Analife; Black Bull; The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros; Bubble; Cocaine Angel
A promising if wayward (belated) debut from 35-year-old university-lecturer/commercials-director Goda, Analife boldly combines avant-garde digital-video techniques with envelope-pushing, often aggressively repulsive subject-matter.
Three anomie-stricken Japanese twentysomethings explain in (English-translated) monologues how only the most extreme types of behaviour make them feel alive. For each, these activities (involving rape, murder and voyeurism) eventually result in severe anal injuries. Coming together for the first time in the waiting-room of their local proctology clinic, the trio are teleported into a forest – where they must sing a children's nursery-rhyme or face dire consequences.
The toneless, amoral monologues recall – and, in their graphic detail, sometimes exceed – Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho: one of the characters here consumes the same tranquiliser as Ellis's hero ('halcion days,' indeed). And, as was the case with that notoriously controversial novel, Analife will simply be too much for many: sublime style at the service of foul content. But, like Ellis, Goda gradually reveals a dark streak of deadpan humour, a somewhat unexpected development here considering the windy philosophising that marks Analife's early stretches (and which somehow sounds much windier translated and spoken aloud rather than being subtitled.)
The multi-partite structure of Goda's screenplay's is nearly as original as his decision to use actual English actors to dub the Japanese characters' "lines" – an approach which takes a little getting used to, but gives the film an otherworldly, hypnotic quality of elegant alienation.
The forest finale, meanwhile, is an exhilaratingly crazy head-spinner in the Takashi Miike mould, though the immaculate imagery and electronic music are far removed from Miike's endearingly slapdash M.O. Nevertheless, both directors clearly share a fondness for 'shock tactics' – Goda to the extent that viewers may feel that he's gleefully rubbing their noses in the worst depravities his mind can conceive (cf Red Cockroaches).
There's clearly talent aplenty here – even if, in his eagerness to appal, Goda sometimes come across as a misanthropic child-genius whose idea of fun involves some dangerously incendiary, adults-only material.
BLACK BULL [6/10] aka Toro Negro
Black Bull is a stylish, intense, often troubling Mexican video-shot documentary about 21-year-old smalltown torero Fernando Pacheco. Violently abusive, obnoxiously cocky and emotionally immature, Pacheco is perhaps the most unpleasant protagonist of a sport-related film since Robert De Niro's Jake La Motta from Martin Scorsese's 1980 feature of similar title.
Directors Gonzale-Rubio and Armella follow Fernando at work and at home: both environments notable for their ever-present threat of physical danger. In the former, Fernando is the recipient of the rough treatment (from the cows and bulls); In the latter, this diminutive "lord of the ring" is (mostly) the one dealing it out. We see him repeatedly threaten and occasionally hit his pregnant, significantly older lover Romelia Sosa – whose small children (from a previous relationship) look on wide-eyed from the sidelines. At one especially charged moment Romelia appeals to director Gonzale-Rubio for help, and the camera is switched off. But there's the uncomfortable feeling that the presence of the film-maker is actually contributing to the problem rather than alleviating it. On many occasions Fernando seems to be 'playing up' for the camera's benefit – and his ego, already oversized, seems to be boosted even further by being the centre of such protracted attention.
Bullfighting, like boxing, has a long history of tempestuous larger-than-life figures around whom legends are spun. Though often uncomfortable viewing, Black Bull at least shows us the painful, grim, shabby human stories that lie beneath the myth. Directors Gonzale-Rubio and Armella are occasionally guilty of straining too hard to make in impact (arbitrary colour/monochrome shifts; freeze-frames introducing the participants; flashy editing and film-speed manipulation; a score that veers towards the intrusive). But they bring an exciting immediacy to the 'action' sequences: these noisy, claustrophobic, floodlit evening corridas are more of a showbiz festivity and a high-adrenaline cultural phenomenon than anything approaching serious sporting endeavour. As we see Fernando gradually emerging in all his drunken, swaggering, foul-mouthed "glory", meanwhile, it's near-impossible to avoid rooting for the bulls.
THE BLOSSOMING OF MAXIMO OLIVEROS [5?/10 - walkout after 1hr]
Rotterdam walkout notes:
Acclaimed, award-winning low-budget video-shot drama from the Philippines about an androgynously camp 12-year-old boy (Nathan Lopez) who lives with his thuggish numbers-running brothers and their small-time-criminal dad in a Manila slum. Though resoundingly macho, Maxi's family are commendably un-bothered about his crossdressing antics – if nothing else, they appreciate his playing 'mother' by cooking, cleaning and sewing.
Maxi's 'blossoming' friendship with a pleasant, hunky cop does cause them concern, however, The audience is placed in a similar position, as the sexual attraction between the pair is made disturbingly explicit ("You're very pretty this morning," says the constable as Maxi prepares breakfast) but played as if somehow 'charming.' That said, the cause of the clan's disquiet isn't that the cop may be a paedophilic predator, but that he represents an unusually active form of law and order in a city where the police generally adopt a more supine role.
Not unpromising subject-matter by any means, and we get a tangible sense of the buzzing street life of Maxi's environment. But on the whole the film is pretty clunkily handled: a danger sign comes in the first shot, when we see a flower bobbing among a sea of discarded plastic-bags in a concrete ghetto pond, as a singer warbles "this is my count-reeeee" on the soundtrack. Subtle it ain't – but rather than embracing the tale's melodramatic potential, director Solito instead ends up with a stilted, schematic kind of gaudy realism which emphasises the deficiences of Nathan Lopez's mannered, gigglingly limp-wristed central performance.
After the conspicuous-consumption decadence of Ocean's Twelve, stark small-town murder "mystery" Bubble feels like an act of solemn, hairshirted atonement for director Steven Soderbergh: a chance to pause and cleanse the palate (or should that be palette?) before resuming megabucks Hollywood 'duties.'
Indeed, if it didn't hold together so well (this is above all a solid script, professionally handled, convincingly played) the film might have seemed an ostentatious, archly aescetic exercise; a wealthy tourist's journey into low-budget Sundance-flavoured indiedom. By playing things almost entirely straight, however, Soderbergh comes up with results as different from his chaotic previous 'experiments' (Full Frontal; Schizopolis) as they are from his 'mainstream' efforts: closer, in fact, to the kind of semi-detached anomie/ennui familiar from late-period Gus Van Sant.
The strong suit here is Coleman Hough's script: a three-act (American) tragedy which consistently subverts audience expectations. At first Bubble seems to a refreshingly quotidian, uninflected tale of cash-strapped blue-collar folk in an Ohio toy-factory – although this setting, filled with eerie, unfinished dolls, admittedly has a touch of D.Lynch about it.
But just as we're admiring the sober lack of melodrama, an out-of-the-blue homicide threatens to pitch proceedings into disappointingly conventional whodunnit territory. The saving grace, however, is the disarmingly simple way in which the 'case' is solved – the investigating officer (an arrestingly believable Decker Moody) isn't exactly overtaxed to identify the culprit, and neither is the audience – leaving us to ponder on the 'whys' of the case rather than the 'whos' or the 'hows.'
Because, for all its brevity and apparent simplicity, there's rather a lot going on here: Hough's screenplay manages to cover an impressive amount of psychological and socio-economic ground despite being so tightly focussed on the three main characters. Soderbergh, meanwhile, mostly keeps himself out of the way: with the exception of a couple of well-chosen 'flourishes', he's content to let the writing and the performances speak for themselves. And that, in this particular instance, is really all we need.
COCAINE ANGEL [6/10]
A chronicle of 24 hours (or so) in the life of a sweaty, stubbly, fast-talking junkie, Cocaine Angel can't be accused of breaking much new cinematic ground. But director Michael Tulley and writer Damien Lahey do inject some new life into this particularly encrusted cinematic vein – especially Lahey, thanks for his fine central performance as 28-year-old addict Scott.
Though shambling, verbose, unwashed and scuzzy, Scott isn't a complete mess: we see him conducting a relatively normal filial relationship with his young daughter when he spends his weekly allocation of time with the child. With his omnipresent dark suit and "sharp" shirt, meanwhile, he might just pass for a particularly wasted Hollywood agent (see Stiller's Permanent Midnight.)
Effectively required to carry the whole picture on his sloping shoulders, Lahey comes through and then some, delivering a mordantly witty take on the doomed, self-pitying junkie stereotype. Scott's (mis-)adventures are presented with just enough gallows humour to keep them from descending into ostentatious bleakness or, worse, druggie chic. Indeed, we're not that far away from sitcom territory here: the film could perhaps be an extended pilot for a new programme (Meet the Fuckups?) featuring the hapless Scott and his sad-sack pals. These include an amusingly cro-magnon individual nicknamed 'Hurricane' Mike who shows up around halfway and manages to keep the wispy "plot" going in the second half.
A more po-faced film-maker might have emphasised the tragic or pitiful aspects of this protagonist's semi-desperate existence: Tully and Lahey instead play things for low-key laughs (Scott, confronted with a meddlesome senior citizen, grumbles "Shit! Now we gotta deal with this old fuck.") Despite the occasional stylistic mis-step (such as the bookending 8mm footage of a 'clean' Scott with family on beach) Cocaine Angel scores with its loose, improvised feel; digital-video cinematography (by M Shawn Lewallen); modulated soundtrack (score by Brian Jenkins) and nicely-realised (Jacksonville) city locations. Crucially, most scenes are nippily brief, and the whole thing clocks in at a refreshingly brisk 75 minutes.
7th/8th February, 2005
ANALIFE [6?/10] : Japan 2005 : GODA Kenji (1970) : 83m (timed) feature (video)
seen at Venster, 4.2.06 (public show; section Sturm und Drang; world premiere)
BLACK BULL [6/10] : Toro negro : Mexico 2005 : Pedro GONZALE-RUBIO (1976) & Carlos ARMELLA (1978) : 88m (timed) documentary (video)
seen at Cinerama on 2.2.06 (press show; section Sturm und Drang)
THE BLOSSOMING OF MAXIMO OLIVEROS [5?/10] : Ang pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros : Philippines 2005 : Auraeus SOLITO (1969) : c100m feature (video)
partially seen (walkout at 60 mins) at Cinerama on 1.2.06 (press show; section Time & Tide; winner of Netpac award for IFFR's best Asian film [with The Lost Hum])
BUBBLE [7/10] : USA 2005 : Steven SODERBERGH (1963) : 72m (timed) feature (video)
seen at Cinerama on 29.1.06 (public show; section Time & Tide)
COCAINE ANGEL [6/10] : USA 2006 : Michael TULLY (1974) : 75m (timed) feature (video)
seen at Cinerama on 26.1.06 (press show; section White Light; world premiere)
More details on these titles – and all others shown at the 2006 Rotterdam Film Festival – can be found at the IFFR official site
A full alphabetical index of all films seen at IFFR 2006 can be found HERE