Archive for June, 2008

Right city, wrong time

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , on June 30, 2008 by dcairns

One of my larger incompetencies during the festival was missing the screening of OF TIME AND THE CITY, Terence Davies’ new documentary, which is serving to remind everybody what a great filmmaker, and personality, he is. But, despite missing the screening and Mr. Davies himself, nevertheless, gentle ShadowplayersI did not fail you.

A Videotheque is a special room designed for watching films under whatever the opposite of “optimum viewing conditions” is. Despite the cool name, there’s usually no dancing. You have a TV and a DVD player and a set of headphones and you’re surrounded by other people similarly equipped. It’s like being at home, only uncomfortable. Actually, home isn’t always comfortable either, especially last night when Fiona, suffering from a killer migraine, accidentally threw a live cat into my face. But there was something strangely appropriate about watching PRIMITIVE LONDON with blood tricking down my chin.

The E.I.F.F. videotheque is located in the shiny bowels of The Point Conference Centre, which looks like an office building out of Tati’s PLAYTIME, all metallic sheen and inhumanity. Adding a welcome note of the organic was regular Shadowplayer Kristin Loeer, who was running the place. Kris and her team sorted me out with various movies I’d been too slack or drowsy to catch on the big screen.

(This is part of why you should never trust professional film reviewers, who won’t tell you if they saw the stuff projected as it should be, or on a poxy monitor inside a strange metal box administered by Germans. And I can’t recall the last time Armond White admitted his viewing of, say, the latest Dardennes brothers opus had been marred by a flying cat gashing his lip.)

THINGS I READ OFF THE SCREEN IN “OF TIME AND THE CITY”

PLAY STREET: ALL VEHICLES PROHIBITED

PURITY

JOYTIME

FUNLAND

PALACE AMUSEMENTS

THIS IS ROUGHWOOD NO GO AREA ENTER AT OWN RISK

GOD BLESS OUR POPE

PNEUMATIC ELEVATOR NO 12

The movie, a portrait of Liverpool mainly through archive material, is very attentive to signs and graffiti. Narrated by Davies himself, whose sonorous, rich voice I’ve always admired (it’s how I remember my childhood G.P. Dr. Robertson sounding) this is a moving, passionate, sometimes angry and always poetic vision of a city I normally don’t care anything about, but which is brought to life like a richly textured yet unbelievably screwed-up movie character — perhaps a cross between Auntie Mame and the bad lieutenant.

The use of found footage, and its relationship to the V.O., is often startlingly beautiful. As Davies muses on the vacuum of the great British Sunday afternoon, in which children of both our generations were bored to distraction by a complete lack of anything to do, he shows a little girl skipping across a patch of waste ground, then abruptly stopping as if she’s just realised she’s surrounded by the bleakest stretch of nothingness in Britain.

The movie’s also often funny, with Davies leavening his aching nostalgia with cynicism re the coronation of Elizabeth II (“Street parties were held to celebrate the start of The Betty Windsor Show”) and the Catholic church, whose influence dominated Davies’ youth (“Pope Clitoris the Umpteenth”). There’s also highly emotive music, both popular and operatic, and many many quotations. CARRY ON fans will be pleased to hear Kenneth Williams on the soundtrack (the camp “Julian and Sandy as lawyers” bit from radio’s Round the Horne: “We’ve got a criminal practice that takes up most of out time.”)

The quotes are probably the riskiest strategy, because unlike Godard, Davies is very fond of rather familiar lines, like Ozymandias, and that stuff about the “blue remembered hills”. But it’s such a uniquely personal documentary that this seems fine — Davies “blue remembered hills” are his own, not Dennis Potter’s. And Davies has always been a populist without a popular audience. The sheer misfortune of coming along during a weird bit of British film history has bracketed him amid the artsy, when he desperately wants to address regular folks, to whom he has much to say.

OF TIME AND THE CITY will undoubtedly play many festivals and do well on British T.V. (which should be throwing money at Davies to make dramas — socially accurate, non-aspirational, poetic work has always formed the bulk of quality British television), but the real hope is that it will allow him to make another cinema film.

In its own right, it’s a marvellous example of just that, and hopefully an appetizer for what comes next.

Congratulations

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 29, 2008 by dcairns

– to my newly graduated students Anders and Jamie, who just won the McLaren Award for New British Animation at Edinburgh Film Festival for SPACE TRAVEL ACCORDING TO JOHN, part of their THE WORLD ACCORDING TO series (TWAT for short). This more than makes up for the Fest’s strange decision to only show one of the series.

This WILL be the first of many awards as long as the guys get the films out there to be seen.

Watch out for those fellows!

“You like me! You really like me!”

In other news, the Michael Powell Award went to the new Shane Meadows film, SOMERS TOWN, which kind of disappoints me on principle. I’ve often felt the prize goes to films that Powell himself wouldn’t have thought particularly revelatory (and revelation was something Powell REQUIRED of cinema), but I haven’t seen the Meadows film, so that isn’t the problem. This year the ground rules have been changed — it used to be that first or second features by new directors in the U.K. were eligible. Now Meadows is in, with his sixth feature, and Martin Radich’s CRACK WILLOW, a genuine first feature, wasn’t even considered. The Festival is perfectly entitled to change the rules as it sees fit, but it would be nice if we could understand what the qualifying conditions actually are.

Enough griping — congratulations to the winners, and to the rest: “Try again. Fail again. Fail BETTER,” as Samuel Beckett would say.

Also, congratulations to festival director Hannah McGill and her team for a very enjoyable Fest.

Final Festival Round-Up

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 29, 2008 by dcairns

E.I.F.F. 2008.

Today was Best of the Fest day — or “What prints are still in town?” day, to give it its informal name. But there was plenty of good stuff on, so I tooted over to Filmhouse, discovered that my press pass had officially expired, and shelled out some cash for movies for the first time in ten days.

WALL-E was first. I felt guilty about seeing something non-rare like this at a festival, but quite good about missing all the ads that will precede it when it goes on general release. I started to wonder if I was in a fragile emotional state as it went on, as I found myself having an exaggerated response to EVERYTHING. I spent much of the film close to tears. Then i decided that, no, I’m no more fragile than usual, it’s just a deeply beautiful film.

It’s kind of sweet also that Michael Crawford finds himself in one of the biggest films of the year, without actually doing anything (he appears in the clips from HELLO DOLLY, Wall-E’s favourite/only video). Opening in space, with Crawford’s voice ringing out, before descending towards a litter-strewn Earth upon with only North America is visible, Andrew Stanton’s extended C.G.I. homageto Douglas Trumbull’s SILENT RUNNING actually has a beautiful, live action, ’70s long-lens, misty, smoggy look, like the titles of SOYLENT GREEN, for all its terrestrial scenes. Roger Deakins consulted on the virtual lighting, and expressed his astonishment in Edinburgh at the joy of position virtual lights in a virtual set and not having to worry about hiding them.

Did I like all the film equally? No, but things don’t have to be perfect. Enough of this was. And it was interesting to see Fred Willard spoofing President Bush: “Stay the course!” This must make Bush the first U.S. president to have been slammed by Disney while in office, unless I’m forgetting something major.

Pixar’s hit-rate is so high it could almost get monotonous. I seriously dig how they mainly avoided dialogue here and would suggest they get even braver and make an entirely wordless feature next.

*

I jumped from Filmhouse to the Cameo, grabbing a sandwich, and plunged into the art deco world of MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY, a ’30s farce which fails as a comedy (for me) but which seemed to just about hang together as drama. The material is far from the level of Wodehouse, although the story is acceptable. The dialogue and situations fail to deliver the expected comedy (although the audience I was with laughed kindly a few times). Director Bharat Nalluri, from high-end Brit T.V., avoids overkill and restrains the visuals, but there’s neither a refreshing, modern attitude nor any evocation of an old-fashioned film style. and the performances refuse to gel in a way that’s kind of fascinating.

McDormand and Adams.

The extras — several terribly over-eager perfs from background artistes, something you don’t often see.

The stars — well, there aren’t any big ones, which ought to mean Nalluri had the pick of non-famous thespian talent at his disposal, with no commercial pressure, but it doesn’t always work that way.

Frances McDormand — a talented comedienne, as we’ve seen before, here she can only manage to generate a few warm smiles, and most of those are snatched solo. Whenever she has to interact with fellow performers, she’s hampered by the unevenness of tone. Any scene with more than two co-stars leaves her torn between wildly different acting styles, since she’s the only performer paying close attention to her fellows. But she makes an appealing Pettigrew and that sympathy holds the proceedings together at least somewhat.

Amy Adams — plays the whole thing in a fake Marilyn Monroe voices which in 1939 had yet to be invented. Anachronistic and more than a little annoying. She’s CONSISTENT, but her tropes get shopworn fast. There’s talent there, but it lacks guidance.

Tom Payne — another terribly self-conscious British prettyboy. I didn’t like his HAIR — was any man wearing it that long? He’s ruinous to any scene of farce that requires timing. He has appeal, and may well become a decent actor, but asking him to do anything that requires precision is madness. He gets all the script’s Bertie Wooster archaisms, as if all the movie requires is one character who talks ’30s. He gets away with the “don’t you know, what?” stuff better than anyone could reasonably be expected to when surrounded by non-period-specific speakers, so he deserves some credit for that.

Lee Pace — from his first scene I thought he was a truly horrible actor. By the end I kind of liked him. Then I discover he’s American, which I hadn’t suspected. Suicidal of the filmmakers to have saddled themselves with yanks in Brit roles. They’re already attempting farce, which rarely works on screen, and ’30s screwball reconstruction, which generally dies like a dog (AT LONG LAST LOVE?) so they didn’t need to kneecap themselves before even starting. What’s odd about Pace is that although he seems awkward and out of place, he seems exactly like an awkward out-of-place Brit. He doesn’t slot into place with the others because he’s too naturalistically gawkish for the milieu. Interesting but wrong.

Ciáran Hinds — really sweet. The only actor who can talk to one character and then to another without making himself or them seem like a stray alien. His perf is so low-key and gentle it almost disappears before you, but he’s the one you remember.

Mark Strong — he was the best thing in Polanski’s (rather good) OLIVER TWIST, as the usually-deleted character Toby Crackit. Here he could actually get away with going more O.T.T. as he did there, but I don’t blame him for holding it in, surrounded as he is by erratically varying styles and pitches. He makes a good cad though — I need to check out some of his other work (SYRIANA, STARDUST).

Shirley Henderson — is a very dangerous woman. Versatile to the point of omnipotence, she can produce effects beyond the range of any earth-creature. Being fallible like the rest of us, she’s quite capable of making bad choices though, and playing them to the hilt so as to torpedo a whole movie, as in DOCTOR SLEEP. Here she does her Cruella-type villainess as if on helium, which is wildly impressive (if it were anyone else I’d assume she had computerized assistance, but NO, this is Shirley we’re talking about) as a technical feat, slightly distracting much of the time, but serves as a possible clue as to how all the other roles could have been played — with gusto, speed and sharp timing. Is this really so impossible today?

I’m usually a sucker for WWII stuff — MRS MINIVER slays me and the novels of Patrick Hamilton lay about my heartstrings with rusty saw-blades, but this fest I’ve seen two flicks set around wartime, this and THE EDGE OF LOVE, and neither really got me at all.

*

Out of PETTIGREW, bagel across the road, then back into the Cameo for my third helping.

ELEGY is directed by Isabel Coixet, whose episode of PARIS JE T’AIME was quite enjoyed round our place. This movie seems to relate quite closely to it in plot terms, too. But I.C. needs to wean herself off the V.O., which doesn’t add anything to this movie AT ALL.

Nicholas Meyer scripts. Remember him? As a novelist and film director he had a definite personality, tackling romps like TIME AFTER TIME (H.G. Wells chases Jack the Ripper in his time machine) and THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION (Sherlock Holmes teams up with Freud). He also managed to make a going concern out of the STAR TREK franchise, directing entries 2 and 6 (remember, the even-numbered TREKS are the good ones). In this movie he’s adapting Philip Roth, and there’s nothing to relate this to his earlier films — but quite a lot to connect it to THE HUMAN STAIN, another Roth adaptation by Meyer.

Sir Ben Kingsley, who will always be Handhi Bendhi Gandhi to me, falls madly in bed with Penelope Cruz, whose breasts he declares, not unreasonably, to be the best in the world. A lot of this film revolves around those breasts, so it’s a good job they were able to cast such a convincing pair. There is actually a surprising chemistry between the two stars. Sir Ben is on top form, managing to be real and surprising at the same time. Why hasn’t he played Picasso? He has a big bald head and his torso, which he staunchly parades here, is a dead ringer.

Ben can’t believe his luck with P. Cruz, which leads him to sabotage the relationship. Bad Sir Ben! It probably doesn’t help that he’s getting his romantic advice from Dennis Hopper. There might possibly be better people to listen to. What’s Robert Blake up to these days?

“Do you know what a love letter is? It’s a bullet from a fucking GUN.”

So the beautiful Cruz missiles go out of his life, only to return with a tragic twist (ouch). The perfs are exquise, the situations adult and interesting, only the cinematic qualities descend to cliché. Walks on the  beach: the couple together, then, morosely, Bendhi alone. That bloody voice-over. I have nothing against V.O., but try taking it out and see what happens. My guess: nothing. Erik Satie on the soundtrack. I was just watching Welles’ THE IMMORTAL STORY, as part of the Moreau retrospective, and thinking what a shame the Gymnopedies have been so overused since then, and here they come all over again.

Just before the festival a student asked me “What does ‘cinematic’ mean?” During the festival I heard various people debating it. Generally we agreed it was a tricky word with no set meaning. In ELEGY, Sir Bendhi quotes A.E. Houseman’s line about not knowing what poetry is, but recognising it at once when he sees it.

ELEGY is well-acted, written, and photographed, but I don’t recognise it as cinematic.

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