ROTTERDAM Film Festival part SIX (3rd Feb)  'Howl 's Moving Castle, '  'The Late Bloomer, ' etc.

Published on: March 14th, 2005

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Kings and Queen [5/10]
Howl's Moving Castle [7/10]
Tarnation [6/10]
Vento di terra [7/10]
The Late Bloomer [7/10]

KINGS AND QUEEN : [5/10] : Rois et reine : France 2004 : Arnaud DESPLECHIN : 150 mins

Kings and Queen is a so-so, middle-brow, pretentious French picture of the kind which has long proved catnip to UK distributors. They reckon sufficient numbers of discerning cinemagoers will be drawn in (i.e. conned) by the enigmatic title (never mentioned in the film itself, naturellement), the dauntingly long (and, as it turns out, unjustified) running-time, and the presence of Catherine Deneuve in a minor role – though not so minor that the British posters won't be featuring her name and, very probably, her face.

It's a matter of ongoing concern that relatively undistinguished Gallic fare such as this should be allowed to clog up so many valuable arthouse screens in the UK and beyond, especially when it means that much more interesting material from countries like Germany (eg Christian Petzold's thrillers), Italy (see Vento di terra, below), Spain (Achero Manas's Noviembre) – to name three obvious examples – is restricted to rare film-festival outings.

Deneuve, perhaps unsurprisingly, is easily the best thing about Kings and Queen – but it's very much debatable whether her frustratingly brief appearances are worth enduring the remainder of the picture's longueurs. She plays the administrator of a mental hospital to which musician Ismael (Mathieu Amalric) has been temporarily committed due to his increasingly erratic behaviour. Writer-director Desplechin (who co-wrote the script with Roger Bohnot) alternates between Ismael's darkly comic experiences and the rather graver travails of his ex-wife Nora (Emmanuelle Devos), a single parent coping with the imminent death of her aged father (Maurice Garrel).

Kings and Queen has the trappings of a complex, intellectual film – it's full of references to poetry, classics and painting, with a classy cast playing hyper-articulate characters who constantly analyse themselves and their relationships with those around them. But this is all just a very thin veneer hiding what is essentially a bourgeois soap-opera, reliant on melodrama and flecked with touches of surprisingly broad comedy. The (uncredited) score unconvincingly amps up the thriller angle from time to time, and Eric Gautier's camerawork is flashy but uninspired.

That said, Devos (looking like a cross between Kate Winslet and Kristin Scott-Thomas) and the antic Amalric do their best to flesh out what are notably unsympathetic roles.But they're stymied by the shortcomings of Desplechin and Bohnot's screenplay – which, as well as being heavily reliant on flashbacks and voiceover narration, is archly divided into two parts, a coda and an epilogue. These literary touches evoke the feel a sprawling modern novel – the material would perhaps work best as a three-part TV miniseries spread over Sunday nights, and the big screen serves mainly to expose the film's shortcomings.

That said, soap operas can be engrossingly watchable affairs, and the calibre of acting talent involved makes the experience engaging enough on a scene-to-scene basis (the highlight being an amusingly bungled convenience-shop raid). By the end of it, however, you leave the cinema with a strong suspicion that there were probably many more profitable uses of the previous 150 minutes than watching Kings and Queen.

Neil Young
13th March, 2005 (seen at Venster cinema – public show)

HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE : [7/10] : Hauru no ugoku shiro : Japan 2004 : MIYAZAKI Hayao : 119 mins
Though long admired by animators and devotees of far-eastern cinema, writer-director Miyazaki only really started to get noticed in the west when his Princess Mononoke (1999) broke the Japanese box-office record set by Titanic. The film was dubbed into English and obtained commercial distribution in the US  – but not, scandalously, in the UK (to add insult to injury, the non-release was confirmed in the same week that Pokemon – The First Movie arrived in British multiplexes).

Spirited Away (2002) proved another domestic box-office behemoth and elevated Miyazaki to a higher level of worldwide fame – it was released in both the UK and USA to strong critical response, shared the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Miyazaki's latest, Howl's Moving Castle (based on the novel by British writer Diana Wynne Jones) has already matched the colossal Japanese takings of its predecessors and appears a safe bet for Academy Award recognition – although Academy-darling Nick Park's long-gestating Wallace and Gromit movie The Great Vegetable Plot is perhaps the category's narrow front-runner at this early stage.

The film is set in a parallel, imaginary universe which looks a little like mid-19th-century central Europe. In an unnamed large town, demure young Sophie (voiced by Baisho Cheiko) works in a hat shop but dreams of a more exciting life. This she soon obtains after a chance encounter with dashing young wizard Howl (Kimura Takuya), whose villainous, corpulent enemy the Witch of the Waste capriciously turns Sophie into an old woman.

She flees the city in search of Howl, who – according to legend – roams the surrounding countryside aboard a vast, ambulatory fort – the "moving castle" of the film's title. Sophie's adventures will bring her into contact with a weird gallery of individuals and entities, including a querulous, semi-domesticated  'fire demon' named Calcifer (Tatsuya Gashuin) and a helpful, silent scarecrow who bounces around like a pogo stick. She soon learns that appearances are always deceptive…

The result is an engaging, accessible fantasy which, if it serves no other purpose, shows up the similarly wizard-themed Harry Potter films' ongoing lack of flair, imagination and wit. Despite its occasional unevenness, Howl's Moving Castle really is like being transported into a parallel universe – not least because it's so odd to hear the western-looking humans in their western-looking town speaking fluent Japanese. And this is why, if it's at all possible, you should experience Miyazaki's films in their original, non-dubbed versions.

Like the eponymous castle – which operates a bit like a Tardis, and looks like a Terry Gilliam variation on Brueughel's Tower of Babel – it's a big, ramshackle affair which, for all its apparent ungainliness, proves a sound and surprisingly rapid conveyance to our desired destinations. The two hours' running time is, indeed, if anything a little short – the finale sees everything done and dusted in jarringly abrupt fashion, which does slightly garble the picture's explicit anti-war themes.

This isn't the only negative: the film's brightly multicoloured look is presumably geared towards younger audiences, which is fair enough – but did Joe Hisaichi's score have to be quite so emphatic and saccharinely muzak-ish? And while it's refreshing for any film to focus on the elderly, Howl's Moving Castle isn't really the geriatric-empowerment exercise we're initially led to expect. As opposed to, say, the principals in Uruguayan comedy Whisky, Sophie isn't really old at all – she's a young mind in a body prematurely aged by the Witch's spell. And although she's at first very slow and cumbersome in her movements, before long she's as sprightly an octogenarian as she had been as a teenage hatmaker: Miyazaki sometimes doesn't even have her looking old in certain sequences, more like a young woman with grey hair.

Howl himself is also a bit of a problem – boy-band handsome and boy-band bland, at times reminiscent of John Philip Law's blind angel from Barbarella (Howl sprouts wings in the frenetic latter stages as he transforms into a kind of huge war-eagle.) Miyazaki sensibly gives rather more screen time to terrific creations like the scene-stealing Calcifer and the heroic Scarecrow (whose features amusingly never alter) – even the Witch of the Waste proves to be much more of a complex creation than the hissable Cruella de Vil of her first appearances. And the backgrounds and minor details are a source of constant delight: many animators might have come up with the Witch's henchmen, sinister, amorphous, sealion-like black blobs… but surely only Miyazaki would have dressed them in dapper little straw boaters.
Neil Young
13th March, 2005 (seen at de Doelen centre – press show)


TARNATION : [6/10] : USA 2004 : Jonathan CAOUETTE : 100 mins

Not so much documentary as an extended yelp of frenzied, self-analytical, celluloid-confessional narcissism, Tarnation takes us deep into the camp, tortured, self-obsessed, self-dramatising, exhibitionist psyche of its 32-year-old director Caouette – who also wrote, produced, cinematographed, edited and took care of music and sound. Rabidly confessional, Caouette doesn't hold anything back for his own camera as he chronicles his deeply dysfunctional family – with particular emphasis on himself and his beloved mother Renee LeBlanc, a former fashion-model whose mental instability was exacerbated by 1970s electro-shock treatment.

It's a crass comparison, but viewers of Tarnation may feel as though several thousand volts are zapping across their cerebral cortex, so hyperkinetic is Caouette's anything-goes collage of home movies, video diaries, movie clips, school performances and news reports. It's all held together in a rough chronological order by Caouette's own voiceover, plus on-screen titles which recount family/personal history in a rather gratingly precious, third-person style – we're spoon-fed sentences in broken-up blocks.

This is less of a problem than the serious lapses of judgement in the final quarter-hour: footage of Renee clowning around with a pumpkin and improvising a playground-style song is punishingly protracted, and Caouette's sustained interrogation of his aged, evasive grandfather is even harder to stomach. These are clearly very damaged lives into which we're eavesdropping, but there's none of the depth, ambiguity or complexity which elevated Andrew Jarecki's Capturing the Friedmans, arguably the closest recent comparison to what Caouette is trying to do.

That said, Caouette shows a genuine flair for integrating his own material with  'found' footage – wild montages of eyepopping moments from cheesy TV shows, half-forgotten horror movies (like The Devil's Rain), exuberant early-80s pop-videos. Adhering firmly to the adage that the "recorded life" is the only one worth living, Caouette is very much a child of the video-camera generation, a reality-TV star avant la lettre whose dreams of showbiz success are here encapsulated in the world's most elaborate and self-lacerating audition-reel.

Neil Young
13th March, 2005 (seen at Cinerama cinema – public show)

VENTO DI TERRA : [7/10] : Land Wind : Italy 2004 : Vincenzo MARRA : 82 mins

Vento di terra was one of the more unexpected minor highlights of Rotterdam 2005 : an uninflected, deceptively quiet film which handles potentially melodramatic material with impressive restraint and intelligence.

Naples, 1996: Vincenzo Pacilli (actor of same name) is a pensive, unremarkable manual worker in his late teens, good-looking in an everyday-Joe kind of way, living with his parents and sister in a drab tower-block. When his father dies suddenly, Vincenzo feels duty-bound to become the family's breadwinner – but his financial prospects are bleak. After an abortive brush with crime, Vincenzo enrols in the air force. Things go well – but back home the female Pacillis are finding life increasingly tough…

Don't be misled by the presence of  'wind' in the title and Vincenzo's air-force job into thinking that Vento di terra is any kind of Top Gun style recruitment-ad for the Italian military – despite doing well in his training, Vincenzo apparently never goes airborne at all. Instead  'vento di terra' refers to the  'wind from the land,' an inauspicious sign for the susperstitious Neapolitans who prefer their wind to come from the sea. And while Vincenzo clearly benefits from his post keeping him on the  'straight and narrow,' the end-result of his khaki career is distinctly double-edged, although to go into the hows and whys of this wouldn't be fair: the pleasure of Vento di terra lies in the way Marra coolly and expertly parcels out information from scene to short scene, keeping conversation to a clipped, bare minimum.

His austere, tamped-down technique and working-class subject-matter is occasionally reminiscent of Ken Loach and, especially, Robert Guedigian – cinematographer Mario Amura's opening 360 degree pan of the washing-festooned concrete jungle that form Vincenzo's environs ( 'Bella Napoli' it ain't) could come straight from one of Guedigian's Marseille chronicles like La ville est tranquille. But whereas Loach and Guedigian are often let down by their screenplays' predictability and reliance on melodramatic contrivance, Marra maintains his focus from start to finish. The measured results may at times strike some viewers as unneccessarily downbeat and monotone, but stick with it – the payoff is worthwhile, casting everything that's gone before in a strikingly different light.

Neil Young
13th March, 2005 (seen at Cinerama cinema – press show)

THE LATE BLOOMER : [7/10] : Osoi-hito aka Late Bloomer : Japan 2004 : SHIBATA Go : 83 mins

Survive Style 5+ wasn't the only Japanese midnight treat on offer at Rotterdam  '05 – indeed, the organisers programmed a whole sidebar of them under the catchy moniker  'Rotterdammerung': "exceptionally imaginative and visually spectacular films from Japan, which we have included in a special late-night programme because of their – occasionally bloody – ferocity," as the official catalogue genteelly put it.

Given this description, it's odd that Rotterdammerung (which actually encompassed the decidedly non-Japanese Calvaire and Ab-Normal Beauty) didn't include writer-director Shibata's The Late Bloomer – a real  'buzz' title at the festival ("the new Tetsuo!") and by any measure "imaginative, visually spectacular and bloodily ferocious."

An unlikely but effective cross between Henry : Portrait of a Serial Killer and My Left Foot, it stars the severely-handicapped actor Sumida Masakiyo as a character of the same name – an invididual of restricted mobility who's able to  'speak' only through a Stephen Hawking-type device. These  'disabilities' eventually prove little bar to a kill-crazy rampage of revenge when Masakiyo's daily frustrations become too much to bear: his first victim is his former best pal Takisana (Hotta Naozo), the imposing singer in a band specialising in the take-no-prisoners genre known as  'tough-guy hardcore.'

The Late Bloomer was clearly made on a minimal budget – like his resourceful anti-hero, Shibata proves adept at overcoming severe limitations, lapsing only occasionally into arty affectation. But 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. (Shibata) Go see.

Neil Young
13th March, 2005 (seen at Pathe cinema – public show)

click here for reviews of Rotterdam films seen on the next day (4th February)

click here for full alphabetical list of features seen at Rotterdam  '05

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