(London) Film (Festival) Blitz

Thursday 7th. The London Film Festival begins with ‘To Be Announced’, e taut thriller based around the race to get an opening movie for the event. Ok, Urn kidding, but when their last-minute choice is ‘The First Wives Club’, a standard slice of Hollywood stodge that opens here next week anyway, you begin to wish they hadn’t bothered. Glad I didn’t sign up, sight unseen.

Friday 8th. The festival proper starts with The Funeral (Abel Ferrara). Christopher Walken and Chris Penn are gangsters whose brother has been killed: they want to track down the murderer and extract revenge. Very much an acting film, with a loose plot that leaps around in time like Doctor Who on amphetamines. But, for acting, Walken’s your scan, though Penn is also creditably psychotic. If you know Ferrara’s work, it won’t spoil anything to tell you the ending is not quite “happily ever after”. C+

Forgotten Silver (Peter Jackson) is a fake-umentary which for some reason was twinned with ‘100 Years of Polish Cinema’, a completely serious documentary. Or at least, I assume so: together with a good percentage of the audience, I bailed out after roughly Three Seconds of Polish Cinema. Jackson’s spoof biopic of a New Zealand cinematic pioneer is pitched perfectly, building to the restoration of his 4-hour silent epic ‘Salome’. Jackson himself hosts the film, with cameos from Sam Neill and Leonard Maltin. Utterly ludicrous in cold daylight, but played so straight, it’s plausible that New Zealanders invented colour film and powered flight. B+

Of course, the festival isn’t just about movies. It’s also about drinking. With two hours – and a few liver cells – to kill, what better may than to hit the National Film Theatre bar, sink some beer, and quiz Alex Chandon about ‘Pervirella’. Appropriate topic before Fetishes (Nick Broomfield), even if on balance, three pints of Stella was a bad move, as it led to an emergency exit during the film — believe me, it’s not the sort of movie during which you want to be seen sloping off to the toilet. After the slightly disappointing ‘Heidi Fleiss’, Broornfield’s back on form with an eye-popping look at an S&M establishment in New York. All human life is there, including some bits you’d probably rather not see (Jews with concentration camp fetishes?), exposed with the director’s innocent eye. Whether it’ll ever appear here is questionable, as the BBFC are notably anti this sort of thing. But it deserves a far better fate: entertaining and educational A

Saturday 9th. A day off; no tickets for ‘Crash’, unsurprisingly! But after Friday’s press showing, the tabloid press have pounced, predictably led by the Daily Mail. It’s going to be very interesting to see what happens: Ferman likes Cronenberg, and has never cut his films, but will be under much pressure to ban ‘Crash’. Seems that Westminster Council are also getting complaints, and may ban it even if the BBFC don’t, knocking Leicester Square out. I reckon it’ll get a cinema certificate (possibly delayed), but any video release will be a long way off.

Sunday 10th. Got to bed at 4am, having fallen asleep on a night bus for the first time. Up rather too early, back into town to see Abel Ferrara being interviewed. Lot of interesting tit-bits carne out: it was originally Christopher Walken who was going to be the ‘Bad Lieutenant’, and one girl in the infamous car-masturbation sequence therein is actually Keitel’s babysitter! An interesting look at an uncompromising director: rumours say a) that he lives in a New York squat and b) is not averse to the odd controlled substance. Whether true or not, I couldn’t say, but the fact that they’re plausible says a lot about the man.

Small Time (Shane Meadows) could be a British equivalent of ‘El Mariachi’, with a micro-budget of a mere five grand — though I can hardly believe that, maybe we’re talking Mariachi-style hyperbole? For Mexico, read Nottingham, and the style here plays more like a documentary, with rapid cross-cutting between the inept crooks (dogfood heists are about their level) who’re plotting The Big One. Half scripted, half improvised, it belies the budget as mentioned, and points up another rising talent. British cinema has more to offer than Emma Thompson. B-

I meet Phil Martin, the only man I know who got a ticket for ‘Crash’, and greet him warmly by the throat. Also the ubiquitous Michael Brooke, unofficial head of the Brit-pack on Internet newsgroup. alt.cult-movies. We discuss ‘Crash’, inevitably; word is it’ll either get through uncut, or not at all. It won’t go quietly, either way. Bearing in mind my ‘Fetishes’ experience, I lay off the beer before Animal Love (Ulrich Seidl). On balance. I might have been better indulging. as it singularly failed to live up to the “NB Some scenes may offend” programme note. Yes, it’s about people’s obsession with their pets, but delights in the banal to such an extent that it becomes banal itself and is the first disappointment of the festival. E. In theory, should stay for ‘Under the Skin’, but can’t face 110 minutes of Peruvian cinema, so cut my losses early and head home.

Monday 11th. Someone is Waiting (Martin Donovan) doesn’t sound like my kind of film: “a lyrical and moving tale of redemption and familial love that suggests death can offer hope to life”. But Nastassja’s in it, so I’ve got to see it — it’s like my job and stuff. Not exactly cheery: the teenage hero starts off wanted for his father’s murder, and life isn’t exactly a bowl of cherries from then on. In flashback, we see his mother (NK) getting killed by bank robbers, for which drunken father Gabriel Byrne holds him responsible. Only a sense of responsibility to his siblings and the memory of his mother keep him going, until a struggle with Dad turns deadly. The visual equivalent of a Joy Division LP: bleak. depressing. but somehow uplifting, thanks to strong performances and a great soundtrack. Though we are not talking enormous commercial potential, it’s unquestionably a worthy effort. B

Tuesday 12th – Thursday 14th. In the eye of the hurricane, a three-day break without any films. Instead, another media panic; the Evening Standard attempt to provoke more controversy by targeting the program of American underground films playing the ICA next weekend. No-one seems concemed, not even Virginia Bottomley, who wants local councils to ban ‘Crash’. Ironically, the same edition has Gong Li, talking about how the oppressive Chinese government censor her work. I feel a letter to the editor coming on… Should have been double Gilliam on Thursday, a Guardian interview and a film on the making of ’12 Monkeys’. But it clashed with Laibach in concert; after much agonising, they won, even though I’d bought the LFF tickets. Still not actually seen ’12 Monkeys’ so I decided there was little point in hearing all about it, and sold the tickets to Alex Chandon. As for Laibach, what can one say about a group whose pre-concert tape was ‘Cat Stevens’ Greatest Hits’? Sheer genius.

Friday 15th. Not sure why I went to Tokyo Fist (Tsukamoto Shinya), since I didn’t really rate either ‘Tetsuo’ movie. Tsukamoto himself plays a salaryman whose wife is seduced by a boxer (played by Shinya’s brother!), after being beaten up, he takes up boxing himself in preparation for… well, a final 15 minutes of weirdness. Unlike its predecessors, you can watch ‘Tokyo Fist’ in more than pop-promo sized chunks, but despite the odd disturbing image, by the and it still feels too much like Tsukamoto is going over the same ground once again: metal & flesh, speeded-up film, decay. Yawn. Someone suggested he’d have been an alternative to Cronenberg for ‘Crash’, but on this showing, it’d just have become ‘Tetsuo 4’. Change the script, please. D-

Saturday 16th. Oops. After Thursday’s explanation of why I didn’t go to see Terry Gilliam, I find myself listening to ’12 Monkeys’ scriptwriters, David and Janet Peoples. I’d gone on the strength of David’s work on ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘The Unforgiven’; lucidly, the discussion flows along general lines, the few ’12 Monkey’-specific sections merely pique my interest in the film more. David especially is a heartening figure, from the “I can do better than that” school of writers. He and his wife seem to make a good team; he views films as a collection of images, while she is more story-driven. I leave, with the firm intention of writing a script of my own…

Sunday 17th. Microcosmos (Claude Nuridsany). Appropriately enough for a film about insects, London Transport behaves like an anaesthetised slug: at 4pm. the bus I’m on is crawling round Parliament Square. Luckily, the LFF is also its usual tardy self and I hit my seat as the film starts. Basically, a nature film writ large; no commentary, just insects eating, fighting, breeding, living and dying. However, the big screen adds a whole new dimension — though I’m not entirely happy, twitching nervously at 30-foot high wasps in THX. Truly a cinematic experience: once this impact has worn off, there’s not much else on offer, but how can one resist a film where the leading players include “ladybird with seven spots, climbing caterpillar, bee gathering pollen”? C+

Tony Rayns is the Antichrist of Oriental cinema as far as I’m concerned. His fondness for tedious arthouse fodder over explosive action means our views usually diverge sharply so I worry over his glowing review of (Focus) Osaka Satoshi). But for once, we agree, even if he misses the obvious similarities to ‘Man Bites Dog’. Both are scathing attacks on television culture, with film crews following anti-social loners — here, a cellphone eavesdropper — who find events outstripping them; as in MBD, our sympathies flip half-way through. The cause in ‘Focus’ is an overheard call detailing the location of a pistol; is it a hoax? Course not. Shot in long, unflinching takes, while perhaps lacking the sheer venom of its Belgian brother, it certainly hits the target. B+

Monday 18th. Kids Return (Takeshi Kitano). Has boxing suddenly become incredibly popular in Japan? I ask, as it features in recent films by two major directors: in ‘Tokyo Fist’ as a means of revenge, and here as a way out of a dead-end life. The main characters are a bunch of loser schoolkids, and we follow their paths through to adulthood: one becomes a boxer, one joins the Yakuza, and one…well, just fails. I detect a strong element of autobiography here — the two main protagonists harbour dreams of fame as a comedy act — but that isn’t enough to hold interest, despite a similarly languid feel as ‘Sonatine’, where time also had a nebulous dimension. After the first hour, my interest started to wander, and never quite came back. D

Tuesday 19th. Unexpected festival surprises often turn out to be better than the planned movies. So it is with Shine (Scott Hicks). I bought a seat purely on recommendation, and when I looked it up in the program, my heart sank boot-wards. A biopic of a musician? Based on a true story? Shudder. Luckily, this is much more, especially after we pass the inevitable, cliched, domineering father. Central character David Helfgott (played by three actors at various ages) proves how thin the line `twixt genius and madness is, teetering between stardom and vagrancy. Remarkably restrained (bar Sir John Gielgud going OTT as only he can) and unsentimental, yet very funny at times and guaranteed to have you humming Rachmaninov’s 3rd. A most pleasant experience. A-

That’s more than can be said for Irma Vep (Olivier Assayas). Maggie Cheung plays herself, in Paris to remake a silent movie as a result of her `Heroic Trio’ role, only to find the production falling round her ears. It smacks of “let’s mock Hong Kong cinema”; the clips from HT are edited, cropped and grainy, to make it look cheap and tacky, plus the film portrays fans of such films as shallow or unstable. Yet the director delivers something infinitely less interesting, full of banalities that fail to amuse in the slightest. The film-within-the-film has some promise, and Cheung provides the few worthwhile moments, but it’s either the least amusing comedy since ‘Ace Ventura’, or a very nasty piece of intellectual arrogance. E+

The Guardian interview with Takeshi was slightly distancing; he spoke through an interpreter, so the sizeable Japanese contingent got the jokes earlier, and found them more amusing before translation. However, refreshing to hear a director who lets an audience come to their own conclusions, rather than forcing morals down their throat. Between directing, writing, painting, and acting, he’s a busy man: still not 100% after a road accident, he had to pause a couple of times to take eye drops. Glad he’s recovering though, we need more characters like him around.

Wednesday 20th. Aggravating letter in ‘Time Out’, from a guy bragging how three friends got tickets for ‘Crash’. despite not being BFI members. Now, how did they manage that, given it supposedly sold out before this BFI member got to it? So much for ‘priority booking’. Humph. Maybe I’m paranoid, but I really do suspect a cabal runs the LFF, distributing tickets to their friends before we poor members get a sniff. Anyway, my membership has lapsed now — and will stay that way at least until 1997’s festival!

What would the London Film Festival be, without a fix of everyone’s pet abuse object, Jennifer Jason Leigh, a long-time TC fave since her enthusiastic portrayal of Stretcho, the amazing elastic girl in ‘The Hitcher’. [That sentence will make no sense if you haven’t seen the film. But hell, you should have. Go! Now!) This year, it’s Kansas City (Robert Altman), which annoyingly opens in the West End on Friday anyway. Leigh is a gangster’s moll whose husband has been captured by some nasty rivals (led by, of all people, a very creepy Harry Belafonte) and who kidnaps a politico’s wife (Miranda Richardson) to try and get help. Though Leigh is her usual sterling self, there’s a lot of slack here: characters whose relevance is unclear, and endless footage of jazz musicians jamming. If you knew about the period and characters involved, you’d find it a lot more enthralling; as is, while there’s no denying the quality, it’s all somewhat unfocused and pointless. C-

Thursday 21st. With the Daily Mail getting more and more hysterical, and Westminster Council electing to ban ‘Crash’, at least pending the BBFC decision, it seems an appropriate, if downbeat, moment to draw this report to a close — there’s only a single movie left to see, and I do want to try and have one vaguely topical article in TC! Should ‘King Girl’ be the most amazing film I’ve ever seen, I’ll drop something in the editorial. Otherwise: ‘Fetishes’ was the best of the fest (it’s getting a cinema release — Westminster permitting, I guess), with ‘Shine’ the runner-up, and ‘Animal Love’ gets the TC Golden Raspberry for worst movie and most misleading advertising. Thank you and goodnight. Roll on next year.