Once again, that frantic fortnight known as the London Film Festival came round, with a strange, hybrid kind of beast this year. For a while, it looked like there were going to be two of them; long-time organiser Sheila Whittaker peeled off and made noises about setting up her own event, but after negotiations, she leapt back on board. So with everything still being run by the British Film Institute and their cronies, the chances of getting tickets for big events were slim.
Looking at this year’s programme, very little actually leapt out yelling "Watch me! Watch me!" Tumbleweeds rolled majestically across the pages of the brochure between things I’d marked down as must-sees. The Hong Kong section was especially disappointing, but what do you expect when you get Tony Rayns to choose things? One entry was not too hard to predict: Happy Together, both because it was directed by Rayns’ friend Wong Kar Wai, and was about homosexuality -- but with 1997 perhaps the most important year in the former colony’s history, it would have been nice had that not been the sole film from there.
Bitching aside, I wasn’t too worried, as experience has shown that often it’s the films that you aren’t especially looking forward to which are the best (Miracle Mile, anyone?). I read through the synopses and eventually found some movies that sounded worth a look, and got tickets for most of them, though perhaps inevitably the closing gala had sold out. The relevance of this will become clear in due course...
Mimic (Guillermo del Toro) - The screening started 15 minutes late, not a good omen for the first film of the festival! Actually, it could have started early and you wouldn’t have too much to complain about -- like so many other movies this year, plot is not a strong point! Them! is a clear point of reference, as giant cockroaches menace the New York subways after a genetic experiment goes wrong, and it’s so dark that ‘Se7en’ might also be an inspiration. Mira Sorvino gets coated from head to foot in gunk, which might appeal to some people; the rest of you should enjoy the effects and ignore the storyline. The director will also quite likely annoy the hell out of you by over-frequent ‘false scare’ scenes; as a result, when the real things turn up, he’s cried wolf too often and you don’t give a damn. Still, at least it’s certainly a cinema movie, because it makes full use of the sound system to have ‘roaches zooming round the auditorium... C-
Incognito (John Badham) - It’s hard to work out what the point of this movie is; Jason Patric is an art forger hired to paint a ‘Rembrandt’, only to find himself double-crossed and on the run. It’s not exciting enough to be a thriller, or funny enough to be a comedy, despite making nods in both of these directions. It also suffers from a dodgy sense of location: every time a scene takes place in London, a Major Landmark is sure to loom overhead, just to prove they actually were there. Add in lots of ‘quirky’ British ‘characters’, and it all gets rather wince-inducing. The best bit is probably a lengthy sequence depicting the creation of the painting, which is more like La Belle Noiseuse than anything else -- although sadly, without the presence of any Emmanuelle Beart, and Irene Jacob as the French-babe-love-interest-art-professor isn’t quite in the same league. Alright, if you’re in an especially undemanding mood. D-
Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (Kirby Dick) - My, I do like titles which also function as a synopsis, it saves so much time. Bob, the subject of a RE-Search book, lives up to his title in this documentary -- the sequence of him driving a nail through his dick removes all doubt there. But he’s not just your average sicko-perv-Liberal-peer; in his case, it seems linked to his Cystic Fibrosis, which he battled for 40-odd years, and was his way of telling the disease, "Come and have a go, if you think you’re hard enough". Possessed of a mordant, black wit, Flanagan rages against his life until death, inspiring others with his attitude - notably one 17-year old babe, terminally ill with CF - despite also understandably being prone to severe mood swings. It’s uplifting and depressing at the same time: I left feeling grateful for my good health, aware how fragile life truly is, and looking for a Cystic Fibrosis collection box. B
Metropolis (various) - Short films are a two-edged sword. While a great way to experiment with new techniques, they can also be an excuse for self-indulgent nonsense of the worst sort. This programme, with a vague theme of ‘London’, covered both, and points in between. It started badly with London’s Markets, a collage of elderly footage of Petticoat Lane, etc, overdubbed with out of synch sound and two French people philosophising. Dull. It got worse with Wavelengths, a lesbian cybersex fantasy, which was turgid, cliched, ignorant and soporific. Thankfully, that was the pits: Bicycle is a hyper-kinetic sprint through the streets of London and New York, while Double told the story of a man meeting his doppelganger -- at six and four minutes long, neither out-stayed their welcome. The best was perhaps saved for last; Stood For This Massive, a documentary about sports gambler Harry Findlay, works simply because Findlay is so extraordinary and extravagant a character you wonder if it’s all a spoof. All they had to do was point a camera at him and let it roll. Truly a program of two halves, then, Jimmy... E to B+
Hana-Bi (Takeshi Kitano) - The seventh of Kitano’s films, and it’s all beginning to get a little over-familiar: this seems to combine elements from Violent Cop and Sonatine, yet ends up being less than the sum of those parts. Kitano is <sigh> a cop with a psychotic streak, who also has to look after his terminally ill wife, so he <sigh> takes her to the seaside. Of course, it all ends...well, if you’ve seen his other films, you’ll have a good idea of what to expect. There’s also shades of Bad Lieutenant in here too, as the hero is deep in debt to the mob, though Kitano’s reaction is slightly more measured, since it’s frequently demonstrated that he’s significantly tougher than the gangsters who lent him the money! The title means "Fireworks", and while moments of this film light up the sky like the most brilliant of rockets, large parts of it seem impenetrable to those outside of Japanese culture, and sadly, bear more resemblance to a damp squib. D
The Life of Stuff (Simon Donald) - Well, at least being a Trainspotting wannabe is better than being a Tarantino wannabe. Though there are distinct nods to him as well, in this Scottish tale of a bunch of inexperienced criminals holed up in a dingy warehouse after ripping off ‘Mad’ Alex Sneddon for his drug stash. The film gives an interesting twist to the usual structure of such things though, by starting off hysterical and gradually calming down, rather than accelerating towards insanity. This doesn’t quite work; its origins as a theatre play are too obvious, there are embarrassing moments of soppiness, and you can see the ending from quite some way off. However, it’s a brave attempt, bolstered by a fabulous score from John Lunn and memorable characterisations by most of the cast. Part-funded by lottery money, it’s a good incentive to go and buy a ticket. B-
The Winner (Alex Cox) - Perhaps that should be ‘Alan Smithee’, as Cox has effectively disowned this version of the movie. I take his point: "you won’t see much editing", he says in the production notes, but the finished version is packed with jump-cuts, even in simple conversations between two people. The film starts off like God of Gamblers, with a guy in Las Vegas who simply can’t lose a bet, and follows the machinations which surround him as various factions move to exploit the talent. Sadly, this potential is soon diluted by trailer-park angst, and I found there is a limit to the appeal of bickering white trash. It’s always nice to see Las Vegas -- for much of the film, thoughts of ‘been there’ drifted distractingly across my mind. Intriguing enough to make me want to see Cox’s version, I think Richard Stanley is the only director with a higher average in the "getting screwed by Hollywood" field. C-
Twenty-four Seven (Shane Meadows) - A further step up the scale for the director of Small Time, reviewed last TC; this time, he’s got a star, specifically Bob Hoskins as the guy who sets up a boxing club in an attempt to keep kids out of trouble. This is an undeniably cliched set-up, and there are gaping holes here and there (the rival gangs stop feuding virtually as soon as the club starts), but Hoskins provides the necessary weight to make it believable. Shot in black-and-white, it occasionally feels more like a pop video for the songs that loom over the movie soundtrack. Although generally light in tone, the movie flips in the last ten minutes into something totally different. Kudos to Meadows for pulling this off, it could have seemed contrived and false, yet ends up ringing true. A name to watch in future. C+
Funny Games (Michael Haneke) - Desperate Hours meets Last House on the Left by a lake in Austria, as two excruciatingly well-mannered psychopaths take a family hostage for no readily apparent reason. This is a challenging film which plays with the audience -- at one point, a villain talks directly to the camera, while there’s another, utterly audacious moment involving a remote control which simultaneously destroys and bolsters the cinematic illusion. The same director made Benny’s Video, which dealt with a similar topic -- Funny Games is probably a film which I’m looking back on more fondly than I thought at the time; the family are mere cyphers, and the psychos have so much more charm that the film seems flat without them. It’s very bleak and cold viewing, which asks a lot of questions and offers no easy answers. In fact, I’m not sure it offers any answers at all, even hard ones... B-
The End of Violence (Wim Wenders) - This is bordering on the impenetrable, but I’ll give it a shot. A film producer gets emailed a document detailing a government surveillance plan. Then someone tries to kill him, though the hitmen are themselves shot before they can carry out the deed, forcing the producer on the run, from where he tries to piece together what’s happening. In the right hands, this could have been taut and tense, but Wim Wenders hasn’t got the first clue about adrenalin. It’s a mess, with films-within-the-film leading to what is perhaps the most meaningful line, from Udo Kier as a film director: "I should have stayed in Europe". Looking at this overlong piece of nonsense, I begin to think Wenders should have taken his own advice. Andy McDowell turned up at the screening, at great expense to the BFI, no doubt, and to no real point. Wouldn’t mind, but, she still can’t act. E+
Memories (Koji Morimoto/Tensai Okamur/Katsuhiro Otomo) - Three stories for the price of one, though only the first, Magnetic Rose, bears much relation to the title. It’s also notably like Event Horizon, with a salvage team exploring an abandoned space-ship, which plays hallucinatory tricks on them, but at 45 minutes, works a lot better -- the first view of the spaceship is a jawdropper, and excellent use is made of music, notably Madame Butterfly. The second, Stink Bomb is very hardware oriented, with a lot of loving attention to detail on tanks, airplanes and the rest of the firepower brought to bear on an unwitting salaryman-turned-chemical-weapon. The final part is an exercise in technique; it’s a single shot lasting over twenty minutes, though the purpose of doing this in an animated film escapes me. And, like Hitchcock’s Rope, once you get over the ‘cleverness’ of it, there isn’t a great deal of depth. A movie of steadily declining return. C
And that was it. Oh, except for the last movie at the festival, which was Mike Figgis’ One Night Stand, starring Wesley Snipes and oh, some German has-been actress or other -- Anastasia something... Now, with this being the closing event, one would expect all the stars to come out, and I knew that Snipes was around, since an interview with him had been one of the featured events earlier in the festival. Was it too much to hope that my beloved Nastassja might also turn up? Probably. But I was there, outside the Empire, Leicester Square with my disposable Kodak camera, just in case.
Well, when I say "outside", I probably mean "somewhere in the general vicinity of". All the best spots had naturally been nabbed by the tabloid photographers, and all the second best ones by gawking tourists with nothing better to do -- and judging by the general height of those standing in front of me, there appeared to be a Croatian basketball team in town. I was reduced to sticking my camera above my head, pointing it in the general direction of the front, and hoping for the best.
Not that I need have worried, since (and I hope I’m not ruining the tension for you here), Nastassja failed to turn up. Indeed, neither did just about anyone else. Apart from Figgis and Snipes, the only other recognisable name was Alan Parker, the new president of the BFI, whom I suppose really had to be there. The fourth-ranked celebrity, in terms of flashbulbs expended, appeared to be, er, John Fashanu -- and I suspect half the photographers there mistook him for the star of the film.
And this is perhaps an appropriate note on which to finish. It says something about the pulling power and international renown of the London Film Festival, that hardly anyone can be bothered to turn up to its closing gala. The selection of films this year was also pretty lacklustre, with only the odd one or two that I’d recommend. The most entertainment was to be found watching a man die a slow, painful death – and that also says quite a lot about the 1997 LFF...