker, there is a risk that the film's characters all end up being written with X actor in mind, rather than becoming their own individual characters - and because that limits the type of characters you have, it limits the type of stories you can tell. So, while Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman does have roles in the film, most of the characters are portrayed by new actors - not just the kids, who are pretty much all first-time actors, but also the main adult actors. And they acquit themselves really well - Edward Norton in particular is a lot of fun as the bewildered scoutmaster/maths teacher who keeps losing his troops, while Tilda Swinton only has a small role but fits into this world so perfectly it seems surprising she's never made an Anderson film before. With the recently-announced casting of Johnny Depp in The Great Budapest Hotel, I'm really curious to see where Anderson is going to go next.

The first screening of day 3 proved unsuccessful, after technical issues prevented the cinema from being able to show the subtitles for the French-language film The Minister. After a break, they thought they had fixed it, but on restarting the film again, it was clear that it wasn't fixed. So, those of us that don't speak French had to leave, and line up to give our details to get a refund. Still, it wasn't a complete waste of time - we got to watch the opening scene twice, which, given  how weird it was (a dream sequence in which men dressed in Amadeus-style masked costumes escorted a naked woman into a room, whereupon she crawled into the mouth of a living crocodile), I was glad to watch it twice, just to be certain that that actually was what happened.
The good thing is, apparently I dodged a bullet with this one. A colleague of mine saw the complete film with subtitles and felt it didn't hold together, while at a different film I overheard someone talking about how The Minister was one of the films that he hated at the festival. So perhaps I was lucky not to waste too much time on the film.

West of Memphis
The Peter Jackson-produced documentary about the West Memphis Three, the three teenagers who spent 18 years in jail after being wrongly convicted of murdering three young boys. This is one of those documentaries where it's difficult to really talk too much about the filmmaking itself, which is often invisible and subordinate to the story being told. And while the story being told is one that has been told before in multiple documentaries, this film feels like it makes a worthy contribution to the general understanding of the case.
The film touches on, but doesn't really discuss in too much detail, how these three came to be the main suspects - presumably the feeling was that this material is well explored elsewhere. Instead, the film focuses on the reasons why it is clear that the WM3 are not guilty of this crime, the development of the campaign to release the three, the evidence that points to another suspect, and eventually the circumstances that led to the release of the three. It also looks at the American legal system and how that works against achieving any form of justice in this case. (It's significant that most of the key legal positions in the US are elected - no-one accountable to a voting public will ever agree to the release of three convicted "child killers", especially if any acknowledgement of a wrongful conviction would result in legal claims costing tens of millions of dollars.)
I do have some misgivings about the way the film points the finger at a definite suspect - while the film makes a compelling case for this person's guilt (with at least some physical evidence linking this person to having tied the knots that bound these children), it should be remembered that there initially seemed to be compelling evidence that the West Memphis Three did it, and in another film about the case, a convincing argument was made against the parent of one of the victims (a position that that film's makers have now retracted). It's easy to point to someone and say "He did it;" although the evidence very strongly suggests that this person did in fact do it, I can't help thinking "if he didn't do it, the fact that he has been accused of such a appalling crime could have a life-long impact on him."
But that said, while it's clear who the filmmakers think did it, the film is never conclusive, or ever seems like its point is to accuse another of the crime. Instead, the film does a good job in reorienting the perception of the case towards the victims. Over the last 18 year, there has been a strong and justfied focus on releasing the WM3. Now they're free - they still carry the burden of being convicted murderers, but at least they're not behind bars. But because, in the eyes of the law these three are still the killers, there's no real impetus to try and find the real killer. And as long as the killer is free, there is no justice for the victims. And that's the point the film is making. The release of these three is not the end of the case. The last moment in the film credits makes that point clearly - we see the "Justice for the West Memphis Three" billboard we've see throughout the film, and then it changes to show us, not the mugshots of three teenagers, but the pictures of three young children. Because that's who the story is ultimately about.

Room 237
This was the film I most wanted to have screen at the festival. A documentary about five people, each obsessed with the Stanley Kubrick film The Shining, discussing what they see in the film. There are the very common theories (the movie is about the massacre of the Native Americans, which is a commonly accepted idea, and there are certainly deliberate elements that Kubrick put into the film that echo that idea). There are the theories that have to stretch a bit (the film is about the Holocaust - see the German typewriter or the recurrence of the number 42). Then there's the stuff that is completely out there (the film is Kubrick's confession to faking the moon landing; the film makes extensive use of subliminal images; even that overlaying the film playing forward and backward at the same time brings out meaning in the film). Plus there's some in-depth discussion about the impossibility of the architecture of the Overlook Hotel, which is an idea that really does excite me ever since I encountered it earlier this year. (See these two videos - #1 and #2.)
What is impressive about the film is also the thing that will probably make the film almost impossible to see. We never see the interview subjects; there is not a single talking head shot in the entire film. Instead, the film is entirely constructed by using existing film footage to illustrate the point being made. Obviously there's a lot of footage from The Shining, but there's a lot of footage taken from almost every Kubrick film - Eyes Wide Shut is used a lot, so for instance when one interviewee talks about how he couldn't stop thinking about the film, we see Tom Cruise walking down the street angrily clapping his hands together in frustration. But there are a lot of other films used here as well. Discussion about the faked-moon landing theory is accompanied by footage from the faked-Mars-landing film Capricorn 1, discussion about the Holocaust is predictably accompanied by Schindler's List, and talk about the massacre of Native Americans is accompanied by footage from many westerns. We even get to see clips of the famously-censored Jewish peddler disguise from Disney's Three Little Pigs short. The film has a very complicated and carefully constructed design to its visuals, and it's impressive how well it comes together.
It's also a testimony to the quality of the filmmaking how easy it is to follow. The film never stays with one theory for any length of time, instead jumping between the theories, perhaps revealing how different theories interpret the same element. So it's all jumbled up. And remember, this is a film where we never see the interviewees, so we can never associate that face with that theory. All we have to go on is the interviewee's voice and how they express their point of view. That the film is clear and coherent, and never confuses the audience despite these challenges, speaks to how well made it is.
But what is also impressive is that, despite how absurd some of these theories are, the filmmaker never judges those with the theories. The film just presents these theories and leaves us to think about them. Now, there are points when what is being claimed is so absurd that the audience naturally found itself laughing (one proof the for the moon landing theory is that the word "MOON" can be made by the letters on the key tag for "ROOM No 237", while at another point it is suggested that Kubrick deliberately arranged for the in-tray on Barry Nelson's desk to seem to be a subliminal hard-on when he meets Jack); but that is the audience's natural response to the claims, not the film judging those talking.
The film is not perfect. The music is often a bit too overpowering, to the point where it was too loud to quite hear what is being said. (Because we don't get on-screen interviews, we don't have the lip movements of the interviewees to help us follow what is said, so a good audio mix is essential, and I don't know that the film has it.)
But overall it's a very good film, and one I would recommend. Unfortunately it will be hard to see - given that the film is entirely made up of copyrighted clips, it will be hard, probably impossible, to give this film any type of general cinema release or DVD availability. But if you ever do have a chance to see it, I strongly recommend the film.

The Imposter
A fascinating documentary about a story that would seem impossible to believe if it weren't demonstrably true.  The film revolves around a 23-year-old French con-artist who claims to be a child that went missing at the age of 13 just three years earlier. This con-artist is incredibly accepted to be the missing child, despite the fact that he has a French accent, bears no resemblance to the child, is clearly older, and has different hair and eye colours to the boy. And even after his true identity is proven, the family seem determined to be blind to the truth and continue to regard him as the lost child.
There's a lot of impressive work being done in this film. The use of re-enactments is often frowned upon in documentaries, but it works well in this film because they're not presented as "the true events", but as a representation of the story as it is being told, mostly by the con-artist who by definition cannot be relied upon. The re-enactments bring  a great deal of cinematic style to the film  And the film adopts an interesting approach, deliberately blurring the lines between the interviews and re-enactments, with audio from the one bleeding into the other and vice versa.
Meanwhile as the film proceeds, this central mystery - why did this family accept someone so clearly not their son as being their son - becomes the emotional core of the film. This is, after all, a family that lost a 13-year-old child; for three years they had no idea what happened to him. And then, suddenly, someone turns up claiming to be that child. There is an understandable desperation that comes out in that situation, a desire for the child to be alive, even leads them to cling to this person as offering that hope that he be alive. Which in turn reminds us that while this is a fairly incredible story, it does revolve around the agony of a child that just vanished, never to reappear. This kid, who would have been in his mid-30s by now, was presumably murdered, but the family doesn't even have the finality of knowing for certain that he's dead. This could be a goofy story, but it's never allowed to become so.
There is one misstep, and unfortunately it relates to the way the film ends. Once caught, the con-artist makes an allegation that someone in the family murdered the child, and that others in the family knew (or at least suspected) this. The suggestion is made that the family's willingness to accept the imposter is a consequence of this. Now, this is obviously a major development in the story that should be addressed, but the film seems to buy into that suspicion a little too much, even to the point of ending with someone digging in a likely location hoping to uncover the body. The way it's presented, I really was expecting a development where the body is found and the killer identified. Instead, the film just ends, at a "is that it?" moment. It didn't really work.
Still a good film, though.

So there's this guy, Bernie, an assistant funeral director living in small-town America. And he's the most popular guy in town - always helping people out, working with the town musicals, leading the church worship, even visiting the newly-widowed to see how they're doing. And then he befriends the most unpleasant and hated elderly woman in town. They become close friends, he becomes her most trusted and relied-upon companion. But she's also incredibly demanding, until one day Bernie just shoots her dead.  And then he tries to cover it up. No one really notices anything, and even if anyone did register that she wasn't around, no-one would really care. And when her dead body is found in the freezer, people either don't believe Bernie killed her, or else adopt a position where "she deserved it, Bernie's a nice guy, he should go free." And the astonishing thing is, this is all true.
Jack Black is just remarkable here. He's an actor who can often be overbearing and annoying, but this is a role that coincides so closely with his particular talents - his charisma, his bold outgoing personality, his singing voice - while at the same time pushing him to use these in a completely different direction. As a result his Bernie is an appealing, fun, likeable character for the film to revolve around.
Which in itself is an issue. Remember this is a true story, which means a real woman was murdered, and this is a film that, even if it's not the filmmaker's intention, does to some degree seem to redeem the reputation of a convicted murderer.  So when we see the murder committed, we see it from the story that Bernie told, where he just snaps, decides he can't bear to be around her any more, grabs a gun, bang, before he even has a chance to think about it. Now that's understandable - Bernie was the only person to witness the murder, and the prosecution's alternate explanation of the crime (that she discovered Bernie was misusing her money, and he killed her to prevent his embezzlement from coming out) was only ever speculation. But it's still an issue when you make a movie about how nice this murderer was and how understandable the crime was, you diminish what was a serious crime.
But part of that unease with that element is possibly lifted slightly by the film's format. Interspersed throughout the film are interviews with the townspeople - some more significant characters are played by actors, but some are apparently the real residents of the town. So when they talk about how wonderful Bernie was and how much they liked him, it makes the film's point of view easier to tolerate. This isn't the film saying "Bernie's a nice guy," it's the real people who knew the real Bernie saying that, and the film is just presenting this insane situation as it really happened.
And in the end, it is actually a funny story, whether in the film, or in the original article on the case that the film that follows very closely. It has good performance, not just by Black, but also from Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey (who seems to be relishing the opportunity to work as a goofy character actor). Plus it's well-directed by Richard Linklater, who has a clear and confident grasp on the film's difficult tone. Definitely worth seeing.

The Taste of Money
The first big disappointment of the festival. I'd rather enjoyed The Housemaid, Im Sang-soo's previous film, but this simply did not work for me at all. The description in the programme doesn't really give any indication of what the film was about, and I can understand why; I don't know that the film has a clear plot or holds together terribly well. It's kind of about a guy working as a private secretary to a man who is basically the chief executive to his wife's family business, and how the private secretary becomes increasingly involved in all these scandalous goings-on. The film was basically this weird incoherent mix of family drama, constant sex, and incredibly dull business politics (it doesn't help that that plotline involved an American actor who was simply AWFUL - I might have charitably thought the problem was that he was uncomfortable speaking Korean, but he was just as bad on those occasions when the dialogue was in English). There were plotlines that went nowhere; huge chunks of the film that I didn't care about; and a tone that seemed completely misjudged (it's never a good sign when the audience starts routinely laughing in major dramatic moments). Add to that a weird ending that, through one single shot and for no reason, suggested that a dead character may not be dead, and you've got a film that is just a mess. The Housemaid was an over-the-top soap opera, but it also seemed to have something to say about Korean society and class structure, which gave it some substance; this was just soap opera, and Days Of Our Lives is no more interesting with subtitles.

A surprising film that managed to sustain tension in circumstances where other films would start to flag. The film tells the true story of the captain of a French counter-terrorist group, who is sent to New Caledonia after a group of natives attack a police station and take a number of gendarmes captive as part of the fight against French colonisation. What I was really impressed with was the fact that, after the initial setup, much of the film became one where the main character goes from meeting to meeting, with one side and the other, fighting to find some kind of peaceful resolution. But despite the fact that, for huge chunks of the film it's just people talking, there's always a strong sense of the stakes at risk, which allows the film to maintain its intensity throughout these extended scenes. And when the film does reach the inevitable carnage of the final day, it's an intense and exciting scene, amplified by a great sustained one-shot throughout much of the sequence. While it's not one of the best of the festival, it is a fine and enjoyable film, and I was glad to see it.

Your Sister's Sister
This I loved. A great little comedy in which a depressed man is told by his best friend to go to her family's cabin to clear his mind. He does so, only to find her sister is already there, depressed over a bad break-up with her girlfriend. They get drunk, things happen between them, and then the best friend turns up. The film then turns into this really nice farce, where everyone has different secrets they're trying to keep hidden; but where farces are often just broad and overdone, this almost felt understated, with real characters that convinced and that behaved in a believable way. And yet the farce still worked. I particularly loved Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt, who overcome a complete disparity in accents (one is English, one American, a fact given a one-line explanation in the film) to absolutely convince as a couple of sisters - there's an easy comfort in their relationship that feels born of years spent together. The dialogue is great, feeling natural while still being laugh-out-loud funny. It's just a great example of how charming and enjoyable a simple, basic film can be.

Bonjour Tristesse
Every year at the festival there is a small selection of classic films, which is always one of the highlights of the festival - these were films made to be seen on the big screen with an audience, and it’s always a delight to have the opportunity to do so. This year’s selection of classics included this Otto Preminger film that I honestly don’t think I’d heard of. Preminger is a director I don’t have a lot of experience with, although the couple of films of his I have seen were good, so I was happy to see this film. Unfortunately on watching the film I understood why I was unfamiliar with the film. It wasn’t a bad film; in fact it was pretty good. But to me it lacked that spark to lift it into the realm of a classic.
It certainly had a great cast. David Niven is an enjoyable film presence, and perfect for the role of a womanising playboy living an easy and fun existence with his teenage daughter. And Deborah Kerr, as the old friend who causes him to want to settle down, is certainly appealing. I also rather liked Jean Seberg, as the daughter trying to break up Niven and Kerr in an attempt to preserve her carefree lifestyle. And the film even makes a good job at making Niven’s sudden desire to settle down logical, largely because of the appealing performance of Mylène Demongeot, wonderfully stupid as the woman that the playboy Niven is currently with.
There are some good choices made - there could easily be a tonal problem in the film with its radical third act shift, and the film's flashback structure managed to navigate that. Preminger directs well, drawing out the comedy where present, amplifying the drama where desirable, and keeping the characters sympathetic in unsympathetic circumstances. It’s all good. It’s just that, when you watch a true classic film there’s often something intangible that says “this film will be remembered for as long as film exists.” I just don’t see that in here. It’s good, I enjoyed it, but it’s certainly not essential viewng for a film fan.

I think Michael Haneke may be one of the most-skilled directors working today. I don't always like his films - in fact, his Funny Games (in both verisons) sits in my list of most hated films. But even in Funny Games, there are sequences that I will point to as some of the best filmmaking I've ever seen. In Amour, Michael Haneke has his filmmaking talents on full display. But, surprisingly for a director who often actively works as a provocateur, this is a fairly common, relatively unconfrontational film. Which is not to say it's an easy film - it is after all about an elderly man taking care of his slowly-degrading wife after she has a stroke, it's brutally honest about what said care involves, and it definitely has its shocking moments - but it does seem to be a much less challenging, much more emotional, film. And a very well-made one.
One of the things I really love about Haneke as a filmmaker, even when I hate a particular film, is the careful, considered, observational shooting style he adopts. Haneke is not someone who makes his films in the editing room, filled with quick cuts. Instead he will usually place the camera, and then sit and watch a scene play out, only moving the camera or cutting if absolutely necessary. While Haneke usually used this style to confront the audience and test its decision to choose to watch the on-screen events, here it's more just more coolly honest in its perspective. This is what happens and what has to happen - no judgement, no sugar-coating, just brutal facts.
Haneke is a phenomenal director, and an intelligent one, but his desire to test and provoke the audience can at times feel wearying and immature. Amour therefore marked a surprising development and exciting possible direction for him, one that allows him to still test the audience, while offering more than just an academic treatise. It is one of the highlights of the festival, and well worth seeking out.

Side by Side
I really am very conflicted about the subject of digital filmmaking. The technology offers some real advantages for filmmakers, but it also presents some definite risks for cinema, particularly around the archival of films. As I've noted before, when the complete print of Metropolis was discovered, it may have been a badly-scratched decades-old print, but as long as you could shine a light through the film you could watch it. On the other hand, the constantly-changing world of digital formats means that there is a real risk that some films might be lost within a matter of years. And even if a film itself is preserved, what about all the outtakes and cut scenes? We live in a world where films that have been treated badly in the past can be revisited with director's cuts and the like, but how possible will that be in the future if they can't read the formats that these scenes were recorded in? So given my interest in the subject matter I was particularly excited about Side By Side, a documentary exploring the decline of film stock and the rise of digital filmmaking.
What particularly impressed me was how considered the piece was. This is a hugely controversial issue for filmmakers, and yet after watching it, I have no idea what position the documentary-maker holds. He charts the development of the digital technology, and explores the various advantages and disadvantages of film stock vs digital, across all the stages of filmmaking, in a dispassionate and honest manner. He secures thoughtful and insightful interviews with some of the biggest names in directing, people like Scorsese, Nolan, Fincher, Boyle, or Lynch, as well as comments from top cinematographers, editors, and other key behind-the-scenes figures. We get insights into how totally different filmmaking can be with the different technologies - the way that the cost of film can make everyone on their game while there is less pressure in digital; the way film can create a stop-start filming process while digital allows continuous shooting, and how that advantages or disadvantages different players. There's even a fascinating moment where we learn how one of the iconic moments of editing in Lawrence of Arabia was a happy accident born of the challenges in working in film; something that would never happen in a digital environment. I was especially happy that there was discussion about the archival problem - it was particularly fascinating to hear David Fincher, one of the big proponents of digital technology, discussing how some of his the archival copies of his earlier music videos are unusable because of these types of technology changes.
My one disappointment was not with the film, but with the presentation. It seemed to be screening from a standard-definition DVD source, which meant that the image was rather ugly, and also meant every time they showed some comparison footage of something shot of film against something shot on digital the difference was imperceptible. But that's not the fault of the documentary, which was still well worth seeing.

From Up On Poppy Hill
The new film from Goro Miyazaki, son of the great Hayao Miyazaki, is a big improvement on his first film, Tales From Earthsea, but he still has a long way to go to live up to his father's legacy. The film is perfectly good as far as it goes, telling the story of two students that fall in love as they work together to prevent the demolition of the school clubhouse. But the animation isn't quite right - the character design seemed disappointingly generic, and there were points where characters' facial expressions seemed incongruous against the emotion they were supposedly feeling. There's also a problem that unfortunately can be blamed on Hayao Miyazaki's screenplay - a weird plot-thread where the two lead characters come to believe they may be brother-and-sister. There's never any real sense that that possibility will ever be confirmed - the evidence is marginal at best, and this is not that type of film - and it culminates in a rather silly race against time to talk to someone about their parents. These flaws aside, it's still a good film, and worth seeing.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
I'd never seen Gentlemen Prefer Blondes before, and seeing it on the big screen is the way to see the film. It's not especially deep, but it's fun and has a hell of a lot of energy. The film revolves around Marilyn Monroe, as a diamond-hungry showgirl engaged to a rather dim man with a lot of family money, and her best friend, the man-hungry Jane Russell. They go on a boat together, followed by a private detective trying to spy on Monroe on behalf of her fiance's disapproving father. The film is a lot of fun, with a lot of great song-and-dance routines. Obviously there is the legendary "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend," which really is a great performance (even if you reflect that a club putting on that routine every night would be bankrupted in a week), but there are many other great numbers (witness Russell's lust-filled pool-side number with a team of Olympians). It's also remarkably funny - the two woman are gifted comedic talents, and they wring every laugh out of this one (the scene where Monroe gets stuck climbing out of a porthole is brilliant). One of the things I found really fascinating about the film was just how unapologetically mercenary it made the woman - it's not a romantic film, indeed the concept of love barely enters into the film; Monroe is unabashedly a gold-digger, while Russell gives about as unambiguously lustful a performance as could have been achieved under the Hayes Code.  And yet, in the hands of a seasoned veteran like Russell, and a charismatic then-newcomer like Monroe, the characters remain genuinely likeable - you want Monroe to get "the rich guy", you want Russell to get "the hot guy", even though that is the sole basis for their interest in their prospective partners. The only thing I didn't care for was the climactic trial scene - even by the standards of a Hollywood musical, what happened in that courtroom was so absurd as to be almost incoherent, and that almost broke the film for me. That it didn't was a testimony to how great the rest of the film was.

The Angels' Share
I had gone to see this partly because I was curious about the premise. I had understood the film to be about a heist to steal a barrel of whisky, but that plot element really only comes in the last half-hour of the film, and the actual heist proves to be understated and minor. But the quality of the film was such that the fact that my enjoyment of the film was completely unaffected by the fact that it was not what I had expected. I'm embarrassed to admit that this was my first film from Ken Loach, one of the great figures in modern British cinema. This confirmed for me that I really need to start to dig into his work, because if the rest is as good as this, then there is a wealth of enjoyable film experiences waiting for me.
What surprised me is how truly funny it was. I don't know if it's a fair or correct perception (since, like I say, I've never seen his films), but the impression I've always had of Loach was that he made firmly realist film addressing serious issues about society in Britain. I certainly never imagined him as a director of comedy. But right from the opening moments, as we watch an intoxicated individual confused by the voice of the PA speaker at the train station, it is clear just how funny this film will be. The film revolves around four offenders sentenced to community payback, and the film avoids holding these characters up to mockery. This is essentially a character-based comedy, and Loach has a clear affection for these people -these are not the smartest characters, but the film takes their challenges and desires seriously. At the same time it finds the genuine humour in these people and their natural reactions.
It's not perfect - the heist as outlined lacked the most essential element of the plot (actually finding someone to buy the stolen whisky, generating the desired income), and the way the film resolved that problem seemed entirely too convenient for me. And there is one character who is a bit too "comic" (meaning "funny because he's stupid") for my liking. But these are minor quibbles around a very entertaining film.
One other thing I'll mention: when I bought my tickets, the guy at the counter couldn't immediately find the film, and when he did he commented "they've put the apostrophe in the wrong place." Now, they hadn't - the title refers to the amount of whisky that evaporates as being the share for the angels plural, not the angel singular. But it's an understandable mistake to make, and certainly one I imagine these characters would make, so I was amused when one of the last images on screen is a handwritten note that refers to "the angel's share". It was one last confirmation of how how clearly the filmmaker sees the characters, and the sweetness of the moment was one last demonstration of how affectionate the film was towards them. It was a good tone for the film to end on.

This was a late addition to my festival programme; I only decided to see it when I discovered this NZ-made post-apocalyptic film was the same NZ-made post-apocalyptic film that a good friend of mine had a significant supporting role in. And after seeing it, while it was interesting seeing my friend up on screen, I was sad to find that it wasn’t a terribly good film. It’s not a bad film by any means either, it’s just middling.
Part of the problem with the film is that I think their vision exceeded their ability to achieve that vision. This is a futuristic film set in a nightmarish future, and that’s hard to achieve on the low-budget this film had. So the film never really had any kind of wasteland feel - it feels like they just took a camera up to a hill, or into the bush, and just shot it, relying on colour timing to give it a gloomy not-of-today feel. Add to that the fact that a key location is the windfarm at Makara, and those wind turbines are too recognisable as something of today - they don’t convince as having been erected a few hundred years in the future, but nor do they look like something of today that has been aged by hundreds of years. So every time we went to that location, it really did distract.
There’s also a core problem where the audience doesn’t really know what’s going on. The film revolves around a family living outside this massive electrified fence, and there are these “riders” that patrol the fence. And I just couldn’t quite work out the context of the world - there’s an entire history of this world that we never really get a clear insight into. Who built the fence? Why? What is beyond the fence? Now, I would be fine with unanswered questions - I like the idea of a film that doesn’t feel the need to fill you in on every minor detail of the world - and it even makes sense, since the answers to some of the questions I had were clearly unknown by the characters themselves. But when the film reached its climax, and one character had a chance to see what was on the far side of the fence, there’s no answer to that question; all we saw was a look of horror on her face before she ran away. Now, sure, this horrific sight (whatever it was) would have presumably cost a hell of a lot of money to create, money the film didn’t have, but she could have said something about what she saw - dialogue doesn’t cost money. But she doesn’t. And that gives the sense that the filmmakers don’t know what was there either; they just know it was something bad. And so we’re left with a film that is basically a Twilight Zone episode, but without the shocking twist revelation - and what’s the point of that?
And that’s the other problem with the film. Because Twilight Zone episodes are not feature-length. This film is 85 minutes long, and I struggle to know where it all went. There’s really not a lot of story in the film, limited character enrichment, and barely any time spent to actual world building. I am convinced this film could easily be covered in 45 minutes without any recognisable effect. And that kind of poor pacing is a serious issue. It definitely has the feel of a film that has been stretched and stretched to reach feature film length, rather than feeling like it needed that amount of time. As a result, the film is rather slow. Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing - there are many films I’ve loved that were slow films (see last year’s Le Quattro Volte, for example). But those were films that needed to take the time to build a tone or atmosphere, to look into all the corners of the world, or where that slow tone was part of the film’s point. That’s not the case with this. This is just a lot of padding.
That said, it wasn’t a terrible film - the acting was pretty good from everyone (although I do find it hard to actually assess my friend’s performance), it’s generally well-put-together given the inevitable limitations, and I think there was a core of a really good film in here - it just needed more work to bring it out. Unfortunately that just didn’t happen, and that’s a shame. The first-time director does display a definite promise here, but one that has been stymied in this film by too great an ambition to be achieved. I'd probably be interested in seeing something a little smaller from her. But this didn't really work.

Dreams of a Life
In a lot of ways possibly the most effective, or at least affecting, documentary of the festival, but I do have some issues with it. The film considers a woman, Joyce Vincent, who died one night while watching TV and wrapping Christmas presents, and wasn’t discovered for three years - so long that her remains were literally skeletal when they found her. And she wasn’t the usual isolated shut-in that you imagine this happening to - this was an attractive, smart, popular girl with a large number of people who genuinely liked and loved her. But gradually she just withdrew from them, and people didn’t notice. And then she died, and no-one knew. And people would think about her occasionally, wonder what she was up to, even as her body sat in her room. And even after she was discovered, her friends didn’t realise it was her that had died - they just assumed it was someone with the same name; they couldn’t connect the sad, lonely existence of this woman with the friendly, outgoing person they knew.
There’s a lot to like about the film. It’s well-made, with a wide variety of engaging interviews with people that knew Joyce. There are funny stories, sad stories, love stories, and it’s clear that she was someone who people really did care about. But it’s also clear that she would try to keep her distance - people didn’t really know her, she didn’t have a strong group of friends for herself; instead her friends were just the friends of the guy she was seeing, or the circle of people at the place she was living. And there’s a real sense of sadness running through the film - people recognising the opportunities where things might have gone a different way. There’s also a strong line running through the film about how increasingly isolated we are becoming, about just how easily people can vanish without a trace and no-one realises it. We stop seeing people in our circle, or we change our social circumstances, and even good friends fade away remarkably quickly. So it’s a good film, and one that makes some challenging comments about modern society.
But I do have some serious issues with the film. Firstly, there are no interviews with any of Joyce’s four sisters. Now, we are told that they declined to speak to the filmmaker, and you can’t force them to talk if they don’t want to, but in the absence of an interview of her sisters there winds up being a lot of speculation on matters around her family life without supporting information. Similarly, there’s a lot of speculation about the last couple of years of her life, because again there’s very little known about that time, and those few people that may know something for good reasons cannot talk about her.
There’s also the problematic use of re-enactment. I mentioned this already with The Imposter, and where I was fine with that film’s re-enactments, this film is an example of re-enactment used poorly. Now, with a film like this, the desire to use re-enactment is understandable. It seems there’s precious little photographic record of Joyce, and even less video - when the film ends, in order to give us one last glimpse of her, they have to use zoomed-in news footage that shows Joyce, briefly turning her head, as one person in a crowded room with Nelson Mandela. And film is a visual medium – we can’t just have talking heads for 90 minutes. So the use of re-enactment is understandable. But the film continually re-enacts Joyce’s sad, lonely existence in her bedsit, and in so doing goes far into the realm of speculation. In the most egregious moment, there’s a scene where we watch Joyce for several minutes, all dressed up, singing a song, “My Smile Is Just A Frown Turned Upside Down”, completely lost in the song, before bursting into tears at the sadness of her life. And that I have a problem with - there’s a judgement there, an assumption about her, that is probably quite accurate, but because there was no-one else there (that being the point of the film), there is little or no factual justification for the scene. It’s just audience manipulation, taking an already sad story and piling on the emotion, and it’s a moment that probably didn’t happen. Yet, because it’s presented as a re-enactment, this almost-certainly-fictional moment feels so real that we believe it. And that is a problem in a documentary.
But despite that, it’s a good, thought-provoking, and moving film. And I do recommend it.

Sometimes you get a film that just doesn't work for you, and it's difficult to articulate why. The film had a great premise - the children of a high-ranking Nazi officer, having been indoctrinated all their life with Nazi beliefs, must flee on a cross-country trip after the end of the war, and have their understanding of the world challenged through their journey. I loved that idea. I can't fault the acting, visually the film all looked great, it seemed well-directed and well-plotted. I feel like all the elements were good in the film, and yet I just didn't care. I wasn't bored, but I wasn't interested either. The film just failed to engage me, and I do not know why. There's a point in the film where one character dies, and it should have a great impact on the characters and the audience, but I barely reacted to it, while when one character killed someone else, I was aware of the film telling me what an impact it had on the characters, but never felt it on an emotional level. And that's all I can really say - it seemed like a good film, it should be a good film, but I just could not connect to it.
The really disappointing thing was the fact that, when the festival programme was released, one film that I was hoping would appear didn't. The late addition of that film, Compliance, was only announced once the festival had started. By that time, I had clashes for all three screenings. If Compliance had been announced at the time the festival listings first came out, Lore is the film I would have dropped in planning my programme; I would have avoided a film I found uninspiring, and instead have seen a film that should at least be challenging and thought-provoking.

The Shining
I am not a horror film fan. However, there are a small number of horror films that I do enjoy, just because they are great films – Psycho, The Exorcist, or Halloween, for example. The Shining is easily at the top of that list. I probably watch it once a year or so, which makes it not only my favourite horror film, but also the Kubrick film I watch most often. So it was a genuine thrill to watch it on the big screen.
Unfortunately, the version that screened here was not my preferred version. When it was first announced, it seemed like it was going to be the longer US-cut - the festival programme listed the running time as 142 minutes - but they later announced they could only get the rights to the shorter 119 minute international cut. Which is a shame, because I do feel the longer US cut is better. A lot of essential elements are set up in the cut scenes (which you can read about here), to the point where I’m surprised that the film even makes sense in the shorter cut. (Hell, we're never even officially introduced to Halloran, and he's the most significant character in the film outside of the family.) But in either cut, it’s a genuinely great film.
There are so, so many things I love about this film. One thing I really noticed this time was how bright the movie is. When you think about horror movies, or haunted house films (which this basically is), you imagine movies that take place in the dark - it's gloomy, a perfect atmosphere for something scary to happen. What’s wonderful about this film is that everything in this film takes place in a brightly-lit building - it gives the film a very different feel to most horror films. Even when Danny is running around in the maze in the middle of the night, the maze lights shine off the white snow making the scene surprisingly bright. And I love how Kubrick uses that to his advantage - because we’re conditioned to expect scary things to happen in the dark, it's always a shock when Danny rounds the corner and suddenly sees the girls, or when Jack sits at the Gold Room bar and unexpectedly starts talking to Lloyd, or when Jack appears out of nowhere to attack Halloran.
I think the moment that really demonstrates how completely Kubrick has the audience under his control is the famous “all work and no play” scene. Because if you think about it, there’s nothing objectively scary about the scene. Wendy is standing in an empty room reading a bunch of typewritten pages. And there’s nothing scary about what’s on the pages - in fact it’s rather bland – he certainly hasn’t written “Kill kill kill.” But as soon as we see those pages, even before Jack enters the room, it’s scary for the audience. We have so totally bought into this film that the revelation of just how insane Jack actually is, and how long he has been this insane, becomes overpowering. In that moment, it’s not just Wendy and Danny trapped with Jack; we the audience are trapped in this hotel with a madman. It’s a wonderful, almost show-off moment; you get the sense of Kubrick sitting proudly at terrifying the audience over nothing. And one of the many reasons why I love The Shining.
(One last note: The woman in the seat next to me had never seen The Shining before (yes, I asked her afterwards). She was noticeably terrified throughout the film - jumping when Danny saw the Grady girls, letting out a scared cry when Halloran encountered Jack, gasping when Jack fell down the stairs, and even physically covering her eyes with her hands in the Room 237 sequence. It actually made the experience better. I've seen the films so many times that it doesn't necessarily scare me anymore; instead, I almost get excited at the anticipation knowing that Danny's about to see the girls, or Jack will encounter the woman in the bathtub, or Wendy will find the partygoers. But it was nice to be reminded that this film really is, and continues to be, genuinely scary.)

Holy Motors
So this is a dificult film to describe. This guy leaves his home, his family, one morning to go to work. He gets into the back of a limousine, which is fully equipped with costumes and a stage-makeup-table, and with folders containing a series of appointments. He gets out, and he's in costume, playing a beggar woman wandering the streets. He gets back into the limousine, and when he gets out again he's in a motion-capture suit; modelling action moves, before another model enters so they can mo-cap a CGI sex scene. Next he's a kind-of repulsive troll of a human, running around a graveyard eating flowers, before encountering a photo shoot, where he bites off the fingers of the photographer's assistant, abducts the model, and runs off to a cave, where he converts the model's dress to a burka, strips naked, and falls asleep in the model's lap. And so the film proceeds: he's a father picking his daughter up from a party, annoyed that she is lying to him and pretending to have had a good time; or he's a dying man making deathbed confessions; or he's an assassin killing someone who is obviously himself (or at least his doppelganger). In one of the most incredible scenes in the film, he encounters another a co-worker, played by Kylie Monogue, who sings this beautiful, depressing song as she contemplates suicide. It's not quite clear how this all holds together or why this all happens - there are references to "invisible cameras," but who's watching or who's in control or how this all happens or who selects the assignments is never clear. And at the end of the film he returns home to his family, and the limousine is one of dozens being returned to a massive parking building. So that's what happens in the film.
Here's the thing: I liked this film. I really liked the film. I don't know what it meant, I don't know how it holds together as a film; but if you view it as a series of individual scenes, loosely-connected vignettes, it works really well. There's a real emotional connection that is made for each individual scene; and the nature of that connection changes markedly between each scenes. Even if it doesn't necessarily work as a whole, if all of the component parts are powerful and impactful - if it's a movie-length collection of great scenes - is there any real difference for the filmgoer? The one thing I know is that, more than a week after the festival finished, Holy Motors is one of the films I most frequently find myself thinking about. A fascinating piece of cinema.

What's In A Name?
Farce can be an exceptionally difficult style of comedy to pull off. A well-executed farce can be a delight, but it requires a carefully-balanced escalation of circumstances, clearly delineated characters reacting in a natural way to circumstances yet also reacting in a way that makes everything as bad as possible, and the writing skill to make it seem like these events are both uncontrived and almost unavoidable. And a farce that doesn't achieve that balance will inevitably fail: don't push a farce far enough, and it's just not funny; push it too far, and it becomes wearying and irritating.
What's In A Name? is a very good French farce, and one of the funniest films of the festival. The film revolves around a dinner party that descends into chaos when one of the guests, the brother of the hostess, announces what his soon-to-be-born child will be named. The rest of the guests disapprove of the name, but he staunchly defends the name and the reasons for giving the child this problematic name. But, as always happens in a good farce, the argument escalates and brings out other confessions and tensions, until the cause of the original argument is forgotten, and everyone is violently forced into a better understanding of each other.
Based on a successful stageplay, with all but one of the cast taken from the live production, there's a real sense of a show that has been finely honed until it reached that perfect balance, yet at the same time the actors manage to moderate their amplified stage performances to the level necessary for the big screen (something not all stage actors manage to do). There's also a clear ease in the relationship between the actors - no doubt born in part from the time these actors spent refining the characters on stage - that convinces, and makes the ensuring conflict more difficult to watch. I was particularly impressed by Patrick Bruel, as the man whose revelation starts the entire conflict - I loved the way his smug self-satisfaction and enjoyment of the argument slowly vanished as he realises how far the situation had spiralled out of his control. The film is competently, if uninspiredly, directed - it remains a patently stage-bound production, almost entirely limited to one apartment, and mostly limited to the one room in that apartment, and I'd be surprised if there were any significant changes made in the stage-to-film transition. But because the acting is already so well-developed and defined, there's really no need for grand directorial flourishes. Sometimes a basic directing style works for a film, and it does here. A fine piece of comedy, and well worth seeing.

So it's 1988; Pinochet has been dictator over Chile for 15 or so years, and has bowed to international pressure, agreeing to run a referendum on whether he should be allowed to continue to rule the country. The problem is, life in Chile (at least for those not carted away and killed) is comfortable enough that many people may not be motivated to vote Pinochet out. This is the challenge that advertising executive René Saavedra must face when he takes on the responsibility of running the advertising campaign for the "No" vote, and becomes the basis for a rather great and surprisingly suspenseful movie.
The film has been understandably compared with Mad Men, and while the comparison is very obvious and surface-level, both works share a fascination with the way advertising works on people. Here, there's an almost counter-intuitive decision taken early in the campaign to not run adverts about X numbers in prison or so many people killed under Pinochet, and instead run a happy, fun, joyful campaign. It initially seems to make no sense -why would you not highlight all the reasons why keeping this man in power is a terrible thing - but it's actually incredibly logical. After all, people already know what Pinochet has done, they don't need to be convinced of it; indeed if they've avoided the trouble up to now they probably think they'll continue to be fine, and otherwise life seems pretty good.  So in that context a typical advertising approach, where you focus on the hope of a bright future and the chance that things could be even better, makes sense.
I was initially put off by the film when it started; the director made the decision to shot in a 4:3 ratio with what seemed to be 80s-period video cameras (or at least a great approximation). 80s video is seriously ugly, and the prospect of having to sit through nearly two hours of poor-quality, flaring video did not appeal. I wouldn't say that I got used to it, but I was surprised to realise it worked really well - it removed any kind of sheen to the film, giving the film, if not a documentary style, at least a raw immediacy and urgency. It also made sense, since so much of the film is about the media, to present the film in a style appropriate to that era. (It also allowed the film to make great and seamless use of period media footage, as well as the original advertisements.) The filming style is definitely not something I'd want to see regularly, but as a one-off decision in an appropriate context, it worked really well, elevating an already excellent film.

Photographic Memory
How to describe a Ross McElwie film? By their very nature the films could be almost intolerably narcissistic - McElwie's films are basically all documentaries about himself and his life - but they're so emotionally honest and reflective, and McElwie is such a gently amusing personality, that the films seem to take on a wider significance. By being so specific in exploring McElwie's life, it becomes an exploration of broader themes of life in general. In Photographic Memory, McElwie is having difficulty with his 17-year-old son, who is constantly argumentative, without a clear direction, and who seems to spend all his time on the internet or videoing his skiing stunts. This prompts McElwie to go on a trip to St Quay in France, where he spent some time as a young man, hoping to reconnect with the youth he once was and as a result understand his son better. The film uses this to discuss the challenges of parenthood, of parental concern, of the difficulties one generation has understanding the next. And as McElwie makes his way to France, the place where his passion for photography was born, he begins to explore the uncertainty of human memory, and the limitations of photography as a way of preserving the past. I love the way the film works like that - it's not that this film illustrates one big theme, but that even in this one short period of life there's a massive mess of issues and ideas all colliding with each other, in a way that's a more real, honest presentation of the world and human existence. Which I realise makes the film sound horrible and pretentious, which it is not. it is just a rich, wonderful piece, that I fully enjoyed.

Searching for Sugar Man
A great, crowd-pleasing, heart-warming documentary that was certainly one of the highlights of the festival. The film centres around an American folk musician named Rodriguez, considered by those who knew him to be a genuinely brilliant musician, on par with Bob Dylan. He only ever recorded two albums in 1970 and 71, both of which vanished without a trace in the States. But in South Africa his albums were massive, even iconic. And in a pre-internet era, no-one knew what happened to Rodriguez - why did he only record two albums? Is it true that he died of a drug overdose? or by shooting himself in the head while performing one of his songs? or by dousing himself with petrol and then setting himself on fire during a concert? No-one knew. And then in the mid-90s, a couple of South Africans, learning that no-one else in the world seems to know about this artist, try and discover what happened to Rodriguez. And that's all I'll say, because so much of the joy of this film comes from the way this story unfolds.
And it's a story that unfolds really well. There is a lot to this story - there's the story about Rodriguez in the 70s when he was discovered and made the recordings, there's the story about the rise of the artist's work in South Africa (which in turn involves discussion of the anti-apartheid movement), there's the story of these individuals investigating this mystery of what happened to the singer, and there's this entire story of what happened once they discover what happened to him. Plus, since this is an artist we are unfamiliar with, it's also necessary to dedicate a lot of time just to the music to help us understand why it had such an impact.  That's a lot for a film to cover in less than 90 minutes. But the film is impressively constructed, moving between the different elements seamlessly, with a perfectly judged pace that ensures no element feels short-changed or over-emphasised.
And what of the music? Well, when one person compares the "Cold Fact" album to "Abbey Road" or "Bridge Over Troubled Water", its entirely understandable. Rodriguez does seem to have been a genuine talent, and there is no obvious reason why these albums should not have succeeded. The songs are passionate and emotional, but catchy and memorable - I've spent the last two weeks with his songs running through my head. And that's the exciting thing about this film - the way it has brought some level of worldwide exposure to an artist who might otherwise had been forgotten. It's an excellent, appealing film, and strongly recommended.

Sound of My Voice
Last year I saw and enjoyed Another Earth, the Brit Marling-written and -starring low-key science fiction film. This year, we get another film from Marling, if anything even more low-key in its science fiction. And yet what comes out is a film that, if not as good as Another Earth was, is possibly a more challenging and interesting work of science fiction.
The film follows two journalists that join a small cult in an effort to expose the secret at its centre - that it's led by a young woman (Marling) who claims to be from 2054 and who is promising to save her followers from some coming disaster. And as these two get drawn in, and begin to seriously consider following some outlandish demands the leader is making, understandable questions arise about whether they are still determined to expose this cult, or whether they have started to buy into her claims.
Here's the thing - the film contains no answers. Is the leader really from the future, or is she a con artist, or is she just insane? How does the strange narcoleptic girl making building block structures and receiving injections figure in this? What about the woman claiming to be from the FBI, with a strange, almost obsessive need to search any hotel room she stays in? We get explanations of some of these questions, but none that are fully satisfactory, and each relying on different explanations of who Marling's character is. But the good thing about the film is that, even if we never know learn the truth of Marling's character, you get the strong sense that Marling the writer has a clear sense of what the truth is and how this world fits together.
But it makes sense that there is this uncertainty throughout the film, because this is a film about faith and persuasion, and our need as humans to find something to cling to and believe, which means that the way you view the film can reflect the person you as a viewer are. I also really loved this really strong element of deception running through the film - not just from the cult leader (who after all may very well not be lying), but from our leads, lying to expose what they believe to be another's lies. In one of the film's best moments one of the two, in order to avoid being exposed, makes a truly horrific confession, then later dismisses it as just saying what he had to in order to avoid being discovered. The problem is that the damage is done - the girlfriend knows it could be a lie, knows why he would lie in that circumstances, but the uncertainty around that deception becomes something incredibly damaging to the two of them. It's not an insignificant question - are we defined by the person that we are or by the image that we present to the world?
I really enjoy Brit Marling's work. As an actor, she's an appealing presence, while as a writer she is someone who is really exploring the pure essence of science fiction shorn of all its trappings - Sound Of My Voice is unmistakably science fiction, although as far as I can tell it has no special effects, and it takes place largely in an anonymous basement - to use the genre as a vehicle for exploring very big and real themes. Her films aren't perfect, but they're interesting and inventive, and worth supporting.

Shadow Dancer
The problem with the film festival is that it means you basically spend 17 days sitting in close proximity to a wide variety of people in the peak of flu season. Frankly, I’m surprised there aren’t more waves of illness making their way around the screenings. Unfortunately, this year the inevitable got me. I woke up on the final day of the festival to find I was all stuffy, with a colossal headache; just generally in no good shape. I seriously considered not going to that night’s film at all. But as the evening screening approached, I decided to force myself to the cinema (with hindsight and clear unimpeded thought I realise just how selfish a decision this was, as I risked spreading my cold to anyone around) to see Shadow Dancer.
Part of the reason why I was so determined was because I’d been quite excited about the film; I’d not heard of the film previously, but the film’s writeup (a woman whose family is deeply involved in the IRA becomes an informant for British intelligence) sounded fun, I’d admired James Marsh’s documentary work and was interested to see him working with a narrative film, and while I’d never actually seen Andrea Riseborough before I’d heard a lot of good things about her performances over the previous few years, so I was interested to see what she was like.
Unfortunately I spent most of the time fighting with my illness, trying to keep my focus on the movie, not be distracted by the pain in my head, and avoid succumbing to the inevitable temptation to just fall asleep that is so irresistible when unwell. Which means that I really don’t have much to say about the film. It certainly looked striking; I enjoyed the performances greatly (including an unexpected appearance by Aiden Gillen from The Wire and Game of Thrones); and the story had some nice, surprising twists and turns. But I don’t feel that I really absorbed the film to any great degree, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were key points that I missed. So I’m reluctant to say too much about the film. But one of these days, I really must seek out the film and revisit it, when I’m in a clearer mindset.

So that was it. A rather disappointing end to what was a reasonably solid film festival. It wasn’t one of the best festivals (it paled next to 2011, which had one of the strongest film lineups in years), but there were a lot of very good films, and a few real standouts. And it was just fun.

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