Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Edinburgh Film Festival 2003

Published on: March 23rd, 2003

EDINBURGH 2003

brief notes on movies shown at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, 2003

by Neil Young


PART ONE : After Life to EvenHand
(For Part Two or Part Three click here)


AFTER LIFE

6/10

[The Trilogy : 7/10]

Apres la vie aka The Trilogy : Three [La Trilogie – Apres la Vie] : Belgium/France 2003 : Lucas BELVAUX : 123 mins

Slow-burning tale of relationship in crisis. Pascal is a cop (Gilbert Melki), Agnes is a teacher (Dominique Blanc) and a drug addict. This sets up painful intersections of the professional and personal, cf Al Pacino and Diane Venora in Heat, except here we’re prowling the not-so-mean streets of Grenoble on the scenic Franco-Swiss border. Mountainside city to which Melki gracefully and slowly descends via cable-car in the opening sequence easily most striking visual sequence in mostly hand-held, gritty-looking picture (cinematographer: Pierre Milon.)

Direction mostly functional not surprising, given complexity of this ambitious Trilogy’ project (movie slots alongside An Amazing Couple [see below] and On the Run three intersecting movies set in same place and time, with same group of characters, told in different genre styles). Effective split-focus alternation between Pascal and Agnes. Arrival of enigmatic terrorist LeRoux (the red) in town distracts Pascal, indirectly brings Agnes’s situation to extremis.

Much discussed, LeRoux finally turns up halfway through as white knight figure to save teacher from vicious drug-dealer. Played by director Belvaux, he’s principled survivor from early-80s radical movement (cf The State I Am In), has been in jail. Ghost of the past turns up to haunt old colleagues, who have since settled into cosy bourgeois lives (except in private ‘Mort aux vaches!’ is a drinking toast: i.e. ‘death to pigs!’).

Movie is the kind of low-key, intense drama that’s usually labelled ‘adult’ Riccardo Del Fra’s musique is tres, tres serieux. Pace flags a bit from time to time, but movie propelled along by performances by Melki (Pascal becoming increasingly end-of-tether and violent) and, especially, Blanc: dominates proceedings as saucer-eyed Agnes. Her suffering all too convincing in her strung-out cold-turkey agonies. Resolution somewhat abrupt, given somewhat leisurely pace of preceding two hours.

Well-played, coolly told and nicely edited by Valerie Loiseleux. Absorbing, even if it does become somewhat overcomplex and frustratingly oblique on the margins peripheral characters who will take centre stage in the other segments of the trilogy. Nagging feeling that there’s something missing here and of course there is. Doesn’t quite manage to stand alone, but, with Belvaux’s trilogy, the whole is weirdly much greater than the sum of the parts.

  


ALL TOMORROW’S PARTIES

5/10

China 2003 : YU Lik Wai : 95 mins

One of the year’s most remarkable-looking films. If you can keep your eyes op en, that is. ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ will be very grim affairs if this peek into the mid-21st century is any kind of accurate guide. A desolate China where ‘western values have been swept away’ replaced by faith in ‘Orbit’ movement, a kind of Buddhist-tinged fascism with elements of Falun Gong, Taliban and Aum. And what a mess it all is, though electricity still works. Director Yu makes most of several ‘found’ dystopias (which would have cost a fortune to build/destroy just for the movie) in China’s post-industrial areas (chronicled in Wang Bing’s epic documentary Tie Xi Qu aka West of the Tracks). Spectacular rust-belt backdrops at times suggest this could be China’s answer to Stalker, with echoes of Kiyoshi Kurosa wa’s ecstatic apocalypses at the end of movies like Pulse.

Except this time the story isn’t so strong. Various folk ‘on the run’ from the authorities, escape a prison-camp type area, make their way cross country. Their mishaps related in fragmentary, elusive scenes. Interspersed with footage supposedly taken from Orbit’s bizarre North Korea-style sepia-tinged retro-futuristic propaganda. These brief interpolations are exotic and visually impressive likewise many images captured by cinematographer Lai Yiu Fai, often to accompaniment of stately strings score. Emphasis isn’t on specific human ‘stories’ as such, but on their interactions with their (dramatic) environments. This is the real ‘story’: poetic accumulation of moods and details. Dialogue (probably very deliberately) stilted and stylised. A typical exchange:

Q – You’re leaving Orbit. Don’t you want a career.
A – You’re my demon.

Results, while often striking, are dramatically too inert to sustain interest, even over such a relatively brief running-time. Only partially redeemed by control of imagery too often succumbs to gratuitous tedium. Stay awake for the kind-of-great last shot, though.

  


AN AMAZING COUPLE

6/10

[The Trilogy : 7/10]

Un Couple Epatant aka The Trilogy : Two [La Trilogie Un Couple Epatant] : Belgium/France 2003 : Lucas BELVAUX : 123 mins

Slots alongside After Life [see above] and On the Run as part of Belvaux’s wildly ambitious trilogy, in which the three movies work OK individually, but add up to something surprisingly effective and memorable when seen in conjunction with each other. According to Belvaux, the films can be seen in any order and stand on their own. Impossible to say on the former, but latter is only partly true.

An Amazing Couple is the only comic picture in the trilogy other two are much more dour affairs. Light, very ‘French’ French farce of marital paranoia, with darker edges where it rubs up against the other two movies. Husband (Francois Morel) and wife (Ornella Muti) keep getting the ‘wrong end of t he stick’ and presumptions of infidelity multiply into absurdity. Film is all about the dangers of making presumptions based on partial information: very ironic, that, given the judicious parcelling-out of information which constitutes Belvaux’s storytelling style over the course of the trilogy.

As with After Life, competent and absorbing/entertaining, thanks in no small part to central performance though Morel’s turn as the hapless Alain is much less gruelling than Dominique Blanc’s drug-addict Agnes from the other picture. Also shares with After Life problem of slightly disappointing finale doesn’t build to the major farce climax we’d been expecting, and, as someone remarks at a pivotal moment, ‘It’s arbitrary’. Slight tailing off, with ‘to be continued’ air hanging over things.

After having seen two episodes, this reviewer is very keen to complete the Trilogy with On the Run but is this project really worth six hours’ running time? And this translates to a much greater commitment from audiences as they’ll be expected to spread the Trilogy over three different trips to the theatre. Faced with this kind of format-stretching originality, critics instinctively over-react the Trilogy isn’t a masterpiece, but the structure of the whole gives each movie a particular atmosphere: part-game, part-puzzle, part grand artistic folly.

  


AMERICAN SPLENDOR

7/10

Shari Springer BERMAN & Robert PULCINI : USA 2003 : 100 mins

After Crumb and Ghost World comes another journey into the counter-cultural world of the American adult-oriented comic-book. Ambitious and entertaining fictional/documentary hybrid examining Harvey Pekar, resident of Cleveland, Ohio, who came to prominence in the mid-70s as author of American Splendor comic book about his daily life, drawn (initially) by Robert Crumb. From very first scene (during Pekar’s childhood, he goes trick-or-treating and, while his pals are decked out as superheroes, he’s just Harvey Pekar) artifice is avoided at every step. Film post-modern in acknowledgement of its own status deconstruction of the format in vein of Party Monster (see Edinburgh3) and 24 Hour Party People.

A world away from such decadent showbiz excesses, however and fascinating to see technique applied to very different, much more explicitly political subject-matter. Pekar as chronicler of upper-working/lower-middle class life, somewhere between blue and white collar (UK description ‘semi-skilled’ perhaps closest to mark he’s a filing clerk at a hospital). ‘Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff’ could be movie’s mantra he’s ‘the blue-collar Mark Twain’. David Letterman, on whose show Pekar often guested, describes him (not entirely ironically) as ‘the embodiment of the American Dream.’

Brilliant, perennially-underused Paul Giamatti seizes rare lead role as Pekar: permanent desperation in his bug eyes, weight of world heaped on his round shoulders. Tragic elements (Pekar gets cancer) but often very funny: ‘Poor dishwashing has always been my Achilles heel’. Oddball, Annie Hall-ish ‘nervous romance’ with Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis).

Pekar’s financial imperatives clear from the outset: grumbles that he doesn’t make enough money, despite success of American Splendor comics. ‘Sunshine and flowers don’t sell.’ Paradox : will fame (via the movie) spoil Harvey Pekar? He says he hopes ‘this movie’ will improve his fiscal situation. But wary of being ‘co-opted by huge corporations’ odd, then, that movie is made by HBO, a subsidiary of megacorporation AOL-Time-Warner!

Comics-come-to-life visuals intriguing, but far from original (not that dissimilar from The Hulk at times) and Unbreakable remains the most effective movie about the whole comic-book subculture. Jazzy score here almost ever-present, and directorial style relatively conventional, not immune to cliché.

Impossible to dislike, nevertheless, even though it does fall prey to slight cuddly/cuteness on occasion (which the real Pekar probably wouldn’t be too keen on). Also, as with Ghost World, a little too conscious of its own cu lty, counter-culture, preaching-to-converted neo-bohemian appeal.

For a more pictorial account of the film click here.


BLIND SHAFT

6/10

Mang Jing : Hong Kong (HK/China/Germany) 2003 : LI Yang

Winner of the Silver Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, Blind Shaft is what The Independent called the ‘stunning debut’ of 43-year-old writer-director Li, a German-educated film-maker from China’s often surprisingly radical ‘sixth generation’ . Shot undercover and documentary-style among the deathtrap coalmines of the nation’s post-industrial hinterland, the film is so-so as a con-artist thriller, OK as a character-study morality-tale, but is most effective as a depressing expose of a society that seems to combine the very worst aspects of capitalism among communism’s shattered remnants.

The opening scene is familiar from all mining dramas on an icy morning, workers share a last cigarette before descending in their ‘cage’ to the stygian seam below. But just as we’re getting our bearings, Li pulls the first of several audacious twists which it would be unfair to reveal here. Suffice to say that we then follow the exploits of two miners, Tang (Wang Shuangbao) and Song (Li Yixiang) as they travel from mine to mine exploiting the weaknesses in a hopelessly under-regulated industry by pulling off murderous insurance scams. Their next ‘mark’ is a fresh-faced, innocent teenager, Yuan (Wang Baoqiang) so innocent, in fact, that even these heartless killers begin to feel the gnawing pangs of conscience.

Given the circumstances of the shooting, the finished product is surprisingly polished all credit to cinematographer Liu Yonghong and sound-man Wang Yu. The performances are strong and believable, and the dialogue convincingly rough-hewn. As in All Tomorrow’s Parties (see above), we’re a world away from the gleaming metropolises of modern China seen in films like Shanghai Panic there’s no shortage of ‘found dystopias’ among the unseen hinterlands of this vast country, and Blind Shaft works well as an absorbing social-document critique-cum-snapshot of a particularly dark period. While the basic story is timeless (could be applied to any under-regulated, hazardous profession), the picture presented of modern China is piercingly specific: a dystopian free-for-all where only the toughest and most venal prosper. And you suspect what we’re shown is probably only the tip of the iceberg.

There’s certainly very little evidence of communism here, or even socialism the ethos is strictly survival-of-the-fittest in the towns we see: grim cousins of the ruined Montana settlements chronicled in the documentary An Injury To One. No union, no safety standards, pitifully low wages, no law given such an environment, it perhaps isn’t a surprise that the worst aspects of humanity rise to the surface: at times, Blind Shaft feels like an eastern variant on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Li’s film is easier to admire than actually like, however: the set-up is intriguing enough, but the movie sags during the middle, only to pick up as Yuan comes more to the forefront even if, as soon as he appears, many viewers will be able to predict the climactic, not-so-shocking twist

  


CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS

8/10

[upgraded to 9/10 after second viewing, Jan.04]

USA 2003 : Andrew JARECKI : 107 mins

By a clear margin the best film this reviewer saw at Edinburgh 2003: a complex, genuinely thought-provoking documentary that probes the limitations of memory, justice and even the documentary form itself. The starting-point is a sensational trial that rocked a well-heeled suburb of Long Island in the mid-to-late eighties after Arnold Friedman, an award-winning teacher, and his teenage son Jesse were arrested on child-abuse charges.

Debutant director Jarecki confidently switches between TV news reports from the time, recent interviews with the surviving principals and, most remarkably, the copious footage shot by the Friedmans themselves over the course of several decades: audio tape, scratchy 8mm and, finally, home-video. The assemblage would be remarkable in itself, but what elevates Capturing The Friedmans is the way it causes the viewer to repeatedly re-evaluate what we’re shown: reliable, solid-seeming witnesses give contradictory accounts of crucial events, and the ground shifts beneath us in seismic upheavals.

Objective assessments of guilt and blame are impossible in such a quagmire what’s certain is that the basic principles of ‘presumed innocent’ and ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ were rapidly discarded as the case snowballed into a hysterical saga of recrimination and suspicion worthy of 17th century Salem. In an age of worldwide media panic over paedophiles, and with American justice firmly under the spotlight thanks to the events at Guantanamo Bay, Capturing The Friedmans (a terrific title!) is an urgent and humane contribution to a pressing debate.

And even if Jarecki’s means of relating this story occasionally veer towards cliché especially in some of his more muzak-ish soundtrack selections, and use of ‘rushing clouds’ to denote the passage of time these are minor quibbles in a sobering and intelligent film that deserves the widest possible exposure.


CHRISTMAS

6/10

New Zealand 2003 : Gregory KING : 87 mins

An engagingly rough-arsed Kiwi cross between Denmark’s Festen and Australia’s The Boys greater emphasis on comic aspects than both, though lacks scope of former and intensity and complex plotting of latter. A dysfunctional family comes together in a small suburban house over an arduous holiday period – as always in films, such gatherings, especially at Christmas, are recipes for disaster and New Zealand proves to be no exception. Filmed on DV appropriate, as much television is watched throughout. As in British sitcom The Royle Family, the living-room TV is the house’s main focus: stasis is the order of the day, and even cars prove to be more vehicles of inertia than escape.

Downside of DV format is scratchy sound: added to strong NZ accent, and tendency of discussions to degenerate into shouting matches, this makes certain sections less than perfectly audible. But we get the gist, even if some crucial deta ils get lost along the way (reading the press notes afterwards, the mention of one key character’s homosexuality came as a surprise to this reviewer). Subtitles might even be handy way to navigate expletive-laden local dialect and accents (‘Fuck, mate!’ is one woman’s main form of self-expression).

Film strongest on tiny details of domestic life though of course their accuracy leaves movie open to charge of making us pay to see stuff we get for nothing at home (arse-wiping, etc toilet is rare haven of calm amid endless arguments). But King has a good eye: it’s all very skilfully framed (cinematographer: Virginia Loane) and edited (Campbell Walker), and has the benefit that we can walk away at the end – escaping our own families isn’t quite so easy.

Other pluses: total absence of a score, relying only on ambient sounds of the house. Camera sometimes on tripod, sometimes shakily hand-held. Writer-director King has unfussy approach and works well with performers especially the actress who plays the put-upon mother. Things only go awry at the very end suicide attempt, what looks like an accidental death, then the Christmas message fr om the Queen on TV (they presumably couldn’t get the rights to use an actual broadcast, so an actress playing what’s described in the credits as ‘Royal Woman’ reads it out) talking about the importance of the family. A rather too predictably ironic note on which to end. But not as bad as what looks very much like the on-camera killing of an actual snail earlier on. Let’s hope the budget stretched to a special effect.

  


EVENHAND

7/10

USA 2002 (first shown 2003) : Joseph PIERSON : 93 mins

Effective, low-key, well-observed variant on the tired buddy/cop genres. Accomplished script by Mike Jones focuses on diametrically opposed policemen working as partners in Texas city San Lovisa (actually San Antonio): nice-guy Francis (Bill Dawes) and larger-than-life maverick Morning (Bill Sage, in a radical departure from his usual hyper-sensitive roles for the likes of Hal Hartley). Bits of story and character float along, gradually come together to form loose dramatic structure around the two strong central performances.

Two-cop format now tired (Dark Blue, Training Day, Narc, Hollywood Homicide, etc) but this one scores by chronicling day-to-day existence of small-city cops, and by avoiding melodrama. Instead, its a little bit like John C Reillys lovelorn officer from Magnolia getting a whole movie to himself Francis is struggling to cope with the aftermath of a divorce. But never quite so whimsical in its view of cops as, say, Fargo: Morning capable of borderline brutality when in wrong mood.

The two mens personalities emerge and the relationship between them develops through conversations (running jokes and catch-phrases: Fat cop etc). Loose feels, like much footage was shot and edited into shape. Standard score, enlivened by a few suitably offbeat songs by Mike Doughty. Plot comes into focus via interactions with supporting characters: Jessica (Ruth Osuna), an attractive shop clerk who catches Franciss eye; Mathers, the local loose-can hot-head thug; Toby (Io Tillet Wright), a teenager in danger of stepping line into delinquency (these folk keep cropping up, as if its a very small town, but San Lovisa is supposed to be a city.) Inevitable violent climax but even then, its all justifiable in terms of character. Biggest mis-step is (prissily-capitalised) title: EvenHand never mentioned or explained, so we have to deduce film is aiming for evenhanded study of cop life. Succeeds, but they really should have called it something else.


For the full list of every Jigsaw Lounge reviewed film at this 2003 Edinburgh Film Festival click here

by Neil Young