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Posts from January 2012

Rotterdam 2012 - Mushrooms, Revolution and Cocktail Lounge Americana (Day 3)

Posted Tuesday 31 January 2012 by Kate Taylor in Festival Reports

There is something wonderful about walking through a city at 8.45am on a Saturday on your way to a 9.15am screening, with all the hope that you'll discover a gem.  Now, Forager: A Film About Love and Mushrooms starts with a similar urge from its couple protagonists, Lucien and Regina, rising early to head into the woods and forage for fungi.

A food film with a focus on the labour behind food, and a romance that begins at the point where the relationship is already drifting apart, Now Forager has much to admire, and will do well programmed in any season around cuisine, with particular resonance with the slow food movement, and beyond that is a smart American indie that could find fans who like their drama thoughtful.  On the way to the next venue I buy an apple, and remind myself "this grew from a seed, which was planted in an orchard and picked and transported…"

Then, Bingo!  I encounter the first new feature that totally makes all the cinephile senses tingle.  It is a portrait of Japanese filmmaker and revolutionary Maseo Adachi by French filmmaker Philippe Grandrieux, titled Il se peut que la beauté ait renforcé notre resolution (It May Be That Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve). The film mixes a soundtrack of Adachi's sometimes elliptical recollections of his inspiration to become a filmmaker and his time in the Red Army Faction and Beirut, with glimmers of music and occasionally Grandrieux's own testimony, with contemporary visuals of Adachi, often at twilight, in the playground with his grandchild or in the bars of Tokyo, and glimpses of footage from Adachi's own films.

As a paean to the creative spirit it is inspirational, and as a reminder of the repercussions of living through a revolution that failed it is absolutely riveting.  Asides from one collaboration with Wakamatsu, I had only come across Adachi as a name in books, so I'm happily resolved to see more of his, and indeed Grandrieux's (who is planning a series of portraits of politically committed filmmakers) ouvres.

Tiger contender Romance Joe, director Lee Kwang-Kuk's debut feature, is at first so reminiscent of his former mentor that he might be dubbed Hong Sang-two.  We have plots revolving around filmmakers transplanted to unfamiliar hotel environments, and in the first few minutes a drunken argument across a table, prompting a strong sense of déjà vu.  However, Kwang-Kuk departs with a meta-element to the story by placing nearly all the characters as contingent on the narrator relating them, meaning that accounts of the web of interconnected characters are only as (un)reliable as the storyteller.  It's a slight film, shot plainly, but as winner of Busan's audience award, it will be of interest to fans of low-key Korean cinema.

The videotheque at Rotterdam is the best that I know of and one that other festivals would do well to replicate.  A closed circuit wi-fi network means that films in the library can be seen by delegates on any laptop inside de Doelen, the festival's hub building.  And the room itself has ample viewing stations, this year open until 11pm each night, meaning it's possible to catch up on films outside the screening schedule.

Here I see The Great Northwest, an imaginative travelogue by Matt McCormick.  Having picked up a scrapbook in a junkshop, documenting a road trip made by four women around the Northwest of America in 1958, McCormick decided to recreate the journey, recording the places they visited over 50 years later.

The scrapbook is a wonderful document in itself, lovingly compiled of photos, beer mats, napkins and cocktail menus (the ladies liked to drink), and even starts with the withdrawal receipts from the women's checking accounts, $370.  On the 3,200 mile journey, most striking on the surface is what's changed, including whole towns wiped out, with the filmmaker indicating the various historical catalysts; highway construction and dam-building, the decline of the mining industry and the eruption of Mount St Helens.  But also striking is what remains identical, with the kitsch of roadside diners and neon motels taking on a different hue when situated as the heroic survivors of bygone taste.

McCormick resists the urge to place himself at the centre of things, there is no voiceover, and his mainly factual commentary is written onscreen over the images that he captures.  Yet this journey is definitely his own, and he has a friendly eye for the absurd, be it the overzealous proprietress at a ride-a-stuffed-moose attraction, the hundreds of tourists all waiting to take identical photos of the great geysers (which he teasingly refuses to show), and the highlight of any road trip - winding ever so carefully through a herd of slow moving cattle - the funniest edge-of-your-seat single shot of the festival so far.  I can imagine this film will travel well at festivals, and while distinctly lo-fi in production values may hamper wider release, it would be enjoyed by many.

Then I play catch up with Sack Barrow, Ben Rivers' 21-minute art documentary shot in the Servex Ltd factory, a metal finishing and polishing plant in Hemel Hempstead.

The colour palette, down to the blue boiler suits, wouldn't feel out of place in a Kaurismaki film, walls of blue and green and machinery in various shades of brown.  But this is not the clinical environs we imagine of modern-day industry, rather the factory exudes a 1970's vibe, with topless pin-ups torn from magazines on the walls, and the time capsule feel echoed by the mineral-encrusted pipes.  Perhaps the steaming chemicals rising from great vats have pickled the premises.  It's an affectionate portrait, and ends with an unexpectedly joyful twist, with a cheeky use of soundtrack.

Dinner follows, swapping best festival war stories with a couple of programmers from Abandon Normal Devices and Cine-City Brighton Film Festival over Mexican food, and the illicit thrill (at least for us UK-ers) of smoking indoors at the cigar bar next to the Schouwburg venue.  My best film day so far, and time spent foraging has been well rewarded.

Rotterdam 2012 - In Absentia (Day 2)

Posted Monday 30 January 2012 by Kate Taylor in Festival Reports

Friday starts in a rustic mode, with two very different set films in the countryside.

Nana follows the almost unbearably charming eponymous four-year-old as she hangs out on the farm where her father works, and then in the remote house she shares with her mother, who is perhaps depressed.  When her mother leaves one day and does not return it is up to Nana to take care of herself, something that she does with aplomb.  Occasionally Nana could be confused for a tiny old lady, so clear she is in her outlook, and this is a highly unsentimental account of the resourcefulness of a child's capacity for self-sufficiency.

I was attracted to Nana on account of its director Valérie Massadian’s previous work with Nan Goldin, and certainly this background in photography lends a fantastic sense of composition to proceedings, whether it's the scenery as Nana goes picking wood in the forest, or the matter-of-fact slaughter of a pig at the film's opening.  Winner of best debut at the Locarno Film Festival, this film would probably translate well to UK cinema audiences.

Rural Poland is our setting for It Looks Pretty From A Distance, the debut feature by artists Wilhelm and Anka Sasnal, in contention for the Tiger Award.  Starting in a deceptively low-key realist manner, it does indeed look pretty, as we watch the inhabitants of a poor village go about their labouring, gossiping and trying to scrape money together, always filmed with a remarkable depth in the image, people and objects covering distance in the frame.

When a man walks into the forest and does not return to his property for a few days, things start to get truly weird, as the villagers move in on the house, and a darkness at the heart of the community becomes apparent, shocking in the routine nature of its atrocities.  It's a measured film that unfolds slowly, with few footholds for the audience, making it tough viewing, but its impression lingers.  It also spells my first official theme to emerge (three films = a theme, right?), which is people going AWOL into the forest.

We're back in the metropolis for Tokyo Playboy Club, another Tiger Award contender.  This time a gangster comedy, where a brothel owner finds himself in hot water when an idiotic employee steals money from the till and an old friend returns to town who cannot put a lid on his violent temper.  After a promisingly stylish opener the film was happy to slide into some pretty painful clichés (the dimwitted prostitutes irked me most, but then every single character was meant to be a bit dim), and in the end I had to put this down to a difference in sense of humour.

Someone else absent without leave in Rotterdam was Aki Kaurismaki, and after 25 minutes had elapsed in the sold out event for Le Havre, meant to feature a Big Talk (IFFR's director in-conversation events that happen before the film), the audience started a slow clap.  Whether drunk, or just not enamored of the format, Kaurismaki proved a truculent and unwilling interviewee, sitting on the floor of the set, and giving three word answers under his breath.  The interviewer did well to remain composed and kept trying to coax a little more responsiveness from him, but when he needled "why are you so nervous?" she replied "I think I need a drink!" got a big cheer and then the audience boo-ed him off.

The film itself is probably brilliant. It was certainly good looking and seemed to have Kaurismaki's deadpan humour in abundance from the audience response.  However, I made my first slip-up on not checking the subtitles in advance, which were in Dutch, so the film became an exercise in testing my GCSE French to the limit.  I look forward to re-watching it on its release in the UK in April.

Rotterdam 2012 - Poetic Daring Weird Hilarious Sick Film (Day 1)

Posted Monday 30 January 2012 by Kate Taylor in Festival Reports

Back in the 'dam and ready for some mind-bending cinema, fueled by Vietnamese street food and coffee caught between venues.  This year we are promised a leaner selection of films, following last year's occasionally scattershot programme quality.  Day one begins and ends with scenes of a sexual nature, a bookending of blow jobs, and a sharp reminder of the daring nature of programming that Rotterdam prides itself on.

We begin with Clip, a Serbian film on adolescent lust, in competition for the festival's Tiger Award. Pretty teenager Jasna perpetually documents her life through her cameraphone, and desperate to catch the attention of a boy at her school, records herself in a series of sexy poses with an MTV lingerie aesthetic that contrasts her humble family life where her father faces terminal illness.

The film brings to mind last year's Tilva Rosh, also at IFFR, which involved a pair of Serbian skater kids, knocking around in abandoned spaces and recording themselves doing Jackass-style stunts. Clip shares the commentary on a youth to whom self-documentation is a normalised form of expression and escape, but also a catalyst to self-destruction, and there is common nihilism at play.

All the pleasure less bumping and grinding of Clip is certainly pretty depressing, and the film wallows in the murky waters of pornification, so concerned with a harsh authenticity while characters remain underdeveloped, that a wider social commentary is conspicuous by its absence.  Any film that has a much-needed title card on the end credits to reassure the audience that no underage persons were involved in the nudity or sexual acts, is unlikely to translate to non-festival environments

In total contrast, Ace Attorney is the latest film from Takashi Miike, based on a Capcom videogame.  A big messy confetti canon of a film, the first ten minutes are such baffling mélange of genre and narrative modes that it takes a while to recover.  Less steampunk than megabyte fever dream, 'cyber-baroque' might cover it.

A new bench trial system is the setting for a series of courtroom battles as rookie lawyer Phoenix Wright must establish the murderer of his partner, in pitched battles with counsel, where virtual CSI projections are summoned at will, and the drama hinges on a well-placed holler of "Objection!" across the room.

Aided by the victim's sister, a spirit medium conjuring encouraging words from beyond the grave, and his hyper friend in the role of the slapstick fool, elements of broad comedy and the supernatural blaze through with a zaniness that only falters due to repetition and the extended running time.  Also, Wright is no Sherlock, and any crime fans will be frustrated with the pace, especially as the culprit becomes clear to the audience a good hour before our hero twigs on.  But there is a definite charm here that could appeal to children, who may also be more enamored of its surreal flourishes.  One for the 8 ½ foundation, perhaps?

Staying in Japan, but heading back into low-budget territory, next is About the Pink Sky, a black and white digital feature with non-professional actors.  Our heroine is Izumi, a thirteen year old with a leftfield sense of morality, who finds a wallet containing 300,000 yen.  As she uses her own cheeky logic on the redistribution of wealth, we watch as she tries to wriggle out of the consequences, which include producing a newspaper full of good news for a boy her friend has a crush on.  Photographed impeccably, it's an airy, light film, that relies on the audience falling for Izumi's charms, but she is neither a Zazie nor a Juno, and to this viewer it remains a wispy confection.

The highlight of the day, by far, came in the form of Tiger Award for Short Films Programme 1, with the selection offering the kind of perception-altering experiences that make IFFR a destination for examining the edges of cinema.

Im Freien was filmed in Iceland by a crew of three, where an image was captured every three minutes for three months (with a half an hour break to change the film rolls every eight days).  As a silent 23 minute film, it was not only a feat of time-lapse and double exposures, but its rough terrain vs modernist leanings place it in an interesting land art context, which intersects with the likes of Semiconductor, although by placing a body in the frame director Albert Sackl diverges by asking questions about nature and Man with a capital M.

Mati Diop will be known to many for her lead role in Claire Denis' 35 Shots of Rhum. Having won the Tiger Award for her short Atlantiques in 2010, Diop returns with a couple of films in this year's festival. Big In Vietnam takes as it's starting point a film shoot for what seems a pretty schlocky period adaptation about 'sensuality', but departs from here when the lead actor wanders deep into the forest, never to return.  The director and her son head in opposite directions and a long night and morning of the soul ensues on the streets of Marseilles.  Shot in a grungy digital this is a moving and perceptive meditation on lost people, that shows immense sensitivity.

Influenced by Dick Hebdige's classic tome on subculture, Phil Collins presented the meaning of style, a five-minute lyrical portrait of a group of skinheads in Malaysia.  Reveling in the sharp fashion against locations including a basic cinema and a palatial terrace, the film hints at questions around colonial legacy, and the anti-fascist origins of the skinhead movement, while a set of butterflies add to a pretty aesthetic, wrapped in a soundtrack from Gruff Rhys & Y Niwl.

The last film in the programme, Springtime, harked to a 1970's performance art tradition, where filmmaker Jeroen Eisinga, sits in front of the camera, with a swarm of bees covering his arms, torso, and eventually his face.  Maintaining a stare into the camera lens for as long as he can keep his eyes open, in black and white the creatures squiggle all over him like television static, disappearing into the wall behind.  Uncomfortable viewing becomes hypnotic, underscored by the fact that this is a potentially fatal stunt.

Finally a total treat to end the day was George Kuchar: Wrap Party, a screening of the last two films Kuchar completed before his death in 2011.  Having been lucky enough to see a selection of Kuchar's Christmas films in London as part of the launch of the excellent Kuchar-flavoured edition of Little Joe magazine, I was prepared for the mix of weather commentary, diaristic monologue and filthy interludes of HotSpell, detailing Kuchar's motel encounter with some bad meteorological mojo.  Meanwhile, Empire of Evil is pure trash noir, with an orgy of students from the San Francisco Art Institute camping it up as a homoerotic crime syndicate self-destructs turning innocents to killers, and good girls bad.  My festival has begun!

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