SPECIAL PEOPLE : [6/10] : UK 07 : Justin Edgar : 78m : seen CW 23.8 (press)
Genial no-budget satire combines The Office, Inside I'm Dancing and Christopher Guest's The Big Picture to uneven but ultimately winning effect. Jasper (Dominic Coleman) is a pompous, talenteless thirtysomething "director" whose career highlight came when one of his shorts (a sub-sub-Loachian effort all-too-plausibly entitled Koncrete Dreamz) won an award at the 1998 'Film Festival of Walsall.' Proving the wisdom of the old "those who can't do, teach" dictum, the tetchily impatient Jasper ends up teaching the rudiments of film-making to a group of wheelchair-using youngsters – with predictably chaotic results.
Expanded from a short, Special People - shot on what looks like rather low-end digital video - feels occasionally as thought it's been padded out in order to reach minimal feature-film length. Writer-director Edgar devotes precious time to a somewhat half-baked on-off romantic subplot between two of the teenagers (handled convincingly, it must be said, by the appealing performers), when he could more profitably have explored the comic potential in the relationship between Jasper and his semi-reluctant tutees.
Edgar's strengths are in the observational sharpness of his comedy – many of the movie-making insider gags are, it's safe to guess, the fruit of his own experience within the industry – and Special People, despite its evidently limited resources, and a suspicion that its cosiest home will prove to be the small screen, hits the laugh-target with sufficient frequency to ensure it's a cut above many British comedies which obtain commercial distribution.
SUSAN AND GOD : [5/10] : US 1940 : George Cukor : 115m : seen FH 23.8 (public – paid £5.20)
A year after their terrific collaboration on The Women, director Cukor and writer Loos reteamed for Susan and God - and, despite an game turn from Joan Crawford in the title role (Susan, that is, not God), the magic isn't quite there second time around. While The Women filled up its 133 minutes with a gallery of vivid characters and a series of sparkling sub-plots, Susan and God (laboriously and verbosely "opened out" from Rachel Crothers' hit play) has a much tighter, more domestic focus – and thus feels overstretched at nearly two hours.
Society beauty Susan Trexel (Crawford) has been "vacationing" in Europe for a protracted period - leaving behind alcoholic husband Barrie (Fredric March) to bring up their insecure plain-jane teenage daughter (Rita Quigley). It's only when Susan – not previously noted for her spiritual inclinations – becomes a devotee of an evangelical religious cult that she returns home, in order to spread the word about her new-found faith. Susan's fervour finds only a politely tepid response among her circle of easygoing friends, however – and she realises that her first priority is to quite literally put her own house in order…
Susan and God is an odd mix of tart social satire and sentimental melodrama, the former gradually giving way to the latter as Susan (from entrance to exit a dazzling clothes-horse for designer Adrian's gowns, hats and accessories) belatedly comes to realise her own short-sighted shallowness. Trouble is, our "heroine" - while consistently amusing in her energetically religiose solipsism - never convinces us she's a suitable match for her stolidly decent husband, especially when Barrie has an entirely plausible alternative to hand in the besotted form of Ruth Hussey's horse-riding, down-to-earth Charlotte. This mores of 1940, however, mean that the Trexel family unit must be re-established by the time the credits roll – even if we can't help suspecting that it's only a matter of time before Susan's flighty volatility reasserts itself once again.
ME : [5/10] : Yo : Sp 07 : Rafa Cortes : 98m : seen CW 23.8 (public – paid £7.95)
Issues of identity and community are torpidly explored in Me, an ostentatiously slow-burning and enigmatic drama – something of an "anti-thriller", perhaps – which at times recalls Roman Polanski's The Tenant, David Marques's Isolated and Claudia Llosa's Madeinusa (itself a variation on Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man), never quite achieving sufficient distinctiveness to stand clear of its antecedents.
Alex Brendemuhl's central performance – he also co-wrote the script with director Cortes – is very much the picture's strong suit, which is just as well as he's front and centre pretty much throughout. He plays Hans, a thirtyish, intense chap from Germany who finds work as a handyman in a villa near a quiet town on the Balearic island of Mallorca.
He soon discovers that his predecessor in the post was also German, also named Hans - who seems to have been a more dangerous and trouble-hungry sort altogether. As the 'new' Hans gets to know the locals – many of whom don't bother to hide their hostility – he's increasingly perturbed by the town's odd atmosphere, and gradually succumbs to a disorienting form of existential crisis…
Shot in carefully muted, dark tones - on digital video – by cinematographer David Valldeperez, Me is very much a mood-piece character-study of an individual adrift in a milieu that's never less than semi-hostile. Elements of what might be, in other hands, conventional plot development come and go – there's a particularly strong, nightmarish sequence roughly halfway through in which Hans meets all kinds of obstacles in trying to purchase a certain type of whisky - but as the story unfolds it becomes increasingly clear that any viewer desiring explanations and straightforward answers is going to be disappointed. Instead, Cortes and Brendemuhl retreat into a gnomic, stylish zone of deadpan obfuscation, the pace slackening in the final third so that the picture feels like rather hard work for what turns out to be minimal tangible reward.
KOMMA : [6/10] : Bel (Bel/Fr) 06 (copyright-dated 2005) : Martine Doyen : 101m : seen CW 23.8 (public – paid £6.36)
One can deduce from the film's contents that the title of Komma is intended to gnomically combine "comma", "coma" and "Kafka" – but the world is (typically) never explained or even mentioned in the movie itself, which was made under the working-title Petites Elucubrations: "minor flights of fancy". That pretty much sums up the elegantly capricious goings-on in the script, written by Doyen and her leading lady Valerie LeMaitre, though one can't imagine the screenplay running to very many pages – the story is told as much through images and silences as it is dialogue ("life is full of holes, and people fall through.")
Indeed, the lengthy first sequence feels as though it's going to dispense with words altogether – a rumpled, mid-fifties bloke who looks vaguely gangsterish, and who we find out is named Peter de Wit (Arno Hintjens) wakes up in a body-bag in a hospital morgue, making an unexpected recovery from what was diagnosed as a fatal heart attack.
He steals the cash-stuffed wallet (and identity) of the first hospital-worker he comes across following his "resurrection": a Swedish immigrant named Lars. Peter/Lars then goes on a decadent tour of Brussels' nightlife - where his path eventually crosses that of insecure performance-artist Lucie (LeMaitre). Having suffered some kind of mental breakdown in the middle of her spectacular "act" (which involves the feuding forces of water and fire), Lucie is now amnesiac - a situation which Peter/Lars turns to his advantage, informing her they were formerly an item. But his motives aren't as mercenary as they first appear – he takes her to the fairytale castle of Neuschwanstein in Bavaria, clearly hoping that the sojourn will provide her with therapeutic surroundings and himself with a belated raison d'etre…
While it doesn't exactly add up to a great deal in the final analysis, and Doyen skirts dangerously close to modish, pretentious self-indulgence at times – even going so far as to have a theatre-troupe turn up very late on to spell out the themes in easily-digestible fashion – there's rather a lot to like about Komma. It's essentially a confidently-handled, off-beat character-drama which coyly plays with romantic and thriller tropes, and the committed, contrasting performances by the two leads, plus an elegantly wasted turn by veteran Edith Scob as Lucie's silver-bobbed mother, keep us absorbed. The script's intermittent flecks of dry humour are a plus, likewise Doyen's jazzily poised visual style, though it's the electronica-flavoured score that's the most consistent pleasure here, often hypnotically insectoid in its jittery susurrations.
EX DRUMMER : [7/10] : Bel 07 : Koen Mortier : 105m : seen CW 23.8 (public – paid £6.76)
Ostend, the present. Misanthropic, celebrated writer Dries (Dries Vanhegen, looking like Marton Csokas) is asked by a trio of musicians - each of whom have some kind of "handicap" - to be the drummer in their new punk band, The Feminists. Dries reluctantly agrees. Complications ensue.
A controversial audience-divider since its premiere at Rotterdam 2007 (where Go Shibata's Japanese equivalent The Late Bloomer had debuted two years before*) this aggressively confrontational and envelope-pushingly transgressive "provocation" turns out to have a bite that's somewhat weaker than its oh-so-nihilistic bark. Because although it's ostensibly a raw, in-your-face explosion of punkish energy, the film – from the very first, extended scene (which is played backwards a la Roger Avary's Rules of Attraction) is directed with a disarming technical ingenuity (and, in an odd way, a measured kind of elegance) that belies writer-director Mortier's all-too-strenuous desire to disturb and shock. Outrage piles upon outrage as the haphazard "plot" (building up to that hoariest of music-movie cliches, the battle-of-the-bands rock concert) unfolds, with Mortier – adapting Herman Brusselmans' novel – almost audibly ticking off a list of PC no-nos: violence against women; gay-bashing; fatal child-neglect, etc etc.
He takes us into a seamy, scummy corner of Flemish Belgium that's much grimmer even than the cash-strapped Seraing (over the 'border' in Wallonia) so familiar from the films of the Dardennes brothers. Indeed, the places and activities chronicled here are frequently repellent to the degree of nausea – but they're executed with such intense attention to atmospherics and detail that you can't help being sucked into Mortier's fictional netherworld. Unpretty, for sure - but unvacant, also.
TITLE : rating : country / year : director : running time : where seen (press or public show; ticket price if public show)
* all timings are hand-timed unless stated otherwise
* cinemas : FH = Filmhouse; CM = Cameo; CW = Cineworld
Jigsaw Lounge Edinburgh 2007 index page
… despite boasting the classiest opening titles of the year, a script packed full of dark humour, a bracingly challenging subject (especially coming from Japan, where the disabled are still largely kept out of sight) and phenomenal monochrome-video cinematography by Takakura Masaaki, the picture's unevenness and jagged misanthropic streak was too much for many viewers at the screening I attended. The sheer number of distressed walkouts, however, suggests that if you're after a genuinely envelope-pushing example of current cinema at its most uncompromising and uncompromised, The Late Bloomer could be right up your alley.